the origins of the use of κυριος for יהוה

All extant manuscripts of the NT consistently use the Greek word κυριος (kyrios, ‘lord’) when translating the name of God in the OT, יהוה (Yhwh). The background to this is not entirely clear nor uncontested, but it is worth noting a few points about what is and isn’t known, and what is and isn’t likely.
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should ‘christ’ be removed from english bibles?

Yes, in the tradition of tabloid journalism my heading for this post sounds controversial, but hear me out. We’re all used to seeing the word ‘Christ’ in English Bible translations. The only exceptions are the few which use the term ‘Messiah’ in its place (such as the HCSB).

‘Christ’ is, of course, a transliteration of the Greek work Χριστός while ‘Messiah’ transliterates the Hebrew משיח (māšîaḥ). The question is, however, why are these transliterated and not translated in English versions of the Bible?

The failure to translate these terms is odd for a number of reasons:

  1. The NT translates the Hebrew with the Greek term and doesn’t attempt to transliterate it (e.g. Acts 4:26 quoting Ps 2:1–2).
  2. The LXX also translates the Hebrew with the Greek equivalent.
  3. English translations do translate these terms when they’re not used of Jesus (e.g. Ps 2:2).

The practice appears to begin in the Vulgate which uses Christus to transliterate Χριστός. Nonetheless, the term is not a name and it is used in the NT because of the word’s meaning. The way in which modern translations choose to transliterate this gives readers the impression the ‘Christ’ is Jesus’ last name. Even aside from this, there’s a lot of baggage associated with readers’ understanding of the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ that could do with revision (to be sure, there was a lot of baggage associated with these terms in the first century as well, but the baggage probably differs and could do with some revision).

Translating these terms rather than transliterating them means readers would be forced to come to grips with the actual significance of the title, and that could well be a good thing!

Thus we would translate Mark 1:1:

Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ

as something like:

The beginning of the good news of Anointed Jesus, son of God…

Of course this would raise the question of precisely how to best translate the term Χριστός. Yet it would provide a refreshing translation that makes the reader think again about the words they’re reading, and that can only be a good thing!

is agape (ἀγάπη) love specially divine?

This last weekend I heard a talk in which it was claimed that the word ἀγάπη (agapē) was little used prior to the New Testament in Greek and was infused with new and special meaning by the writers of the NT, a meaning that reflects a divine, selfless, love. This is not a new claim, and any search for the term “agape” across the internet will uncover many making exactly this claim. Indeed, if you venture to view the Wikipedia entry on the term agape you will find some similar claims.

From what I can tell, however, the special divine meaning for the term ἀγάπη (agapē) is spurious.
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yabt (yet another bible translation): the common english bible

The Common English Bible has been completed, the result of an impressive array of scholars, with admirable goals. A page comparing it with the NRSV and NIV is available here. Some brief and very initial observations based primarily on a few passages I like to check follows.
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“is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 2

Another illuminating example is Deut 6:5 — the greatest commandment. Again there’s little substantial difference evident between the MT and the DSS:

ואהבת את יהוה אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך

These reflect a tripartite division of “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (NASB). The LXX follows this quite literally, preserving the tripartite division of heart, soul, strength:1

καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου.

However, when we look to the NT the words are translated differently. Here are the final words of each instance:

Matt 22:37
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου
Mark 12:30
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου
Luke 10:27
ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου

As you can see, there are slight variations in each instance. Most significantly, Mark and Luke specify four parts against Matthew’s (and the MT’s and LXX’s) three. There is, unsurprisingly, considerable discussion over the source and significance of these variations, much of it speculative. What we do know, however, is that these each represent translations from the original (perhaps through Aramaic if they recall Jesus’ words). As such, they provide a further point for examining the translation methodology endorsed by the NT.

So what can we say? Many commentators agree that these texts all express a merism for the entire person. Today we might translate “body, mind, and spirit” (if not for the new-age overtones). Furthermore, the variations between versions do little to diminish this impression. Instead, they likely cater to different audiences and their understanding of the constituent components of a human being.

But what of the significance of the variations for our understanding of translation methodology? First, it is clear that Mark’s and Luke’s versions cannot easily be reconciled with a “word-for-word” or “formal equivalent” approach. Both these examples can be considered more “dynamic equivalent” translations of the Hebrew than “formal equivalent” (although these exist on a spectrum), and yet both are authorised by the NT. This has some significance for arguments about inerrancy, for it undermines claims that the text must be transmitted at the word level rather than at the level of meaning (a claim which I suspect is confused by the frequent translation of the nouns דבר and λογος by “word” in English when context frequently requires a meaning something like “message”).

In the end, the expectation that an accurate translation reflects the very words of the original in a thoroughly formal equivalent manner is spurious. The oft-cited claim that dynamic equivalent translations “change” the words of the original is nonsensical, for a translation changes every word of the original from the source language to a target language. What the examples cited here indicate, however, is that the NT authors and the LXX translators were often happy to preserve the meaning they saw in the text more than merely the form of the words, and sometimes even at the expense of the form of the words.

So is a word-for-word translation unbiblical? No, there are too many examples of the NT adopting word-for-word translations of OT texts. The NT does not reflect a consistent translation methodology, undermining any case that one particular modern approach or translation is superior to all others when such is assessed only on the methodology employed. Consequently it is not possible to claim that a dynamic equivalent translation is unbiblical either!


1. Some manuscripts record διανοίας in place of καρδίας, a variation reflected among the NT quotations (see Paul Foster, “Why Did Matthew Get the Shema Wrong? A Study of Matthew 22:37” SBL 122.2 [2003], 319).

lead light on early christianity?

The Australian media has started picking up the story of the lead codices which purportedly relate to early Christianity. Since the media coverage is typically inadequate (Adam Spencer on ABC local radio in Sydney this morning certainly didn’t offer a particularly probing interview of David Elkington), I’m just offering a link to a more detailed discussion which itself contains more links for anyone interested in the “discovery.”

In short, there are good grounds to be sceptical of the authenticity, and even if authentic, there are grounds for doubting their relevance for our understanding of early Christianity. The find has to be subject to far more rigorous scrutiny than it has thus far.

Anyway, for more, read here.

luke 2:14

Jim West has posed a yuletide quest to uncover the “right” translation of Luke 2:14 (does anyone else get a Google ad inserted into that page for the “United Church of God”?). So here I’ll get into the spirit and have a go!

First, for reference, Jim suggests the following:

Glory to the highest God; and on earth, peace to men of good will.

The Greek text reads as follows:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

There is one significant textual issue in the verse, where some manuscripts read εὐδοκία rather than εὐδοκίας, that is a nominative (although dative is distinguished from nominative only by the iota subscript and so would also have been indistinguishable in uncial MSS) rather than genitive.

A close parallel exists in the LXX in the Odes 14:1-3 which reads:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία

This is probably sourced from Luke 2:14, although it further attests to the nominative (or possibly dative) reading of the word εὐδοκία. This all means that a faithful translation (as far as such is ever possible) is going to be more difficult because there will remain some question over the precise text.

For the purposes of the discussion, I’ll go with the genitive εὐδοκίας.

The first clause, δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ sets up a contrast with the second clause — ἐν ὑψίστοις “in the highest places” vs. ἐπὶ γῆς “on Earth.” As such, I think Jim’s rendering “the highest God” is perhaps not the best we could achieve (I’d be happy with that were the Greek ἐν ὑψίστῳ θεῷ; cf. Gen 14:19–22). So I’ll go with “Glory in the high heavens to God” for that clause.

That leaves the remainder, ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας. Perhaps the most interesting part is the final part, in particular how the genitive εὐδοκίας relates to “among people.” I think it reasonable to read εὐδοκίας as adjectival, thus restricting the people upon whom peace is wished. So I would go with “on Earth, peace on favoured people.”

So, putting it all together:

“Glory in the high heavens to God, and on Earth peace with favoured people.”

translating אמן “amen”

Working through some of Jeremiah lately I was prompted to think about the translation of the term אמן (“amen”). By way of reference I decided to see how a number of English translations rendered the term in two places — Jer 28:6 and Matt 5:18 (the latter uses the Greek transliteration ἀμήν). Here are the results:

Version Jer 28:6 Matt 5:18
LXX/GNT ἀληθῶς ἀμήν
NIV amen [I tell you the] truth
NASB amen truly
Mess Wonderful! Would that it were true.
NLT amen [I tell you the] truth
KJV amen verily
ESV amen truly
Holman amen I assure you
NIRV amen [what I’m about to tell you is] true
TNIV amen truly

Now this turns out to be a little surprising! What you notice is that where the Greek has transliterated the Hebrew/Aramaic (i.e. in the NT where the transliteration ἀμήν is employed), English versions universally translate the term into English. OTOH, in the OT where the Greek (i.e. the LXX) translates the term with ἀληθῶς the English versions (almost) universally transliterate the term with “amen”!

Now as it turns out, “amen” (following the definition in English dictionaries) fits quite well in Jer 28:6. I wonder, however, whether the discrepant results manifest in most translations reflect a somewhat different translation methodology between OT and NT teams for each version. My suspicion is that OT translations tend to be more conservative. I know, for example, that the ESV OT only varied from the RSV where more than two-thirds of the final committee agreed the change was warranted and hence it remains a minimalist revision of the RSV.

The other question is whether using “amen” is helpful in modern English translations. Obviously the answer relates to the target audience for the translation, but outside of church circles (at least where I live) the term “amen” doesn’t really get used and may not be well understood. In such cases perhaps a more colloquial translation would be appropriate. If we were to follow the precedent of the LXX and Greek NT we would at least have “amen” in the NT passages and “truly” (or something similar) in the OT, rather than the other way around.

So, the next task is to find a good colloquial rendering for אמן in Jer 28:6…

preaching and prophecy

There has been something of a tendency among some to equate prophecy and preaching or evangelism.

Two prominent Sydney Anglicans, Phillip Jensen and Kel Richards, make a passing comment indicating that they approve of this equation in this talk (something like 160MB which could’ve been a 6MB MP3 file had they been more considerate). Ironically they talk about how “reformed charismatics” must either redefine “reformed” or “charismatic,” and then proceed to redefine “prophecy”!

The comments themselves arise at about 20:48 into the recording. Basically, the exchange is as follows:

Philip: The spirit of prophecy, says the book of revelation, is the testimony of Jesus.
Kel: Right, so if I tell people about Jesus I’m prophesying.
Philip: Yes, in a sense. That’s right. That’s why old men, young men, all who are in the Christ, we’re all now prophets because we speak of Jesus. And so I’m very keen for people to prophesies because I want them to preach about Jesus.

Some problems with this approach:

  • They base this entire “theory” of NT prophecy on Rev 19:10 and Acts 2, and fails to even mention numerous other passages which tend to undermine his argument, nor do they attempt to place Rev 19:10 within its context and expound it accordingly, rather they simply use it as a “proof text.”
  • Their appeal to Acts 2:17-18 as implying that every Christian has the gift of prophecy is misleading, and fails to deal with Paul’s explicit assertion that only some have the gift of prophecy. Paul’s discussion of gifts clearly and explicitly notes that the gifts are shared out amongst believers, so whatever Paul means by “the gift of prophecy” is not shared by all christians. As such, what Paul and Philip Jensen/Kel Richards talk about are clearly different things!
  • Jensen and Richards fail to acknowledge that a significant part of the idea of biblical prophecy is the revelatory aspect. This fails to note that all recorded speech explicitly labeled as prophecy in the NT (and OT) involves direct revelation from God, not merely exposition of the Scriptures or even the gospel. I think Wayne Grudem’s definition of what Paul means by “prophecy” is helpful (as reported by Don Carson):

    prophecy is the reception and subsequent transmission of spontaneous, divinely originating revelation.

Another point to note is that the NT use of “prophecy” language is quite diverse, and different authors appear to use the terminology in different ways. In Acts 2, for example, Peter uses the quotation from Joel to explain the phenomenon whereby many disciples began speaking in tongues.

I will state my understanding briefly. The gift of prophecy, as explained by Paul in 1Cor 12-14, refers to a God-given gift whereby some christians receive and convey directly revealed information from God. It is clear that this prophecy is not accorded equivalent authority with the Scriptures, but that it goes beyond mere exposition of Scripture or explanation of the gospel. Furthermore, I can see no biblical reason why this gift should not be in operation today, although, like almost all other gifts, it is open to misunderstanding and abuse.