God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Money, Honor, and Bible Translation

It’s well known that the Greek word for “honor” (timi, often spelled timē) also means “price.” This is why timi is used to translate both the Hebrew kavod (“honor”) and the Hebrew m’chir (“price”). It’s also why timi in Matthew 27:6 is translated as “price,” while in Hebrews 2:7, it’s “honor.” Indeed, lexicons often have two entries for the Greek timi, as though the word means two different things.

But that modern analysis isn’t really right.

It’s not quite true that the word timi has two meanings. Rather, “honor” and “price” were considered the same sort of thing in Greek culture, and they were both timi.

As with many cross-cultural, cross-linguistic matters, this claim at first sounds absurd to English speakers, for whom “honor” and “price” have nothing in common, and, in fact, are in a sense nearly opposites. “Price” has to do with mundane matters like money, while “honor” operates on a different plane. (Yet even in English we both “pay a price” and “pay honor.”)

The background that created these two aspects of timi — which we call “honor” and “price” in English — is both fascinating and complicated. For now, we can note that “honor” was a general measure of a person’s value, while a “price” was a measure of a thing’s value, and, sadly, also of a person’s value, as a result of slavery. (If you’re really interested, start with Richard Seaford’s Money and the Early Greek Mind.)

The basic similarity of “honor” and “price” — both a measure of value — is essential if we want to understand the biblical passages that refer to timi.

To start, we find the word in Romans 13:7: “Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor [timi] to whom honor [timi]is due” (NRSV). But the translation is misleading.

The English rendition makes it seem as though Paul is talking first about one kind of thing (taxes and revenue), then about another (respect and honor). But just as “taxes” and “revenue” are in the same category in English, all four words were similar in Greek. Paul is only talking about one kind of thing here.

This is, of course, a huge translation dilemma. How do we translate timi in such a way as to include the general notion of “honor” but also make it clear that we’re talking about the same kind of thing as “price”? (Any suggestions?)

I Corinthians 6:20 is even more difficult: “For you were bought with a price [timi]; therefore glorify God in your body” (NRSV). The Greek connection between “price” (timi) and “glorify” (from doxa, “glory”) was obvious, because the Greek timi was a near synonym for doxa — just as the English “honor” and “glory” are related. But “price” and “glory” in English have nothing in common. The NRSV translation destroys the linguistic argument. Again, it’s a translation dilemma. (Perhaps: “A price was paid for you, therefore pay God glory with your body.”)

Even Matthew 22:21, the famous “Render under Caesar…,” makes more sense in the correct cultural context. As the NRSV has it: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The original question is regarding taxes. But recognizing that taxes and money are just like honor and glory, we can read between the lines: the emperor gets the emperor’s timi, and God gets God’s.

More generally, we have a problem with more than just Romans 13:7, I Corinthians 6:20, and other passages in which timi connects wealth and merit. Any time we read “honor” for timi, we are missing part of the message, because the very notion of “honor” for us is not what it was for the Greeks. Greek “honor” included an element of finance. Similarly, whenever we read “price” for timi, we are missing the inherent connection to honor and glory.

I can’t think of a clean translation solution (any suggestions?), but understanding the issues is always an important first step. And at least in most egregious instances, we can try to pay careful attention to what our translations miss.

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May 13, 2013 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments