Therefore, just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned. (Romans 5:12 DBH)
Here is a very interesting rendering of this verse, particularly at the end, presented to us by David Bentley Hart in his recent translation of the New Testament. Other translations end it with “because all have sinned” (for example, NASB, NIV, NKJV, ESV, CSB, LEB). Hart’s version, “whereupon all sinned,” is substantially different from that. The difference is in whether Paul poses universal death as the result of universal sin (“because all sinned”) or whether he puts it the other way around, that universal sin is a consequence of universal death.
The Greek text at this point is εφ ω (eph ho), a preposition followed by a pronoun. It is found no more than six other times in the New Testament:
- “Jesus replied, ‘Do what you came for, friend.’ Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him” (Matthew 26:50 NIV). We may put it as the Context Group Version does: “[Do] that for which [eph ho] you have come.”
- “And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein [eph ho] the sick of the palsy lay.” (Mark 2:4 KJV). The Greek text used in most modern versions does not have eph ho but uses a different word that is translated similarly.
- “Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (Luke 5:25). The Context Group Version has, “and took up that whereon [eph ho] he lay.”
- “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4 NIV). Both Robertson’s Word Pictures and Vincent’s Word Studies translate the phrase as “Not for that [eph ho] we would be unclothed.” Perhaps eph ho works okay as “because” here, but that is not so clear.
- “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which [eph ho] Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12 NIV).
- “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it” (Philippians 4:10 NIV). In this and in other versions, it is difficult to find eph ho in back of it, but Young’s Literal Translation locates it more clearly for us: “And I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at length ye flourished again in caring for me, for which [eph ho] also ye were caring, and lacked opportunity.”
This reading, however, does interfere with a certain theological bent in the West, one influenced by the Latin version of the New Testament. In the Latin version, Hart’s reading, “whereupon all sinned,” would not be possible.
First, it retains the masculine gender of the pronoun (quo) but renders θανατος by the feminine noun mors, thus severing any connection that Paul might have intended between them; second, it uses the preposition in, which when paired with the ablative means “within.” Hence what became the standard reading of the verse in much of Western theology after the late third century: “in whom [i.e. Adam] all sinned.” This is the locus classicus of the Western Christian notion of original guilt — the idea that in some sense all human beings had sinned in Adam, and that therefore everyone is born already damnably guilty in the eyes of God — a logical and moral paradox that Eastern tradition was spared by its knowledge of Greek.But we must also consider the context here. The idea that death came to all because all sinned seems to contradict the verses that immediately follow.
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone's account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 5:13-14)Sin was in the world before the time of Moses, when the Law was given. But notice: where there is no Law, sin is not charged against anyone. From the time of Adam to the time of Moses, then, sin was not charged against anyone. And yet, death still reigned upon all during that period. Everyone died, though not all sinned.
But how can this be if death came to all because all have sinned. The Western theory of “original sin” (more like, original guilt) is that all sinned in Adam and are therefore guilty of sin. Even if they have not actually committed any sin, they are nonetheless judged guilty. This is not what Paul says in Romans 5:12-14.
From both the context and how the words eph ho are normally used elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears that in Romans 5:12, Paul is not attributing the sin of all as the cause of the death of all but, quite the opposite, that it is the mortality that pervades humanity that causes all to sin.
The good news of the gospel is that through the Cross and the Resurrection, Christ has delivered us from the power of death and, therefore, from the power of sin.