“Propitiation” in the NLT

Mark D. Taylor

As a dynamic-equivalence translation, the NLT translates the Hebrew and Greek text in natural, understandable English. This means that we try to avoid technical terms that the average reader would not understand.

Two such technical terms not used in the NLT are “propitiation” and “expiation.” The Bible Translation Committee chose not to use these terms because the average reader does not understand them. In fact, I’d guess that only 1% of the population could define the terms “propitiation” and “expiation” with any degree of accuracy.

The table below shows how four translations handle the Greek term hilasterion:

Romans 3:25
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation . . . whom God put forward as an expiation . . . whom God put forward as a propitiation . . . For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin.
Hebrews 9:5
And over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercyseat; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Above the Ark were the cherubim of divine glory, whose wings stretched out over the Ark’s cover, the place of atonement.

These are the only two NT passages that use the Greek word hilasterion. But the word is used frequently in the Greek translation of the OT, where it refers to the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. English translations of the OT render the Hebrew term as “mercy seat” (KJV, RSV, ESV), “atonement cover” (NIV), or “the Ark’s cover–the place of atonment” (NLT).

In Heb 9:5, the term hilasterion is used in the literal sense–describing the Ark’s cover.

In Rom 3:25, Paul uses hilasterion as a metaphor. “God presented Jesus as the hilasterion.” But what does this metaphor mean? Jesus was the “atonement cover.” He was the “place of atonement.” He was himself “the sacrifice for sin,” the means of atonement between God and humanity.

Does the English word “propitiation” communicate this nuance of meaning? Perhaps to 1% of the population. To the other 99%, it communicates very little meaning at all.

That’s why the NLT uses words that communicate clearly to 100% of the readers: “God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin” (Rom 3:26).

By the way, Scripture Zealot has a post on this very subject called Romans 3:25, Propitiation and the NLT (in which he quotes the first-edition text of the NLT).

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