Translating Offices in the New Testament

2011 is the 400th anniversary of the printing of what we now call the King James Bible. This has spawned a whole sub-culture of books and articles on the topic. And, jumping on the bandwagon, I offered a series of sessions covering the formation of the Bible and modern day translations. This has been a fascinating study for me. First, I respect translators a lot more than I used to (it is easy to snipe at a passage here or there, isn’t it?). Second, it has made more clear to me how politics, power, and marketing, both in the church and in the political realm, have influenced what and how we read the Bible. I taught this series in three different venues — one on campus and two in local congregations (one is still ongoing, at St. Paul, Des Peres Thursdays at 7:00pm, if you’re in the area). The on-campus sessions were recorded and are now available (for free) on iTunesU — follow this link.

One area that intrigued me, primarily because of some research I’ve done (and am still doing) on the church in the New Testament, is the whole issue of “offices” in the early church. What, exactly, were apostles, deacons, pastors, bishops, etc in the NT period? You can tell very quickly a translation’s biases regarding church, structure, and ministry based on the way these words are translated. I ended up not using this material in the Bible studies, so I thought I’d post it on in bits and pieces, partly so I don’t lose it, but also to get your feedback, and stimulate necessary thinking on church and ministry in a day and age and context where both need some serious thought and discussion.

One thing that struck me immediately was that we transliterate some words, but “translate” others. For example, the word “apostle” is simply a transliteration of ἀπόστολος, but sometimes we translate it as “messenger” (as in 2 Cor 8:23) — presumably because there are only supposed to be 12 apostles, and so the guys in that passage can’t be “apostles” they must only be “messengers.” But is “apostle” a distinct, formal “office” in the early church? Or again in Luke 9:10, the “apostles” return — but they are not yet “apostles” because, quite obviously, there has not yet been a resurrected Jesus to be seen by the “apostles.” And Romans 16:7 causes no end of referent and grammatical problems, all bearing heavily on the issue of women’s ordination.

But then for other words our translations are even more inconsistent. In Acts 1:17, 20, another “apostle” is needed to fill Judas’ κλῆρον τῆς διακονιᾶς and his ἐπισκοπὴν — is that “share of ministry” (most translations)  or “share of the diaconate” (Tyndale has here  “fellowship in this ministration” and, in v. 20, “bishopric”). But apparently translators don’t think there is yet a “diaconate,” so the word “ministry” is used in v. 17. But why is that different from having “apostles” in Luke 10? And the translation of ἐπισκοπή is open to even more messing around: In 1:20 the KJV left Tyndale’s “bishopric” (after all, they had bishops in the Church of England who had apostolic succession). But the NASB ESV and Beck have here “office” (which is not even close to a translation) while the NIV 2011 goes completely functional on this with “place of leadership.” NRSV, perhaps ironically, comes closest to what we would call a translation with “position of overseer”

Lot’s of playing around here, no? Thoughts? More to come . . .





3 responses to “Translating Offices in the New Testament”

  1. Marc Avatar

    What are you trying to do break my world? What about all of our nice neat little categories?
    Seriously though, I don’t see there being any quick fix resolution to the exact meaning and usage of ‘office’ words in scripture. Although, I’m no grammarian. What I do see is that recognizing the room to play with these words could lead to recognizing room with how we define offices in the Church today. Which makes a lot of people uneasy, which may be why this is the first comment.

  2. Jeff Kloha Avatar
    Jeff Kloha

    Yep, you’re right, Marc. How do we define the “Office of the Public Ministry” (or “Office of the Holy Ministry” — both, of course, non-biblical terms. Heck, “office” is non-biblical as well) and how we we understand that “office” from Scripture? We all have our assumptions and practices, especially if we are “in the office,” and any time you hold our assumptions and practices up to Scripture it may make us uncomfortable. And better servants.

    And now you’ve reminded me that I need to put another post together.

  3. Eric Edwards Avatar
    Eric Edwards

    Titles offer distinction. The church universal is made up of many distinct “offices”, “vocations”, “titles” etc. Just as the church is made of many members (1 Cor 12:12; Gal. 3:28) the individuals that are incorporated into the body of Christ don’t lose their distinctiveness, (i.e. we don’t all become some androgynous, vanilla tofu beings who all act, speak and do the exact same thing.) The Church universal is that which has the Holy Spirit and submits, or is rightly placed under Christ the head. Therefore, we can affirm that while all “Christians” are belong to the “priesthood of all believers” there are those who are distinct among the “priesthood” for certain purposes.

    So my questions are: what distinction do these “offices” of “apostle”, “deacon”, “minister”, “presbyter”, “pastor” have in relation to the body of Christ and to it’s head, Christ himself? And as you pointed out that because there seems to be a degree of flexibility within the scriptures, is there any degree of continuity? Is the use of each term of “office” uniquely bound to the original recipients specific culture and understanding of each term (i.e. does Paul “mean the same thing” when he uses one term to the Corinthian congregations and another for those in Ephesus), or does each term indicate a further distinction?

    As you said, this should make us “better servants”, which is not to say elevating one over the other, but perhaps drawing out the distinctions with which we serve that we might do so in repentance and faith in the Chief Servant.

    Thanks for bringing this up and I look forward to reading more!

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