December 22, 2006

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Philosophical Language in Hebrews 11:1

Over at Better Bibles Blog, Wayne Leman is discussing the difficulties involved in producting coherent English from Hebrews 11:1. I want here to produce some considerations on the use of a couple of unusual (in the NT) words in this verse that will hopefully help us to produce a better translation of the word. Wayne made it clear that his post was primarily about the coherence of the English. However, I think part of the reason we have difficulty rendering this verse in English is that we're not totally clear on what we are trying to communicate, so I will try to deal with both at once here. I am unfortunately suffering from two handicaps in this task at the moment: (1) I am at my parents' house for the holidays and don't have all my books with me - most importantly, I am missing BDAG and my Greek concordance of the NT, so I will have to make due with online resources. (2) I had my wisdom teeth removed this morning and am on pain medication, so I may be slightly less lucid than normal. Still, I have thought about this verse quite a lot, particularly in the last 4 or so months since I finished reading through Hebrews in Greek, so hopefully I can share some thoughts I had back when I was thinking more clearly, and hopefully I can successfully communicate them. I'll look back over this post and see if it makes sense (and fix it if it doesn't) in a couple days when I'm off the meds. In the meantime, please bear with me.

Hebrews is widely acknowledged to be written on a significantly higher linguistic register than the rest of the NT. The author of Hebrews apparently had a strong education, both Greek and Jewish, and the epistle is actually consdidered by many experts to contain the best Greek prose in all of the Koine dialect. To put it more simply, the language of the epistle is rather fancy and often highly rhetorical. His grammatical constructions are more complex than is common in other NT writers (though Paul and Luke use enough sophisticated grammatical constructs to show a strong grasp of the language - Luke, for instance, makes frequent use of the articular infinitive, and Paul uses large numbers of circumsantial participles in complicated ways), and its vocabulary is wider.

Hebrews 11:1 is an excellent illustration of the latter. It contains two terms which are very rare in the rest of the NT and are definitely words which are at a high linguistic register. What is interesting to me, is that both of these words have technical uses in Greek philosophy. They also have non-technical uses but, as I will show below, the most straightforward non-technical uses (at least the ones listed in LSJ) don't make nearly as much sense of the passage as the philosophical ones. Since they are uncommon terms, and since the author of Hebrews is highly educated and writing in a high linguistic register, I see no reason why they couldn't be used in their philosophical significations.

Now, if we believed these words were used in their philosophical significations, and were creating a New Testament translation intended for use by students and scholars fo ancient philosophy who would be familiar with these terms, it might make sense for us to transliterate the words, and come up with the following very literal translation (I have included v. 10:39 to get it to make better sense, but haven't looked at that verse too closely since it isn't the focus):

But we will not be the ones who fearfully shrink back [so that we are] destroyed, but the ones who trust [him so that our] souls [are] preserved. There is a trust [which is] the hypostasis of what is hoped for and the elenchus of the things that are not seen.

Note that I have translated pistis as 'trust' rather than the traditional 'faith,' simply because I think it is more accurated. Also note that the position of esti at the beginning of the sentence probably intdicates that it is the "existentical is" (i.e. "there is" or "there exists") rather than the "predicative is" (i.e. "x is y"), even though there is a predicate nominative in the sentence.

But what do these words, "hypostasis" and "elenchus" mean? Well, the NKJV gives hypostsasis as "substance" for a reason: it often means 'substance' in the sense in which that word is used in metaphysics. However, the HCSB's rendering "reality" is probably more accurate since the word 'substance' in English now has a variety of popular uses, not to mention its unrelated use in chemistry. Interestingly, the word is etymologically equivalent to John Locke's word "substratum" (which, in Locke's philosophy means the thing that has properties, which I believe, though I'm not entirely certain, is how Aristotle uses our word hypostasis). Both have the etymological meaning "to stand under." As such, LSJ lists a number of literal meanings, which obviously cannot be applicable here (neither trust, nor things hoped for, are physical objects located in space, so faith cannot literally stand under things hoped for).

A more promising idea might be LSJ's B.II.2: "ground-work, subject-matter, argument." Trust, one might think, is the ground-work or foundation for our belief in what we hope for: that is, we can believe in things that we hope for because we trust God (presumably, we trust him ot fulfill his promises).

LSJ does also produce some references in favor of the translation "confidence" (including our verse). These include Polybius 4.50: "At first the Byzantines entered upon the war with energy, in full confidence of receiving the assistance of Achaeus..." That writing is somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 years before the writing of Hebrews. The word can also mean "undertaking" or "promise."

However, the philosophical meaning seems to be primary, and here it means something like "substance," "essence," "reality," or "essential nature." In philosophical terms, the hypostasis of a thing "stands under it" in the sense of being its ontological basis. The hypostasis is the underlying reality, the ontological ground floor.

Elenchus is, as I have said, another term of interest in ancient philosophy. Famously, it is the Socratic method of refutation by cross-examination. That is, in the early dialogs of Plato, a pattern is followed: Socrates meets someone who is supposed to be some kind of expert, begins asking that persons questions related to his expertise, and by his questions leads the person into contradiction and general confusion. This process is called elenchus. However, it is not a purely negative process. It is a piece of the search for positive truth. The hope is that eventually we will find a foundation that cannot be torn down in that way. If we interpret the verse according to this usage, we would say that our trust in God is this foundation when it comes to our belief in unseen things. That is, trust allows us to examine our beliefs in things unseen and rightly come to the conclusion that they are indeed real. It is in this sense that it is evidence. The Socratic example is the famous one, but this particular word is almost always used in this sort of way in Greek literature.

Before trying to produce a 'plain English' translation, we should take a final step of examining the usage of these words elsewhere in the NT.

Hypostasis is used five time sin the NT: twice in 2 Corinthians, and three times in Hebrews. In some manuscripts, both of the 2 Corinthians uses, at 9:4 and 11:17, occur in precisely the same phrase: en te hupostasis tes kuacheseos, which translates literally as "in the hypostasis of our boasting" (the Nestle-Aland/United Bible Sociteties texts lack the tes kaucheseos in 9:4, but the vast majority of manuscripts contain it and, even if it isn't original, it is probably part of the implied meaning of the phrase). In this case, hypostasis as confidence makes a lot of sense, and, given the precedent in Polybius, is probably the correct translation.

However, the uses in Hebrews are quite different and, while Hebrews is certainly 'Pauline' in its content and use of theological language, there are many reasons to suppose that someone other than Paul was its author (we can by studying the letter come to a number of conclusions about the characteristics of the author, and it is my opinion that the description of Apollos at Acts 18 and 19 shows that he had all of these characteristics, but it is still all speculation), so that the author of Hebrews should use this word somewhat differently (remembering also the higher linguistic register) is unsurprising.

Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ is "the character of [God's] hypostasis," where character is the transliteration of a Greek term that can mean 'character' in the sense of a type of person, but also has numerous other meanings. This remark is, in my opinion, more confusing than 11:1, and so 11:1 should be shedding light on it, rather than the other way around! If, however, hypostasis is given its philosophical meaning, then character might take the meaning "image" or "distinctive mark" so that Christ is the means by which we are able to recognize and understand the fundamental essence of deity. (That sounds pretty good in the context, doesn't it?) Hence we get the HCSB's rendering "the exact expression of His nature."

Hebrews 3:14 also, in my view, makes good sense with the philosophical understanding of hypostasis. It may also be relevant that it is juxtaposed with metochoi, the noun form of metecho which is one of two roughly synonymous technical terms for the participation relation in Platonist metaphysics - the word literally means "to have a share of," but having a share of Christ doesn't work literally, since Christ is not divided (cp. Plato, Parmenides 365b-d for a related metaphysical problem). Christ would then be conceived of as a sort of Platonic form of the new humanity (cp. Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:45). This cannot, of course, be too literal, as Christ is a person and took on a body, etc., but the analogy may be useful to consider, and may even have been intended by the author (though this is a bit speculative). On this view Hebrews 3:14 would read as:

"For we have become participants in Christ[1], if we hold the fundamental principle of the hypostasis firmly until the end."

[1] i.e., by being related to Christ Himself in a particular way we have become Christ-like in our own finite and imperfect way; see Plato, Phaedo 100c-e.

(I have italicized the word 'if' to communicate the emphasis indicated by the use of eanper rather than just ean.)

Here, the context makes the "fundamental principle of the hypostasis" "the boldness and boasting of hope," which we are also told to "hold firmly" to earlier in the same chapter (v. 6). Both these phrases must, in the context, refer to absolute trust in God's promise to bring us into his rest. We can see then that the philosophical meaning of hypostasis is quite likely to be the correct one in all three uses in the book of Hebrews.

What about elenchus? This word has only one other NT usage, and that is 2 Timothy 3:16, in the list of purposes for which "every Scripture" (or "every divinely inspired writing," depending on where you put the implicit copula, and whether you see the word graphe here as having its ordinary sense of 'writing' or its "proper noun" sense within Judaism of "Scripture") is useful. Fortunately, this word's philosophical usage is not unusual - LSJ doesn't really cite any other usage than that one.

To return to our initial question, how can we create a 'plain English' translation of this verse? Well, first, let me comment that I believe that an ideal translation would reflect the difference in register between, say, Matthew and Hebrews, and so the language in Hebrews can be a little fancy, but that doesn't mean it should be confusing or archaic, and it especially doesn't mean it should contain 'category mistakes' or anything of that nature. So, based on my above exposition, here is my attempt at a (somewhate loose) translation of Hebews 10:39-11:1:

But we will not be the ones who shrink back in fear so that we are destroyed, but the ones who trust him so that our souls are preserved. There is a trust which provides the foundation for the existence of that which is hoped for and makes the critical examination of invisible things possible.

The English could be cleaned up some more, and it could be made to follow the text a little more literally, and, of course, my interpretation is subject to dispute, but my purpose here is to spark discussion, and not to publish a professional Bible translation, so I will leave it as it is. The biggest problem, as I see it, is probably that in many English dialects, the term "a trust" refers primarily to "a trust fund" or something of the sort, but hopefully context would take care of that in a longer translation (or we could go back to 'faith' if we thought our target audience would understand that correctly).

I rather like these philosophical definitions, and I wouldn't put it past the author of Hebrews to use them, but I should perhaps be a bit cautious as my own background in ancient philosophy probably biases me. What does anyone else think?

Posted by Kenny at December 22, 2006 12:32 AM
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In 2 Corinthians, "hypostasis" could easily be the "foundation for the existence" of Paul's boasting, and not just confidence. In fact, his whole shtick in chapter 11 is talking about the basis for his boasting. "Confidence" works, but I think "basis" or "foundation" would work even better. In other words, I think the philosophical definition makes more sense in both applications, and not just in Hebrews.

Posted by: Paul Ferree at January 16, 2007 5:00 PM

Perhaps it is "foundation" in a metaphorical sense (that is, by comparison to the foundation of a building). It is that which supports his boasting (and makes sure it doesn't fall down - see 9:4). But I don't know about the philosophical usage here; it may just be too fancy for Paul's language or for his audience to understand, and I think taking it in the meaning of "foundation" as in "support" rather than the strong metaphysical sense might be better.

Posted by: Kenny at January 16, 2007 5:24 PM

It seems that "foundation for the existence of" is a double translation of the Greek word, something that goes beyond what the lexicon offers. "Foundation" is one of the meanings of the Greek word. "Essence" or "reality" is another. But you have combined both ideas in your phrase "foundation for the existence of." It seems that you have translated the word twice and put the two translations together so that one modifies the other.

Posted by: Harold at October 29, 2009 11:30 AM

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