Translating “Christ”

In my recent post entitled Translating “in Christ”, one commenter asked me to share my thoughts on how to translate “Christ”, and another asked why we go so far from the joy we are meant to know.  What I share in this post will hopefully address both of these points of interest to some degree.

Most English translations simply transliterate the Greek term CHRISTOS as “Christ” wherever it occurs in the New Testament.  The Greek term is a translation of the Hebrew term “Messiah”, both of which are derived from verb roots that mean “to anoint”. 

Many people in my target audience (those who rarely read or have never read the Bible) don’t understand the significance of the term “Christ” in the New Testament.  Even if it were translated as “the anointed one”, they would scratch their head as they wonder what that means.  So I decided to clarify the meaning of the term, which I believe includes the following focal points in the New Testament: 

* God promised that someone special would eventually come
* That person would help others enjoy a better life

The expression I finally settled on to translate “Christ” in The Better Life Bible (BLB), with some variation, is the following:

“the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life”

Below are a few examples in context:  

Mark 8:29b     

NKJV   And Peter answered and said to him, “You are the Christ.”

BLB    Peter said, “You’re the one God promised would help people enjoy a better

life.”

 

Luke 23:35b

NKJV  “He saved others; let Him save Himself if he is the Christ, the chosen of
God.”

BLB     “He’s helped others and claims to be the one that God promised would
help us enjoy a better life, but he can’t even help himself.”

John 4:25b

NKJV  “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).

BLB     “I know God promised that someone would come to help us enjoy a
better life.”

25 thoughts on “Translating “Christ”

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    Dan – this is too much circumlocution for me. And Christ is not limited to such an over-simplification in any case. When the oil flows down your beard to the collar of your clothing or the anointing makes it clear to you that there is something special here – hidden treasure, pearl of great price etc – then you don’t need translations or even footnotes that are explanation. There is no explaining the Word of God – only hearing and rejoicing.

    I just read this quote in a comment on John Hobbins’ last post.

    “Rather than interpreting the (multiply attested) [hapax] form, or abandoning it as hopeless, they emend the text, and tell us ‘what must have been meant’. This is only one step less criminal than another common text-editor’s ploy: ‘restoring’ lacunae resulting from destruction of text by inventing material that ought to have been there….One obvious motivation for not emending is that emendation is not in fact creative, but destructive; it obliterates part of the record, and substitutes for it an invention of another time, place and culture.”

    Circumlocution, explanation, confessional interpretation, and filling in the gaps in a so-called translation is a betrayal of the record that we have. Write sermons and explanatory notes if you must – but don’t do it as if it were translation.

  2. Scripture Zealot says:

    “the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life”

    I can’t help but think this sounds like prosperity gospel type stuff although I’m sure this wasn’t the intention.

    Also, didn’t He come to give us (a better) life? He did come to “give us life to the full” but isn’t it more than just that?

    If someone were to suffer extreme persecution after becoming a Christian I would think this may leave them wondering what happened.
    Jeff

  3. todd brooks says:

    @Scripture Zealot:
    You beat me to it. I was going to comment the same way. We have never been promised a “better life” here in the now as most without (or new to) faith would understand. Life becomes better in the sense that you are walking with Christ and know that when He returns, you will live eternally with Him. But in the sense that He will bring us a better life, I agree, sounds awkwardly like “name it/claim it” prosperity gospel.

    I’m confident this was not the intended purpose of Dan, though.

  4. Dru says:

    That’s interesting.

    I think most people probably assume that ‘Christ’ is an extra name, a bit like a surname. However, I agree with most of the other comments that “the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life” is too verbose, and is an interpretation, not a translation. It also conceals the fact that this is a word that had a significance of its own.

    The Christ or the Messiah is a term which seems to have already by the C1 acquired a whole lot of resonances of its own. I’d suggest as alternative translations, either to revert to ‘Messiah’, or to the ‘Anointed’ with a capital letter. The latter has the advantage that that is what the word means, and you leave other people to work out what the significance and meaning of the word is.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    Dan says, Many people in my target audience (those who rarely read or have never read the Bible) don’t understand the significance of the term “Christ” in the New Testament.

    Dan, Thanks for the post and this explanation of your translation focus. Isn’t the Bible (especially for the biblically illiterate) more than just the NT? What is lost by starting with “Christ” in the NT (i.e., as the interpretively-focused “God-promised, eventually-coming special-someone, who is to help even the ‘dear reader’ enjoy a better life”)? Can your focused, “clarified meaning” apply to the priests of Leviticus, who were not kings and were not “the Messiah,” but had oil dripping down (as Bob MacDonald describes in his comment)? Can the “clarified meaning” help your biblically illiterate readers who know the Greek classics and understand the χριστ* [“christ*] functions of salve and oil in the Mediterranean contexts where the NT was written? Doesn’t the NT use Greek-language and Jewish-religion to rework “crucial” metaphors, like “cross”? And “male-genital circumcision”? And “submersion” aka “baptism”? And “lamb”? And “king” And “priest”? And “slavery”? And “father”?

    The Jewish-Greek NT is so rich. Can’t overly-focused translation rob readers of it’s interactions with and deconstructions of important metaphors in the Hellene and Hebrew worlds?

  6. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Bill,
    Thanks for your comments.

    Tim,
    > Surely a much simpler and more accurate translation would be ‘king’, would it not?

    I agree that it would be much simpler in form, but it would lose the distinction in meaning between the two terms.

    Bob,
    John Hobbins’and perhaps your philosophy of translation is quite different from mine. I suspect much of it has to do with one’s target audience.

    Scripture Zealot & Todd,

    > I can’t help but think this sounds like prosperity gospel type stuff although I’m sure this wasn’t the intention.

    That’s correct. I’m convinced that a better life is one that reflects love, joy, peace … (Galatians 5:22-23).

    Timmy C.
    > What do you think of the Voice NT translation of Christ as “Redeeming King”?

    I’m glad to see you thinking of other possibilities. That expression may be fine for an audience that understands what “redeeming” means, but my target audience generally does not.

    Dru,
    > I’d suggest as alternative translations, either to revert to ‘Messiah’, or to the ‘Anointed’ with a capital letter. The latter has the advantage that that is what the word means, and you leave other people to work out what the significance and meaning of the word is.

    I think that’s the traditional approach, but I don’t think it works for many in my target audience.

    J. K. Gayle
    > Isn’t the Bible (especially for the biblically illiterate) more than just the NT?

    Absolutely. If I live long enough and have the opportunity, I hope to translate at least part of the Hebrew scriptures as well.

    > Can your focused, “clarified meaning” apply to the priests of Leviticus, who were not kings and were not “the Messiah,” but had oil dripping down (as Bob MacDonald describes in his comment)?

    Are you suggesting that it should?

    > Can the “clarified meaning” help your biblically illiterate readers who know the Greek classics and understand the χριστ* [“christ*] functions of salve and oil in the Mediterranean contexts where the NT was written?

    With that kind of unique background, I would not consider them part of my target audience.

    > Doesn’t the NT use Greek-language and Jewish-religion to rework “crucial” metaphors, like “cross”? And “male-genital circumcision”? And “submersion” aka “baptism”? And “lamb”? And “king” And “priest”? And “slavery”? And “father”?

    Yes, but in my opinion that doesn’t disqualify them from clarification.

    > The Jewish-Greek NT is so rich. Can’t overly-focused translation rob readers of it’s interactions with and deconstructions of important metaphors in the Hellene and Hebrew worlds?

    Sure, but I believe every translation does that to some extent.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Dan,
    Thank you for so thoroughly responding to so many of us!

    One thing you replied to me is this: “With that kind of unique background, I would not consider them part of my target audience.”

    Here’s part of the personal rub for me: most of my friends (perhaps all of them) have unique backgrounds. Many of them are biblical illiterates, and have no subjective interest in the NT. I think it’s partly the fault of translations that are overly and overtly Christian.

    So who are these NT-illiterate people who are my friends?
    >Greek classicists and/ or philosophers and/ or rhetoricians (who have little time for Koine Greek because they believe the Christians who reduce the NT metaphors primarily to religious prototypes of the evangelical type).
    >Religionists (who believe that Christianity is one of many religions with unique but universally classifiable metaphors), so that “Christ” is just the Christian “one promised” in the way that “mashi’ah” is the “one” of late Judaism, and “Mahdi” is the “one” of various Islams, and “Vishnu” is “one” of the Maha Avatars of Hindu, and “Metteyya” is the “promised one” of Buddhism.
    >Jews who are not Christians and do not see either “Jesus” or “Christ” as anything but Christian. My friends who are variously observant and reformed and agnostics, in American and in Israel, have no time for the NT. (Except for Willis Barnstone’s translation of the gospels and Revelation, what other NT translation tries to show how Christian translators have co-opted this anointed one called Yeshua or Joshua for their own?)

  8. CharlesPDog says:

    I don’t think I understand this.

    People have said the words Jesus Christ together so often than many of then think its his last name. I have often thought it should be Jesus, Christ, or Jesus the Christ. It is both a title and a description. Jewish people at the time, and early Christians, had a very different perception of what the Messiah was going to do, restoring the Jews to their rightful place from what Christians have come to believe now, as a saver of souls by unearned forgiveness. Of course, any kind of trinitarian theology would not make sense either. Anointing is also a blessing to the individual being blessed, which is absent from your translation.

    Translating the whole NT will still not explain these concepts. What is nice about an oral tradition is that it allowed people to ask questions and receive explanations. This is the function of pastors and lay people to explain orally. If the recipient is open to more, then an nice easy Bible such as the Message should suffice. If the people are scholarly agnostics, then I doubt whether they’d care one way of the other about the nuances of any particular translations

  9. Dru says:

    Just a brief comment. I recognise the problem about a target audience. Even so, though, I do not think one can legitimately choose as ones translation a word that one knows is a less accurate rendering of the original, just because it is a more familiar word for the less educated reader. Monarchs often get anointed as part of their coronations, but the word ‘christos’ does not mean ‘king’. It is the other way round. Anointing has come into the various coronation ceremonials because of its biblical resonances.

    The whole biblical world was familiar with kings. There are both Hebrew and Greek word for king. If ‘christos’ had meant the same thing, the biblical writers would have used melech or basileus.

  10. CharlesPDog says:

    Similarly, Judges didn’t mean some guy in a black robe that decided guilty or not guilty. Nor do I believe were they anointed.

    Psalm 23 is a pretty well recognized piece of scripture, when I was a kid I didn’t get the whole anointed my head with oil thing. As an adult I had it done, It reminded me of a blessing and the fact that it was oil I felt its presence for quite a while and re-remembered in the Jewish sense.

  11. Gilbert Wesley Purdy says:

    May I caution that it is possible to get too close to your material and to lose perspective thereby. The arguments against your translation are generally well considered. Better “The Christ” than so wordy and imprecise a phrase as you are presently considering. Better even that your readers be presented with a foreign word/concept. Those who chose to follow the intriguing clues will mimic the vital process of “coming to know” Christ. Those who choose not may simply not be ready yet, for, surely, a willingness to deal with radical new concepts is at the heart of salvation.

    That said, perhaps “the Promised One” has possibilities.

  12. Bob MacDonald says:

    GWP wrote” surely, a willingness to deal with radical new concepts is at the heart of salvation”

    In line with an expansion of meaning of anointing, anointed, Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ or the Christ etc, surely _concepts_ is _not_ at the heart of salvation. Salvation is Christ Jesus, a person who is most emphatically not a concept. I have a personal specialty with brain damaged people who cannot grasp concepts or who take them at a tangent. Salvation must extend to my children, one of whom comes from Islamic stock and was in a car accident and one of whom is a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome from aboriginal stock and both of whom have suffered sever brain damage for one reason or another. Salvation of Christ – the Anointing Spirit of Jesus extends to them. They, outside of my body, are part of my body. Some traditions are hopelessly into conceptual salvation – their concepts on their own become idolatrous. God’s Jesus is not a concept. Neither is the consolation of the anointing of Israel.

    Do not translate in the flesh. Translate in Christ. There – rant over. And concatenation of puns over also. Grrr…

  13. Aaron Armitage says:

    “the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life”

    That’s… really very small, isn’t it?

  14. Martin Shields says:

    I have a few problems with a phrase such as “the one who would help people enjoy a better life.”

    My main objection to the phrase you’ve used is that it completely avoids the notions of sovereignty inherent in Χριστος. Messianic expectations in the first century (and throughout the OT) are invariably associated with a figure who comes to rule. I think this is clearly reflected in the NT. So while you object to a simple translation like “king” on the basis that “it would lose the distinction in meaning between the two terms,” I believe your own attempt fails because it obscures that connection completely.

    I also think that the expression is too vague. It encompasses far more than it should. I called the plumber a few weeks back and hoped that, as a result of his visit, aspects of my life would improve. I go to the doctor for the same reason. Yet I wouldn’t call either of them a messiah! Although it could be argued that the NT unpacks the nature of the Messiah’s role, emptying the term of meaning does not seem to me to be a good translation choice.

  15. J. K. Gayle says:

    John 4:25b

    NKJV “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).

    BLB “I know God promised that someone would come to help us enjoy a better life.”

    Ἰωάννης “οἶδα ὅτι Μεσσίας ἔρχεται ὁ λεγόμενος Χριστός”

    Barnstone “I know a mashiah is coming who is called the anointed.”

    Nyland “I know that the Messiah is coming – he’s called the Anointed One.”

    (John, a Jew & an apprentice of this “mashiah,” is translating into Greek the Samaritan-Aramaic of a woman recognizing and talking with that “mashiah.” Barnstone, a Greek & a translation scholar and a Jew, is translating into English the Greek of John. Nyland, a classical Greek scholar and a woman, is translating into English a man’s translation of another outsider-woman’s statement into Greek. Notice how similar these three, and their keen ability to carry the metaphor of “mashiah / μεσσίας” on into a simple-complex single phrase of an-other language, as a similar-different metaphor. Who is John’s “target audience”? Who is Barnstone’s, and Nyland’s?)

  16. Dan Sindlinger says:

    J. K. Gayle,
    Thanks for describing your NT-illiterate friends. I was going to suggest that my target audience is not so acadamic, but then I recalled that some who have appreciated “The Better Life Bible” include a surgeon, attorneys, anesthetist, dentist, pastors, Bible translators, college instructional designer, teachers, physical therapists, nurses, PhDs, etc. You mentioned that many of your biblical illiterate friends have no subjective interest in the NT. That’s a big obstacle for any translation to overcome.

    CharlesPDog, Dru, Bob,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Gilbert Wesley Purdy,
    > Better even that your readers be presented with a foreign word/concept.

    My view is that we should make every effort to relate a foreign concept to our target audience so they can understand it. If we have to use foreign words to do so, we are not actually producing a translation.

    Martin Shields
    > My main objection to the phrase you’ve used is that it completely avoids the notions of sovereignty inherent in Χριστος. Messianic expectations in the first century (and throughout the OT) are invariably associated with a figure who comes to rule.

    I think the concept of rulership includes the component of leadership. Many rulers throughout history have ruled/led by force. Jesus chose to lead by example. Perhaps this is why so many Jews (and others) were disappointed in him.

    Peter Kirk
    > How about “the One”? It worked in The Matrix, so why not in a Bible? And it has the advantage of being short!

    Thanks for the suggestion, Peter, but I think the upper case “O” is conveying meaning (special one?) that may not be understood when the text is heard rather than read. I’m not very familiar with The Matrix. How does the author relate who “the One” represents and what his purpose is?

  17. Peter Kirk says:

    Dan, I know The Matrix only from the film (actually a series of three, I never saw the third one), and so never saw “the One” written down. The capital letter is in fact my re-invention although also found in this Wikipedia article about the film. But “the One” was always spoken in such a context and with such a tone of voice to make it clear that the person referred to was very special. If I remember correctly the phrase “the One” is explained early on as something like “a man prophesied to end the war through his limitless control over the Matrix”, the Wikipedia explanation. And indeed within the story he is very much a Messiah figure, who saves a community called “Zion” from destruction, so the allusion is clearly deliberate. But I think this rendering would need to be handled carefully to make sure it is understood something like correctly.

  18. Dru says:

    I agree. I think ‘the One’ is quite a good rendering, with a lot going for it.

    J K, you ask a question about target audiences. I think mashiah is such an unfamiliar rendering for most people that it should only be used for a target audience for whom it would be the normal rendering – if such an audience exists. I suspect that for most people it would simply read like an odd spelling that has been deliberately chosen to make a point that is inaccessible to most of us.

  19. Rick Ritchie says:

    In John 4:25, it seems clear to me that Jesus was addressing someone who did not have a full understanding of what Christ or Messiah meant. Jesus’ response is one of the places that we use to learn what that fuller understanding is. If we translate the word as if it had been fully understood by the speaker in 4:25 we lose the sense of discovery in the passage. Much of what the Gospels accomplish is to alter a notion of what Christ or Messiah means. To allow this to work, you have to have a term that will be recognized as a term. And it should probably not be invested with more than those familiar with the Old Testament would have known. Perhaps “Hero” would allow this.

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