Sunday, January 22, 2012

“Angelic Messenger” is Redundant

τῆς φιλοξενίας μὴ ἐπιλανθάνεσθε, διὰ ταύτης γὰρ ἔλαθόν τινες ξενίσαντες ἀγγέλους.
—Hebrews 13:2

It never ceases to amaze me how radically different the Bible is in the original languages. Whether Hebrew, Chaldee or Greek, the more I learn, the more I realize just how the actual words of God have been hidden by our English translations. Nearly every day some new, clearer understanding of a verse or doctrine, given to me through study of the original texts, highlights the extent to which modern Christian thinking has been lead astray by the hermeneutics of translators.

Sandy and I were discussing an example of this just this morning. I was reading 2 Corinthians 8:23 aloud from the KJV when I came across the word "messengers". Supposing this to be a translation of the common Greek word for "messenger", ἄγγελος [angelos], I began to wax theological on the problems stemming from the unfortunate habit of Bible translators to sometimes translate a word, and other times transliterate the same word.

In the KJV ἄγγελος is translated "messenger" 7 times; transliterated "angel" 179 times.

And, as with the transliterated "angel" for ἄγγελος, the general rule seems to be that the meaning of the transliterated form gets the full ecclesiastical treatment. So many additional church meanings get attached to these transliterations that entirely new words are created and their actual meanings as they appear in scripture are forgotten or ignored.

There are many other words treated the same way. Here's a couple:

μάρτυς [martus] is translated "witness" 29 times; transliterated "martyr" 3 times

διάκονος [diakonos] is translated "minister" 20 times, "servant" 8 times; and transliterated "deacon" 3 times.

Interestingly, the Bible translators liked the transliterated form of the Greek word ἄγγελος so much, they decided to use it as a translation for the common OT Hebrew word for "messenger" מלאך [mal'ak]!

מלאך is translated "messenger" 98 times, "ambassador" 4 times, and "angel" 111 times (!)

Now, just imagine how different our Bible exegesis would be if the translators had simply translated ἄγγελος and מלאך as "messenger". Then, in many of the instances where these words occur, the context would indicate what is being referred to, rather than a translator thousands of years after the fact. After all, a messenger might be a prophet, a person bringing God's message, or any believer with a word of Scripture. Imagine how differently you would think about Hebrews 13:2 if the people you might be "entertaining unawares" weren't heavenly, non-human creatures, but simply other Christians who hadn't identified themselves as such.

Well, as it happens, the word translated "messengers" in 2 Cor 8:23 was not ἄγγελος but ἀπόστολοι [apostoloi]. This is the word "apostles" (lit: "appointed away ones"). And that's a topic for a whole other post.

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