God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Putting the Face of Christ on a Gun – Trijicon and 2 Corinthians 4:6

The recent brouhaha about gun sights etched with references to Biblical passages has brought renewed attention to John 8:12 and 2 Corinthians 4:6, both about light. To understand the light, I think we need a detour through the word for “face”: prosopon.

The Face – prosopon

At its most basic level, prosopon is literally the face, as in Matthew 6:16, where fasting involves caring for the the head (kefali) and the face (prosopon); or in Revelations 10:1, where the word appears with pous, “foot.”

But we see from Matthew 16:3 that the word also means “appearance.” The phrase prosopon tou ouranou — literally, “face of the sky” — is clearly “how the sky appears.”

Other times yet, prosopon forms part of an expression. We find pipto epi prosopon — literally “to fall on the face” — which is an act of humility or of supplication. (“Falling on one’s face” may have been a physical act of prostration, but even so, it was a Greek expression, perhaps taken from the similar Hebrew one (nafal al panav). By contrast, in English if I “fall on my face” I probably slipped. The English phrase can also refer to failure.)

Similarly, stirixo to prosopon — “to set the face” — means to head toward, as in Luke 9:51.

The English word “face” is also used figuratively, but, obviously, it’s a mistake to assume that the English figures of speech match the Greek ones just because they happen both to contain a word meaning “face.”

So when we read in 2 Corinthians 4:6 about prosopon Christou, we know that it may be the physical face of Christ, but it need not be. It could be Christ’s appearance, or something even less tangible. And the English “face” may or may not be the right word for it.

The Light – fos

This brings us “light,” fos in Greek.

In Genesis 1:3, God creates fos, that is, “light.” Fos, then, is physical light, a usage we find throughout the LXX and the NT

Light in general is important to the human condition, and it also plays a central role in the Greek dualism that pits lights against darkness, so we we aren’t surprised to find that fos refers not only to physical light but also, in general, to good things.

When Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1 in Matthew 4:16, he uses the images of “living in darkness,” versus “seeing a great light,” and of the “shadow of death” versus the “rise of light.” Isaiah makes it clear that light is good and darkness bad in Isaiah 9:2, where he talks about the happiness and joy that come with light.

Similarly, Acts 26:8 puts “darkness to light [fos]” in parallel with “the power of Satan toward God,” again using fos for “good” in general.

And once again, we have expressions in English that involve “light,” but that doesn’t mean that “light” in English is the same as fos in Greek. For instance, in English one can “see the light,” but that phrase means “to understand,’ not necessarily “to find goodness.” (This is why Acts 22:9 is hard to translate — it involves the contrast between literally seeing the light of God’s sign to Paul versus literally hearing the sounds.)

Sometimes it’s hard to know if we see an idiom in Greek or a metaphor — that is, whether the text us using fos in its general sense of “good” or whether the text is using physical light poetically. John 11:9-10, for example, explains that those who walk at night without light stumble, while those who walk by the light of day do not. The message transcends physical walking, light, and darkness, but the words themselves may not. That’s how allegories work.

In John 8:12 we probably see both physical and metaphoric light, first the light of the world, then the light of life.

2 Corinthians 4:6 is much more interesting, as we see next.

More Light – fotismos

Like John 8:12, 2 Corinthians 4:6 progresses from physical light to something else. The physical light comes in the phrase ek skotous fos, “light out of darkness.” (This is sometimes footnoted as a citation of Genesis 1:3. I’m not convinced.)

But in the second half of 2 Corinthians 4:6 we find the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (a phrase that is much less awkward in Greek). Here, however, instead of the usual word fos we find the less common fotismos. That Greek word is related to fos in roughly the way that “enlightenment” or “lighting” is related to “light,” but — as usual — we don’t want to let English happenstance mask what the Greek means.

In the LXX, we find fotismos a handful of times, and here’s what interesting: the word is often used in connection with the face! So we have Psalm 44:4 (43:4): o fotismos tou prosopou sou for the Hebrew or panecha (“light of your face”); Psalm 90:8 (89:8): fotismon tou prosopou sou for the Hebrew lim’or panecha (“light of your face”). There are two Hebrew words for “light” here — or and ma’or — but even though they are both usually translated as fos, here we find fotismos, both for or and for ma’or in connection with panim (“face”).

It’s not clear how much to make of this — the sample is mostly limited to Psalms, and sometimes, as in Psalm 89:16 (88:16), or panecha is just fos tou prosopou — but it’s still suggestive.

The word fotismos is rarer still in the NT. We see it here in 2 Corinthians 4:6, and two verses earlier in 4:4. In verse 4:4 we find the fotismos of “the gospel of the glory of Christ,” and here in 4:6 of “the knowledge of the glory of God,” and then, toward the end of 4:6, the fotismos is connected to “Christ’s face.”

The Light of Christ’s Face

So what we have is a metaphorical use of “face” (prosopon) in the NT that doesn’t match how we use “face” in English, and a special word for “light” (fotismos) that seems to be if not specifically connected to the face at least generally metaphoric in ways that the English “light” is not. And the two metaphoric words come together in 2 Corinthians 4:6.

The NRSV translates, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” But this seems to me like a case of getting the words right and missing the point; other translations fare similarly. (Also, the grammar is particularly awkward in English.)

Equally (in)correct as a translation would be, “…the benefit of knowing God’s glory in the presence of Jesus Christ.” In addition to fixing the English grammar, that translation conveys some aspects of the original Greek, but at the expense of the connection to “light.” Similarly we might consider, “…the beauty of knowing God’s glory in the presnce of Jesus Christ,” with the same benefits and drawbacks.

We can also compare, “the light of knowing God’s glory before Jesus Christ.” Again, it fixes the English grammar, and in so doing, I think it highlights the incongruity of “light” here, which misses the impact of fotismos.

As a bolder option, we might try, “the glow of knowing God’s glory as illuminated by Jesus Christ.” It’s still not right, but it seems to me that it’s better than the word-for-word translation.

The central problem for translation is that we can’t accurately capture the incidentally metaphoric use of prosopon (“face,” but not really) and the specifically metaphoric use of fotismos (“light,” but really not).

Still, even without a great English translation (any suggestions?), I think we can recognize the beauty of the original poetry, and — at the risk of straying from the realm of translation — ask if it belongs on weapon of war.

[Update Jan 22, 2010: Trijicon has reversed its policy of putting Bible citations on its gun sights.]


January 21, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , ,


  1. While you have pointed out interesting aspects [no pun intended] of PROSOPON, I think that 2 Cor 4:6 is literally referring to his face. The reason I say that is the context is creating a contrast with Moses, who wore a veil on his face:

    Exodus 34:33 And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face.
    Exodus 34:34 But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded.
    Exodus 34:35 And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

    His point is that Moses veiled his face to prevent the Jews from seeing that his shining was fading. In contrast, in the face of Jesus, with no veil, the glory just gets better and better.

    Also, the “face of the sky” may have a sense of “appearance” but in the scriptures, the sky actually *had* a surface. In other words, it was conceived of by the Hebrews as being a transparent structure about one tower-height above the dry land, holding waters above it (making it appear blue). In the face of it, the stars were embedded like recessed lighting in a Barnes and Nobel store. Note how the birds fly along the face of the sky:

    Young’s Literal:
    Genesis 1:20 ¶ And God saith, ‘Let the waters teem with the teeming living creature, and fowl let fly on the earth on the face of the expanse of the heavens.’

    A better example might be the “face of the ground.”

    Genesis 2:6 But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

    There, PROSOPON has the sense of “surface” or “top face.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 21, 2010

    • I think that 2 Cor 4:6 is literally referring to his face.
      His point is that Moses veiled his face to prevent the Jews from seeing that his shining was fading. In contrast, in the face of Jesus, with no veil, the glory just gets better and better.

      It’s an interesting suggestion, and I’m pretty sure you’re right about the context. Still, I think that that context just sets the stage for the imagery: It’s not just Moses’ face that’s veiled, but also the “hearts” of those who read the “old covenant” (2 Cor 3:15), and potentially the gospel itself (2 Cor 4:3).

      In fact, I think one aspect that makes the imagery so powerful is the way it moves so seamlessly from literal to metaphoric.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 21, 2010

      • I think that I left out some faces… that of the apostles. Paul says:

        * Moses’ face was veiled to disguise his fading glory
        * The Jews’ minds were veiled so that they STILL don’t see the fading of the glory of the Torah – they don’t recognize that it is obviated by the surpassing glory of the gospel, thus they are hardened (temporarily and judicially) so that their “table” is their snare, etc;
        * The face of Jesus Christ is not veiled. When one turns to the lord [Jesus], the veil on the mind pulls away, and they see the uselessness of Torah;
        * The apostles don’t veil their own face, so their faces shine more and more;
        * If someone can’t see the shine on their faces, it is because the god of this world has blinded their eyes, not because they are hiding anything;

        Comment by WoundedEgo | January 21, 2010

      • This saying coincides nicely with Paul affirming that the apostles do not cover their faces, but rather shine more and more brilliantly. They want to be understood.

        Matthew 5:
        14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
        15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
        16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

        It would be crazy to light a candle and then put it under a bushel. It does seem disturbing that God would cover Moses with a “bushel-veil” to hide the fact that the candle was burning out…

        Comment by WoundedEgo | January 23, 2010

  2. Face it, we got a problem with verses on guns! I am glad you pick this one word because I like the ‘presence’ metaphor implied in the Hebrew panim and the various prepositions used to say ‘before’ or ‘in his presence’. We read 2 Kings 5 last week where the translations all obscure what seems to me to be an envelope structure in the story of Naaman using this preposition.

    Also in psalm 90(89 LXX), there is a play on face at the turn of the psalm – you put our iniquities in front of you our secret in the light of your face // for all our days face away from your fury we complete our years as a groan. I have been asking for input but no-one has commented on this 😦 – so my face is downcast.

    Now I don’t do Greek – but I love your exploration of these words. I do do guesswork based on my own experience and subject to correction and rebuke. I think this verse definitely recalls Genesis where creation and redemption are implied in the fiat lux just as they are implied by the 7 days and 1 day (Gen 2:4) when Hashem created the heavens and the earth. This is the day of resurrection. This section of 2 Corinthians is an extended metaphor over 2 chapters – running to the end of chapter 5. The parallel in the immediate verse is darkness and the human heart. The light of creation (new creation 5:17) is the knowledge of God on the face of Jesus the anointed one. Capitalize at your pleasure. I think Hashem cares more about bodies than capitals – and live ones at that – not bodies at the end of a muzzle. And he likes more than the head (alive not caput) – the whole body is required as David learned and wrote for us in Psalm 51.

    There have been discussions over the phrase ‘in Christ’. I wonder what this means and whether we should confine the ‘image of Christ’ to Jesus alone but rather extend it to all who are embraced by the anointing of the Spirit of God in all generations i.e. let’s include Naaman – but I am no theologian.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 21, 2010

  3. Well, let me throw something out there for your feedback. I’m not championing this view, but I think it may be on target…

    I think we can agree that Phil 2 is about “attitude,” yes? We’ve already discussed how Jesus’ “face was though he would go to Jerusalem”:

    Luke 9:53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.

    So one’s countenance is an outward indicator of an inward disposition of mind, no?

    Daniel 5:9 Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and **his countenance was changed in him**, and his lords were astonied.

    In the LXX, it is his MORFE that is changed.

    Daniel 5:9 και ο βασιλευς βαλτασαρ πολυ εταραχθη και η μορφη αυτου ηλλοιωθη επ αυτω και οι μεγιστανες αυτου συνεταρασσοντο

    However, later, a king has a fierce PROSWPW:

    Daniel 8:23 και επ εσχατων της βασιλειας αυτων πληρουμενων των αμαρτιων αυτων αναστησεται βασιλευς αναιδης προσωπω και συνιων προβληματα

    Daniel 8:23 And in the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors are come to the full, a king of fierce countenance, and understanding dark sentences, shall stand up.

    What I’m getting at, is whether the MORFH QEOU might be “God’s attitude”? It is a stretch…

    My other, preferred reading, is to note that, like Adam, Jesus is in the form of God – because God has a form and that form is that of a human. Unlike Adam, he does not try to become equal to God by robbery (by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) but by obedience, he does receive God’s own role as “lord.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 21, 2010

  4. Also, I believe that “light” is FWS, rather than FUS.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 21, 2010

    • Yes, fos or fws. I’ve fixed the typo. Thanks.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 21, 2010

    • For that matter, “futismos” should be “fotismos.”

      Comment by Esteban Vázquez | January 22, 2010

      • Thanks. I’ve fixed it.

        Comment by Joel H. | January 22, 2010

  5. stirixo to proposon I see a metathesis here. (I still can’t decide whether to focus on translation or textual criticism for my career.)

    What I’m getting at, is whether the MORFH QEOU might be “God’s attitude”?

    I dunno what to say there. I think with Philippians, we find stress particularly on the person of Christ rather than comparison between Christ and God. What comes to mind specifically are the phrase “Day of Christ” instead of “Day of the Lord” in chapter one, and also the “spirit of Christ” which supplies Paul’s needs. This is just a first reaction, but I don’t think the context stresses the attitude of God the Father enough to make that connection.

    And as for the Genesis reading: I’ve never thought of that! Very interesting. I will note, however, that God showed hostility/distrust and sent Adam and Eve away (separation). However, Adam’s punishment seems to be related more to his relationship to the earth than to his relationship with God.

    Of course, even if that’s true, it doesn’t completely demolish the connection you’re making — and I would have no other explanation for the “robbery” interpretation of harpagmon.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 22, 2010

    • Oh, and I would obviously vote “no” on putting these on a gun sight. Psalm 11:5 works, though.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | January 22, 2010

    • Thanks. I’ve fixed prosopon. (And just to be clear. The mistake was mine. The text doesn’t say proposon.)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 22, 2010

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