Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.
This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.
But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.
The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.
In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).
What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.
The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.
My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.
Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.
This is really worth pondering…
Is it not the view of God that is the issue here? How the thelogian, or the translator views God will come out somehow or other.
IMO the word “relationship” implies a parallel interaction between equals that is transient. So when Protestants proclaim the “personal relationship” with Jesus is paramount, they are essentially saying they are in control. It diminishes God and the whole reality of salvation.
1 Corinthians 10:16-20: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not (emphatic: ouchi) koinônia of the blood of The Christ? The loaf which we break, is it not (ouchi) koinônia of the body of The Christ? Because [there is] one loaf, we the many are one body; for we all metechomen (partake/share) from the one loaf. Look at the Israel [that is] according to the flesh: Are not (ouchi) those who eat the sacrifices koinônoi of the altar? … That which they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. And I do not want you to become koinônous of (with?) demons.”
Hebrews 2:14: “Therefore, since the children kekoinônêken of blood and of flesh, He also likewise meteschen of them….”
Sounds like a real sharing and participation to me. ;^)
I agree, Fr. Stephen, and also with the comments above. The “personal relationship” idea of things neglects the “neediness” I feel and the comfort from “communion.”
Thank you for putting forth the importance of biblical translation.
But the point of view of the translator, in this particular case, has already been formed by other faulty translations. It becomes self-fulfilling. The promise and teaching of the New Testament that we are to have communion, a true sharing in the life of God, is taken away (largely by non-sacramental translators) and replaced with fellowship. I do not mean to disparage fellowship – it could perhaps be given a much stronger reading – though in our language that is difficult. Neither do I want to imply that we cannot have fellowship with God – but rather that the fellowship we have is a communion, a participation. He intends much more for us.
My husband and I took some Greek in college and I would say that there as in most other places, if an evangelical can take a less supernatural interpretation of a subject, he will. Generally speaking. It’s like they hunkered down behind the barest supernatural interpretation of the virgin birth, and Christ’s miracles, and maybe regeneration – “We’re defending these” – but declined to sign their names to a religion that required belief in a total penetration of one’s experience by God.
(I love Jonathan Edwards because he shattered that, at least for his time and in his own life. He’s a hero to me because he broke through in an age of science and deism and had mystical experience and transformed his hereditary beliefs into a theology of God’s effulgence of glory in his creation.)
This is the spiritual suffocation that my husband and I have been fighting off for years. Of course when no one else sees the problem and you don’t know where to run to it gets really hairy. You end up confronting leaders hoping for a change, or at least to shame someone into thinking about their experience truthfully, but that never goes over too well in religious institutions.
I have always heard good things (back in my academic days) about Edwards, but never read him. I’ll have to look at him now. But I think you’re right about a tendency to avoid the mystical “realism” of the New Testament. It’s literally everywhere.
Of course without this understanding, the “relationships” in the Trinity can be read in an almost heretical manner.
After more than 4 decades reading Holy Scripture — you nailed something down that I’ve wrestled with. Just never could get my hands on it!
The translation of the word episcopos that you mention was one thing I’d never really thought of before — although in my Lutheran background and years in that ministry, much argument against bishops went on and still does.
But koinonia – a communion in and with God! How marvelous! The actuality of that communion I’ve spoken of often, but you nailed it in the text!
You made my day. Thanks indeed!
I don’t know why my attempt to post a comment last night failed, but I made mention of 1 Corinthians 10:16-20 and Hebrews 2:14, and the use/meanings of the words koinônia/koinônos/koinôneô and metechô (κοινωνια/κοινωνος/κοινωνεω & μετεχω) in those passages.
It’s definitely more than “fellowship.”
I am immediately reminded of 2 Thess 2:15 where Paradosis (Tradition) was translated as “Teaching” in NIV.
In fact, in any place where St. Paul talked about the good, holy Tradition of the Church in a clearly positive light, NIV translates it as “Teaching;” where he soundly condemns the false traditions of men in a very negative manner, there they translate it as “Tradition”! An internally inconsistent approach with a clear agenda.
Yes, I believe Edwards did talk about the Spirit of God proceeding from the love between the Father and the Son, and the Eastern Church rejects that, right? Is this what you are referring to?
I’ll check on your earlier post. Sometimes posts get hung up in the spam filter, or the moderation queue. Sorry for the trouble. I found it – stuck in the spam filter. It’s posted now. Excellent examples of where a “weak” translation would make no sense. By the way, I loved the article on the papyrus fragment of “Beneath Thy Compassion.” Wonderful!
This is a difficult issue for me. There is an element of the 12 step “traditions” where I have to find a relationship with God where I can take people’s opinions and advice, but ultimately when it comes to everyday and major decisions I’m supposed to be able to listen to that “still small voice” within.
How that correlates with the communion with God and the Church I’m not exactly sure. Maybe at some point I will gain intellectual clarity on this point. Perhaps I don’t need head-knowledge regarding this difficulty and I may never get it, and that’s alright with me.
For now I walk in darkness and continue to fall down and keep getting up.
That still small voice is becoming part of you – it is uniting with you and also giving you the power to do what you could not do yourself. So there’s not a need to picture our relationship with God as a buddy system – but instead, recognizing that he is with you and in you and healing you and all the rest. It’s all communion.
I love Jonathan Edwards because he shattered that, at least for his time and in his own life. He’s a hero to me because he broke through in an age of science and deism and had mystical experience and transformed his hereditary beliefs into a theology of God’s effulgence of glory in his creation.
I would respectfully disagree with AR to a minimal degree. Edwards was indeed mystical in his approach, but it was because of, not in spite of, the lessons from the natural world (ie science). His was in some sense his own natural theology, which is where we can find some overlap between the magisteria of religion and science. So Edwards was not a mystic in spite of the science of his day, which is how I understood your point.
Quoting Alister McGrath on J. Edwards:
In his careful study fo the theology of Jonathan Edwards, Haroutinian stressed how Edwards constructed ‘the theology of Calvinism upon the basis of an empirical piety’, while defending its doctrines both theologically and philosophically. The strongly experiential aspects of Edwards’ piety were integrated within his overall vision of the Christian faith, and given a new sense of theological significance through his doctrine of creation. Edwards’ experience – or ‘sensation’ – of the beauty of God was thus an integral aspect of his theological system. Yet Edwards’ successors broke the link between theology and piety, reverting to ‘governmental and legalistic conceptions of Calvinism’. His experience-based piety was sidelined, in favor of a morality without any experiential or aesthetic dimension.
The trajectory of this subversion of Edwards’ theological vision led relentlessly from experience to moralism. Edwards’ successors – such as William Hart, Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins – tended to regard his interest in aesthetic religious experience as a dispensable starting point, which might be set to one side when the greater issues of morality had been secured. What Edwards regarded as the source of religion was thus displaced by one of its derivatives.
pp 243 – 244. A Scientific Theology Vol 2 Reality.
Sic transit gloria mundi
My question is only tangentially related, but I have been wondering about this for quite some time. I John says that we only have communion with God if we keep his commands. This makes sense, we dwell in Him and He in us, but how does it relate to the Sacraments. I would like to say that Mary was participating in the life of God, was communing with God, while she was pregnant, precisely in that she was pregnant with God. And likewise we are communing with God when we take the Sacrament precisely because we are eating God. But if communion with God is precisely living like Him (as I John says) these things are not our communion with Him. Particularly because later John says that as many as believe Jesus is the Christ are born of God. But we are born of God through our baptisms. Anyway, I’m confused.
Also, why does he say we cannot sin? This seems silly. He says earlier that we can sin, and indeed if we say we cannot, the truth is not in us. But in Chapter 3:9 that if we are born of God we do not sin, nor can we. I’m very confused. Help?
Several things. First, communion, even sacramental communion, always presumes the we approach God with a right heart, it is not only an eating and a drinking, but also an inner act of the heart. Thus St. Paul warns against eating and drinking communion “without discerning the body” (in which case he is referring to the body of Christ, the Church). Thus we make preparation in fasting, prayer, confession, forgiveness, etc. Mary certainly has a communion with God because she is pregnant, but our honor for her is for much more. As Christ says, “Who is my mother and my sister and my brother, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven.” She had communion with God even before he took flesh from her and continued her communion after she gave birth to Him.
In 1 John 3:9 where he says we cannot sin – he is using the present tense, active voice which would be better rendered, “sinning continuously.”
We are born of God in Baptism, and by virtue of that birth we also believe in Him. It is also obvious that God is at work in us prior to Baptism else we would never come to believe in the first place. Christ who is the Light of the world, enlightens every man that comes into the world, St. John’s gospel says. So belief is possible for all. God does not prevent anyone from faith in Him. Though there are certainly many who profess the Christian faith who provide stumbling blocks to others – may God have mercy on us. I hope some of that was clarifying.
Fr. Stephen, could you make this post a series? When I first became Orthodox, I found I had to put my own reading of Scripture aside so that I could come back to it with an Orthodox understanding.
Can the Greek scholars comment more on metechos?
Gina, I’m sure there are greater scholars than me out there, though my undergraduate major was Greek. Metechos, is from echo (to have) and meta (with). It is to have a share or participation in, rather literally. As noted, is way more than fellowship. I’ll see what I can do on a series. Good suggestion. My article on person, is partly an effort to focus on a number of key words for an Orthodox understanding that are neglected or simply ignored in many modern settings. Thanks for the encouragement!
When we were considering conversion to Orthodoxy, my wife was very put off by the fact that the Orthodox all drink out of the same chalice every Sunday. She was afraid someone with the sniffles or a virus might pass it along to our kids, or worse, that someone with a serious illness like Hepatitis B might infect the whole congregation.
I told her I had never heard of anyone becoming gravely ill because of sharing a communion cup. But the more I thought about it, the more I was certain I was willing to take the risk to enter into a deeper form of sharing than I had ever had experienced in the Protestant bodies. After all, if my brother is infected, should I not share that infection? And could it not also be that he may share my antibodies?
Jesus certainly didn’t despise the flesh of the Virgin when He came to take our flesh.
Your wife’s concerns about the Common Cup are not uncommon – but they should not be a worry. Countless tests over the years, by various groups in various places, have shown that for several reasons the common cup is not a good vector for germs. The precious metal of which it is made tends to be a lousy surface for germs, the alcohol content, etc.
More importantly, what contact people have with the cup is not generally how germs are spread. The primary means of contact for germs, is hand to hand, not mouth to mouth. Believe it or not, there was an article in Readers’ Digest some years ago that noted that kissing was actually safer than holding hands. We rub our noses and our eyes, and then shake hands, a voila!
Oddly enough, there would be a likelier possibility of germs on the host in an Anglican or Catholic ceremony than the cup at any ceremony. But our mothers taught us to fear drinking after others, etc.
If communion were a source of germs and disease, priests would be the sickest of all and we’re not. I would have no fear, myself of consuming the chalice (remember priests have to consume all that is left) after someone with aids has received (I have done this before). It’s just not where the danger lies.
Thank you for this rich message. It is helpful to me on my journey toward understanding the Church. I have recently been in discussion with another Christian about the NIV alterations of Hebrews 11:11 (where Abraham was made fertile as opposed to the Mary-type Sarah), 1 Peter 4:6 (where preaching was to the people NOW dead as opposed to being to THE dead), and 2 Thes 2:15 (which changes “tradition” to “teaching” as Lucas noted above, and which I got from a wonderful Orthodox paper critiquing sola Scriptura). In line with your implication, these examples all evidence that translations don’t disagree from one to another based on arguments over Greek, but rather based on pre-existent biases (i.e., Protestant Sacred Tradition).
Thank you for ministering to me. Peace in Christ.
It seems disturbing that the translation of the scriptures are under the auspices of the realpolitik of schism. However, one must raise the question of scholarship, though I am inclined to agree with you. If indeed the Protestants care so much about accuracy in the scriptures, as that is their foundation, why would they not translate ‘koinonia’ as ‘communion’? This, of course, raises the the question, “Why should I believe your translation over theirs and vice versa?
Also, which translation translates ‘koinonia’ as ‘communion’ i.e. in the instance of 1 John 1:6-7?
Good questions. There’s no escaping the need for scholarship. The need to know the original languages as well as their context, as well as knowing the history of translation and its historical context. There’s no way I can convince someone to believe me over someone else other than to make a good case. The larger case for which I am entreating, is for the traditional Orthodox reading of Scripture rather than new readings that clearly have their own historical agenda. Read, study, inquire.
On the second question – I am away from my library this week. I’ll have to look it up later.
On another note, do you know if any Catholic or Orthodox scholars are working with the translation of the scriptures? It seems that Biblical scholarship is lacking in such realms with respect to those from Geneva…