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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Neither in the OT nor in the NT is the word ‘vanity’ used in the sense of self-conceit or vainglory (see Pride): it is always a rendering of ματαιότης, which is an essentially Scriptural word, not being found in an ethical sense in the classical writers. There is, however, an adjective, rendered ‘vain,’ which has no corresponding substantive, namely κενός. Perhaps the prevailing sense of κενός is ‘emptiness’ or ‘hollowness,’ while μάταιος rather expresses ‘futility’ or ‘fruitlessness,’ and denotes an absence of aim or a purpose unfulfilled; but the two epithets are so nearly synonymous even on the showing of R. C. Trench (NT Synonyms 9, London, 1880, p. 180 f., where he defines κόπος κενός [1 Corinthians 15:58] as ‘labour which yields no return’) that the distinction cannot always be pressed. J. B. Mayor on 2 Peter 2:10 (see The Epistle of St. Jude, and the Second Epistle of St. Peter, London, 1907) discusses the passages of Septuagint where ματαιότης is found, e.g. Psalms 4:3; Psalms 39:6 and the famous Ecclesiastes 1:2 (‘vanity of vanities’), and concludes that in these cases, as in 2 Peter 2:10, the word approximates to the Pauline use in Romans 8:20 (‘the creation was subjected to vanity’) and denotes what is simply passing and transient. On the other hand, in Psalms 26:4; Psalms 119:37; Psalms 144:8 and Ephesians 4:17 he is of opinion that the word expresses moral instability, being used ‘of men without principle on whom no reliance can be placed.’

As against the view of Mayor, it should be remembered that in Romans 8:20 the meaning of resultlessness or ineffectiveness (see Sanday-Headlam, International Critical Commentary , ‘Romans’5, Edinburgh, 1902, in loc.) is equally harmonious with the context as indicating the opposite of τέλειος, that is, the disappointing character of the present existence with its unfulfilled aims and its pursuit of ends never realized. The word is found in Barn. iv. 10; Polyc. ad Phil. vii. 2; Ignatius, ad Trall. viii. 2. On the whole, an examination of the passages where ματαιότης and μάταιος are found as well as compound words like ματαιολογία and ματαιοπνία tends to support the theory that ‘vanity,’ or ματαιότης (Heb. הֶבֶל, though in Septuagint the word is also a rendering of שָׁוְא), denotes ‘either absence of purpose or failure to attain any true purpose’ (J. Armitage Robinson, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians 2, London, 1909, on 4:17).

R. Martin Pope.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Vanity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Tuesday, January 21st, 2020
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