PROTOTOKOS (“Firstborn”): Its Meaning and Usage In the New Testament
The Apostle Paul left us two great passages expressing his teaching concerning the person of Christ in His pre-incarnate state: Philippians 2:5-7 and Colossians 1:15-17. It is interesting that both passages provide quite a challenge to the translator, though their meaning undoubtedly was clear to their original audiences. In the Colossians passage, Paul describes the Lord Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” (New American Standard Bible). He then goes on to ascribe to Jesus the creation of ta panta, all things, i. e., the universe and all that is in it.1 How, then, are we to understand Paul’s use of the phrase, “first-born”? What does this word tell us about Jesus Christ? How is it used in the New Testament?
The word under consideration is prototokos. It is made up of two words, protos, meaning first,2 and tokos from tikto, “to give birth.”3 There is little evidence that the word prototokos was used extensively before the time of the Septuagint.4 Its basic meaning is the first one born, the first born child. However, it must be examined in its context to determine its true meaning.
Usage in the Septuagint
The word prototokos is used approximately 130 times in the Septuagint (LXX). About 70 of those instances will be found in the genealogical lists of * Genesis and Chronicles, and here it retains its literal meaning of “firstborn.” 5 The Hebrew word bekor is consistently translated by prototokos in the LXX. It must be remembered that the bekor, the first-born, was entitled to the double portion (Deuteronomy 21:17), to the blessing (Genesis 27), and to special treatment (Genesis 43:33).6 An etymological study of bekor reveals that it is not related in its root meaning to either the ideas of protos or tokos, and hence the meanings might have become “detached altogether from the idea of birth or the whole question of origin.”7
This idea of prototokos is seen clearly in the Old Testament. For example, the Septuagint translators utilized prototokos in their rendition of Exodus 4:22: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My first-born.” ’ ” (LXX: prototokos). Obviously here the emphasis is on the primacy of Israel’s relation to God. Of all nations, Israel is chosen specially by God to occupy a place of high honor and esteem. In 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 we read of Reuben, the first-born of Israel, losing his birthright for his sin. Here the idea of first-born carries with it much more than just temporal ascendancy.
In Jeremiah 31:9 the Scriptures record God as saying, “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My first-born.” Passages such as this provided a basis for the later Rabbinic interpretation that referred to the nation of Israel as God’s “first-born” in the special sense of Israel’s superiority and exaltation above the nations of the earth. Seemingly the most significant passage is to be found at Psalm 89:27: “I shall also make him My first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth.” This highly Messianic passage paves the way for a solid understanding of the use of prototokos in the New Testament, especially in relation to the Messiah, Jesus. In this passage, a clear emphasis on the pre-eminence and superiority of the coming Messiah is emphasized.
New Testament Usage
In the New Testament we find the word prototokos used a total of eight times. Six of these instances are in the singular and refer to the Lord Christ, two are in the plural form.8 These passages are: Luke 2:7, Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15 and 1:18, Hebrews 1:6, 11:28, 12:23, and Revelation 1:5. The first passage, Luke 2:7 of the Christmas narrative, refers to the basic meaning of the word as it is used in the genealogy lists of the Old Testament. The other references, however, take on a far greater meaning.
In the New Testament usage, the emphasis is placed not on the tokos but instead upon the protos. The word stresses superiority and priority rather than origin or birth. This can be seen as early as the LXX usage, where it has been pointed out that Israel, as God’s first-born, certainly can not be seen as the first creation of God, but rather His special choice and preeminent people. The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker Lexicon says, “This expression…is also used in some instances where it is uncertain whether the force of the element -tokos is still felt at all…Col. 1:15.”9
In Romans 8:29, the Lord Christ is described as “the first-born among many brethren.” These brethren are, of course, the glorified Christians. Here the Lord’s superiority and sovereignty over “the brethren” is acknowledged, as well as His leadership in their salvation. “As the brethren of Christ, all Christians will share his destiny (c.f. Heb. 2:10-17), and Christ is the pre-eminent Son among the sons of God (c.f. 1:3).”10 In Hebrews 1:6 we read, “And when He again brings the first-born into the world, He says, “And let all the angels of God worship Him.” Here the idea of pre-eminence is obvious, as all of God’s angels are instructed to worship Him, a privilege rightly reserved only for God (Luke 4:8). The term prototokos is used here as a title, and no idea of birth or origin is
In both Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5, Christ Jesus is called the first-born of the dead (or from the dead). These would refer especially to the leadership of Christ in bringing about the resurrection of the dead and inauguration of a new, eternal life. Some think that Colossians 1:15-20 is an ancient Christian hymn, and the Greek words prototokos and proteouon are a play on sound.11
The greatest amount of discussion and exegesis has centered around Paul’s use of prototokos pases ktiseos of Christ in Colossians 1:15. The early Church Fathers argued it, and modern scholars have spent more time discussing this use than all seven other instances combined.
In commenting on this passage, Kenneth Wuest said:
The Greek word implied two things, priority to all creation and sovereignty over all creation. In the first meaning we see the absolute pre-existence of the Logos. Since our Lord existed before all created things, He must be uncreated. Since He is uncreated, He is eternal. Since He is eternal, He is God. Since He is God, He cannot be one of the emanations from deity of which the Gnostic speaks…In the second meaning we see that He is the natural ruler, the acknowledged head of God’s household…He is Lord of creation.12
It seems the eminent Greek scholar J. B. Lightfoot was behind at least the outline of Wuest’s comments, as he provides much the same information in his commentary on the usage of prototokos in Colossians 1:15. He would opt for interpreting the phrase in which the word appears as a genitive of relation.13 He sees a definite connection between Paul’s use of prototokos here and its LXX usage at Psalm 89:27. He discusses both the aspects of priority to all creation as well as sovereignty over all creation. Lightfoot quotes one Rabbi Bechai, who gives us an example of how some of the Jewish Rabbis viewed prototokos. R. Bechai described God as the primogenitus mundi, i.e., hos estin prototokos tou kosmou as translated into Greek. Certainly R. Bechai did not mean that God had a beginning or origin, but that He was supreme over all the world.. Hence Lightfoot says, “God’s first-born, is the natural ruler, the acknowledged head, of God’s household.”14
The Expositor’s Greek Testament defines prototokos in this way:
…prototokos in its primary sense expresses temporal priority, and then, on account of the privileges of the firstborn, it gains the further sense of dominion.15
R. M. Clark put it succinctly:
Prototokos, first-born…The original meaning of the word is giving birth for the first time. Later it came to mean the first-born or first in rank. This is the N. T. meaning. In the N. T. the -tokos element is clearly implied only in Luke 2:7, in other places it tends to recede into the background.16
The Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament by Fritz Reinecker and Cleon Rogers, distills down the scholastic information and says, “The word emphasizes the preexistence and uniqueness of Christ as well as His superiority over creation. The term does not indicate that Christ was a creation or a created being.”17
The context of Colossians 1:15, and the phrase in which we encounter prototokos should weigh heavily in our interpretation of the word. Many would disagree with the interpretation and above definition due to the connection of prototokos with pases ktiseos. These would interpret this phrase as being a partitive genitive, making the prototokos a part of creation, a created thing, rather than superior over all things. It is admitted that this could be construed as a partitive genitive, but “this is excluded by the context, which sharply distinguishes between the Son and ta panta, and for this idea Paul would probably have used protoktistos.18 The well-known scholar, A. T. Robertson, wrote:
The use of this word does not show what Arius argued that Paul regarded Christ as a creature like “all creation (pases ktiseos…) It is rather the comparative (superlative) force of protos that is used…Paul is here refuting the Gnostics who pictured Christ as one of the aeons by placing Him before “all creation” (angels and men)…Paul takes both words to help express the deity of Jesus Christ in his relation to the Father as eikon (Image) and to the universe as prototokos (First-born).19
It does sound strange to the mind accustomed to reading Paul to imagine him thinking of the One Whom he called kurios, Lord, as a creature – a mere creation. For no matter how exalted or glorified a creature might be, it is still as far removed from the glory of God Almighty as can be imagined.
One of the most telling contextual clues to Paul’s use of prototokos is the ascription of the creation of all things to Christ in the following two verses. The phrase used in these verses, ta panta, is quite revealing. Paul used this term as a synonym for the universe and all it contains. It has been well said, “In Him ta panta were created. From this it follows that the Son cannot be a creature, for creation is exhausted by the “all things” which were created in Him.”20
Hence it is seen that the great majority of modern scholarship sees prototokos in the New Testament pointing to the superiority of the Christ above and over all creation. This is not only the background of the word from the Old Testament, but it is also demanded by the contexts in which it is found. Only Colossians 1:15 could be seen to allow any other kind of interpretation whatsoever, and this passage safeguards itself through the immediate context, by ascribing to the prototokos all creation.
Another clear clue as to the meaning of prototokos in the days of the New Testament is the manner in which the early church Fathers used and interpreted it. Since these Fathers spoke and read Greek, and lived in the same culture to which Paul and the Apostles wrote their letters, their interpretation and understanding of prototokos is important. How did they understand the Pauline passage at Colossians 1:15?
Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, wrote, “…so that we know Him to be the first-begotten of God, and to be before all creatures.”21 Notice that Justin was very careful to make sure that his readers knew that Christ was “before all creatures.” It should also be recalled that at this early time, the Fathers were not exceedingly interested in discussing the relationship between the Father and the Son, due to the absence of a great deal of Christological heresy in the Church.
The most complete discussion of prototokos in the early Fathers comes a number of years after Justin, in the writings of Tertullian as he battled the early heretic Marcion. Here are his comments:
If Christ is not “the first-begotten before every creature,” as that “Word of God by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made;” if “all things were” not “in Him created, whether in heaven or on earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions, or principalities, or powers;” if “all things were” not “created by Him and for Him” (for these truths Marcion ought not to allow concerning Him), then the apostle could not have so positively laid it down, that “He is before all.” For how is He before all, if He is not before all things? How, again, is He before all things, if He is not “the first-born of every creature” – if He is not the Word of the Creator?22
A later Church Father, Dionysius of Rome, said this:
Oh reckless and rash men! was then “the first-born of every creature” something made?…Finally, any one may read in many parts of the divine utterances that the Son is said to have been begotten, but never that He was made.23
Lightfoot gives a list of the Fathers that support this view, and says, “All the fathers of the second and third centuries without exception, so far as I have noticed, correctly refer it to the Eternal Word and not to the Incarnate Christ, to the Deity and not to the humanity of our Lord.”24 It was only after the Arians latched onto this verse to attempt to teach their doctrines that the Church leaders began to change their exegesis of this passage.
We have seen that the use of prototokos in the Septuagint, in the New Testament, and in later Patristic writings refers to 1) the first-born, as in Luke 2:7, and, 2) the one who is pre-eminent and sovereign, always in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, the Lord of Glory is the Sovereign of all the Universe, the First-born of all Creation.