Mercy seat or atoning sacrifice?

One of the newest English language Bible translations has got an update. It’s not radical. About the only remarkable change they highlight is switching the translation in Romans 3:25 from the key term atoning sacrifice to mercy seat.

As a committee we adopted “mercy seat” for a number of reasons, but we recognize that “propitiation” is also supported by many, and we list “propitiation” or “place of atonement” in a footnote.

By this point, if you’re a Christian who gets very excited by these kind of things you may well be interested. At the same time, I’m just trying to imagine myself actually using any of these terms in actual conversation about the issues Paul raises in Romans chapter 3. I suppose the choice of terms all comes down to who you think is going to be reading your translation and what they are going to do with it. The committee rightly point out that whatever term they choose it’s not supposed to change the meaning. Whether you choose propitiation, mercy seat or atoning sacrifice or something else, it will only actually mean something to someone who has already been told what is going on here.

A judgment seat in Ashɛ land (southern kingdom). Also a mercy seat?

Now, it has to be said that ‘mercy’ and ‘seat’ separately are nice common words, so they have a chance of being meaningful, but I think it’s rather unlikely that any ordinary person reading this is going to flesh out the meaning in any sensible way. Any English speaker would recognise it as a compound of some kind, so some kind of special chair to do with mercy.

CSB

21 But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. 22 The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. 23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26 God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus. — Romans 3:21-26 (CSB)

ESV

21   But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. — ESV

GNB

How We are Put Right with God

21 But now God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with law, even though the Law of Moses and the prophets gave their witness to it. 22God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all: 23 everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence. 24 But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free. 25-26 God offered him, so that by his blood he should become the means by which people’s sins are forgiven through their faith in him. God did this in order to demonstrate that he is righteous. In the past he was patient and overlooked people’s sins; but in the present time he deals with their sins, in order to demonstrate his righteousness. In this way God shows that he himself is righteous and that he puts right everyone who believes in Jesus. — Good News

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but if the CSB is in any way serious when they claim “It’s a Bible you can teach from with confidence and a Bible you can share with your neighbor hearing God’s Word for the very first time.” then either their neighbours are very different from mine, or else they need to do a little more thinking. I guess it’s possible that the CSB’s neighbours are indeed generally well versed in Bible talk and concepts. Or possibly these neighbours just need to pick up fancy terms first en-route to the gospel.

I’m sure there are other legitimate ways it could be put, but to my mind the Good News translation (above) manages to express the same meaning with different structures in such a way that the discerning reader of the Old Testament would think back to how God set up an expectation of how sins were forgiven by the blood of a sacrifice. It does this while using pretty common words which I could imagine using with my neighbour. I guess my point here is just to challenge the all-too-common idea that when translating this kind of tight argument you just need to find preformed words or phrases that are already pre-packed with all the right meaning. We too easily deceive ourselves. Just because someone ‘could’ figure out the rich meaning and associations in these words doesn’t mean that they are at all likely to. And if we keep on packing our translations full of quirky expressions, they may sound reassuringly weird, but not necessarily as in-your-face challenging as they could be.

Finally, I’m not writing this to criticise the aims or the efforts of the CSB committee. I’m just reflecting that we may expend great effort, labour in scholarship and still miss the point. That’s something I think we should always worry about.

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