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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Translating hilasmos (propitiation)

The ESV Bible blog has a recent post on use of the theological word "propitiation" to translate the Greek word hilasmos. The post quotes from the ESV Preface:
[The ESV] retains theological terminology—words such as… propitiation—because of their central importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times.
The ESV translators are in good company if numbers count. Most English Bible translators have used technical theological terms to translate hilasmos and a number of other Greek words which they believe are technical terms.

But is the assumption correct that "the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times"? To answer that question requires careful lexicographical work, comparing the meanings of Greek words in the New Testament to the meanings those words had outside the New Testament. I have not done this required careful, extensive study myself, but others have. And I can say that for any Greek word which I have studied I have yet to find one which had such specialized usage in the New Testament, compared to its extrabiblical usage, that a technical term was required for its translation to English.

The Greek word hilasmos was commonly known to Greek speakers. It referred to appeasing or neutralizing the anger of the gods. Most English speakers today do not know what the word "propitiation" means. If we translate a Greek word which was well known by an English word which is not, we have not translated accurately. That is, we have not translated so that the meaning of the English word (or words) used are as well known to English Bible users as was the meaning of the original Greek word to its users.

I propose that the most accurate translation of hilasmos would be to an English word (or words) whose meaning is the same as that of hilasmos and which is just as well known as was the meaning of hilasmos to those who read or heard the original Greek New Testament passages which contained this word. And the same principle would hold for other technical terms which have been used in English translations, such as "righteousness", "sanctification", "predestination", etc.

What might such an accurate translation of hilasmos be for today's English speakers? Why not translate it as it is defined by careful lexicographers of ancient Greek, as something like "appease his anger" or "cause him not to be angry with you any more"? When someone is angry at you and you do something which causes them no longer to be angry at you, what English words do you use to refer to what your action did to their anger? Those words, it seems to be, would be the most accurate translation of hilasmos.

True, a clear, accurate translation of hilasmos might take more than one English word, but it is well known that it often takes a different number of words to translate a single word or more than one word from one language to another. The Cheyenne language, with which I work, has verbs which almost always must be translated to English with more than one word. The single Cheyenne verb Naohkesaa'one'seomepevetsisto'aneherequires several English words for an accurate translation, which, in this case would be: "I truly do not pronounce the Cheyenne language well." Greek verbs are similar to Cheyenne verbs in that they typically are composed of more than one meaning part (morpheme). No one objects to translating Greek verbs with more than one English word. Similarly, we should not object when a Greek noun requires more than one word for its meaning to be accurately translated to current English.

Better Bibles will translate the meaning of the original words (and syntax) of the Bible into English which not only accurately communicates the same meaning, but does so with words which are as well known to English speakers as were the original biblical words to those who heard or read them.

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At Fri Oct 07, 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Tim Sisk said...

I actually wrote the ESV to find out why they selected "propitiation". I was particularly curious given that this was a change from the RSV's rendering of hilasmos as "expiation." Frankly, I'm troubled by the use of both words. They are either, jargon, archaic, pedantic, or all of the above. I'm reasonably convinced "propitiation" (or even if it had been left as "expiation") does little or nothing to clarify the meaning of hilasmos.

I'm drawing on my three years of NT Greek and do not consider myself an authority on this, but I seem to remember that the word hilasmos was used by the translators of the Septuagint to refer to the "mercy seat" of the ark of the covenant. This connection with the day of atonement was surely in the mind of the writer (he likely being a reader of the Septuagint and not the Hebrew Bible). (And to my mind makes "atoning sacrifice" a better translation). I'll get a post up on my site in a few days explaining in more detail on that point.

I'm unhappy enough with the ESV's translation of hilasmos with propitation that I don't use it as even a secondary translation source. I've read that the RSV was criticized by Calvinists for being unduly Arminian when it used expiation instead of propitiation. This reversal The changing of expiation back to propitation suggests a latent theological bias on the part of the translators. And damages my trust in the translation.

BTW, I now longer use my blogspot account. (You should reconsider your commenting policy). My current website is I'll trackback when I have my post up.

At Fri Oct 07, 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I actually wrote the ESV to find out why they selected "propitiation".

If you got a response, Tim, would you be willing to share it here?

About my commenting policy, I have gone back and forth on it, trying to have as much security against blogging spam and yet easy enough access for commenters. Allowing Anonymous comments led to what I consider some inappropriate use of that privilege. I'm glad you still have your Blogger account so you can comment. It is easy for anyone to get a Blogger account to comment. In this case I think I agree with those using Blogger and other blogging services which do not allow Anonymous comments. Requiring a person to post under their own name leads to greater ownership of opinions posted and greater accountability among us.

At Fri Jul 13, 11:54:00 AM, Blogger Bondservant said...

It is one thing to say that the translation of "hilasmos" as "propitiation" is wrong, and quite a different thing to say that contemporary readers would be better served by a word other than "propitiation" which is not used in common speech.

From the sources that I have been reviewing, it looks like the concept of propitiation is consistent with hilasmos, just like propitious is consistent with "hileos". Also consider "hilasterion" use by the LXX translators. Consider the following definition of propitiation:

"propitiation." Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary. 13 Jul. 2007.

that by which God is rendered propitious, i.e., by which it becomes consistent with his character and government to pardon and bless the sinner. The propitiation does not procure his love or make him loving; it only renders it consistent for him to execise his love towards sinners. In Rom. 3:25 and Heb. 9:5 (A.V., "mercy-seat") the Greek word _hilasterion_ is used. It is the word employed by the LXX. translators in Ex. 25:17 and elsewhere as the equivalent for the Hebrew _kapporeth_, which means "covering," and is used of the lid of the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:21; 30:6). This Greek word (hilasterion) came to denote not only the mercy-seat or lid of the ark, but also propitation or reconciliation by blood. On the great day of atonement the high priest carried the blood of the sacrifice he offered for all the people within the veil and sprinkled with it the "mercy-seat," and so made propitiation. In 1 John 2:2; 4:10, Christ is called the "propitiation for our sins." Here a different Greek word is used (hilasmos). Christ is "the propitiation," because by his becoming our substitute and assuming our obligations he expiated our guilt, covered it, by the vicarious punishment which he endured. (Comp. Heb. 2:17, where the expression "make reconciliation" of the A.V. is more correctly in the R.V. "make propitiation.")

Rather one uses “expiation”, “propitiation”, “appeaser” to describe Jesus' role as a substitutionary atonement for our personal sins does not seem to have significant theological implications. But I have not conducted a thorough word study on each of the alternatives. It is not necessary; however, to dumb down the text, or make it more “readable” by dropping terms that have longstanding usage and convey a significant theological points. Jesus as our substitution is a critical concept, and taking a moment to learn the definition of an English word is not a fruitless exercise.

If “propitiation” as defined does not correctly convey the meaning of “hilasmos” then we should look for a better fitting word or word phrase, but I do not believe that is the case. However, there are plenty of “easier” to read translations and paraphrases available to day to allow some editions to use a more traditional word even if it is not in common usage.

At Fri Jul 13, 01:33:00 PM, Blogger Bondservant said...

I would like to correction to my earlier post. I spoke to a friend of mine, who has much more experience in Greek, etc. And when I said:

"Rather one uses 'expiation', 'propitiation', 'appeaser' to describe Jesus' role as a substitutionary atonement for our personal sins does not seem to have significant theological implications."

I may have spoke too quickly, apparently there is a subtle difference between "expiation" and "propitiation". My friend says the following:

"I have to say that there are some significant theological implications regarding the use of 'propitiation' versus 'expiation' as a translation of hilasmos. Expiation is man-ward and carries the idea of our sins being removed, but propitiation is God-ward and carries the idea of His anger toward us being removed.
Propitiation thus assumes the idea of expiation, but does not mean the
same thing."


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