A Translation Proposition Concerning "Elohim"

While commenting on the unique relevance of trinitarian theism to moral grounding elsewhere (the original thread, over at Dangerous Idea, is more of an interChristian partisan discussion about soteriology, but here it is anyway for reference sake), I received a reply from a thoughtful commenter on a topic, any reply to which I thought would take the thread too far off-base from Victor's original intention.

But it was an interesting comment, so I'm porting it here for discussion (minus the few connections back to interChristian partisan discussion {g}).

Daniel Gracey, the commenter, wrote as follows:


Hello Jason,

Thanks for the helpful clarification about time not preceding God. Your post is interesting, and I will reread it and be mulling further over it. In the meantime I wanted to get your opinion about a hypothesis I haven’t yet tested thoroughly... and I’m still exploring the idea. Namely, why shouldn’t English translations have rendered “Elohim” as “Gods” instead of “God,” and just the singular “Elowaw” as “God”?

I ask this because it seems to me that the Old Testament Scriptures themselves take pains to use the plural, to point (I believe) primarily to the *separate* persons of the Godhead, often (though not always) leaving the corporate oneness of the Persons merely implied. My chief argument for rendering Elohim as “Gods” (in contexts where “Elohim” does not mean e.g., angels) is this: Since Hebrew demonstrates a visual distinction in the letters it uses to form the plural of God, and uses a different spelling to indicate the singular of God, why shouldn’t English translations follow suit? It strikes me that if English translators *had* done so, the argument for Christ as God would have been (and be) more readily understandable to the unbeliever and unlearned. Moreover (though incidentally), the kind of arguments we get from Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses would appear weaker.

I suppose here are *some* arguments (but then my objections) why the English has not followed suit:

1) because the word “one” in Deut. 6:4 indicates sheer singularity. But in John 10:30, “I and my Father are one” (Gr, heis) may be taken to mean one in substance and intention but not in Person (and I think Gr. heis indicates sheer singularity, if I’m not mistaken).

Also, 2) God uses the plural for purposes of the majestic “we”. But imo this is simply reading one’s theology into the text. Presumably the majestic “we” argument took especial root among later Jews who would define their monotheism in the same terms of sheer singularity (of Person) as would Islam, or as did the Pharaoh Akhenaten;

Also, 3) People reading the English Bible already know the term “God” means three Persons. But again, that is not a reason for not allowing the English to show a visual distinction as evident in the Hebrew, a distinction capably shown in English. And not everyone assumes “God” refers to three persons.

Also, 4) It will promote the idea of polytheism. But not “polytheism” according to pagan myths, nor polytheistic in any sense that would overthrow the definition of the Godhead as one is Substance and Intention, as Scripturally defined.

So, a related question would be this: By translating Elohim as “God”, have not English translations left the impression with the unbeliever or unlearned, of a sheer singular Personhood of God? Because of my other posts, you probably realize I don’t endorse descriptive analogies of God except where obvious, so I don’t accept explanations along those lines. (Of course I realize what is and is not obvious among theologians is a contentious subject.) Thanks in advance for your reply, Jason.


This isn't the reply yet, Daniel; mainly I'm just porting over your post for discussion here in the comments (and because my fellow Cadrists like to wrestle with this sort of topic, too).

I may not be able to post up something until the weekend, due to scheduling; but it'll likely be brief enough that I can put it in the comments when I do. (If not, I may create a full post for replying and then link to that from here afterward.) Other Cadrists and commenters are certainly welcome to correspond meanwhile!



Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.

(Also, thanks Bill for changing the link color in the page format to blue! Just noticed that. {g})

Brad Haggard said…
I still think "God" is the best translation. The Hebrew "majestic plural" is given to a number of things in the OT, including Jerusalem. I don't know of anyone trying to parse a tri-city understanding from that. And the singular "el" is used in various places to talk about God, gods, and even people. On top of that, the "proper" name for God in the OT (Yaweh) is in the singular.

I think Trinitarian theology is an NT innovation, and we can look back to find traces of it in OT passages referring to "the angel of the Lord", and "the spirit (breath) of the Lord", but it certainly isn't overtly clear.

Just my 2 cents
Jason Pratt said…
Brad: {{The Hebrew "majestic plural" is given to a number of things in the OT, including Jerusalem.}}

I have read otherwise in exegetical analyses, but would be interested in seeing refs. (I wouldn't be too surprised to learn Jerusalem is a special case exception; its name was sometimes given the divine abbreviation treatment, along with some other things closely connected with God, in Greek Christian texts.)

{{And the singular "el" is used in various places to talk about God, gods, and even people.}}

Ditto. "Elohim", yes, on occasion (although except for one ref to Moses and Aaron I've heard it isn't applied to anything but God during the narratives of the Patriarchical period). "El", no. (Yes outside the OT, no inside; or again that's what I've heard. Examples to the contrary would be welcome for accuracy's sake.)

{{On top of that, the "proper" name for God in the OT (Yaweh) is in the singular.}}

There are several proper-names for God in the OT; YHWH being one of them. (El being another. Both singular.) The two most common by far, however, are Elohim and Adonai, both plural. (Sometimes with plural supporting grammar, sometimes with singular.)

I wouldn't call trinitarianism a NT "innovation" exactly, but I do agree it isn't spelled out clearly in the OT. Binitarianism, however, is a lot stronger in the OT than modern translations sometimes indicate: the "angel of YHWH/the Face/the Presence" shows up (literally! {g}) on a regular basis, not only in the most famous OT stories but in some obscure ones, too; and there's sometimes distinction between persons of YHWH involved when that happens. (Third person distinctions on the other hand are very rare; the "spirit/breath of YHWH" isn't usually presented that way for example.)

Jason Pratt said…
Sorry for the delay meanwhile, Daniel. Business, busy-ness, etc. {g}

Daniel: {{Since Hebrew demonstrates a visual distinction in the letters it uses to form the plural of God, and uses a different spelling to indicate the singular of God, why shouldn’t English translations follow suit?}}

Probably because there is no clear English method (or in other highly developed grammatic languages either) of doing so in a way that won't lead to uncomfortable reading. Even non-Christian Jews today just shrug and ignore the distinction; much as most people with languages which feature gender-based grammar for nearly everything (which is most Western languages, including the Biblical ones) just shrug and ignore whether this word is feminine or that word is masculine. (Unless they're trying to be poetically clever.) If the case for bi/trinitarianism was only based on linguistic pluralities, the most we could say is that this ancient grammar is weird. Not much of a case in that. {g}

The best way to try to get the visual distinction across for modern English readers, perhaps, would be to parenthesize the plural suffix.

So, for example: "In the beginning, God(s) created the heavens and the earth... then God(s) said, 'Let Us make man in Our image and according to Our likeness'." (That's a famous case where the plural grammar is retained in English, but also singular grammar: a singular image and likeness, not plural.)

"Then I heard the voice of Lord(s) saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who shall go for Us?'" (Another famous case where singular and plural grammar is both attested personally to God by God. The far more common ADNY name is being used here, by the way, not YH or YHWH, though Isaiah knows that, too.)

The declaration of Gideon would be, "Ah!--Lord(s) YHWH! For now I have seen the angel of YHWH face to face!" (Previously this angel would be described in the same scene as "the angel of the God(s)"; and Gideon once calls this angel by the divine name ADNY, so Lord(s), though also "my lord" once before he realizes who he's talking to.)

Again in Isaiah (48:16; this one is less famous): "Now the Lord(s) YHWH has sent me (or Me?) with His spirit saying... 'I am YHWH your God(s), Who teaches you to be best.'"

So, yeah, it could be done I suppose. I do however sympathize with those who worry about this method leading people into polytheism of some kind--a problem endemic among the Hebrews themselves! Multi-personal corporate singularities aren't easy to talk about.

The experiment would at least be interesting to try. {shrug}{s}

Incidentally, Deut 6:4 (the Shema declaration) is certainly AeCHaD, a word that typically applies to a compound singularity, not YaCHiD for a sheer singularity. (YCHD would still be true, too, of course.)

The Shema declaration is usually translated in the NT with {eis} for AeCHaD (the most famous example being at Mark 12:29), and this does have a more sheerly singular meaning than AeCHaD, as YaCHiD would. But as it happens, {eis} isn't the word used at John 10:30: {ego_ kai ho pate_r hen esmen}. "I and the Father, we are one." The term {hen} is still very singular, but the {esmen} connotes some kind of corporate existence in this context. The Aramaic behind this Greek statement would certainly have to be "we are AeCHaD"; it isn't surprising that Jesus' opponents freak at hearing Jesus put himself (or Himself rather) into a Shema declaration.

Jason Pratt said…
[Note: Dan was having trouble posting on Blogger, for some reason; so I’m posting his comment for him.]

I agree that translating Elohim as plural would be uncomfortable for the reader, i.e., “In the beginning Gods…” Still, do not translators have a responsibility to translate the language, NOT interpretation? Also, I don’t see why our concerns about translations allegedly leading readers to adopt polytheistic errors should carry the day. If God has seen fit to render the plural where He wishes, shouldn't we do the same? While I grant that if such a translation (showing unambiguously the plural where it is plural, and the singular where it is singular) were in wide use, a reader, if he is given to error on this point, will misinterpret Scripture in the direction of polytheism as opposed to certain other kinds of error which stem from failing to see the plurality of Persons in the Godhead. I do not think it is correct to suppose that any errors in judgment or thinking that depart from Scriptural truth can ever appeal to its cause as the Scripture itself.

As for ‘El’ referring to either “god” or “gods,” if in fact this is the case, I think a natural explanation may be offered. For example, a Hindu worships many gods, and yet in another sense he really worships only himself, since in the last analysis it is he ALONE who decides he shall worship many idols. As James says, if a man rejects God as the lawgiver he becomes his own lawgiver. That is, the man sets himself up as THE standard.

Moving on, if Jerusalem is found in the plural, it may be because a point is being made about its dividedness despite its corporate oneness. For example, I live near Philadelphia, and one might say there are many Philadelphias. There is the richly historic Philadelphia, the homicidal-prone Philadelphia, the sports Philadelphia, the Italian Philadelphia, etc. So too with any one people who go under one name but whose essence is formed through a plurality of families or tribes (or perhaps even moral outlooks). In this former sense the Italians might be cited as an example (Cicilians, Romans, Venetians, etc.).

Incidentally, I don’t think I had argued that the plurality of Elohim automatically indicated trinitarianism (though I do in fact believe that the Godhead is three Persons).

ALSO, I am concerned about the idea that any plural noun is obliged to be rendered to the singular if the singular is how that noun usually appears (e.g., "Jerusalems" to "Jerusalem"). Any limited, selective use of this idea seems to me special pleading. In fact, under the theory that “Jerusalems” should nevertheless be translated in the singular, owing to its overwhelming appearance in the singular, one would, to be consistent, have to render the singular Elowaw into the plural (Elohim), since the overwhelming usage of Elohim/ Elowaw is in the plural. In fact the opposite is done in standard (all?) English translations. Moreover, a proposed policy that would change the plural to the singular, or the singular to the plural, in favor of which form dominates the appearances of a particular noun, leaves the entire field of other singular/plural appearances of a given noun up for grabs, that is, if such a noun shows an overwhelming usage in one direction (either plural or singular). Or are we going to primarily make a special case of Elohim just because God is the subject?

As for the thorny problem of masculine and feminine, I admit there is no similar mode in English, and that it would be difficult to convey this distinction. Any yet, since God authored His Scripture, He must have a reason for using language that makes those distinctions. Perhaps, if I may take Jason’s observation as a departure point, there are more poetic layers of meaning behind what seems to be the straight-forward meaning of a particular passage even in books primarily non-poetic, than first appear. Admittedly, for me this is the most puzzling problem of all.

Dan Graceley

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