Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Should χριστός be translated Messiah?

Since new translations are not a major blip on my radar, I often miss new directions to which the translation world in turning. In their update “Improvements to the Christian Standard Bible,” the CSB website mentions the translation of χριστός as “Messiah.”[i]
In a few instances, due to helpful feedback from Mark Strauss, we changed “Christ” to “Messiah.”
There is no further information or explanation regarding which verses were changed or why. However, we might guess – because of the involvement of Strauss, Vice-Chair of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation – that the verses may correspond to verses translated that way in the NIV 2011. In another place, Strauss tells us:
While the 1984 NIV used “Christ” throughout,14 the 2011 revision introduced “Messiah” whenever the term carried a titular sense (66 times). The HCSB similarly followed this pattern, introducing “Messiah” for χριστός 112 times in the NT,15 while retaining “Christ” 419 times.
The CSB retains this policy, but reduces the number significantly, using “Messiah” only 55 times for χριστός.
The apparent main argument for translating χριστός as “Messiah,” per Strauss, is to recognize the “titular sense” – that is, used as a title, relating to, or denoted by a title. The trend suggests transliterating names but not titles.[ii]
The rendering “Messiah” for Greek χριστός when the latter is used in a titular sense
An example of the difference is found in the translation of Matthew 16:16.
  • CSB:  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
  • NIV:  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
  • KJV:  And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
  • NASB: Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Strauss describes this as a decision between either translating or transliterating.
Deciding whether to translate or transliterate Greek χριστός is a challenge.
This is an unnecessary “challenge,” as well an inaccurate statement of the “problem.” First, both “Christ” and “Messiah” were brought into the English language as transliterations. Christ was a transliteration of the word most commonly used in the Greek manuscripts, Christos, χριστός. Messiah is a transliteration of a word used twice in the Greek manuscripts, Messiah, μεσσίας. Second, describing words that have been part of the English language a thousand years or more is anachronistic at best. When we discuss the “egg” (other than for pedantic purposes) we do not describe it as a transliteration of the Old Norse word egg (though it is). When we eat a bagel we do not worry about it being a transliteration of the Yiddish word beygl or the German word böugel (though it is). Rather, what the words mean to us in English receive first place. The English words Christ and Messiah both mean “anointed” or “anointed one.”[iii] They have been part of the English language so long that their use in modern translations should not be regarded as transliteration.

A secondary reason for translating χριστός as “Messiah” is found where Scot McKnight, in Not “Christ” but “Messiah”: NT Wright on Translating Christos, sees a problem. Some regard “Christ,” McKnight writes, as part of Jesus’s name. He finds in this a reason to use “Messiah” instead.
One of the more interesting features of NT scholarship is a widespread (radical) minimization of “Christ” meaning “Messiah.” Instead of a direct royal perception this term is understood by many scholars to mean a second/last/family name, that is Jesus Christ is little more than Jesus’ name.
In other words, McKnight thinks “Messiah” is better understood as a title, while “Christ” is often mistaken for a name. Therefore, the lesser-known, less used term might help. Quoting from N. T. Wright’s book, he cites Matthew V. Novenson:
“For a start, there is the linguistic evidence, set out recently by Matthew Novenson, that Christos is in fact neither a proper name (with denotation but no necessary connotation) nor a ‘title’ as such (with connotation but flexible denotation, as when ‘the King of Spain’ goes on meaning the same thing when one king dies and another succeeds him). It is, rather, an honorific, which shares some features of a ‘title’ but works differently.”[iv]
The view of McKnight, Novenson, and Wright, then, vies for the use of “Messiah.” However, their view may be distinguished from Strauss and others who hold that “Messiah” is (sometimes) a title – while they view it as an honorific.”[v]

Thirdly, translating χριστός as “Messiah” may be related to a desire to return the church to some of its Hebrew roots, and/or to highlight her Jewish connection. David Bivin of Jerusalem Perspective agrees with McKnight about the surname issue, but adds another dimension. He writes:
I think “Messiah” more accurately conveys in English what the Greek authors of the New Testament meant to convey with the Greek “christos.” See my article, “Messiah” (Jerusalem Perspective 26 [May/June 1990]: 6). See also my “Messianic Claims” (Jerusalem Perspective 27 [July/August 1990]: 11), where I wrote: “Many Christians seem to think that ‘Christ’ was Jesus’ surname, while non-Christians often use it as a swear word. ‘Christ’ is an English transliteration of a Greek translation of an original Hebrew word—a good example of the influence of Greek language and culture on our culture. It also is an example of the Church’s loss of its Hebraic and Jewish roots.”[vi]
The use of “Christ” and “Messiah” as explained in the Introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible adds a fourth reason given for translating χριστός as “Messiah” – that of pairing the word to the context (or perceived context).
The Holman CSB translates the Greek word Christos (“anointed one”) as either “Christ” or “Messiah” based on its use in different NT contexts. Where the NT emphasizes Christos as a name of our Lord or has a Gentile context, “Christ” is used (Eph 1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus...”). Where the NT Christos has a Jewish context, the title “Messiah” is used (Eph 1:12 ...we who had already put our hope in the Messiah). The first use of “Messiah” in each chapter is also marked with a bullet referring readers to the Bullet Note at the back of most editions.
The HCSB explanation is somewhat related to Strauss’s title concept and Bivin’s return to Jewish roots. On the other hand, contra Bivin and McKnight, the editors of the HCSB seem to accept that “Christ” is sometimes used as a name in the New Testament (“Where the NT emphasizes Christos as a name…”).

The International Standard Version Bible pulls out all stops, using only the English word “Messiah” and never “Christ.” Their website explains:
In the ISV New Testament, the word Christos (itself a Greek language translation of the Hebrew word moshiach) is translated as “Messiah”. For example, the ISV renders the name and title traditionally rendered as Jesus Christ as Jesus the Messiah in order to emphasize the unique claim made by the New Testament writers that the things about which they wrote pertained to Jesus as the claimed fulfillment of the hope of Israel’s Messiah. The alternate rendering “Christ” appears in footnotes. The rarely utilized NT Greek transliteration messias of the Hebrew language moshiach is rendered in the ISV NT as “Anointed One”. [That is, John 1:41 and John 4:25, rlv.] [vii]
The argument to change “Christ” to “Messiah” must be weighed and found wanting – whether as a change in certain contexts (CSB, HCSB, NIV) or a thoroughgoing change for the entire New Testament (ISV, TLV).

“When used in the titular sense”
This creates an artificial standard, one that exists in the minds of certain translators rather than in the mind of God. The words “Christ” and “Messiah” both have the same meaning. From that standpoint, one is neither better nor worse than the other. The stress on changing “Christ” to “Messiah” constitutes changing the primary and consistent word of choice of the inspired New Testament writers – therefore the word of choice of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. Christ is a current English word. Messiah is a current English word. Messiah is based on μεσσίας, and is a nearer transliteration of the Hebrew word משיח (mashiach). Nevertheless, the word written in the New Testament, being translated or transliterated – whichever one chooses to call it – is not μεσσίας or mashiach, but χριστός! If God inspired the New Testament writers to use χριστός  rather than μεσσίας (and he did), then why should we prefer μεσσίας over χριστός?[viii]

“Jesus Christ is little more than Jesus’ name”
The reasoning is substantially “the provocation of the lesser-known” – that is, the use of lesser-known terminology will call attention to and work toward fixing the problem. Yet, this builds on a false narrative. It is likely that some biblically illiterate folks think that “Christ” is Jesus’s last name. Despite McKnight’s portrayal of the problem concerning Christ and Jesus’s name as “widespread” and understood that way “by many scholars,” I cannot confirm that such is true. Most Bible scholars and Bible students of whom I am aware know the difference. Still, we can take the corrective suggestion and apply when needed, without taking the suggested translation. If someone states or implies that Christ is simply the surname of Jesus, then we should correct that. This can be done in preaching, teaching, and writing. A new translation is not needed.

“Loss of Hebraic and Jewish roots”
This is an unnecessary requirement. The church is rooted in its “Jewishness;” that thread runs throughout the Bible. Those who miss it will not likely find it by us throwing in the word “Messiah.” On the other hand, we must remember the church, as Christ’s assembly, is neither Jew nor Gentile (1 Corinthians 10:32). Our guideline is not to imagine how we might need to return to our Jewish roots, but to stand in the distinct culture of the church of God – a culture that can grasp the promise of the Jewish Messiah and describe him faithfully in Greek words!

“A Gentile context, a Jewish context”
Using χριστός in “a Gentile context” and μεσσίας in “a Jewish context” creates another artificial standard. Though it seems sane in the minds of some translators, such “matching the context” was not used by the New Testament writers, who were led to use χριστός consistently throughout their writings.[ix] The Greek language was the lingua franca of the day. The writers did not drop back into a so-called Jewish context and use μεσσίας indiscriminately. John used it in two places and gave a proper explanation for any readers who might not understand. Determining what context is used and choosing which word to use is simply toying with the Bible in a way that is not present in the text itself.

In addition to these considerations, the Messiah-instead-of-Christ philosophy rejects biblical orthopraxy. In the churches the Spirit places teachers to help us understand the word of God. Seeing that the reader understands the nuances of words like Christos is the calling of teachers, not translators. Translators often desire to stray from their jobs as translators and insert themselves as teachers in the churches.

The long-standing translation practice of rendering χριστός as Christ in English is not improved upon by the new passion for rendering it Messiah instead.

[i] This is not the first time this has been done. I never paid much attention to it. This practice (translating χριστός as Messiah) may have originated in “mainstream” Bibles with the NASB. The NASB in four places in the gospel of Matthew translates χριστός as Messiah, Matthew 1:1; 1:16-17; 2:4.  Other “mainstream” translations may have done it prior to the NASB doing so, but I have yet to find any.
[ii] This distinction is somewhat hard to comprehend, since Christos is not a proper name, but rather a title of position.
[iii] The words simply have different origins. “Christ” is from the Greek χριστός (or Latin Christus) and “Messiah” is from the Greek μεσσίας (or Latin Messias) – which is in turn a transliteration of the Hebrew word משיח (mashiach).
[iv] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013, p. 824.
[v] A word of status or respect.
[vi] There is no evidence that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew.
[vii] Translation Principles of the ISV Bible, No. 4 under the heading “Textual Aspects of Translation.”
[viii] John 1:41 and John 4:25 use both μεσσίας and χριστός. A cursory look at the verses explains why.
[ix] If the word Messiah (mashiach) were used frequently in the Old Testament, it might provide more support for this argument. Further, it appears that many or most Jews in New Testament times knew the Messiah by the Septuagint translation’s term χριστός.

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