The mysterious anaplêrôn of I Corinthians 14:16

The mysterious anaplêrôn in St. Paul’s tongues-speech discourse of I Corinthians.

The Apostle Paul referred to the word anaplêrôn, ἀναπληρῶνas part of the highly controversial gift of tongues passage (I Corinthians 14:16). Discovering the historical meaning to this word may offer a significant clue that may work towards unlocking the purpose of this problem text.

The richness and purpose of the ἀναπληρῶν is buried in the English translation and misleads most readers into thinking there was nothing of note by Paul when he penned this portion.

The ἀναπληρῶν is part of an age-old unresolved mystery about the christian doctrine of speaking in tongues. Some think Paul referred to I Corinthians 14 as heavenly speech, or a form of glossolalia, while others think he assumes it to be religious ecstasy.

The whole chapter is part of a much larger question. Researching the word ἀναπληρῶν provides a small direction towards an answer.

A closer look at the meaning of ἀναπληρῶν points to the section Paul wrote on speaking or interpreting tongues as a liturgical rite. It has nothing to do with the supernatural or a psychological state. The dominant dictionaries, Latin text, the Jewish equivalent, and a text attributed to Cyril of Alexandria define the ἀναπληρῶν as an occupation — someone who would take the speech, whether foreign, high-priestly, specialized or articulate, and transfer it into a language that the ordinary person would understand.

On the other hand, one could argue that no one conclusively knows what this word means and should be left transliterated in English translations. This argument is a strong option given the paucity of information.

The rest of the article will examine the available texts in putting together a feasible explanation—though it is not air-tight. The reader must allow the argument to proceed even though the sources are later than Paul’s time. It is the best we have.

The ἀναπληρῶν in the English Bible

However, there is significant tension here to establish such a concept; contemporary English Bibles do not support such a reading of I Corinthians 14.

This requires a further inquiry to resolve the problem. It is necessary to backtrack and look at the historical evidence in two ways; first of all to trace the development of how the Greek word ἀναπληρῶν was traditionally transmitted through the English Bible translation history, and why it is translated the way it is. Secondly, develop a clearer picture of what the word ἀναπληρῶν means through the extensive use of dictionaries and ecclesiastical literature.

English translations clearly demonstrate that there was no office of the ἀναπληρῶν at all. It was used in an adjectival sense that describes the state or character of the layperson. Here are some examples of how ἀναπληρῶν was translated.

  • King James Version (Cambridge ed): “how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen.”

  • New International Version (1984): “how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen”.”

  • New American Standard Bible (1995): how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen ”1

More recent translations have taken a less-literal approach to resolve this ambiguity:

  • New Living Translation (2007): “how can those who don’t understand you praise God along with you?

  • New International Version (2008): “how can an otherwise uneducated person say “Amen”.2

A closer look at the Greek unravels the mystery.

Ἀναπληρῶν is a participle based on the verb ἀναπληρόω. It is found in I Corinthians 14:16 as a present active masculine nominative singular. Some of the dictionaries support the English Bible translations, while others do not. Here is a listing demonstrating the variances.

  • Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek Lexicon supports the contemporary English translations.3 This is not a surprise as this dictionary specializes in classical Greek sources. It does not focus on Biblical or Patristic sources.

  • Sophocles’ Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, captures the spirit of the English translation and offers this as his definition. “Locum impleo to fill the place, occupy the room of anyone.”4

  • Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon is very general and it agrees with the English Bibles above, or to a lesser degree, it could be someone assisting the lay-person in understanding.5

The following dictionaries emphasize ἀναπληρῶν as someone assisting or attending to a layperson.

  • The Greek-Latin Dictionary, Stephanus’ Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, understands it as a person who helps complete a task. The ἀναπληρῶν is someone who completes, supplies, sometimes finishes, sits among the uneducated, and to satisfy the uneducated on the word.6

  • The Dictionnaire Grec-Française also agrees with Stephanus. The ἀναπληρῶν is someone who provides information such as missing words, stands in for someone else, and carries out a task.7

  • Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker’s (BAGD) “The Greek English of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,” suggests that the above English translations are weak.8 It surmises that ἀναπληρῶν is a person or position that is replacing or representing those of the lay population. It is independent of τοῦ ἰδιώτου the layman. It should not be used as an adjective that further describes a layman because these are different entities.

The ἀναπληρῶν in translations

Perhaps clues can be found from translations based on the Greek.

The Latin:

I Corinthians 14:16 according to the Latin Vulgate shows and important clue:

“qui supplet locum idiotae.”9 — He who supplies the place of the uneducated.

The Latin clearly makes the passage to mean that ἀναπληρῶν and τοῦ ἰδιώτου are two totally different entities. The ἀναπληρῶν is doing something on behalf of the τοῦ ἰδιώτου.

However, the Douay-Rheims English translation of the Latin tends to obscure this, “how shall he that holdeth the place of the unlearned say, Amen.”10 This may be the start of where the ambiguity began in the English translations.

The Syriac text was looked at to see if it offered any clues to the Greek.

ܗܰܘ ܕ݁ܰܡܡܰܠܶܐ ܕ݁ܽܘܟ݁ܬ݂ܶܗ ܕ݁ܗܶܕ݂ܝܽܘܛܳܐ ܐܰܝܟ݁ܰܢܳܐ ܢܺܐܡܰܪ ܐܰܡܺܝܢ

A traditional translation has: “How can one who occupies the place of the unlearned say Amen.” (Translated by George Lamsa)11 but a more literal one is: “how can the one who fills in the blanks on behalf of the common person say amen?”

The word ܡܡܰܠܶ is the one to particularly note. It is an an active participle that suggests someone with the role of taking whatever was instructed, spoken, or possibly sung during the assembly and converting it into a language or explanation easily understood by the lay audience.

Another text consulted was from the great theologian and scholar, Franz Deilitzsch, who translated the New Testament into Hebrew in the late 1800s.

הָעֹמֵד בְּמַצַּב הַהֶדְיוֹט אֵיךְ יַעֲנֶה אָמֵן 12

“How will he who stands in the position of the layman say amen.”

Deilitzsch did not seem to take any side to this and was ambiguous.

A Hebrew connection to the ἀναπληρῶν?

There may be a possible connection between the ἀναπληρῶν and the functions and duties outlined in the later work, the Babylonian Talmud.

Biblical References

There is one reference to ἀναπληρῶν in the Bible outside of Paul’s work: Daniel 9:2. It is found in a later version of the Septuagint completed by Theodotion and written in its verbal form ἀναπλήρωσιν. The earlier version of the Septuagint has συμπλήρωσιν.

The meaning of ἀναπλήρωσιν which centers around fulfilling or completing a task, fits within the semantic range discussed in this investigation. One clue that may help is its later entrance into the Septuagint which suggests that is a word introduced into the Jewish vocabulary later on. How this part of the etymology fits into the Pauline reference of I Corinthians is another mystery that resists untangling.13

The Shaliach Tzibbur

Paul Tomson has proposed that the whole expression of ὁ ἀναπληρῶν τὸν τόπον τοῦ ἰδιώτου is the equivalent of the Jewish position of the שליח צבור Shaliach Tzibbur.14 A Hebrew-Roots based Christian website described this ancient position as this:

The shaliach tzibbur functions as the representative of the community who recites the prayers on behalf of the people. Some prayers are said by everyone, and some are recited aloud by the shaliach tzibbur, to which the congregation responds “Amen” (the chazzan (cantor) is specially trained in Jewish music (cantillation) and liturgy for this role).15

A traditional Jewish website finds the historical origins of the Shaliach Tzibbur unclear. It may be a second to fourth-century one and not earlier. It would not apply to what Paul wrote.16

It is apparent from Paul’s words and grammar that ancient Jewish liturgical customs are interwoven in his work. The “Amen” construct that Paul used in I Corinthians 14:16 suggests that the expression ὁ ἀναπληρῶν τὸν τόπον τοῦ ἰδιώτου is representative of an office, but something earlier than the Shaliach Tzibbur.

Unfortunately, there is not enough critical data to make a solid connection. It is a good start, but not enough.

The Meturgamen

Initial versions of this article promoted that the idiom actually may be the evolution of the Jewish office of the מתורגםן, Meturgeman. However, further analysis revealed this insufficient.17

The Meturgamen was an office in the Jewish Aramaic world and we lack information on the equivalents or derivatives of a Jewish-Hellenist one. It is necessary to look further at the Meturgamen and see if one can extrapolate from it transferable rites.

The Jewish Encyclopedia describes the meturgamen as:

The weekly lesson from the Pentateuch and the Prophets was read by a member of the congregation, and the meturgeman had to translate into the vernacular the Pentateuchal lesson verse by verse; . . . He did not limit himself to a mere literal translation, but dilated upon the Biblical contents, bringing in haggadic elements, illustrations from history, and references to topics of the day.18

The Meturgeman died out as an active part of the Jewish liturgy around 1000 AD. Epiphanius described something potentially similar to the Meturgeman being practiced in the early Church; see A Translation of Epiphanius on the Tongues of Corinth for more information.

However, the Meturgeman, like the Shaliach Tzibbur, was an office that may not have existed during Paul’s time. It does suggest a more primitive form existed and this may be what the ἀναπληρῶν identified with. This conclusion is very much in the subjective realm and has no concrete evidence. In fact, if one uses the later evidence from the Alexandrian Church, it may be a different office altogether.

A good extrapolation from Jewish Aramaic literature is not sustainable. The Shaliach Tzibbur and the Meturgeman are close approximations but neither are entirely satisfactory. This mystery requires more information to solve.

The Alexandrian view of the ἀναπληρῶν

A strong clue can be found in the fifth century or later text attributed to Cyril of Alexandria. The writer believed the expression of the ἀναπληρῶν was an archaic way of explaining a function of the priest, prefect, or overseer to communicate in the language, thoughts, and speech that would be understood by a general audience. They preferred to use the word κείμενος, keimenos, instead.

The text described it as an office in the Church, ὅ γε μὴν ἐν τάξει τῇ τοῦ λαϊκοῦ κείμενος, “the one who was appointed in the position of the laity.”

The Cyril text would suggest an English translation this way; “how will the person who helps the audience of the laypeople understand say the ‘Amen’?” Or as a paraphrase, “how would the person who takes a thought, speech, language, or argument, and clearly explains it to the regular common folk articulate in a way that they understand, say the ‘Amen’?”


The research uncovers that the ἀναπληρῶν was an office in early Christian circles and perhaps inherited from its Jewish Hellenic parent. No antecedent can be found in Jewish Aramaic gatherings.

The ἀναπληρῶν was responsible for ensuring that the laity understood what the teacher or leader spoke. It does not lend well to an improvised type of speech or heavenly language.

On the other hand, the evidence may not persuade the reader to agree with such conclusions. There may be more important pieces out there, but I have yet to find them.

It may be better to conclude that we just don’t know what this word means, and simply leave it transliterated in the English text.


  1. The above three Bible samples taken from the Biblos website.
  2. These two Bible samples taken from the Biblos website.
  4. E.A Sophocles. Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900. Pg. 149
  5. A Patristic Greek Lexicon. G.H. Lampe ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1978. Pg. 117
  6. Stephanus Vol. 1. Col. 506; my translation from the Latin.
  7. A. Chassang. Dictionnaire Grec-Française. Paris: Garnier Frères. 1865. No page numbers in book.
  8. BAGD 1979. Pg. 59
  12. This is from an 1878 version found at Google books. הברית החדשה There a number of versions floating around claiming to be his original copy. This is the closest I could find to the original.
  13. See Bibliotheca Augustana for side by side comparison of the standard and Theodotion versions of the LXX.
  17. Thank you to Bruce Edminster for pointing out this error.

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