God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

In Christ, In Love, In Translation

Being “in Christ” (en christo) is one of Paul’s central themes. Romans 8:1 is a good example: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). But it’s a tricky phrase.

The Greek work en, like its English translation “in,” is what linguists call a “light” preposition, that is, one that usually has little or no meaning on its own. Prepositions (“in,” “on,” “about,” “with” etc.) are notoriously idiosyncratic, and so are light words, so it’s not surprising that the light preposition en is difficult to translate correctly.

Some examples in English help demonstrate the range of issues with light prepositions. There’s air “in an airplane,” but the people breathing that air are “on the plane,” not in it. English speakers disagree about whether one stands “in” or “on” line. Prepositions like “in,” “for,” etc. are sometimes optional: “He’s lived (in) more places than I know,” “I’ve been working here (for) three years,” etc. Books are written “on” a computer but “with” pencil and paper. Friends can talk “to” each other or “with” each other, but they can’t chat “to” each other, only “with.”

In some of those examples, we see a single meaning that requires different prepositions in different contexts. The reverse is also common: a single preposition can express different meanings. The “in” of “in love” doesn’t have anything to do with the “in” of “in translation,” for instance.

Obviously, the details are different in other languages. In Modern Hebrew, unlike in English, books are written “in” a computer and also “in” paper and pencil.

Equally obviously, for speakers of Modern Hebrew and English, it’s a mistake to translate the “in” of “in a computer” literally from Hebrew into English. Rather than “in a computer,” English demands “on a computer.”

More generally, the way to translate prepositions (like everything, really) is to determine what the preposition means in one language, and then find a way of expressing the same thing in another.

And this is the crux of the problem with Romans 8:1, and all of the other places we find “in Christ,” because that phrase in English doesn’t mean anything. (Some people might think it means something, but only because they already have a sense of what Paul meant.) We might compare, for instance, “citizens of the U.S. should be in the President.” It’s impossible to agree or disagree, because it doesn’t mean anything.

Translators already know that the Greek en doesn’t have to be “in” in English. In I Cor 4:21, we find, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with [en]a stick, or with [en] love…?” (NRSV, my emphasis). English demands “with a stick” instead of the nonsensical “in a stick.” The translation “in love” is more tempting for en agape, because it does mean something in English, but it doesn’t mean the right thing. Almost all translations get this line right. Translators do their job and find the right preposition in English.

But when it comes to “in Christ,” translations mimic the Greek instead of translating it.

Sometimes no obvious choice for en presents itself, but often English simply demands “with.”

Knowing what you do about the overall meaning of the text, how would you translate Romans 8:1?


February 26, 2013 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , ,


  1. So, I have a related question:

    When Jesus prays in Matthew 6:10 – Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. (KJV)

    The word ‘in’ being forsaken in most other translations for the word ‘on’; so, I have to insist that the original be definitively defined. I once heard a very profound sermon predicated on the fact that since we humans are made from the “dust of the earth”, it was Christ’s intentional implication, that WE are the “earth” spoken of here, and that in our prayers we are to implore The Father to perform His will “IN US “.

    To blithely replace this simple preposition would totally negate that complete line of thought, not to mention demolish that whole sermon. It also obfuscates these scriptures as I have come to understand them, and how I thought they are supposed to hermeneutically interact.

    So, which is it?

    Comment by Stephen Brummitt | February 26, 2013

  2. Thanks for the post. This is a notoriously difficult phrase. I did my master’s thesis on it. When the preposition is used with an name as its object attached to a group of people I prefer something like “under” hinting at a relationship of authority. There is evidence of this used in ancient Greek literature elsewhere. However, en Christo should by no means be translated the same in every context, and you are right to point that out. For instance, in Ephesians 1 agency is likely in view: “by Christ.”

    Comment by onevision83 | February 26, 2013

  3. The problem gets more complicated in Gal. 3:26-29. What does it mean to be “immersed into the Anointed”? We could probably go on to say that “with him there is no Jew or Greek”, but if we say “for you are all one with Anointed Jesus” it could be taken wrong: that we are one with Him (which we are), but that isn’t what’s being said there; rather, we are one with each other because of Him. The following phrase, “And if you are his”, clearly indicates belonging rather than something like being inside of Him. Yet is that adding too much wording into the text? Would this rendering be considered inaccurate?

    “Now you are all children of God through faith in Anointed Jesus, because whoever is immersed into union with the Anointed has clothed themselves with him. And with him there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female, for you are all one because you are united with Anointed Jesus. And if you are his, then it follows that you are descendants of Abraham and thus heirs of the promise.”

    Comment by boatrocker | February 27, 2013

  4. John 17:21 gives the rationale: ἵνα πάντες ἓν ὦσιν καθὼς σύ πάτερ ἐν ἐμοὶ κἀγὼ ἐν σοί ἵνα καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐν ἡμῖν ἓν ὦσιν. It is itself a reflection of Deuteronomy 6:4 and it is a similar appeal to the Shema in Paul’s writing. In it is and something to be in the one who teaches as no other. My comment first got lost – usual WordPress error.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | February 27, 2013

  5. I brought this up at dinner with my wife, Joy, and she suggested one I like. “Into”. For example, she said, “Jane sure is into her boyfriend.” Being “into Christ” (en christo) is one of Paul’s central themes

    Comment by Ron W Knight | March 5, 2013

  6. Being “in” someone makes no sense in English, but my understanding is that it makes lots of sense in Hebrew to be “in the king.” That’s the sense, that the king is a synechdoche of his kingdom, which includes not only what he rules but also who he rules and how he rules. So in a sense the people had little choice of being “in their king,” but in another sense they did because they could leave the kingdom for another, though they understood how total of a move that was, not just a new country but new gods, new friends, new ways of living, etc.

    My understanding is there isn’t much sense in the king being in his people, which makes it crazy when Paul insists that the King, Jesus, is indeed in His people. That’s the cool part.

    As to translating it, I’d suggest “identifying with,” though that may be read with only surface meanings by some, so perhaps “completely identifying with” Jesus. That’s in keeping with how the Father sees His children, not in their filth but in Christ’s holiness, and how Christ identified with us on earth, and still does in heaven.

    Comment by Jason | March 6, 2013

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