The mysterious anaplêrôn of I Corinthians 14:16

The mysterious anaplêrôn in the Corinthian Church.

The Apostle Paul referred to the word anaplêrôn as 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 meaning of the this problem text.

The tongues passage is an age-old mystery that has never been completely resolved. Some think Paul referred to heavenly speech, or a form of glossolalia, while others thing he assumes it to be religious ecstasy. Another alternative was that he referred to something that was a liturgical rite.

A closer look at the meaning of anaplêrôn suggests that it was liturgical. The dominant dictionaries, Latin text, Jewish, and a text attributed to Cyril of Alexandria point to it being an occupation — someone who would take the speech, whether foreign, high-priestly, specialized or articulate, and transfer it into a language that the common person would understand.

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 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 anaplêrôn has been traditionally transmitted through the English Bible translation history, and why it is translated the way it is, and secondly, develop a more clearer picture what the word anaplêrôn really means through the extensive use of dictionaries and ecclesiastical literature.

English translations clearly demonstrate that there was no office of the anaplêrôn at all. It was used in an adjectival sense that describes the state or character of the layperson. Here are some examples of how anaplêrôn 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 don’t.

  • 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, takes 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.

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. It offers no insights and follows the Greek text literally.

ܗܰܘ ܕ݁ܰܡܡܰܠܶܐ ܕ݁ܽܘܟ݁ܬ݂ܶܗ ܕ݁ܗܶܕ݂ܝܽܘܛܳܐ ܐܰܝܟ݁ܰܢܳܐ ܢܺܐܡܰܪ ܐܰܡܺܝܢ

“How can one who occupies the place of the unlearned say Amen.” (Translated by George Lamsa)11

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 didn’t seem to take any side to this. He seemed rather ambiguous.

There may have been a Hebrew connection to all of this.

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.13 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).14

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.15

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.

The idiom actually may be the evolution of the Jewish office of the מתורגםן, Meturgeman.

The Jewish Encyclopedia describes it as this:

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.16

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

However, the Meturgamen, 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 anaplêrôn identified with.

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.

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”?”

If the office of the anaplêrôn existed, what happened to it? The word itself is not found in any later writings referring to any type of Church functions.


  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. See my Facebook page for more info.

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