God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Who is the King of Kings?

If for no other reason, the phrase “king of kings and lord of lords” is famous because it’s in Handel’s Messiah.

We first find “king of kings” in the OT, where the appellation is used for Pagan rulers: Artaxerxes in Ezra (where “king of kings” is the Aramaic melech malchaya) and Nebuchadnezzar in Ezekiel and Daniel (in Hebrew and Aramaic, respectively). The Babylonian rulers were “kings of kings,” reflecting their desire to rise above other, lower kings. (Based on this, Jewish custom would later call God melech malchei ha-m’lachim, “king of the kings of kings,” the final salvo of one-upmanship emphasizing God’s power over the “kings of kings.”)

In the NT, the phrases “king of kings” and “lord of lords” each have two Greek equivalents, a fact that is hidden by all of the English translations that I know of.

In Revelation we find phrases that are structurally similar to “king of kings” and “lord of lords,” basileus basileon and kurios kurion, respectively. The first is the same Greek phrase that we find in the LXX in Ezra, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

But in I Timothy 6:15 we find the less-expected basileus ton basileuonton — similar to “ruler of the rulings” — and kurios ton kurieuonton (“lord of the lordings,” as it were).

The difference is particularly surprising in light of the otherwise similar phrasing in I Timothy 6:15-16 and Daniel 2:37, including the fact that timi — variously “honor” or “glory” — is ascribed to the “kings of kings” in both places.

Is the different Greek wording for “king of kings” in I Timothy an irrelevant detail, best hidden (as it currently is) by translations? Or should translations let the English reader see that the wording in I Timothy is different than what we find elsewhere?

December 14, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. I’ve read it distinctively in First Timothy. It purposefully calls nobody else king, but only “those who call themselves king.” I think the key is in the first half of the verse. Nobody else can legitimately be called dunastes. Not just is the phrasing in 1 Timothy unique, but it is longer. I’d argue there is a purposeful change that stresses the unique majesty of the Lord God.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 15, 2009

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