Liturgical Mistranslations


Every word of God is pure;
He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words,
lest He reprove you, and you be found a liar.
(Proverbs 30:5,6)

The more one compares the English translations with the original Greek regarding the Divine Liturgy, as well as the other services and prayers of the Church, the more frightened one becomes with the gross errors, some of which render heretical meanings to particular words and phrases.

Aside from clergy and theologians who commit these errors, there are also church musicians who feel qualified to tamper with the deep theological meanings of hymns of the Church and who attempt to use "appropriate words" that will not affect the "traditional" music which they compose, even though those words are incorrect. In regard to the "traditional" church music, that is another matter altogether.

Although it is encouraging to see both clergy and laity becoming sensitive to the need for English translations in our sacraments and services, not enough care is taken nor do individual translators consult adequately with experts in both languages so that the translations may truly reflect the original language.

A few examples must be cited to prove the point. In the Divine Liturgy we sing, "Tais presbeiais ths Theotokou, Soter, soson imas." Most of the translations use the word "prayers" for "presbeiais." However, if we were to offer a true translation, the word "prayers" would never be used for "presbeiais." The proper theological word is "intercessions." This would be the word used because the Theotokos does not simply pray for us; she intercedes for us. To pray for someone, as we all pray for one another, is self-explanatory. But to intercede for us, the Theotokos goes personally to her Son and our God and she pleads our case, as it were. This is a very significant difference.

Some of our clergy in writing their own translations in recent years have changed Scriptural passages that are found in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Neither they nor anyone else has the right to change Holy Scripture found in the services when translated into English. Yet they have done so, preferring secular expressions to the Scriptural ones. A good example of this is the phrase, "eis tous aionas ton aionon" - "to the ages of ages." Some clergy translators prefer to translate this entire phrase with the single word "forevermore." Yet we know that in innumerable places of the Holy Bible we read the phrase, "to the ages of ages." Saint Paul writing to the Galatians, for example, says "o i doxa eis tous aionas ton aionon" (1:5), referring to God. To God "be the glory to the ages of ages." In another of many places, from the Book of Revelation, we read "afto i doxa kai to kratos eis tous aionas ton aionon" (1:6). The precise translation would be "to Him be the glory and the dominion to the ages of ages."

The frightening thing about a number of these translations is that they have been printed by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Press, as well as by well-known and highly-respected priests of our Church. If we were to use a liturgy book from the Holy Cross Bookstore we would conclude that Jesus Christ is not our Redeemer because He did not die for our sins. For when we read the words of Institution. "This is My Body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins," what else can we assume? The Greek word in this phrase of the Institution is not "synghorisis" but "afesis." The word "synghorisis" means forgiveness, not remission, as "afesis" does. Christ remitted our sins. He paid for them, in other words, when He died on the Cross. A rule of thumb for these two words is that forgiveness usually refers to a person, whereas remission definitely refers to the sin itself. Christ our Lord redeemed us by paying for our sins with His blood and His death on the Cross. It was this act which abrogated the old covenant and put into effect the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:16-18). Christ our God made reparation for our sins by giving His very life. This is not merely forgiveness of sins; it is atonement. If the two words meant the same thing, it would not be necessary for a petition in several of our services to say, "For the forgiveness and the remission of our sins and transgressions, let us ask the Lord."

One could go on and on to indicate how careless and reckless many of our translators seem to be, especially when they consider themselves the sole authority of a "good translation." However, in order to keep this study brief, one last example will suffice to demonstrate the great danger there is in using many of our present-day English translations.

In a recently published Book of Psalms, we can see the reality of potential scandal for the faithful and merriment for Satan, who will bring forth the virtually perfect counterfeit of Christ Himself in the oncoming future. This has to do with Psalm 110, or 109 in the Septuagint Greek. The phrase in question is "... ek gastros pro Eosforou egennisa se ..." The King James translation writes, "... from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth ..." A better translation is from the Saint Joseph New Catholic Edition Bible which says, "... before the day star, like the dew, I have begotten you ..." However, in the recently printed Book of Psalms recommended by our Archdiocese we read, "Before the morning star, like the dew, I have begotten you."

It is significant that this verse is part of the entrance hymn of the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity of our Lord. In the Orthodox Christian tradition it has always meant: "Even before Lucifer came forth, I had already begotten you." Since Satan, the former Lucifer, had taken control of this world when Adam and Eve gave up their authority to him and death came upon mankind, it was for this very reason that Christ was born as the second Adam to crush the authority and power of Satan and also to become a Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. The whole Psalm refers to Christ Who was born from the symbolic divine womb and was therefore ageless and eternal, even before God created His most powerful and magnificent creature who was named, "He who brings forth the morning light," or "Eosforos," because of his dazzling beauty. In this particular phrase it is a mystery why almost all the translators use the word "dew" in place of the Septuagint Greek "gastros" or womb.

The fearsome thing with the English translation in the new Book of Psalms is that the name "Eosforos" or Lucifer is replaced by the name, "Morning Star." They who have read the Book of Revelation (22:16) know that the name, Morning Star refers to none other than our Lord Jesus Christ Who calls Himself by this title. The fact is that Lucifer originally brought forth light which was the created light. Jesus Christ, however, is the true Light, the Uncreated Light. Our Lord gives to Himself the title, "Bright and Morning Star," referring to His Second Coming at which time He will place Satan in the eternal darkness.

If the translation of this new book were to be considered accurate, then there is someone else before the Morning Star who was begotten by God the Father. Obviously this cannot be and we must conclude that faulty translations can easily creep into our holy teachings and traditions, if we are not absolutely careful in the tedious work of accurate translations. In this particular case, this heretical translation identifies Satan as the Morning Star who, as we know, is he who will one day bring forth the Anti-Christ.

Hopefully, a permanent commission of competent translators will soon be brought together to "fine comb" all present English translations, not only of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, but of every Orthodox jurisdiction so that heretical words and phrases will not find room in the works that are to come forth for the preservation of our holy Orthodox faith, as it was handed down to us by our forebearers. For it is our responsibility to pass on this great, Divine Trust to those who are coming after us for their proper edification and sanctification.

September 1999

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Metropolitan Isaiah