Hebrews 2:6 – A Response to Rick Shields

I have been working for a couple of weeks on a response to John Hobbins’ response to my previous post. There I will talk about  differences in usage between, Xenophon, the LXX, and the NT to argue that the NT is not ALL in Biblish. But then Rick Shields posted on Hebrews 2:6 which touches on a key issue and my comment to him was turning into a whole post, so I’m responding to Rick here, and postpone the trickier discussion of John’s points till later.

We linguists wince at the treatments of the gender “problem” in Bible translation, because it’s one of the key places in which people argue from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of language. Grammatical gender is simply not referential, it is classificatory.

The belief that grammatical gender is referential, in turn, triggers a theological feedback loop, in which people fight tooth and nail for interpretations that simply aren’t warranted by the text, as if their salvation depended on it. But that’s another matter.

At least three dimensions are in play in translation, Bible or otherwise. One is the referential intent of the writer. Another is the norms of usage in the respective languages, and the third is the intertextuality within the larger conversation that the particular text was written as part of.

I tried to tease out the second of these dimensions, the usage one, in my post a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t work very well, because it got overrun by a discussion that was driven by questions of intertextuality. Then Rick Shields posted on a topic that goes to the heart of intertextuality, and I couldn’t resist.

In garden variety translation, including literary translation, the priorities are (in order):

1) Get the reference right.
2) Make the usage natural.
3) Then work in whatever intertextuality you can without damaging the previous two priorities.

There are, of course, complications. Sometimes the “real” reference is implied in some way, rather than stated, and you may have to wiggle some to get it to come out. For example, you may have to undo a metaphor that doesn’t work in the target language. Knowing just when to do that kind of thing is what makes translation an art form.

But in Bible translation, usage somehow seems always to end up at the bottom of the priority list. And for some people, intertextuality is at the very top. That is, they are willing to sacrifice even clarity of reference to maintain the intertextuality of the original.

While I personally don’t agree with devaluing usage, I understand that it is easy for us to accept the distortions of weird usage because we’ve heard so much Scripture in some or other distortion of Elizabethan/Jacobian English, that we think natural usage just isn’t what Scripture should sound like.

I could go on for days about that.

But overvaluing intertextuality is a real problem for me. And Rick Shields has landed smack dab in the middle of one of the most difficult cases. (He posts about it here. He says he’s talking about gender, but that’s not the real problem with the passage he cites.)

Let me set up the case.

The OT uses the trope man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh)/son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam) in repetitions/elaborations for emphatic reasons. There are many examples. I’ll cite just one.

Blessed is the one (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh) who does these things
and the person (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam) who holds on to them.
Blessed is the one who keeps the day of worship from becoming unholy
and his hands from doing anything wrong. (Is. 56:2) (GW)

This is the device being used in Ps. 8:4.

what is man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh) that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam ‘son of man’) that you care for him? (Ps. 8:4) (ESV)

Now here’s the problem.

Jesus frequently uses the very non-Greek phrase υἰὸς ἀνθρώπου (= בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam, ‘son of man’) to refer to himself.  He follows in the OT tradition of Ezekiel in what one could and probably should interpret as a claim to be a prophet. It’s probably something that you don’t even try to translate, you just calque it. (And that’s OK, because it’s as weird in Greek as it is in English, and the writers of the NT simply calqued it from the Aramaic, rather than making the pragmatic substitution.)

But in the end Jesus turns that phrase into a reference to Daniel 7:13 and a claim to being the Messiah, (Matt 24:30, 26:64, Mark 13:26, 14:62, and Luke 21:27). The writer of Hebrews knows this, so he’s reading the Messianic claim back into Psalm 8, and the translator is forced to give the intertextuality high priority here, just to maintain the intended reference.

The result is a minimum requirement that the form of the two noun phrases in question must be both singular and indefinite. That traps you in awkward English, since we prefer our generic references to be plural or definite.

Sheep are docile animals.
The sheep is a docile animal.

are both more natural than

A sheep is a docile animal.

An attempt to preserve the singular definite might read like this:

what is the mortal that you pay any attention to him,
or the son of mortals that you care about him?

That doesn’t quite work. But I have another kind of solution.

I have long argued that OT quotes in the NT are in Biblish Koine as opposed to the rest of the NT Koine. If you take that position then the OT quotes should generally be set off in KJV-like language.

Here’s a larger excerpt from Hebrews 2, using existing translations to show the kind of approach, I favor.

4 God himself showed that his message was true by working all kinds of powerful miracles and wonders. He also gave his Holy Spirit to anyone he chose to. We know that God did not put the future world under the power of angels. Somewhere in the Scriptures someone says to God,

“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him,
or the son of man, that Thou carest for him?
7 For a little while Thou madest him lower than the angels;
Thou crownedst him with glory and honor,
and didst set him over the works of thy hands:
8 Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.

God has put everything under our power and has not left anything out of our power. But we still don’t see it all under our power. What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels. Because of God’s wonderful kindness, Jesus died for everyone. And now that Jesus has suffered and died, he is crowned with glory and honor!  (vss 4-6a, 8b-9 CEV, vss 6b-8a ESV/KJV mash up)

21 thoughts on “Hebrews 2:6 – A Response to Rick Shields

  1. exegete77 says:

    Thanks, Rich, from another Rich.

    I appreciate you addressing these texts. I wonder, though, if we aren’t approaching the text on different levels. Because I serve as pastor of a congregation as well as other duties, my concern here is as pastor. In evaluating the translations, it soon becomes evident that translators themselves (by publishing the translations) have made part of the question gender related. By translating selected pasages to conform to an agenda for gender (regardless of which direction is taken, i.e. NIV or ESV), the translations themselves impose the gender topic on its readers.

    In this case, members of my congregations won’t know about allusion and intertextuality, but they will see a change in the nouns/pronouns and even the number of those nouns/pronouns in selected texts. At that level it is indeed a gender issue. (Note: I am trying to write this as neutral as possible.) As a pastor and president of our seminary, I cannot change the translations that are published.

    If the translators are being addressed, and secondarily pastors of congregations, then allusion and intertextuality become the source of better understanding the text itself. And I would whole-heartedly like to learn more about what you write. It is indeed beneficial. How is it best to help pastors and members who already have one of these translations?

    Does this help in understanding where I am relative to these translations? Have I understood you correctly? I appreciate your concerns and knowledge.

  2. Dannii says:

    I think a translation that used more registers would be better for it! In this case the register would be what I call the fake-KJV register, and I think most fluent speakers of English do know this register, even though they may not be Christians or even have ever read the KJV. (Perhaps it’s also fake-Shakespeare.)

    Fake-KJV uses the old pronouns, and the odd -est, but is otherwise modern English. I don’t think it would be wise to use actual KJV English, but fake-KJV English would be fine. The problem with actual KJV English is that many words have changed meaning, such as, for example, “conversation” in 1 Peter 1:15.

  3. aubee91 says:

    I really don’t see how such a “KJV-esque language” approach really helps anything. It would just seem to result in more obscurity for the average reader. Wouldn’t even a long, detailed footnote be better than this approach?

  4. Rich Rhodes says:

    The question is about translation. In some way that makes intuitive sense but is exceedingly hard to define in detail, the translation should have the same communicative effect on its audience that the original had on the original audience. That includes the difficult bits.

    One of the problems simultaneous translators talk about is that they have to resist the temptation to “fix” the material they are interpreting.

    The same thing applies in this case. Since the OT quotes arguably sounded like Biblish to the original audience, it’s completely appropriate for the OT quotes in English to sound like Biblish.

    But Danii is right, they can’t be truly Early Modern English, or they will be misinterpreted, something that was considerably less of a problem in Koine. That’s because LXX Koine was a lot closer to NT Koine than Elizabethan/Jacobean English is to contemporary English.

    It is not the job of the translator to make clear what is unclear in the original. (This is a huge problem with The Message.) The job of the translator is to be invisible.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:


    How would you then translate Psalm 8:4 in the OT?

    I realize that question actually involves several sub-questions, but I’m curious how you deal with it.

  6. Rich Rhodes says:

    Well, that’s an interesting question.

    There is an argument to be made that the OT should be in quasi-Biblish to start with because by the time it is assembled into a single book, a lot of it is Biblish to its audience and it’s packed with so many allusions and cross references that something like a natural translation has its own set of problems. (John Hobbins holds this opinion, as far as I can tell.)

    I don’t necessarily agree, but then I’m not a Hebrew scholar, so I can’t, in general, evaluate such claims. The question probably boils down to: should LXX quotes in the NT be translated the same as the corresponding verses in the OT, and I’m not convinced that they should. (There’s probably a whole series of blog posts lying around on that question.) But we translate the OT from Hebrew and the NT from Greek, so there is an underlying translation gap, not to mention that the LXX quotes in the NT aren’t always exactly the same as the corresponding verses in any version of the LXX.

  7. Mike Tisdell says:


    Assuming Ps. 8:5 (Hebrew)

    I would likely choose a translation like the HCSB

    “what is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him?”

    The strengths of this translation are that it follows the form of the Hebrew well. I personally, believe the masculine inclusive is still well understood in English and feel there is little reason to abandon it as has been done in other versions. I don’t think זכר needs to be interpreted as many of the translations have done. פקד can be a difficult word to translate and, in this context, I think that “look after” or “care” captures the intensity of this word much better than the NET’s “pay attention” or the KJV/NKJV “visit.” While I might choose to leave “son of man,” I do think it deserves a footnote as those unfamiliar with Hebrew parallelism might think this was a messianic title. If the only goal was for the audience to hear it as the original audience did than this phrase would have to be abandoned but I personally think there is a valid argument for helping the audience understand a little about the culture of the Hebrew people.

    Of the versions that have chosen inclusive langauge I personally like the NIV 2011 best because I think it capture the parallelism and nuances of the verbs bests. I personally don’t like the NLT/NRSV (mirror opposites in this verse) choice of “mortals” because I think the word brings to mind a slight nuance of “gods” vs. “mortals” in Greek mythology or comic books because in everyday English that is typically how we use the word “mortals.”

  8. Rich Rhodes says:

    My point was exactly that Jesus was using “the son of man” as a claim to being the Messiah, so we should hear it as a Messianic title. And the writer of Hebrews is using that to read the Psalm. A footnote might be helpful, but not to undermine the claim being made.

    I don’t think that insisting that the reader of the translation hears it in the same way as the original audience requires rewording at all. In this case the audience of the Book of Hebrews is Greek speaking with a Jewish background, quite different from the original audience of the Psalm itself. It isn’t just about hearing the parallelism, (what you’d have to do to match what the original audience of the Psalm would hear) but it’s about recognizing the link to the Prophets and Daniel 7:13.

    BTW, I kind of like the HCSB. The translators tend to make good choices.

  9. aubee91 says:

    Rich, some things are just untranslatable. Making a passage that would have sounded like “Biblish” Koine Greek to 1st century Koine speakers/readers may just be one of those things. Translating it as some kind of “KJV-esque” or even a different archaic English just doesn’t seem like a good approach. Of course it isn’t the job of the translator to make clear what was unclear in the original, but neither is it the job of the translator to try and translate something unclear in the original to something that is unclear in the target language in a way that can’t really capture that difference that the original readers experienced. There is nothing wrong with a footnote that says something very similar to what you said here, that these OT quotes would have been in a different dialect or register than the NT readers’ native language or that they would have sounded archaic to the NT readers. This would seem preferable to deliberately trying to muddle the translation.

  10. exegete77 says:

    Thanks for this discussion. I think if we are concerned about Biblish as something to be avoided in general, I would think it should be avoided even in translating the quotes of Hebrew/LXX passages in the New Testament. Again, the challenge is on at least two levels: 1) translators themselves who have to do this, 2) users who for the most part have no background in Hebrew/Greek; thus they have to rely on existing translations. It is the latter category that is my primary concern within the congregation.

    Mike Tisdell, you raise an interesting point about NIV 2011. But do you see that changing the singular to the plural in the first section 2nd line is helpful? I ask because I have noticed in particular NLT and NRSV often will change a singular to a plural. Psalm 1:1-2 comes to mind. It seems that the change in number there changes the dynamics of what the Psalmist is expressing, namely the one righteous among the many unrighteous, and the difficulty of living out the faith in that kind of environment. If it is changed to plural, then it becomes “many righteous” vs. “many unrighteous,” and that seems to change the dynamics of what is described in the Hebrew.

    Rich Shields

  11. Mike Tisdell says:


    I think that placing a NT interpretation into an OT text is not fair because I do not think the original audience would have seen a messianic aspect to this verse. We need to remember that:

    1) Ps. 8:4 was written centuries before Daniel and many centuries before Hebrews. The original audience would not have know either of these additional texts.

    2) The readers of Daniel would also likely have missed this connection because they read Aramaic and in Ps. 8:4 the Hebrew phrase “son of man” is “בן אדם”(lit. “son of adam”) but the Aramaic phrase in Daniel is “בר אנש” which to the Aramaic speaker is much more closely tied to the word “man” (אנוש) in Ps. 8:4 than it is to “son of man.” Until the LXX used a common vocabulary for both Ps. 8:4 and Dan. 7:13 (υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου), it is likely that this connection was not easily seen by any audience.

  12. Mike Tisdell says:

    @Rick Shields

    In Ps. 8:4, I do not think any meaning is lost by using the plural, but in Ps. 1:1-2 I do think there is lost meaning by using the plural. Note, the NIV 2011 also recognizes this and translates Ps. 1:1-2 in the singular. Personally, I think the argument for inclusive langauge translations is overstated. I personally don’t believe that the understanding of the inclusive masculine has been lost in modern English and therefore would choose to use an inclusive masculine but this is clearly a debatable point. I am far more concerned with the use of inclusive language where I believe the original text was non-inclusive. The examples of this are very few but they do exist. In the NIV 2011, Acts 6:3 comes to mind as one such example i.e. in the first century culture did both the men and women really choose the leaders or in that culture was this a duty of only males. All the evidence I have seen would suggest the latter, so I see the NIV’s use of inclusive langauge here as a rewriting of history. Remember, this is a historical account of what happened.

    On a different note: We need to remember that Hebrew and English do use plurals differently and it is quite common in Hebrew to use a singular noun as a plural referent. For example, “soul” in Ex. 1:5 is singular in Hebrew but the text clearly states that their were seventy “souls”

  13. Rich Rhodes says:

    One of the problems with translation in general is that it tends to level differences that are there in the original. (David Bellos in his wonderful book Is that a fish in your ear? talks about this in chapter 26.) Style is not necessarily untranslatable. We’re used to the Bible being “flat”, whether KJV, NIV, TEV, or The Message.

    There is an option to translate LXX quotes into quasi-Biblish without being unclear. We’re against Biblish, in general, because it doesn’t reflect what the bulk of the original is like. But using quasi-Biblish (not true Early Modern English), is simply allowing us to use the full range of the language to convey what the original conveyed. (Church English is full of quasi-Biblish, from hymns to points of church-speak: “How is your walk with the Lord?”)

    I’d argue that it is wrong in principle to flatten English out when we translate the Bible. The original writers used the full range of their language, the translation should do likewise.

  14. exegete77 says:

    Just for the record, I go by Rich. Until this post, only once in 63 years has anyone called me Rick. LOL

    Thanks again.

    Rich Rhodes, which English translation available today do you think comes closest to this “full range of the original language”?

  15. Iver Larsen says:

    Rich Rhodes wrote: “Jesus frequently uses the very non-Greek phrase υἰὸς ἀνθρώπου (= בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam, ‘son of man’) to refer to himself.”

    I was only able to find this phrase one place in the NT, namely John 5:27. However, I did find ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου 81 times. In my view the definite form is significant, since υἰὸς ἀνθρώπου is a Greek literal translation of the Hebrew for “human being”, whereas THE “Son of Man” is a reference to THAT human being whom Daniel saw in his vision being in Heaven with God Almighty.

    Why did the KJV introduce the definite article in Heb 2:8 which is neither in Hebrew nor Greek? Did they assume that the expression is equivalent to ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου and therefore a reference to Jesus as the Messiah?

    It seems to me that all comments so far have assumed the same, probably because of the KJV and its followers. But is this assumption justified? I doubt it.

    Unfortunately, Modern English does not have a simple word for “human being” like I am used to from my own language and German and every other language I know of. Therefore, one has to use “people” or “human being”.

    Let me quote NCV:

    God did not choose angels to be the rulers of the new world that was coming (Greek: the coming world, no past tense verb), which is what we have been talking about. 6 It is written in the Scriptures,
    “Why are people important to you?
    Why do you take care of human beings?
    7 You made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
    8 You put all things under their control.”

    In spite of the singular pronouns, I take them to refer to human beings in general, so the plural forms in NCV are justified. I do not see that “son of man” in this passage was intended to refer to Jesus, but to people in general. It seems to be part of God’s plan that human beings for a time were placed below angels, but in the world to come (the new world which is still future) humans will be the rulers above the angels. I find it more likely that the author of Hebrews took the past tense as a prophetic future. God has in a sense already crowned humans with glory and honor and put all things under their control, but it has not yet happened. It is their destiny.

    The author then continues to comment on the intended meaning of the quote, as NLT has it with a little addition from me:

    “Now when it says “the subjection of all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. 9 What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.””

    So, what the text seems to say is that for now human beings have not yet taken that position of authority, since it belongs to the world that is yet to come, but Jesus has gone ahead and has already taken up that position of authority, moving from a position of a human being back to a position as Son of God, the position that Daniel saw him in.

    My point is that the exegesis of this text is not as simple as it might look.

  16. hjimkeener says:

    Let me throw this curve-ball into the discussion: If we are distinguishing b/t different types of Koine, then it seems to me that we have to acknowledge that the book of Hebrews is of a highly different sort of Koine from, say, the gospel of Mark or even the Pauline epistles. The Epistle to the Hebrews is really, really difficult stuff. The rhetorical style, the vocabulary, everything; it’s a book that is very hard to read in the original Greek.
    Maybe, then, along this line of reasoning, if the citation of Psalm 8 in Heb 2 ought to be translated in KJV-ese, then the rest of the book of Hebrews ought to be translated in ASV-ese, or at least RSV-ese.
    By the by, my dissertation was on Psalm 8, including a treatment of the NT use of Psalm 8.

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    I like the curve. 🙂 I think the importance of mixing different styles is fundamental to Rich’s argument.

    I’ve often thought of Hebrews as a document intended to be read and pondered, much like a theological treatise. Ironically, it’s hard because “correct” Greek Grammar is closely followed. While I’ve thought of the Gospels and Acts as more like a story written to be heard, and motivational and defining of one’s identity. They’re written at a popular level and the flexibility of language is exploited to advantage.

    And, to be clear, I’m not intending any sense of ‘fiction’ in my use of the word ‘story’.

    We have these different styles today in writings that are still thought of as polished and professional.

    My point is that when these two types of audiences are recognized, it’s easier to see the style of the writings diverge into two different styles. The one sounds more academic; the other sounds more oral. IMO, translations should follow suit.

    And the additional thing to realize is that both styles can evidence a high degree of thought having been placed in the use of syntax and lexis. The grammatical purest may grumble at certain constructions (“Mr. Mark should be banned from using Greek! The writer of Hebrews knew his grammar.”). But the Gospels evidence the oral culture and are meant to sound more like something Mark Twain might have written. With Hebrews, the logic of the reasoning is mirrored in the logic of the grammar.

    Paul’s writings are an even more interesting style. To me they come across as a highly educated person effectively communicating hard to accept concepts using language easily understood by the average person. They aren’t “high-class” like Hebrews, nor are they intense, almost revolutionary, like Mark. In some ways it mixes the two styles (theological and popular) into one.

  18. Ken Langley says:

    Just discovered this interesting thread. Did you know that J.B.Phillips did what Rich proposes in his original post. Whenever he quoted the Old Testament, Phillips reverted to the King James. It’s actually a bit jarring to read the contemporary, almost breezy Brittish English and then all of a sudden be back in the Jacobean period. Wonder what Phillips would have odne if he’d gone on to translate the Old Testament?

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