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.