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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

First-Born First-Begotten

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(πρωτότοκος; Vulgate primogenitus in the NT except in Hebrews 11:28; Hebrews 12:23)

1. The privilege of the first-born: the birthright (τὰ πρωτοτόκια, Vulgate primitiva) is spoken of once in the NT, in Hebrews 12:16, which refers to Esau’s act in selling it (Genesis 25:33); the act was profanity, for the sacred privilege was despised. The firstborn was the heir to the headship of the family, and received a double portion of his father’s property (Deuteronomy 21:17); this was always the case unless for some special cause the birthright was taken from him, as in the cases of Esau, Reuben (1 Chronicles 5:1), and Manasseh (Genesis 48:14-19). Ishmael, the eldest son of Abraham, had not the birthright because he was the son of a slave woman (Genesis 21:10), though he was not, according to Hebrew ideas, a slave (see Roman Law).

2. Usage in the NT.-The word ‘firstborn’ is used in the NT both literally and figuratively. In Luke 2:7 our Lord is spoken of as Mary’s ‘firstborn’; in Matthew 1:25 the word, though found in CD and some versions, is clearly an interpolation. It implies in Lk. the privilege of the birthright; but neither there nor in the OT does it necessarily imply other children, and therefore it has no bearing on the identity of the ‘brethren’ of our Lord. Another, and still more important, deduction from this fact is that there is no contradiction between ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Firstborn’ applied to the preexistent Christ (see below). The latter title does not imply that there are other sons in the same Divine sense.-For the ‘redemption of the first-born’ at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple see Dict. of Christ and the Gospels i. 596f. The word πρωτότοκα. (Vulgate primitiva) is used literally in lie 11:28, of men and animals, with reference to the Egyptians.

The title ‘Firstborn’ is given figuratively to our Lord in three different aspects.-(a) It refers to His pre-existence in Colossians 1:15 (‘firstborn of all creation,’ πρωρότοκος πάσης κτίσεως; see Lightfoot’s exhaustive note in Colossians3, 1879, p. 144), and in Hebrews 1:6, where it is used absolutely: ‘the Firstborn.’ This interpretation of Colossians 1:15 is required by the context: ‘the image (εἰκών) of the invisible God … in him were all things created … all things have been created through him, and unto him, and he is before all things, and in him all things consist (cohere).’ This is also the exegesis of all the earlier Fathers; but, as the Arians used the text to show that our Lord was a creature, several (but not all) of the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers interpreted it of the Incarnate Christ, while the later Greek Fathers went back to the earlier interpretation (see the references in Light-foot, p. 146:f.)’ The phrase denotes that the Son was before all creation; to the Arians it was pointed out that the word used is not πρωτόκτιστος, which would have had the meaning they assigned to πρωτότοκος. The phrase further denotes that He is the Lord of all creation, for He has the right of the Firstborn. The title ‘Firstborn’ was used figuratively by the Jews of Messiah, from Psalms 89:27 (which they generally interpreted in a Messianic sense), and of Israel in Exodus 4:22; this paved the way for the NT usage. Lightfoot (p. 144) remarks also that both πρωτότοκος and εἰκών were taken from the Alexandrian doctrine of the Logos (see also Only-Begotten).

(b) In Colossians 1:16 Jesus is called ‘firstborn from the dead,’ because He was the first to rise; for Lazarus and others only rose to die again. So also in Revelation 1:5 ‘firstborn of the dead.’ The phrase is parallel with ‘the firstfruits (ἀπαρχή) of them that are asleep’ in 1 Corinthians 15:20.

(c) In Romans 8:29 the relation of the first-born to his brethren is spoken of. Here, as in Colossians 1:15, εἰκών occurs, but it is the image of the Son, not of the Father: ‘whom he foreknew (took note of), he also conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.’ The conformity of the Christian to the image of the Son is parallel with the fact that the Son is the image of the Father; and the result of it is that all Christians become members of the family of God the Father, in which Jesus is the First-born, and brother of them all (Hebrews 2:11).

The title is used in the plural of Christians in Hebrews 12:23 : ‘the church of the firstborn’ (Vulgate primitivorum). Here we have an extension of the privilege; there is not only one first-born in the family, but many. We may, with Lightfoot, take the reference to be to all Christians as being firstborn because all are kings (Revelation 1:6); the idea of ruling is so closely attached to the title that it can be thus extended, though the metaphor becomes confused-indeed, it was used by some Rabbis of God Himself (Lightfoot, p. 145). Some, however, interpret the phrase of the faithful departed who have gone before, and so are in a sense the firstborn of the dead (cf. Grimm, Lex. in libros NT, Leipzig, 1879, s.v. πρωτότοκος). For some modification of these views see Westcott on Hebrews 12:23. In any case the ‘firstborn’ are men, not angels, to whom the word would be inapplicable, and who could not be described as ‘enrolled in heaven’ (Westcott).

A. J. Maclean.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'First-Born First-Begotten'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/f/first-born-first-begotten.html. 1906-1918.

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