Translating “in Christ”

The expression in Christ (and its equivalents in Jesus, in the Lord, in the Son, etc.) occurs 174 times in the New Testament. While it does not occur in any of the Gospels, Hebrews or James, it occurs 21 times in the first two chapters of Ephesians and 10 times in chapter 16 of Romans.

The interesting thing about this seemingly simple expression is the wide range of meaning it conveys in various contexts. In Dr. Clarence Hale’s booklet entitled, The Meaning of IN CHRIST in the Greek New Testament, he suggests 241 ways to translate it. I’ll list just a few:

by Christ – Ephesians 2:22
Christians – Romans 16:7
through Christ – Ephesians 1:9
because of Christ – Ephesians 1:7
in the service of Christ – Romans 16:12
under the authority of Christ – Ephesians 1:10

Hale points out that the meaning of in Christ is unclear in many contexts. For example, in Romans 16:9 – “Greet Urbanus our fellow worker in Christ”  (NKJV), he suggests that in Christ could serve as an adjectival phrase to modify fellow worker, an adverbial phrase to modify greet, or a noun phrase to mean a Christian.

In my translation of this verse in The Better Life Bible, I convey the idea that in Christ identifies the common task of the fellow workers:

“Please give my greetings also to Urbanus,
who helps us tell others about Jesus.”

24 thoughts on “Translating “in Christ”

  1. Kevin Walker says:

    “Please give my greetings also to Urbanus,
    who helps us tell others about Jesus.”

    Very cool translation – very simple, and it conveys the point so well. It shows a part of it that you would miss in other translations.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    10 times in chapter 16 of Romans… I count 4 in Christ and 7 in the Lord. At first sight, they do not seem to me to be rhetorically significant (compared with other repetitious aspects of the epistle to the Romans). But do you really think these two phrases have equal capacity to interact with other things – equal valence?

  3. Mike Aubrey says:

    Dan, there’s a very helpful discussion of the “in Christ” phrase in Charles Talbert’s recent Ephesians and Colossians commentary, probably the best recent survey, even if there are a few issues with it.

    Review of it HERE

  4. Rich Rhodes says:

    Don’t forget Bonnie Howe’s book, Because you bear this Name: Metaphor and the Moral Meaning of 1 Peter. She has a lot to say about what “in Christ” means. She makes it clear what one has to understand about the metaphors that “in” is used in. It’s not by any means a simple question of translating one preposition into another.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    The Greek preposition(s) aside, what about the weird Christian transliteration Christ as if it’s “translation”? Rich Rhodes, you’ve said, “I’ve argued for some time that Messiah is the proper English translation for χριστος. Our understanding of this Hebrew loan is far closer to the original understanding than Christ ever was.”

    The most troubling part of this is that translators have no trouble really translating χριστός in LXX (see Leviticus, 1 & 2 Sam, 1 & 2 Chron, Psalm, Isaiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Amos, Habakkuk, not to mention Sirach, 2 Maccabees, and Odes). The Hebrew senses are always retained as in Sirach 46:19 (ἔναντι κυρίου καὶ χριστοῦ αὐτοῦ / in the sight of the Lord and his anointed).

    And there’s never any theologically or philosophically overdetermined senses of χριστός in the classics, including as in Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. The Greek value of the word & its conceptual value (even to the body) comes across even in translation.

    Aeschylus Prometheus Bound:
    if ever man fell ill, there was no defence—no healing food [βρώσιμον], no ointment [χριστόν – CHRIST?], nor any drink [πιστόν]—but for lack of medicine [φαρμάκων] they wasted away, until I showed them how to mix soothing remedies with which they now ward off all their disorders.

    Sophocles Trachiniae (which in context of the narrative is all about the life-and-death power of the χριστον):
    I did exactly as he told me to, and kept the salve [ἀρτίχριστον ANTI-CHRIST?] in a hidden place far from the warmth of sunlight or of fire until the time should come to smear it on.

  6. David Ker says:

    “He suggests 241 ways to translate it…”

    That reminds me of something I read in a commentary about logos meaning X number of things. It highlights the tension created by a desire to maintain concordance. If we are slavish about it, the result can be whole theologies (and sermon series) built around a phrase like “in Christ.” But if we abandon concordance altogether another type of error creeps into our translation: the breaking of intertextual links that might have existed in the original but are hidden from readers of the translation.

  7. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Kevin, Mike, Rich, David,
    Thanks for your comments and suggestions.

    Bob,
    > 10 times in chapter 16 of Romans…

    This is Hale’s count.

    > But do you really think these two phrases have equal capacity to interact with other things – equal valence?

    I didn’t compare them myself, but I rather doubt it, since even the same term can convey different meanings in different contexts, as David noted is the case with LOGOS. (I think the KJV translates it 61 different ways in various contexts, a good example of abandoning concordance.)

    J.K.Gayle,
    The Christ vs. Messiah matter is a very interesting topic. I hope to post some thoughts on that later.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    Why is it I have never heard of any discussion concerning “‘in’ plus title” used in extra-Biblical literature? Does it exist?

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    Thanks for the comments – I don’t seem to be receiving them anywhere in spite of the check box that says I should. But here’s a related question that has been nagging me for some months: (I already asked the master of Chrisendom by he may or may not respond 🙂

    What did Luke mean by having the shepherds hear the word ‘Christ’ before the earthy life of Jesus? Is ‘Christ’ confined to Jesus? How should we understand ‘anointing’ in the OT (e.g. Psalm 45:7 or the New 1 John 2:27)? Should מֵֽחֲבֵרֶֽיךָ be rendered as ‘above your companions’ or ‘with your companions’?

  10. Bob MacDonald says:

    My questions are serious – there was a typo – earthy for earthly – but it was not meant lightly – I think Kurk was getting to some of the issues that have hit me these past two months. My questions are not to undermine the uniqueness or importance of Jesus for he surely focuses the problem perfectly. But why do we go so far from the joy we are meant to know? Why do those ‘in Christ’ seem to be so distracted by ‘what’ they think they ought to believe instead of ‘to whom’ they have turned?

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    >Dan, I’d very much like to read your thoughts on how to translate “χριστός.”

    >David: Wow: I’d love to hear you explore ways through the quandary you describe:

    “But if we abandon concordance altogether another type of error creeps into our translation: the breaking of intertextual links that might have existed in the original but are hidden from readers of the translation.”

    >Bob, You open up David’s intertextuality into the questions of author (i.e., Luke), audience (i.e., shepherds), text/context (i.e., χριστός applied — sorry for the pun — to Jesus/Joshua — including Joshua of Nun in Maccabbees), to time (“Old” testament v new), and to interlingualism (i.e., relating the Hebrew מחבריך to Greek before / as relating them to English). Wow again.

    I’m sitting in church trying to listen to the sermon as the preacher has us look at a verse in 1 Timothy 3. Wow, Paul likes “ἐν” withing just one text. How’s this “ἐν”-ter-textuality:

    ἐν ὑποταγῇ
    ἐν καθαρᾷ
    ἐν πᾶσιν
    ἐν πίστει
    ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ
    ἐν τάχει
    ἐν οἴκῳ θεοῦ
    ἐν σαρκί
    ἐν πνεύματι
    ἐν ἔθνεσιν
    ἐν κόσμῳ
    ἐν δόξῃ

    The RSV English I had beside Paul’s greek loses his playfulness with the phrases. Even if the writer wasn’t conscious of what he’s doing, what does this repetitive “ἐν” mean for 21st readers trying to make meaning(s) of ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ?

  12. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Mike,
    > Why is it I have never heard of any discussion concerning “‘in’ plus title” used in extra-Biblical literature? Does it exist?

    Great question. I wonder if someone has looked into that.

    Bob,
    Those are interesting questions that hopefully someone (maybe me to some extent) will address in future posts.

    J. K. Gayle
    >Dan, I’d very much like to read your thoughts on how to translate “χριστός.”

    I’ll try to post my thoughts on this in the not-too-distant future.

    > Even if the writer wasn’t conscious of what he’s doing, what does this repetitive “ἐν” mean for 21st readers trying to make meaning(s) of ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ?

    I’m not sure the repetitive “ἐν” reflects anything more than a form(ula) that enables the author to convey concepts “in brevity.” (Sorry for the pun.)

  13. Peter Kirk says:

    Kurk, is ἐν actually used in 1 Timothy 3 more often that “in” in a typical passage of English in a similar genre? Note my three uses (excluding the quote) in the previous sentence.

  14. David Ker says:

    “I’m sitting in church trying to listen to the sermon…”

    Kurk, you were blogging during church?!? Or is that historical present. In answer to your question consider my next post where I get a little pomo just for the fun of it. 8)

  15. codepoke says:

    Hey, when I’ve already lost what little credibility I had, why not throw all caution to the wind?

    In 2 previous discussions on this subject I’ve made the assertion “in Christ” probably means “in Christ.” Sure it’s an awkward construction, and I concede it’s hardly ever used, but very seldom does a species leap several phylum in establishing a relationship so intimate. Humans are being made one with God. It’s not something likely to be easy to describe using common linguistic constructions.

    No one understands what it means to be “in Christ.”

    Well, good. Right?

    We’re talking about the process by which a mortal being is born anew from somewhere above here. And Paul specifically, intentionally says we were chosen “in Him” before we were ever born. Doesn’t that sound like something that should be hard to understand? Paul could have just said we were chosen before creation, but he specifically says we were chosen in Him.

    Explaining machine language programming in common English is pointless. Without reference to jargon, it cannot be done. This act being in Christ seems decidedly more complicated than hacking computer chips, so why not expose the probable fact that Paul was inventing Trinity-related jargon?

    Let’s take Eph 2:22.
    In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

    The Greek says, “In whom” and Dr Hale says he has substituted “by Christ.” (Your bible says, “as you join us in following God’s advice, we honor God together.”)

    But what if this is more complex than just everyone agreeing, or even more complex than Jesus building us into a bunch of humans who agree. What if we can only be built together if something spiritual happens in spiritual places in which we are literally though invisibly “in Christ?” If that’s true, then all these translations frustrate Paul’s earnest, obvious, and clear effort to create a new jargon to describe something beyond mortal ken.

    We speak of plants being “in the dirt.” Obviously, they are no longer wholly in the dirt after they’ve sprouted, but to maintain that the phrase is therefore unintelligible is not helpful. The phrase is understood by anyone who’s seen a plant. The part of the plant designed to be in the dirt is, in fact, in the dirt.

    So, if Paul uses a phrase that requires explanation and humility, why should we mask it?

    (If anyone wants to tell me to shut up after these previous two posts, I’ll understand:
    http://betterbibles.com/2007/01/04/translating-%CE%B5%CE%BD-%CF%87%CF%81%CE%B9%CF%83%CF%84%CF%89/
    http://betterbibles.com/2008/09/15/when-in-is-out/)

  16. Polycarp says:

    If I remember correctly, didn’t Nida believe that Paul’s use of ‘ἐν Χριστῷ’ was the shortening of ‘in the name of Christ’? Perhaps referring the name of salvation or the authority given to the Apostles?

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    Peter says:
    is ἐν actually used in 1 Timothy 3 more often that “in” in a typical passage of English in a similar genre? Note my three uses (excluding the quote) in the previous sentence.

    In-deed! 🙂

    David asks (or exclaims, or just what does he intend ?!?) :

    you were blogging during church?!?

    Now, that’s a great idea!?! Except it was a visiting preacher. And I don’t have digital device less conspicuous than the old-fashioned paper Greek-English NT. And my wife and I kept writing notes back and forth on the old-fashioned paper bulletin (all in English, English in code, and sometimes in pictures). Do you think our children or grandchildren will have digital bibles in church? Will they get the bulletin in the same device as their Bibles are in? Will they text? Will the nerdy linguists among them ask themselves how many times they’ve used particular prepositions when the preacher is, yawn, a little boring? Will they mash up or down or in the English language with txt? How many times now have I used in n ths cmmnt?

    codepoke, I think you ask some good questions with-in your comment. And I don’t think you should shut up after that last post either. But I’m not in my own blog.

  18. Bob MacDonald says:

    Take note of this interesting post from Zizioulas

    Christ, the corporate personality, “a continuity in terms of inclusiveness: we are in Christ, and this is what makes Him be before us, our “first-born brother” in the Pauline sense.”

    read on – too interesting to dare a paraphrase!

  19. Dan Sindlinger says:

    codepoke,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Polycarp,

    > If I remember correctly, didn’t Nida believe that Paul’s use of ‘ἐν Χριστῷ’ was the shortening of ‘in the name of Christ’?

    Perhaps, but we still need to interpret what that means in various contexts.

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