Word Studies in the New Living Translation: ἱλαστήριον hilasterion

Each month we will be led in a word study by a member of the Bible Translation Committee for the New Living Translation (NLT) or by a member of our Bible editorial team. We hope you will join us on this educational adventure. This month we are learning about:

Greek: ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion)

English: the cover of the Ark of the Covenant; the place of atonement; the mercy seat; propitiation

by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee

The Greek word hilastērion is used only twice in the New Testament, but it is an important theological term.

In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), hilastērion is used to describe the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. It was thus a technical term with which Jewish readers were familiar from the Septuagint.

In Hebrews 9:5, hilastērion is likewise used in a reference to the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. Here the KJV, ASV, RSV, NKJV, NRSV, and ESV render it “mercy seat.” The NASB uses “atoning cover.” The NIV (1984) uses “place of atonement,” and the NIV (2011) uses “atonement cover.” The NLT uses a more expansive translation—“the Ark’s cover, the place of atonement.” The full verse in the NLT reads: “Above the Ark were the cherubim of divine glory, whose wings stretched out over the Ark’s cover, the place of atonement. But we cannot explain these things in detail now.” (emphasis added)

In Romans 3:25, Paul uses hilastērion not in the literal sense of the cover for the Ark of the Covenant but as a metaphor for atonement or appeasement. In this passage the term has traditionally been translated as “propitiation” (for example, KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term propitiation was first used by John Wycliffe in 1388 in his translation of Leviticus 25:9, which describes the Day of Atonement, where the Ark’s cover features prominently. Wycliffe created the word by anglicizing a Latin term meaning “appeasement.” Although Wycliffe used the term propitiation in his translation of Leviticus, he translated hilastērion as “forgiver” in Romans 3:25. However, the KJV (1611) used “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 based on what Wycliffe had done in Leviticus, and this was followed by the ASV, NASB, NKJV, and ESV. But what does “propitiation” actually mean?

Most Americans today have never heard this word, and for those who have, many would struggle to give it a meaning. For that reason, the NIV translates the Greek word hilastērion in Romans 3:25 as “sacrifice of atonement.” In the NLT, Romans 3:25a reads, “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.” (emphasis added)

The rationale behind this translation choice in both the NIV and the NLT is that it is preferable in translation to use everyday language rather than an obscure term that is not understandable to the average reader.

May the words of Romans 3:25 be true for all of us—that we may be made right with God by believing that Jesus sacrificed his life for us.

41 thoughts on “Word Studies in the New Living Translation: ἱλαστήριον hilasterion

    1. You can get a free eDevotional that uses a different Tyndale Bible every month. This is sent to your inbox. Sign up in the free resources section

      1. Please would you kindly email me too about the free daily devotional reading plan that uses a different Tyndale Bible each month?

  1. I loved the deep dive on propitiation, atonement, mercy seat and how the trail goes back to John Wycliffe. What an interesting place to start a new Word Study for 2022. Thanks!

    1. You can sign up for this on our Free Resources page. An email is sent on a Monday, but you will have access to links for the entire week. Thanks!

  2. This is outstanding! I love my NLT but find myself having to “defend” it way too often!
    This strengthens my argument!
    And, true…I have looked “propitiation” up several times in various resources and it is Avery hard word to explain.
    Propitiation and expiation are over my humble pay grade!
    Thank you for what you are doing.
    MUCH appreciated!

  3. Love it! Not only a discussion of the Greek word; but also a history and translation of the historically translated “Christian” English word!

    I would love to see a discussion on peirasmos/peirazo!

      1. I agree with Rob and am so glad you’re looking into adding this. Thank you so much for these word studies … it’s invaluably helpful! I’m very grateful to receive this!

    1. These will be through our Tyndale Bible Update eNewsletter. If you are not already signed up you can at our Free Resources page. Thanks!

  4. I love this. I love words and do word studies on my own. This is super timely because our pastor said last Sunday that his favorite word in the New Testament was “propitiation,” and explained it. I have had such burning questions about Bible translation (lately about why the ESV OT sometimes translates from the Septuagint and sometimes the Hebrew – why choose one over the other?), so I am super excited about this series.

  5. In Spanish (my native language) whenever I hear “propitiation” I understand it to mean, “payment on behalf our sins” to reconciled us with God, given that I have been exposed to the Reina Valera Revised 1960 language since childhood, but even among Spanish speakers if they didn’t grow up with the RVR 1960 Bible then this term may not be too common either

  6. I am pleased with your new plan as it enables us to know the original language of the word. Secondly, it makes us to better understand the Bible

  7. I love this word study, my pastor and his Assistant Pastor use the word propitiation quite often in explaining literally what it means. So I follow what you say in this word study. How do I sign up for it?

    1. If you are signed up for the Tyndale Bible Update you will get this once a month. If you haven’t signed up it’s on our free resources page. Thanks!

  8. Thank you for your message. This helps me to understand why different versions have different translations. I look forward to more interesting translations of words that expresses the quality of Jesus and what He has done for us.

  9. Could you make your next article on the words translated from Hebrew as ‘morally good’ and ‘morally evil’? I was digging into them and found that they *actually* mean ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’, which comes from an entirely different system of thought; restorative rather than retributive. Reading Scripture from a restorative mindset instead of a retributive one has cleared up an *INCREDIBLE* amount of confusion over *why* God does what He does. (e.g. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t punishment but mercy; ending their suffering once there was no hope of healing.)

    Does that make sense to you?

    1. Hi Keith! It won’t be the next one, but I can pass along this request to the team to see if it’s one they can address in the future. Thanks for your thoughts and interest in the NLT!

  10. I think God and His Word,
    I think God who have colled you for his purpose, through you’re surport we have been reached with Word of God which is light in our lives God bless you all

  11. Please sign me up.I love reading and the origin of new words and their meanings.Looking forward to the next teaching.God bless.

  12. I’ve been doing word studies for a long time and love it!! Like the word “mystery” in Greek it’s knowledge with held or by Devine knowledge. As you read like Paul “I show you a mystery” or Devine knowledge that Paul received I believe from Jesus or Holy Spirit when he went to in Galatians 1 for 3 years and Colossians 1. It’s addictive for real 🙏🏻

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