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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Translating εν Χριστω

Periodically I raise the issue of how the Greek phrase εν Χριστω might be translated accurately to natural English. I'm doing it again. Most English Bible versions transliterate, rather than translate, this phrase as "in Christ." But let's examine whether or not the English language has the construction "in PERSON", where the PERSON is anything other than a true semantic locative.

English syntax clearly includes prepositional constructions with "in" and an object of the preposition that is a location, as in these sentences:
There is a bowl game in New Orleans tonight.

I found a worm in my apple.
It is even possible to use a human as the object of the preposition, if that human is a true location, as in:
The catheter is now in the patient and we can view it on the monitor.

The cancer has spread in Richard.
But I have been unable to think of any English sentence which sounds grammatical where the object of the preposition "in" has the same semantic role as the word "Christ" does in the translation wording "in Christ." Notice how odd the following sentences sound:
The critics of the war are in the prime minister.

Those who are in the president may get a political appointment.
It even sounds odd if we substitute another name for Christ or another member of the trinity, as in:
If Simon is in Jesus he is considered a believer.

Those who were in the Messiah were questioned by those who wanted a national deliverer.

Could you tell me how I can get in God?

Those who are in the Father are also in the Son.
Now, let's try not to shift our language intuitions about what sounds like proper English as we read the exactly parallel syntactic construction using the word "Christ". Do the following sentences sound as grammatically odd as the immediately preceding ones do?
Could you tell me how I get in Christ?

If Simon is in Christ he is considered a believer.

Those who were in Christ were questioned by those who wanted a national deliverer.

If anyone is in Christ everything has become new.
Many of you will recognize that the last sentence is close to the usual translations of 2 Cor. 5:17. Those of us who grew up on Bible-speak (Biblish, Christianese, church language) find it more difficult to recognize (or agree, if you prefer) that saying "in Christ" is not proper English. We have become so familiar with the phrase that it sounds "normal" to us. But I claim that it isn't normal English. I hope that the trail of example sentences that I walked us on earlier in this post can show us that "in PERSON", including "in Christ," is not natural English where PERSON is not a true geographical location.

Is it possible to translate εν Χριστω to English which is both grammatical and natural? I believe that it is. I believe, as a matter of faith perhaps, but faith supported by thousands of examples from hundreds of languages, that it is possible to translate the meaning of any linguistic form of any language to the same meaning using some natural linguistic form of the translation target language.

So the first question must be: What does the Greek phrase εν Χριστω mean? Once we have determined that, the second question is: How do we express that meaning in grammatical, natural English?

Theologians have studied this key Greek phrase and written much about it. Pam Bendor-Samuel, a Bible translation specialist, has, in my opinion, summarized well an important aspect of the meaning of εν Χριστω in her article ‘In Christ’–Another Look At Its Meaning In The NT Using Semantic Role Analysis:
When used of the believer, the implications are that we are, or have, or do, certain things because of the close link or relationship we have with Christ i.e. as ‘Christians’ or as ‘believers in Christ’.
Following are some translations of 2 Cor. 5:17 which express the believer's relationship with Christ, using English syntax which is both grammatical and natural:
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. (NLT2)

If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. (NCV)

Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. (CEV)

Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. (GW: note that "in" is used as a particle here, not a preposition: "believe in" is a verb unit)

And so, if someone is a follower of the Anointed One, they are a fresh creation (The Source)

When someone becomes a Christian he becomes a brand new person inside. (LB)

Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being (TEV)

For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation (REB)

21 Comments:

At Wed Jan 03, 11:52:00 PM, Blogger Ruud Vermeij said...

Wayne, I have a question.

Is the Greek phrase used with other persons than Christ (in N.T. or other Greek literature)?

 
At Thu Jan 04, 06:13:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

My first thought was along the same lines. Would this have sounded like natural Greek grammar to its original audience? I've always gotten the sense that it wouldn't have, and Paul was struggling to find language that expressed what he had in mind, settling for something awkward-sounding because it was so undefined, but that was the best way to capture many elements of what he was thinking. I'll probably put up a post on this with more detail either later today or tomorrow, but if that's right then we're doing Paul a disservice by translating the unnatural form out of it. If it was unnatural-sounding to begin with for a specific reason, trying to make it sound natural in English would actually be bad translation.

 
At Thu Jan 04, 06:38:00 AM, Blogger David said...

I have always understood the phrase to be a figure of speech in some way, perhaps a metonymy or synecdoche. It is (or should be) obvious that the phrase is not to be understood literally. As Ruud and Jeremy indicated, a study of in PN would be informative. Are there instances of, e.g., in Caesar in the literature?

 
At Thu Jan 04, 07:23:00 AM, Blogger Heather said...

I get the feeling that this post is not looking as much at the integrity of the Greek structure but at its rendering into English. So while questions of "in Caesar" are pertinent to our understanding of the Greek meaning, they would not help an everyday reader of the English translation.
I find this post helpful for understanding how to explain this nebulous phrase. I like the TEV "joined to" because of the inference of being part of the body of Christ. Do you know of any translations that reflect the Christus Victor model of the early church in the whole "in Christ" phrase (which, ironically, goes back to the whole "in Caesar" question).

 
At Thu Jan 04, 08:41:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ruud asked:

Is the Greek phrase used with other persons than Christ (in N.T. or other Greek literature)?

Perfect question, as well as the followup comments from others. This is exactly the empirical information we need, to address this translation issue.

I can answer the question for persons other than Christ in the N.T. And any of us can access the Perseus database to search for the answer in extrabiblical Greek.

My hypothesis at this point is that Paul was not making up a new usage for the Greek pronoun en but I want the proof as well. One form of support for my hypothesis is that N.T. authors other than Paul used the en PERSON construction. John used it and he was surely not copying Paul's style. Peter used en Xristw (1 Pet. 3:16; 5:10; 5:14)) and his linguistic background was different from Paul's.

Here are some examples of the Greek form used in the N.T. for persons other than Christ. The semantic roles may vary some from the semantic role i n 2 Cor. 5:17 (which is often called a locative of sphere by Greek scholars), so each example needs to be carefully examined. For instance, John 3:1 and Rom. 22:17 might have instrumental roles:

John 3:21 ἐν Θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα ("(his deeds) have been done in God")

Rom. 2:17 καυχᾶσαι ἐν Θεῷ ("boast in God")

Eph. 3:9 ἀποκεκρυμμένου ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων ἐν τῷ Θεῷ ("hidden for ages in God")

John 10:38 ἵνα γνῶτε καὶ πιστεύσητε ὅτι ἐν ἐμοὶ ὁ πατὴρ κἀγὼ ἐν αὐτῷ ("so that you may know also that the father (is) in me and I (am) in the father")

1 John 2:24 ἐὰν ἐν ὑμῖν μείνῃ ὃ ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς ἠκούσατε, καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε ("if what you have heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will also remain in the son and in the father")

Rom. 16:2 ἵνα αὐτὴν προσδέξησθε ἐν Κυρίῳ ("that you may welcome her in the Lord")

Rev. 14:13 μακάριοι οἱ νεκροὶ οἱ ἐν Κυρίῳ ἀποθνήσκοντες ("happy are the dead who are dying in the Lord")

 
At Fri Jan 05, 03:55:00 AM, Blogger codepoke said...

Yeah. I don't find this line of reasoning very convincing. I don't find Caesar suggesting that he is a vine in whom I should abide. Christ Himself set the stage for this formula.

I will be surprised if the "in XXXXX" formula is not a new invention by the early Christians to describe a spiritual reality that the world had never seen before. Simplifying this new invention out of their writings by reducing "abide in" to "agree with" seems to me like an error of consequence.

 
At Fri Jan 05, 04:47:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, this is an interesting issue which I looked at not long ago in connection with my own translation project. And in that project we in fact decided in most cases to use a rather literal rendering, even though it is probably as unnatural in the target language as "in Christ" is in English. I would like to explain part of the reason why with reference to the arguments you have made. You wrote:

Is it possible to translate εν Χριστω to English which is both grammatical and natural? I believe that it is... that it is possible to translate the meaning of any linguistic form of any language to the same meaning using some natural linguistic form of the translation target language.

So the first question must be: What does the Greek phrase εν Χριστω mean? ...


I agree with your belief here, but with a crucial caveat which I would expect you to agree with. We can translate accurately and naturally each individual occurrence of a linguistic form; but we cannot expect that every occurrence of a linguistic form can be translated in the same way while preserving accuracy and naturalness. That is obvious when we consider words with broad ranges of meaning, which simply cannot be translated concordantly.

So our first question really should be: What does each individual occurrence of the Greek phrase εν Χριστω mean? This is indeed how Pam Bendor-Samuel approaches the issue.

The second question then needs to be this: Do we want to translate all or most occurrences of εν Χριστω in a concordant way? We might want to make an exception of Pam B-S's instrumental uses of the phrase, and examples like "boast in Christ" where the Greek εν goes with the verb in the same way as "in" in "believe in Christ". But we need to recognise that in Paul's letters εν Χριστω is a fixed expression which is provides coherence to Paul's writings and his theology. As such it would be undesirable to lose consistency with it.

We also need to ensure that any rendering is theologically adequate. My own feeling is that "belongs to Christ" (NLT2, NCV, CEV in 2 Corinthians 5:17) is a bit weak. "Joined to Christ" (TEV) or "united to Christ" (REB) is more adequate. And it may be possible to use one of these last two expressions fairly consistently for εν Χριστω. Nevertheless, any such expression is theologically controversial, especially if used regularly, and in theologically sensitive passages like Romans 8 and Ephesians 1.

So we have provisionally decided, in the project I am working on, to stick with a literal rendering, even if this is unnatural and not very meaningful. We would expect readers to gradually come to understand its meaning as they study Paul's letters, perhaps with guidance from their pastors. I rather regret having to take this approach, but it seems to me that with this phrase, as with a few other words and phrases including "baptism", this is the only safe approach which ensures that a translation is acceptable to all audiences.

 
At Fri Jan 05, 05:20:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Wayne, I don't think the fact that both John and Paul use it means that there's a general semitic phrase that they both were relying on. If it was common parlance in early Christianity, perhaps because Jesus himself used it (as John's translation/commentary on Jesus, which may or may not reflect Jesus' sentence structure at all, does) or because certain apostles initiated it early on, or because Paul or John influenced the other, then we have an explanation why it is common in the NT. What we would need is a study of extra-biblical materials, indeed extra-Christian materials. Did the Stoics use it? We do have "in him we live and move and have our being" from Epimenides (I believe), and if that sort of expression was more common and as diverse as Paul and John's usage of this sort of expression, then I think your case can be made. But short of that kind of evidence, I would assume that this was new in Christianity.

 
At Fri Jan 05, 06:05:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

In my opinion, most English translations of 2 Cor.5:17 still aren't very clear. What does it mean to "belong to Christ", to be "joined to Christ" or "united to Christ"? The Source translation makes more sense by using the expression "follower". The Better Life Bible renders the idea this way: "The more we follow Jesus' example, the more God will help us improve our attitude and behavior."

 
At Fri Jan 05, 07:08:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter said:

I agree with your belief here, but with a crucial caveat which I would expect you to agree with. We can translate accurately and naturally each individual occurrence of a linguistic form; but we cannot expect that every occurrence of a linguistic form can be translated in the same way while preserving accuracy and naturalness.

Peter, you were right that I agree with you. I would not expect to translate en xristw concordantly, since it has different meanings in different contexts.

The approach your translation team took for its language was the first option that Pam suggests, although she recognizes, as you and I both do, that it has communication difficulties.

I'm just trying to raise the question of whether or not it is possible to translate en xristw accurately, meaningfully, and naturally in English, in spite of centuries of transliteration. I *believe* that the answer is yes and I believe that we would spiritually benefit from using such a translation, since we would better understand this rich and precious concept of being en xristw.

 
At Fri Jan 05, 07:11:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy ended:

But short of that kind of evidence, I would assume that this was new in Christianity.

Your assumption is reasonable, Jeremy. So is a starting assumption that it was not new in Christianity. Either assumption is reasonable. I'd rather not assume either, but go to the extrabiblical and extrachristian literature and find the answer first, if it can be found. It would make a good thesis for someone's degree program, wouldn't it?

Thanks for your helpful comments.

 
At Fri Jan 05, 07:16:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Simplifying this new invention out of their writings by reducing "abide in" to "agree with" seems to me like an error of consequence.

I agree. I think "abide in me" is richer than just "agree with me." So we need to ask ourselves: What does "abide in me" mean, and how might we express that meaning in natural English? I would *think* that something like any of the following would come close to expressing its meaning in natural English:

"Live totally focused on me"
"Maintain an intimate relationship with me"
"Cultivate a close relationship with me"

 
At Fri Jan 05, 05:15:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Thanks, Wayne.

I would *think* that something like any of the following would come close to expressing its meaning in natural English:

I would be willing to consider such a set of translations as you put up, but I would need serious convincing. Eph 1 seems to suggest that we were in some way actually in Christ before anything was created. That's dramatically different from being focused on Him to any degree.

Paul's whole theology seems to revolve around the fact that we were in Christ before we were born, and that now that we are born again, we are in Him again. I take this as a mystical thing, not just a matter of increased dedication.

Your "translation" is really a massive "reinterpretation" to my eyes. Before I can accept it, I need to see why Paul cannot mean exactly what he is saying. Greek contains numerous ways for Paul to say we need to be in stronger relationship to Christ, but Paul avoids those.

I think the burden of proof here is on downgrading this phrase.

 
At Sat Jan 06, 06:30:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Codepoke, I agree with you that being "in Christ" means more than just agreeing with him, following him, being devoted to him etc, even than cultivating a close relationship with him. It means that we have a close relationship with him, but more even than that.

It seems to me that the whole idea is best summed up by, and may in fact originate with, John 15. Those who are "in Christ" are those who are branches of the vine. They don't become branches of the vine by agreeing with the vine or following it, even by being tied on to it, but only by being grafted into it (compare Romans 11). Nor do they cease to become branches by what they do, but only by being cut off.

The imagery is also similar to Paul's of Christians being body parts of Christ - an image which is largely lost with the English translation "members", because in modern English this refers more to members of a club than to body parts. Paul explicitly links his body parts metaphor with "in Christ" in Romans 12:5.

I'm not sure I would agree that this is "mystical", but it is a matter of our spiritual status and position, not our behaviour and attitude.

So I would suggest a rendering that fits the relationship of a branch to a tree or a limb to a body. "Joined to Christ" is the best I can immediately think of, or perhaps "connected to Christ" or "attached to Christ". I did wonder whether such renderings are ruled out because they contradict the inequality implied by "in", but then John 15:4 implies that the relationship of being "in" is mutual between Christ and ourselves - paradoxically, rather like the mutual submission of Ephesians 5:21.

I can agree with Dan that it sounds a bit strange to say that people are "joined to Christ", but then this whole concept is strange to modern secular humanity, and cannot be watered down to simply following Christ.

Wayne, thank you for answering part of my point. But you don't answer the point that some kind of consistency is important for such a theologically significant phrase, a recurring theme in the NT. I don't think we should allow it to be translated piecemeal. We can only "understand this rich and precious concept" if we first realise that it is a concept, and not just a diverse collection of slightly similar phrases. But if we can use a regular (if not 100% consistent) rendering like "joined to Christ", then we can clarify the unity of the concept. I think this would work. Indeed it was my preference for our translation project, but I was overruled by those who felt that a literal rendering was clear enough and more accurate.

 
At Sat Jan 06, 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Peter said:

"I can agree with Dan that it sounds a bit strange to say that people are "joined to Christ", but then this whole concept is strange to modern secular humanity, and cannot be watered down to simply following Christ."

Following Christ involves making every effort to speak and act as Jesus did, every moment of every day. I personally don't find that very simple or easy, even with God's help.

 
At Sat Jan 06, 11:25:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Dan, I didn't mean to imply that following Christ is easy. It isn't. But it is a relatively simple concept to understand, if not to put into practice. Being "in Christ" is something more profound, certainly in Paul's and John's theologies.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 04:26:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Peter, You may be right about the profundity of being "in Christ", but I doubt that Paul and John intended it to be obscure. If it consists of more than following Jesus' example, what else did they intend to convey?

 
At Mon Jan 08, 10:50:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, Dan, in my opinion they intended to convey that people are joined, connected or attached to Christ, obviously not literally but in such a way that nothing can separate them from Christ (cf Romans 8:38-39). I realise that you might not agree with my theology here - and indeed I wouldn't want to argue for entirely unconditional "perseverance of the saints". But it seems to me that this is Paul's theology.

How to put this point in a natural way is of course another matter.

Meanwhile Jeremy has posted on this topic.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 05:06:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Thanks, Peter. I just noticed that the heading for Romans 8:31-39 in the NKJV is "God's Everlasting Love". I tend to agree that the focus of this section is on God's love (as Jesus demonstrated it). I've tried to reflect that in my condensed translation of this section:

"Jesus demonstrated that God cares about everyone. It doesn't matter whether we are followers or leaders, powerful or weak, enjoying life as God intended or still living a miserable, self-centered life. Although Jesus was executed for clarifying how we should care about others, he lives on through us when we help those who are having a hard time, who need food or clothing, or who are on the verge of death, as one of God's spokesmen echoed long ago."

 
At Mon Jan 08, 08:46:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

I wrote this without looking at the other comments here - and after reading them, this isn't all that new - but I'll post it anyway.

Interesting post Wayne, it is thought provoking.

Is the Greek word εν ever used with another proper noun than Christ (this was asked, and in the Bible I found one place it is used with the Spirit [Rom. 8:9])?

I believe there might be more theological significance to the phrase than you grant and that by translating the phrase as “follower of Christ”, “united to Christ” or something of that sort looses that perspective. The Bible uses the term for follower, and united in other places, but I believe “in Christ” is another way to say the same thing, in a way, but different in that it gives a picture of a different sort. Could it actually be a literal “in” as I would say, “I am in the car”? I am in Christ and Christ is in me. No, you wouldn't say that about someone else really, but this is talking about God and is theological in nature.

We are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.

“However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”
(Romans 8:9 NASB)

“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”
(1 John 4:12-13 NASB)

“And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”
(1 John 5:20 NASB)

“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
(Romans 8:1 NASB)

“Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace be to you all who are in Christ.”
(1 Peter 5:14 NASB)

Just some thoughts.

-Nathan

 
At Sun Jan 21, 06:45:00 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

What if we don't presume a figure of speech (sorry David)?

That is, what if "in Christ" describes (in literal terms) the end result of being placed in (er, "baptized into" for all you transliterators) Christ by the Holy Spirit?

Our union with Christ is not figurative language, it is a critical reality that Paul teaches (in Romans esp.) is the very foundation of our freedom from sin's dominion. It is because we are in Christ that we were on the cross with Him - and there God poured out his wrath upon us - though just as Noah didn't experience the wrath of God being inside the ark - so too, we who are in Christ did not experience the wrath poured out upon our sin. It is our union with Christ, our being "in" Him that saved us. Likewise when Christ was laid in the grave, we were in Him and as such were literally dead just as he was - and when God raised Christ from the dead we were in Christ.

That is why we rejoice in the resurrection - because we look to it and remember that we were in Christ when God raised Him - that is, God demonstrated that we are acceptable to Him now (in the Beloved), by raising us up with Christ. We -know- emperically that our sin has been dealt with eternally - and it is by reckoning these truths to be so that we appropriate freedom from sin's dominion - knowing that Christ died to provide not only our justification through the imputation of His own righteousness, but also to free us -in the here and now- from sins dominion (c.f. Romans 6:6).

All believers are "in Christ", but not all believers understand that being in Christ is the means to our sanctification. Failure to comprehend at this point results in carnal efforts to sanctify one's self, and I confess to my own shame that I have had my share of trying to suppress sin in my own strength - and failing no matter how many temporal, momentary victories I seemed to have. I was so blind brothers - my tree was always producing the sin of fruit, but I thought that by nipping the fruit in the bud I was doing my Christian duty. I thought that by railing against the bitter water that was bubbling up from within I was in fact seeing sweet water - but that was my delusion, and I was in good company in that delusion - all of us lamenting together that this was all there was.

Sigh.

I didn't see that every other religion in the world deals with their sin in that way - suppressionism, trying to find the "motive" that works for you - but no matter what, ultimately the leopard cannot change his own spots no matter how he dresses himself up. No, until one understands that "in Christ" is a literal thing, they haven't the first idea what genuine sanctification looks like.

Anyway, I have probably said enough already. ;-)

 

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