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.


May 13, 2013 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , ,


  1. My suggestion for _timi_ — “value.”

    Comment by kategladstone | May 13, 2013

  2. I Corinthians 6:20 — “Value was paid for you; therefore glorify God with your body” … or would it be legit to go with “Value was paid for you; therefore show God’s worth with your body”?

    Comment by kategladstone | May 13, 2013

    • I like the word value, but value seems to imply a discount, you were bought on a discount… What if it was, “Your life reflects the price paid for you, so let your life bring to God.”

      Comment by Brian | May 14, 2013

  3. Can you elaborate on they are the same type of thing?

    Comment by David | May 13, 2013

    • Sorry- on “how” they are the same type…

      Comment by David | May 13, 2013

  4. How about “tribute”?
    It can be paid, and it can mean both respect/honor and a monetary payment.

    Comment by Elli Fischer (@Adderabbi) | May 14, 2013

  5. I don’t know that I really have a solution of any kind to offer, but there is another interesting example of this sort of possible misunderstanding in 1 Peter. In 1:18-19 we have something like “it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed …, but with the precious (timios; adj. form of timi) blood of Christ.” In this situation I was glad to have the opportunity to explain to my congregation that a ‘timi’ referred to the price a slave/servant paid for his freedom. Where this really begins to hit home (for anyone who considers himself to be redeemed, anyway) is that the slave/servant may have then been considered to be free from his former owner, but, following redemption by payment (timi) to the god of his choice (or convenience, I suppose), he thereafter considered himself to be a slave/servant of that god. The picture of servanthood in the New Testament is that of a servant, when serving rightly, bringing glory to his master, not to himself.

    Comment by Steve | May 14, 2013

  6. Variations of “worth” come to mind. Welcome to El Camino Real.

    Comment by Celeste | May 17, 2013

  7. –The Bible and other traditions recognize that there are different levels of spiritual ability. The parable of the talents is one place this is indicated in the Bible. If you were given only a modest ability for spiritual understanding, just do what you can with that, and you will be rewarded. For those with greater ability all the great spiritual traditions stress that success requires putting our desire for spiritual wisdom above all else.
    –In the Bible this shows up in a number of teachings. One place we are told that the path is narrow and only a few are able to find and follow it. Other teachings tells us of the single minded intensity that is required, when they talk about “serving God with all of our heart, mind and soul.” In yet another teaching, “No man can serve to masters,” we are warned against thinking we are able to divide our attention among different pursuits and still achieve the goal.
    –The gospel passage, “render unto Caesar,” is yet another teaching in the same vein. The cleverness and humor of Matt. 22:21 make it a favorite of mine. On the literal level, the teaching is still valid today, pay your taxes, or in other words, pull your weight in the society in which you find yourself.
    –At the spiritual level, the meaning is like the previously mentioned teachings, but with a bit of humor and cleverness we invited to take the perspective that our efforts to secure food, shelter and any other human needs are so unimportant compared with our spiritual goal, that we should view them as merely a tax on our real goal of spiritual growth.

    –Eastern spiritual traditions have the idea that scripture is only of value if it helps our understanding. There is a least one story of a monk immediately upon realizing full spiritual understanding, took all his holy books out to the yard and burned them. Perhaps the Bible makes a similar point when it criticizes Pharisees. If their reading and study of scripture wasn’t giving them spiritual growth, what good was it?

    Comment by Caleb | May 21, 2013

  8. Let’s go all out with the identical English word: “The price for you was honoured, so honour God…”.

    Comment by Stephen Gould | August 25, 2013

  9. Baptists: Please throw your Greek lexicons in the trash!

    Why do Baptist always want to go to the Greek to understand the Bible? It is as if Baptists do not trust their English Bibles: “Sorry, hold on a minute, I need to check the original Greek before we can believe that God really loves the whole world as your English Bible seems to say in John 3:16…we can only know for sure if we understand and read ancient Greek.”

    When God promised to preserve his Word…did he really mean that he would only preserve it on 2,000 year old parchment and papyrus in ancient forms of Greek and Aramaic?? Did God really intend that the only people who could REALLY know what he had to say to mankind…would be ancient Greek-educated Baptist Churchmen?? Is the non-ancient-Greek- speaking layperson sitting in the pew supposed to just shut his English language Bible and sit at the feet of these Baptist Greek scholars to learn what God couldn’t explain himself in plain, simple ENGLISH??

    Do you REALLY believe that God intended for only Baptist, Greek-speaking Churchmen to understand the Gospel? Because that is really what Baptists are saying, because the Greek scholars of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church think that Baptist Greek scholars are all WET on their positions that the Bible does not support infant baptism and that baptism MUST be by immersion!

    Is it really possible that ONLY Baptist Greek scholars truly understand ancient Greek, and that the rest of the world’s Greek scholars completely bungle the translation of the New Testament? How is that possible? It defies common sense. And if I hear another Baptist start talking about how the Greek genitive case proves that the Baptist position is correct, I swear I’m going to puke! Seriously, every time I get into a discussion about Biblical translation with a Baptist he starts in with the genitive case nonsense. If you want to understand the genitive case in a Greek document…I suggest you confer…not with a Baptist…but with a GREEK!

    Instead of all this ancient Greek nonsense, which Baptists seem to have a fixation on, I suggest that every Christian layperson do this:

    1. Obtain a copy of four different English language translations of the Bible. Read each one of these “problem passages”, as Baptists and evangelicals refer to them, in each of these English translations.
    2. God’s true meaning of the passage will be plainly understandable after comparing these four English translations.

    You do NOT need to read the ancient Greek text unless you want to delve into the study of ancient Greek sentence structure or some other nuance. God promised he would preserve his Word, and the English-speaking people of the world have had the Word of God IN ENGLISH since at least William Tyndale (1300″s??). Dear Baptists…PLEASE stop insisting on using the ancient texts to confuse Christian laypeople of God’s simple, plain message of the Gospel!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

    Comment by gary | September 17, 2013

    • Gary,

      Thanks for your detailed comments.

      I can see why you would wish to be able to understand the Bible only as it is currently translated into English, but I don’t think it’s that simple.

      On the one hand, I think you can get a pretty good sense of the general intent of most of the Bible (with a few very important exceptions) from the English translations. On the other hand, my experience as a translator has been that some passages are severely mistranslated, and, in addition, there’s great beauty in the Bible that our current translations conceal.

      Even so, I think it’s beyond the ability of most casual students of Greek, and even advanced amateurs, to do better than the published translations. So the best most people can do is consult an English translation with some degree of skepticism.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 17, 2013

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