Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

lamb_thumbThe Cross of Christ is never described as a propitiation in the NT. At least not using hilas-. That’s the conclusion we’re going to come to at the end of this study. Just letting you know in advance – if you don’t want to come to that conclusion you might want to stop reading now.

When we turn to the NT, there are only a handful of instances where the apostles use the hilas- word group. This scarcity should give us pause. If the term is so vital for understanding the Cross, as is often claimed, then it is strange that it is used so rarely. I would suggest that on the contrary these occurrences of hilas are not intended to do the heavy lifting of our atonement theology. Rather they provide one metaphor among many in the apostolic vocabulary of atonement.

Let’s take a look at the few occurrences there are in the NT.

In Luke 18:13 the tax collector in Jesus’ parable says ‘God be hilaskomai for me a sinner’. Here God is the one acted on by the passive verb. Propitiation would seem to be in view. ‘God let your anger be turned away from me.’

In Hebrews 9:5 hilasterion is the mercy seat, a piece of Levitical furniture.

The other four occurrences refer more clearly to Jesus, and are of particular interest to us.

In Hebrews 2:17 the high priest is chosen ‘to hilaskesthai the sins of the people.’ Here we have a sacrificial context, and no personal direct object for the verb. God is not acted on: the sins are. This is the typical Levitical usage (see previous post): no surprise in a letter like Hebrews! Cleansing is in view.

In 1 John 2:2 we read “and Jesus Christ is the hilasmos concerning our sins”. The context is sacrificial: a few verses earlier we read:

“and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin… If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will release from us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Here we have cleansing through blood sacrifice: a Levitical context. In keeping with this setting the hilasmos is directed not at God but at our sins: “He is the hilasmos concerning our sins.” An expiatory sense is indicated. The other occurrence in 1 John 4:10 is very similar. God is not pictured here as alienated and needing to be placated, but rather as overflowing with love and goodwill. In his goodness he provides us with a hilasmos, a sacrifice to put away sin.

In both these instances John sees hilasmos as an ongoing reality: Jesus, post-resurrection, is now our cleansing.

The last occurrence is Romans 3:25: “whom God set forth as a hilasterion through faith, by his blood…” This comes at a pivotal moment in Romans. This is the verse usually made to bear most weight in the case for the Cross as a propitiation.

It is also extremely difficult to translate. Paul has compacted many concepts and images into a single sentence: this is not Paul at his clearest! It’s a pity to hang too much of your theology on such an opaque sentence. Let’s have a go at understanding it.

This passage in Romans is absolutely dripping with OT references. We are deep in Scripture territory here: in the past four verses Paul has referenced the law of Moses (twice), the prophets and redemption – all classic OT themes. Now in v.25 he pictures God as setting forth a blood offering. The verb protitheimi is a standard term for making certain sorts of offering in the LXX Torah, especially the showbread. We are in a traditional Hebrew context here: try to imagine Paul speaking with a thick Jewish accent!

The offering which God sets forth here is a blood offering. It is his Son, Christ, who is set forth as crucified.

Paul invites us to consider Jesus’ death in the light of a Levitical offering or sacrifice. But Paul does not use the metaphor with strict precision. For one thing, protitheimi is not normally used of blood offerings. Also here God himself provides the offering. This is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah, where Yahweh provides the sacrifice in place of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Paul adds one further word to complete his picture: God sets Christ forth as a hilasterion in blood. This word hilasterion is the word we are investigating. Some evangelical scholars tell us it should be translated ‘propitiation.’ But this is curious, because hilasterion never refers to propitiation in the LXX version of the OT. In secular Greek usage the word could be used to mean this. But it is hard to believe that in this hyper-Jewish context, Paul would go against the traditional Jewish meaning and import one from a foreign context. We would do better to exhaust all other options for interpretations before settling for such an unlikely solution.

In Levitical usage this word always refers to the mercy seat, the cover over the ark which relates to atonement. It is the place where blood is sprinkled on the day of atonement, i.e. it is part of the sacrificial system. Given the sacrificial context Paul has created, we cannot help thinking of this mercy seat and day of atonement when he uses hilasterion here. Probably he is suggesting that we should understand what happened with Jesus’ blood in those terms: as a kind of day of atonement event.

As we have seen (in the previous post), this Levitical imagery has little to do with propitiation and everything to do with cleansing.

However, Paul handles his images quite loosely. For in the Levitical system it is supposed to be the offering, not the mercy seat, that is set forth. It is set forth (at least the blood is) on the mercy seat. But Paul says ‘God set forth the mercy seat’Perhaps in this highly compact sentence he is using a kind of shorthand, eliding and condensing ideas, leaving out connecting words. If we were to expand it, it might read:

…whom God set forth to be our day-of-atonement offering, altar and mercy seat, through his blood shed for us at the cross.

So how should we translate this term hilasterion in Romans 3:25?

If we are right about Paul’s shorthand approach, then it’s not going to be easy to translate it. But if we pull back and look at the whole sentence, the sense is clear enough:

“The righteous salvation of God has been revealed for both Jew and Gentile, and it has come apart from the Mosaic law. For Jew and Gentile are on the same footing, as sinners deprived of the life of God. But now they are put right and rescued from that sin and guilt freely through Jesus Christ. God set him forth instead of altar, ark or sacrifice, as the place where our sins are taken away. Jesus’ blood, not that of animals, cleanses sinners. It cleanses all who place their trust in him, observance of the law notwithstanding.”

This is a paraphrase. How would we do a stricter translation of Romans 3:25? I would probably still paraphrase slightly:

“whom God set forth as a place of atonement through faith, by his blood…”

It doesn’t yield its meaning immediately, does it. But then, neither does Paul’s Greek version, so that’s ok by me. Really, there is no good translation of this difficult verse. Sorry.

I think the NRSV and NIV do pretty well here, reading ‘as a sacrifice of atonement’. The Holman’s reading, ‘as a propitiation’, is without linguistic justification.


We’ve done a pretty simple word-study of ‘hilas-‘ in Scripture, using some of the basic tools of lexical semantics: circles of context, fields of meaning, buddy words, semantic range (for more on these, see Post 3). All these tools were well understood by the 1960s when Morris was doing his work. They’re not hard to use. They protect us from committing a whole bunch of exegetical fallacies. In this case they have also yielded a clear result to our inquiries.

What have we found?

In the four cases where the hilas- word-group is applied to Jesus, it is used in a Levitical context, and should be given the Levitical sense of ‘cleansing’. We have found no instances in the NT where hilas- is used to describe the Cross as a ‘propitiation.’ This is consistent with the NT view of the atonement, that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). He does not need to be propitiated: he is the one doing the reconciling! It is us who need to change.

Giving a nod back to the place we started from – the idea that propitiation-terms describing the cross are evidence for a Satisfaction Theory of the atonement – we can say, this is not true of the hilas- word-group.

confess(In the previous post we began our assessment of the work of Leon Morris on the word ‘propitiation’. Here’s the rest.)

Next Morris turns to hilasmos. He concludes once again that ‘whenever’ it means forgiveness the circumstances indicate the turning away of divine wrath.

One example should be enough to test the quality of this conclusion. In Psalm 130, we read ‘but there is forgiveness with you’. The context celebrates God’s loving orientation towards Israel. He does not mark their sins but will instead redeem them from them all. It would seem that God’s wrath is far from view in this Psalm. But no, Morris finds propitiation implied even here: “the word occurs in a context of trouble.” That’s it, that’s the proof. Did you catch it? The writer is facing troubles: a clear statement of God’s wrath(!) Apparently God has marked the psalmist’s sins after all. And not only is God’s wrath here: for Morris the turning away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ implied by this context of trouble.

It seems there is no context where Morris cannot find the idea of God’s wrath being turned away. I suppose he might say the whole Bible is such a context – in which case every word in it must necessarily speak of propitiation! In any case, Morris’s approach makes the business of considering individual examples of usage pretty pointless: we know what the outcome will always be.

Next is hileos. Morris’s comment on Deuteronomy 21:8 is revealing. The context is all about the removal of guilt in case of murder. Clearly expiation is in view. The elders are to sacrifice a heifer and say, “Do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain upon your people.” There is no mention here of wrath or punishment. In spite of this, Morris detects it: “It is difficult to interpret this other than as a propitiatory rite.” Why is that? Why could it not be, say, an expiatory rite? No reasons are given. In fact we already know that Morris has ruled out the category of simple expiation a priori. Actually one gets the feeling that this comment of Morris’s pretty much sums up his approach to studying the usage of the hilas– word-group: he finds it difficult to seriously consider interpretations other than propitiatory ones. If so, this tells us about Morris – but not about hileos.

The real test for Morris comes with exilaskomai.  For the word is mainly used in Leviticus, in a cultic context. But in Leviticus there is no mention, no suggestion of God’s wrath: the focus is always on the removal of sin or guilt. In fact the book is remarkable for omitting this common OT idea, the wrath of God. In this cultic sphere, the category is apparently absent.

You might think it would be difficult to find propitiatory ideas, then, in this Levitical term, exilaskomai. But I think by now you’ll have guessed that Morris finds them. Here’s how he does it: there are a handful of occurrences of exilaskomai outside this cultic context. He decides that this reflects the normal usage of the word, and that the huge number of cultic occurances are the exceptional usage. Ok…

He calls these few non-cultic occurrences “what the verb means in itself quite apart from the conventional use of the cultus.” He then demonstrates to his own satisfaction that these few occurrences allow of a propitiatory interpretation. The next step is to let these few non-cultic occurrences to control the meaning of the term when found in a cultic context: they ‘give us the key to the understanding of the cultic references.’ They become in effect the tail that wags the dog. They force a propitiatory meaning onto the Levitical usage.

This is Morris at his worst. As we have pointed out elsewhere, this idea of an intrinsic meaning in a word ‘in and of itself’ apart from context and usage, this has been thoroughly discredited by a century of lexical semantics by now. Usage and context are the keys to word meaning. For Morris to extract the word from its cultic setting in order to pin down its ‘real’ meaning apart from all the distractions of context, is naive. To then reimport this meaning into the cultic usage, is to commit the ‘illegitimate identity transfer’ which James Barr complained was such a common error among biblical scholars. A word’s meaning in one context cannot determine its meaning in a very different context.

In fact, words take on different meanings in different settings. Especially in a technical setting like the Levitical instructions, a word could easily have a special meaning. The legitimate way to discover that meaning is to look at Levitical usage. Simple. But that yields an ‘expiation’ result…

At the end of this chapter studying the OT usage of the hilas- word-group, Morris summarises his position beautifully: “When we reach the stage where we must say ‘When the LXX translators used “propitiation” they did not mean propitiation’, it is surely time to call a halt. No sensible man uses one word when he means another.” This would seem to be a conclusive argument – if the LXX was using ‘propitiation’. But that is precisely what Morris is attempting to prove. What this sums up so clearly is that Morris has all along been assuming the meaning of the word in order to prove that assumption. He might as well say, “It must mean propitiation, because that’s what it means.” We might remember that he began his discussion with this same argument. This silliness does nothing to advance our understanding of the hilas- group.

Such large-scale and persistent methodological flaws and follies as we have identified render Morris’s work of little value as a contribution to the study of the hilas word-group. The fact is that neither he, nor the ‘authorities’ he adduces, seem to understood how to employ the disciplines of modern lexical semantics (the science of studying words).

Sadly the evangelical constituency for which he was writing had even less understanding of these things than he did, and so were easily impressed by the appearance of scholarship. I for one grew up on this diet, being assured that “it has now been settled by the best scholars that this word means ‘propitiation’”. It is distressing to revisit this from a linguistic point of view, and find such poor quality work. I come away from this review feeling that the Christian community deserved better from a scholar they trusted so much.

In summary, pretty much everyone agrees that the idea of ‘expiation’ is central to in LXX usage of the hilas- word-group. Morris has argued that propitiatory ideas are also to the fore whenever this root is used. But he has not produced convincing evidence for this. The best we could say is, he has shown from the usage that ‘propitiation’ is sometimes in view in some of the terms studied. But in other hilas- words – in particular those connected with the Levitical sacrifices – there is no evidence of ‘propitiation’.

Is the Cross a Propitiation?

Posted: September 1, 2015 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Theology

leonmorris_narrowweb__300x3670(This post started life as an appendix to our series on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. But it’s outgrown that place, so I’ve promoted it to the status of a series in its own right.)

We’re following up the word most often adduced to lend support to Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word-group. The claim is that it means ‘propitiation’, which is an ST kind of term.

So what does ‘hilas-’ actually mean?

Let’s take a look this word-group: does it mean ‘propitiation’? The most famous exponent of the ‘hilas- means propitiation’ view is evangelical scholar Leon Morris. ST subscribers, when pushed, will tend to fall back on Morris’s authority. Let’s take a look at his work on this word.

Morris on Propitiation

Morris devotes two chapters to ‘propitiation’ in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross: one on the OT and one on the NT. We will confine our critique to the first chapter, on ‘propitiation in the OT’.

Morris has titled his chapter Propitiation, but it’s actually structured as a study of the hilas- group: so we might be forgiven for thinking we’re dealing with a foregone conclusion about the meaning of ‘hilas-’. I think we’d have to call this a bad sign.

In his introduction Morris tells us he will exclude some occurrences of the word-group hilas- from his study, on the basis that they don’t refer to the cross! Apparently we are only studying occurrences that help describe the cross: i.e. we are trying to build a theological concept from this word. Morris tells us that though the word occurs few times in the NT, ‘We should not dismiss the concept as unimportant, for the idea is often present where this particular terminology is absent, e.g. in passages dealing with the wrath of God’ (p.144 my italics). Next Morris calls propitiation a ‘category’. It seems we have a concept in our sights, not a term.

After this introduction, Morris proceeds as though he’s doing a word study of the hilas- word group. So are we studying a theological concept, or a word? James Barr identified as a fundamental problem in word studies of the bible, this very confusion between studying terms and studying concepts. Morris ignores Barr’s warning, and never manages to clarify which one he’s studying. He builds this methodological confusion into his deep structure. Effectively we’re doing theology through word study. Which, as we saw last post, is a Bad Thing.

Morris begins with pagan/classical usage. The word-group means ‘to appease or placate’. “Hilasmos is the means of appeasing God or of averting his anger.” Morris concludes that ‘when a first century greek heard the words of this group, there would be aroused in his mind thoughts of propitiation.’ Morris doesn’t arrive at this conclusion by doing any actual word study: he simply relies on the opinions of ‘authorities’ such as Dodd and Moulton.

Next Morris cites Dodd’s opinion that the Scripture usage is different from the pagan usage: cleansing not propitiation is intended in both LXX and NT. Morris has two objections to this:

1. If the Scripture authors wanted to say ‘cleansing’ why did they use the word for ‘propitiation’?

This is of course a nonsense, assuming his conclusion in order to prove it. The question of what the word means has not yet been settled, Dr Morris: that’s why you’re studying it, remember!

Morris’s second objection is:

2. Dodd rejects the whole idea of the wrath of God, and thus prefers ‘cleansing’ for theological reasons. I.e. his view is biased by non-linguistic considerations. There follows an extended digression on the wrath of God in Scripture. Morris does not explain why this is here. One can only infer that by countering Dodd’s theology, Morris thinks he has countered his assertions about the word-group ‘hilas-’. Now we are doing word-study through theology! Once again the confusion of word-study and concept study muddies everything, producing this lengthy, confused digression.

Having done as much as possible to pre-judge the question of what these words mean, Morris now finally turns to looking at usage in Scripture.


Morris starts with hilaskomai. He acknowledges that “the Hebrew verb it translates conveys thoughts like ‘forgive’.” But he qualifies this: “if the particular forgiveness or purging of sin is one which involves as a necessary feature the putting away of the divine wrath” then propitiatory ideas can be seen still present in the term. Pay attention to that sentence: it’s going to get a work-out before long.

It turns out that Morris discovers ‘the putting away of God’s wrath’ as a necessary feature pretty often. On Psalm 65:3, where there is no mention of wrath in the entire psalm, Morris nevertheless concludes: “The context tells us that ‘words of lawless men have overpowered us’, and once more we see the kind of thing which would naturally be associated with divine wrath” . And apparently Morris can deduce from this that ‘putting away’ of that wrath is also in view here. Note that none of the terminology of wrath or putting away is present in Psalm 65. Yet Morris finds this is an example of the situation he posited, where putting away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ of the forgiveness in view. This is remarkable exegesis, to say the least.

How does Morris know that wrath is in view here? He tells us how: ‘lawless men’ would naturally be associated with divine wrath. In other words his criterion for discovering propitiation as a ‘necessary feature’ of a text, is that the text have some sort of evil in view. That’s all that’s needed. It turns out that for Morris, whenever anything to do with sin is in view, this is evidence that ‘putting away God’s wrath’ is implied.

Let’s get this straight. The question we’re pursuing is, does hilaskomai mean ‘cleanse’ (following Dodd) or ‘propitiate’? Both meanings are about sin. But ‘cleanse’ is about the sinner, while ‘propitiate’ is about the placating of God. However, Morris’s approach in Psalm 65 is that if sin is in view nearby, wrath is implied, and if wrath is implied, the turning away of God’s wrath is implied. And so if the word hilaskomai occurs in that context the meaning is necessarily propitiatory. Did you notice the trick here? For Morris, hilaskomai cannot possibly mean just ‘cleanse’. Because ‘cleanse’ always involves sin. In other words one of the two options is being ruled out a priori. In effect we are presented with a foregone conclusion. While maintaining the appearance of studying word usage, usage is not allowed to affect the result. Indeed Morris gets his result in spite of the apparent lack of propitiatory language in the context where hilaskomai occurs. Psalm 65 is an example of this, but he does it in case after case.

Con Campbell’s Greek breakthroughs

Posted: February 20, 2015 by J in Bible, Linguistics

advances-in-the-studyMuch nonsense is foisted on the church in the name of ‘greek grammar’. Think of all the rubbish about the aorist tense we’ve heard from preachers over the past 50 years. The man in the pew doesn’t stand a chance, he can’t tell truth from error when it comes to ‘what does the greek say?’

Sadly I found a similar thing going on at Bible college, where many myths and pet views were sustained by dodgy exegesis of the greek text.

The thing is, there has been a lot of work done in the past generation or so to advance our understanding of how the Koine Greek works. Real progress has been made.

And sadly much of it has been ignored by pastors, preachers, college lecturers, NT commentators. Etc.

Con Campbell is at the forefront of recent scholarship on Greek grammar and syntax. He has been especially influential in the area of verbal aspect. Which gets a chapter in this book. He knows his stuff well. He has a good sense of what these recent insights have to offer and of where they challenge our traditional reading approach.

I know because I did his course at college, and I learned a lot. I use the stuff I learned all the time. Couldn’t do without it.

Now he’s turned it into a book. Good on him.

Are you using the greek NT? Read this book. Get yourself up to date. It’s a real eye-opener. And it’s not hard to read. Con writes in an accessible style.

Out of Con’s books, this is the first one to get. Check it out here:

And those of you who know Con, check out the new accent! 😉

And when the angels left them and went back into heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Well, let’s go across to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which Yahweh has told us.” And they hurried and found both Mariam and Joseph, and the baby lying in the feeding-trough. And seeing it, they recounted the message spoken to them about this child. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had to say to them. But Mariam treasured up all these words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.

And when eight days were completed, at his circumcision his name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.  

And when the days for their cleansing were completed following the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to Yahweh, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb will be called holy to the Lord”, and to make an offering in keeping with what is stated in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Chapter 2

It happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first census to occur while Quirinius was governing Syria. And everyone was travelling to enrol, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth to Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem – for he was of the house and lineage of David – to enrol with Mariam his betrothed who was pregnant. And it happened while they were there that the days were completed for her to give birth and she bore a son, her firstborn, and wrapped him and laid him in a feeding-trough, for there was no place for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds in that region camping out and keeping guard over their flock in the night. And an angel of the Lord stood before them and the shining glory of the Lord surrounded them, and they were gripped by terror. And the angel said to them, “Fear not! For I am announcing to you good news of great joy which will be for all the people. For born to you today is a Saviour who is Messiah Lord in the city of David. And this will be for you the sign: you will find the child wrapped and lying in a feeding-trough.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a huge host of the army of heaven, praising God and saying

Glory in the highest to God!
and on earth, peace among the people of his favour!

Gains? Generally a streamlined, faster pace with simpler syntax. This emphasises how the birth narrative is raced through quickly, in barest summary form, no lingering on details. Then the pace slows down for the shepherds’ scene, we get details, emotions, etc.

There’s a nice bit of ambiguity in the greek for ‘born to you today is a Saviour who is Messiah Lord in the city of David.’ Is he born in the city of David? Or is he Lord in the city of David – since he is Messiah? Which city is the city of David anyway? Thus the whole issue of Jerusalem and its relation to Messiah is introduced here obliquely. But it will come to dominate the narrative.

And for Elizabeth the time was completed for childbearing and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy in her, and they rejoiced with her. And it happened on the eighth day that they went to circumcise the child and they were about to name him with his father’s name – Zechariah. And his mother answered and said “No, but he will be called John.” 

And they said to her “No one from your relations is called by that name.” And they hand-signed to his father, what would he like to call him? 

And calling for a writing tablet he wrote “John is his name”. And they all marvelled. And his mouth was released at once, and his tongue, and he spoke blessing God. And fear came upon all who lived nearby to them. And in all the hill country of Judea all these things were talked about. And all who heard it stored it in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child become?” For clearly the hand of the Lord was with him. 

And Zechariah his father was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied saying,

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
for he has visited and worked redemption for his people 
And he has raised a horn of salvation for us 
in the house of David, child of his
Just as he spoke through the mouths of his holy prophets of old:
salvation from our foes and from the hand of all who hate us
Keeping faithful love with our fathers
and remembering his holy covenant,
The oath he swore to Abraham our father
to grant that without fear, from the hand of foes set free
We might serve in sanctity and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you as well, my child, ‘the Most High’s prophet’ will be called
for you will go ahead before the face of the Lord
to make ready his paths
To give knowledge of salvation to his people
through release of their sins
By the bowels of compassion of our God
in which the dawning from on high will visit us
To shine upon the ones in darkness and death’s shadow sitting,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

And the child grew up and became strong in the Spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.


Gains here?

Luke highlights the change of character and scene by putting  ‘for Elizabeth’ upfront here. We follow his syntax to preserve the highlighting effect.

The vividness of the semi-direct speech  ‘what would he like to call him?’ is lost in our normal translations. Zech’s confirmation of the name chosen is emphasised by emphatic syntax: ‘John is his name.’

In the song, Zech emphasises ‘without fear’ by bringing it to the front of the statement: ‘to grant that, without fear…’. This is lost in most translations, which bury ‘without fear’ as a subordinate clause qualifying ‘serve him’. In fact it functions more powerfully here, as a frame or context, a new way of life within which that service takes place.

‘Sanctity’ here captures something of the priestly imagery of this priest’s song: God’s people serving before his altar. It also avoids using ‘holiness’, the word used above for ‘the prophets of old’. It’s a different word in greek, so we don’t want a false echo here.

The ‘bowels of compassion’ is a confronting image for the modern reader. The Hebrews thought of compassion as originating in the intestinal region. Worth noticing that, don’t you think? Kind of sticks with you, too. These visceral, bodily metaphors are typical of Hebrew language and especially poetry. They give Luke’s text a very Jewish feel. Pity to erase them.

Given that this is Luke, and refers to John the B, it is unthinkable to translate ekrataiouvto pneumati as ‘strong in spirit’. Worse still is the Holman, ‘spiritually strong’! The grammar would allow ‘strong in spirit’ or ‘strong in the Spirit.’ But we’ve already had it impressed on us that it’s the Holy Spirit that John will be filled with (1:14-17). Translators should pay attention to the story: it helps in avoiding egregious errors of this sort.

Mary’s song: Luke 1

Posted: August 20, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Continuing our new translation of Luke inspired by Robert Alter’s approach to translating the OT:


And rising, Mariam journeyed in those days to the hill country, going with haste to a town of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard Maria’s greeting, that the infant leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she called out with a mighty shout and said:

Blessed are you among women
And blessed the fruit of your womb!

“And whence this honour to me, that the mother of my lord should come to me? For look! as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child leapt for joy in my womb. And blessed is she who believed that the things told her by the Lord would come to fulfilment.”

And Mariam said,

My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit is made glad in God my Saviour
For he has taken notice of the wretchedness of his slave-girl
for look! from now on ‘blessed’ will all the generations name me
For the mighty one has done great things for me
and holy is his name
And his mercy is from generation to generation
for those who fear him
He has worked power with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart
He has taken down rulers from their thrones
and raised up the wretched;
The hungry he has filled with goods
and the rich sent away empty
He has succoured Israel his child,
remembering mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers
to Abraham and his seed
for all ages.

And Mariam remained with her three months and then returned home. 



Once again the pace of the narrative is fast, the paratactic structure (‘and…and…and‘) driving the action forward with few pauses. This makes it a racy read.

That means the songs come as a definite gear shift: we all stop and reflect on the meaning and the feelings generated by the action. In fact, after the breathless narrative, the songs come as a welcome change of pace, a chance to catch our breath. That’s different from our normal translations where the songs often feel like they’re ‘in the way’ of the story unfolding.

Elizabeth’s words are stylised and a bit archaic, reflecting Luke’s greek. She is prophesying like a prophet of old, and the style boosts the sense of authority in her words.

Mary’s song is in the typical psalm-style of the LXX, very much like Hannah’s song in 1 Sam. 2. It is chock full of Hebrew-style parallelisms: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord/and my spirit is made glad in God my Saviour’. Once again she calls herself his ‘slave-girl’, emphasising her identification with the ‘wretched’ category in her song.

We have used a more ‘poetic’ syntax in the song, allowing us for e.g. to bring out the emphasised contrast in ‘the hungry…and the rich…’ – normally lost in translation.

Luke 1: 26-38

And the people were awaiting Zechariah, and they began to marvel at his delay in the sanctuary. And when he came out he could not speak to them, and they understood that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. And he could only gesture to them, and remained mute. And so it was, when his days of temple-service were complete, he went home.

And after those days Elizabeth his wife conceived, and she confined herself five months, saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me, in the days when he looked upon me to take away my disgrace among the people.”

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to the Galilean town named Nazareth, to a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary. And coming near her, he said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But at this word she startled and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel told her,

Fear not, Mary, 
for you have found favour with God,
And look! you will conceive within your womb 
and bear a son
And you will call his name Jesus.
This one will mighty be,
and ‘Son of the Most High’ will he be called.
And the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for all ages
and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since no man have I known?”

And the angel answered her, saying,

The Holy Breath will come upon you
and the power of the Most High overshadow;
And so the holy one born will be called Son of God.

“And look, Elizabeth your relation, even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who is called ‘barren’. For nothing shall be impossible with God.”

And Mary said “Here stands the slave-girl of the Lord. Amen, let it be for me according to your word.” And the angel left her.

What gains are there here?

Elizabeth’s speech actually sounds Jewish. That’s nice. The introduction of Mary occurs in a long, fast-paced sentence, very paratactic. A lot of intro in one breath!

There is the more sensory, aural effect of ‘At this word she startled’  – being greeted by an angel was scarey! There is the concrete bodily imagery of ‘conceive within your womb’ – politely excised by the Holman.

The song brings out the many parallelisms and verse pairings so typical of Jewish poetry: you will conceive/and bear a son. It ends with a triple parallel.

The one line of the poem that doesn’t have a parallel is the naming of the child. By standing alone, this instruction stands out like a highlighted saying. It will of course need to be remembered later, when Luke shows us Mary and Joseph giving their child the name the angel told them. (Luke 2:21)

Mary’s query also sounds Jewish. ‘Servant’ is too weak for doulos: here ‘slave-girl’ is more nuanced and gender-specific as in the greek. Also more interesting!

“Amen” is something Old Testament Jews said a bit, indicating agreement. It didn’t sound especially religious, just emphatic. It’s nice to bring out this Hebraism that Luke puts in his text.

Robert Alter has spent a lifetime thinking about how Hebrew texts work. He has helped a lot of us read these texts better through his book, The Art of Biblical NarrativeIn his own translations he shows us the fruit of his thinking, shows what can be done with a sensitive and informed reading of the texts.

The results are a little surprising. Reading Alter’s translation is not like reading anyone else’s. It may take some time to get used to. It took me a while. That’s because he’s doing a whole bunch of stuff other translations aren’t doing. In fact, he’s doing stuff other translations never even dreamed of.

Most of our translations take an ‘engineers’ approach. They’re a bit mathematical. They consider the Hebrew word or phrase, they ask, what does it mean? Language is about meaning, so the great task of the translator is clarity.

So they analyse the grammar, find out who is subject and what is object, how the grammatical machinery is working, they determine word meaning – and then they try to render the whole in English. Then they move on to the next word or phrase. That’s about it. When the text has complexities such as imagery, they often end up giving an English ‘explanation’ or decoding of them – committing what Alter calls ‘the heresy of explanation.’ The end result is hopefully nice to read, but it communicates pretty much just through word and phrase meanings: very limited as a piece of writing. A bit mathematical.

So the reading is limited, and the writing is limited. There is communication loss at both ends. And the ‘decoding’ approach means that there is loss in the middle also. Overall, too much is lost. Alter writes, ‘The general result…is to reduce, simplify and denature the Bible’. And, I would add, to ‘de-culture’ it.

Alter starts his project with a different approach to reading. For Alter, the text communicates and functions in many different ways, not just by word and phrase meaning. So he tries to employ as many of these dimensions as possible to render the text in English. The result is a complex expressive creation – like the Hebrew!

Clarity is not always the goal. In fact it is only one aspect of a translation, for language is a quirky and playful thing. Often it functions by obscuring meaning, encoding it in metaphor, blurring it in ambiguity, veiling it in enigma etc. This playfulness is an integral part of language and should itself be translated as much as possible.

Here are some of the many ways the Hebrew text functions and conveys meaning.

cultural flavour – one thing about the Pentateuch writing is that it’s Jewish. Very Jewish! The flavour of that culture, the fact that the stories are about and by and for those particular people, that’s important, and worth translating. It gives us the cultural setting or context in which the stories make sense. Alter does this in many ways, one of the chief of which is:

rhythm – texts use rhythm to convey meaning. When Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, his stream-of-consciousness, wordy reply strongly suggests panic: he’s in a flap. The rhythm gives it away. Also, the Semitic flavour of the texts is partly encoded in the Semitic rhythms which they employ. Notable in this regard is the frequent use of the same conjunction, waw, (= and). Where English likes to vary, Hebrew likes the rhythmic effect produced by sameness of conjunction. Alter creates this rhythm in English, and it’s a bit weird at first. Feels foreign! Which is the point. Stay with that rhythm for a bit, and you’re back in the Ancient Near East!

The other distinctive thing about Hebrew rhythm is its briefness. Hebrew prose won’t use three syllables where two will do. It tends to avoid wordy phrases. This makes for a streamlined, fast-moving, compact narrative style that sounds well out loud.

metaphor – Hebrew is fond of earthy metaphor, imagery taken from everyday life, and especially from the human body. These images have their own cognitive and emotive effects on the reader/hearer. Texts don’t just mean things: they do things. If you ‘decode’ these metaphors, you lose a whole dimension of meaning and function in the text. The Holman and the NIV are especially bad in this regard. More paraphrased translations in general are bad here.

repetition – where English loves the variety of synonyms, Hebrew loves repetition. A tightly limited vocabulary is deliberately used again and again. This gives an earthy simplicity and rhythmic musicality to the writing which makes it listenable and memorisable.

intertextuality – a specialised form of repetition. A word or phrase or image from one place will recur in another narrative context, creating an echo. The Joseph cycle is full of such echoes, regarding hands, memory, lordship, etc. These echoes convey meaning, they create links. Intertextual echoes are a device by which the writer can comment on the action and its significance. If the word or phrase is translated the same way each time, the echoes can be heard. If the word or image is translated differently each time, the echoes are lost.

These are some of the main ways in which, for Alter, the Hebrew text communicates. It doesn’t just mean something, it does things: it surprises, puzzles, delights, confuses, and moves. It dances and sings, and skips along at a cracking pace. It penetrates the mind with its terse and emphatic rhythms. It subtly betrays the feelings, intentions, and motives of the characters.

And all of this, all of these dimensions, are waiting to be rendered in English. This is the sophisticated, indeed breath-takingly demanding task that Alter has taken upon himself. Other translators, it seems, aren’t even aware of half of these dimensions of the language. But Alter is, and he is at least trying to translate them.

How does he do? Pretty well, actually. It’s not perfect. He is constantly stretching the expressive capacities of English, and sometimes the stretch is a bit far. But overall, this is a work of genius. It conveys so much more of the Hebrew text than our usual versions do, that there’s really no comparison. This is translating at a different level altogether.

It’s not in easy English. You may not wish to read it in your church. But read it at home, and be enriched and refreshed. Give it some time, and it will reward you with new riches from the glories of the Hebrew Scriptures.