Word Studies in the NLT: ἱλαστήριον hilasterion

Each month we will be led in a word study by a member the New Living Translation committee or 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 hilasterion
English: the cover of the Ark of the Covenant; the place of atonement; mercy seat; propitiation

by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee

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

In Heb. 9:5, hilasterion is 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.”

In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), hilasterion is used as the Greek term for the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. So although the word is used only twice in the NT, it was a technical term with which Jewish readers were familiar from the Septuagint.

In the NLT, Heb 9:5 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 Rom. 3:25, Paul uses hilasterion 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” (KJV, ASV, NKJV, NASB, ESV). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this English term was first used by John Wycliffe in 1388 in his translation of Lev. 25:9, which describes the Ark of the Covenant. He created the word by anglicizing a Latin term meaning “appeasement.” Although Wycliffe had created the term “propitiation” in his translation of Leviticus, he translated hilasterion as “forgiver” in Rom. 3:25. However, the KJV (1611) used “propitiation” in Rom. 3:25, and this was followed by the ASV, the NASB, the NKJV, and the ESV. But what does “propitiation” 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 hilasterion in Rom. 3:25 as “sacrifice of atonement.” In the NLT, Rom. 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 both the NIV and the NLT is that it is preferable to use everyday language rather than an obscure term that is not understandable to the average reader.

May this be true for all of us—that we will be right with God by believing that Jesus sacrificed his life for us.

2 thoughts on “Word Studies in the NLT: ἱλαστήριον hilasterion

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