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 | , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments