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Epikeia (in the Bible)


English transliteration of the Greek πιείκεια (that which is of just measure, reasonable, equitable). The Greek word is used in the Septuagint (LXX) only of persons, usually those in authority [Dn 4.24 (LXX: 4.27); Est 3.13; 2 Mc 9.27], and designates the virtue of moderation (prudence) in those who do not rigorously insist upon their rights. Unlike the despot who with want on violence (βρις) presses for his due, the πιεικής ruler manifests toward his subjects a fatherly indulgence and kindness, pardoning offenses and mitigating punishment. As an attribute of God, πιείκεια denotes His mercy (Bar2.27; Dn 3.42).

In the New Testament, similarly, πιείκεια is attributed to Christ (2 Cor 10.1), to those in authority (Acts24.4; 1 Pt 2.18; 1 Tm 3.3), and to Christians in general (Phil 4.5; Ti 3.2; Jas 3.17), but it takes on more clearly the nuance of gentleness, meekness, and humility, becoming synonymous with πραΰτης (2 Cor 10.1; Ti 3.2; cf. Wis 2.19). Although the term is not used in Mt5.3942 and 1 Cor 6.7, these passages give typical examples of the Christian virtue of "gladly ceding one's rights." Christians must abandon the lex talionis ; in accordance with the directives of the sermon on the Mount, they must instead cultivate the generous spirit that does not haggle about one's rights, but has its roots in complete selflessness. Similarly, St. Paul's real concern in writing 1 Cor 6.111 was not the administration of justice, but the inculcation of an attitude of living above the law. Christians should renounce their rights rather than give scandal or disturb charitable relations.

The highest example of πιείκεια was given by Christ who, setting aside the glory due His dignity, embraced the condition of a slave and accepted the death of the cross (Phil 2.58). Christ, whose mildness (πραΰτης) and gentleness (πιείκεια) Christians must imitate (2 Cor10.1), is not a weakling, however, but the glorified Lord (Phil 2.911) who, instead of jealously guarding His rights, exhibits the mildness that only an omnipotent King can show. His πιείκεια, then, is but the complement of His divine glory and is thoroughly majestic in nature.

Christians, through their heavenly vocation (Phil3.20), participate in Christ's kingly power and must be guided by His gentleness in their relationship with others. Thus, when St. Paul was accused of being cowardly, he reminded the rebellious Corinthians that he was capable of being stern (2 Cor 10.2), but that he preferred to exercise his authority only in the spirit of the Lord (2 Cor10.8), i.e., as πιείκεια. The same virtue is required of every Church official (1 Tm 3.3) who, inspired by the gentle wisdom from above (Jas 3.17), must manifest Christ's heavenly glory in his rule. Even more clearly does the majestic aspect of πιείκεια appear in Phil 4.5, where Paul instructs the Philippians to make known their forebearance (τò έπιεικές) to all since "the Lord is near." The thought of their future glorification must prompt them to maintain their lovable equanimity even in the face of persecution. The Lord will right all wrongs when He returns to establish His universal dominion. Therefore, έπιείκεια, which can be rendered as "kindness, graciousness, the willingness to cede one's rights," is an earthly reflection of the heavenly splendor that awaits all who follow Christ's royal example.

Bibliography: h. preisker, g. kittel Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 2:585587. c. spicq, "Bénignité, mansuétude, douceur, clémence," Revue biblique 54 (1947) 321339. w. barclay, A N.T. Wordbook (London 1955) 3839.

[s. makarewicz]

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