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Odd Gospel Greek: “Messiah” with a Greek accent

March 23, 2012

“Had Jesus been a messiah with a name in Isaiah, the King James Version, according to its Anglicization of Hebrew words, would have named him Joshua the Messiah.” – Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament

The writer of the gospel John seems to have invented an odd, Greekification of a Hebrew word.  It’s the word, spelled Μεσίας, or alternatively Μεσσίας.  John only used this word twice, and it’s not a Greek word used anywhere else before his gospel.  It’s not in any of the other Greek gospels, not in the book of Acts or in the Apocalypse, not in any of Paul’s writings, and not any of the other epistles written by other writers.  Thus, it’s not in the New Testament other than in these two instances in John’s gospel.  And it is not in all of the Septuagint.  We’ll come back to how John uses his made-up word, Μεσ[σ]ίας.  Then we’ll discuss a bit the problems it causes for translators of the Greek New Testament and of the Hebrew Bible into a single third language.

First note how, in the epigraph above, Barnstone is making the point that the KJV Anglicizes the Hebrew Bible names and the Greek New Testament names differently.  In fact, the KJV translators did use the now-English word “Messiah” for a Hebrew word, but they did so only twice.  Elsewhere, for that same Hebrew word, they use “annointed.”  Let’s look at the King James Version for this, with the Hebrew inserted and with the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew inserted as well.  Let’s look at Daniel 9:26-27 and at Isaiah

Know therefore and understand, [that] from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the  [משיח] Messiah [χρῖσμα] the Prince [shall be] seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.  And after threescore and two weeks shall [משיח] Messiah [χριστοῦ] be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof [shall be] with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

Thus saith the LORD to his  [משיח] anointed [χριστῷ], to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;

So let’s just stress this again.  The KJV translators use “anointed” as the default translation for the Hebrew word משיח in all instances except the two verses in Daniel above.

And the Septuagint translators always use χριστ* (meaning “annointed”) for the same Hebrew word משיח .  When we read the Greek New Testament, likewise, we always find χριστ* (meaning “annointed”) for this concept that we all understand as Messiah, as the KJV translates the Hebrew word משיח rather exceptionally in Daniel 9:26-27.

When we come to the odd gospel Greek, then here’s what the KJV has done.  It changes the Greek χριστ* (meaning “annointed”) from “annointed” to an Anglicized word, Christ.  And it makes the odd gospel Greek Μεσ[σ]ίας into an Anglicized word, Messias.

Here then are John 1:41 and John 4:25 … 29. [The Greek words are inserted.]

He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias [μεσ.σ.ίας], which is, being interpreted, the Christ [χριστός].

The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias [μεσ.σ.ίας] cometh, which is called Christ [χριστός]: when he is come, he will tell us all things… Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ [χριστός]?

What you might see has happened is that the writer of the odd Greek gospel of John has two of his characters pronouncing the Hebrew word משיח in two different instances as μεσ.σ.ίας.  It’s a very odd and strange pronunciation, but there it is.  Nonetheless in each instance the same writer explains.  He means these characters to mean χριστ* (meaning “annointed”), which is how all of the Septuagint translators and all of the other not-as-odd Greek writers of the New Testament made it.

The KJV translators seem to sense that these two spoken Greeky words are odd, and so they Anglicize them “Messias” and not, as they did for the Hebrew word משיח in Daniel, as “Messiah.”  They also, then, switch the not so odd Greek word χριστ* (meaning “annointed”) to “Christ,” as we’ve already said.  We’ve repeated ourselves because there’s this mess of Messias and Messiah and anointed and Christ that gets made.

Which makes us wonder, if the odd gospel Greek μεσ.σ.ίας had never been invented, then might we have something more consistent like Joshua the Anointed or even just Joshua the Messiah (and not Jesus the Messias)?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2012 6:32 pm

    I think you mean John 1:41 not 1:45.

    The fault here is not with KJV but goes back at least to the Vulgate:

    invenimus Messiam quod est interpretatum Christus (John 1:41)

    scio quia Messias venit qui dicitur Christus (John 4:25)

    So χριστός and μεσσίας were being transliterated long before KJV. And the former, at least, had surely become “Christ” in English long before KJV, indeed long before any English Bible translation – according to this dictionary it was introduced into Old English as long ago as the 6th to 7th centuries.

    But in Daniel 9 the Vulgate has christus. So the oddity there may be a KJV innovation.

    So what were you going to say about “the problems it causes for translators of the Greek New Testament and of the Hebrew Bible into a single third language”? I could add some interesting observations there. Or were you thinking only about English?

  2. March 23, 2012 6:43 pm

    Very interesting observations about the role of the Vulgate here. I really hope to say more but am out of time today. Please do add your insights about Bible translation languages in addition to English.

  3. March 23, 2012 6:56 pm

    I’m also out of time today, but will add some insights when I get the chance.

  4. March 24, 2012 6:52 am

    Whether in Jeromian Latin or in KJV English or in any other single language, I think the real challenge for translating the Hebrew Bible together with the Greek New Testament comes when there are two or more languages presented in the original text. For example, John John 4:25 … 29.

    The woman is Samaritan, the man Galilean, and the narrator/translator from an unknown place. She is speaking accented Aramaic we presume. He is speaking a more conventional Hebraic aramaic. The gospel writer is using just Greek to try to capture the differences. And the literary backdrop to all of this are: the Greek Septuagint texts (at least a couple of centuries old but translated in the diaspora under a Greek empire) and the Hebrew scriptures being taught also in the Synagogues (in “Palestine” and in that same wide diaspora all under a Roman would-be Latin empire).

    The English translator has to consider what is going on in the Greek text to try to capture the differences between spoken speech, by a woman and by a man, different because of sex and because of race and region. The narrator has them arguing over true religion, true Jewishness. But he has her saying something like “muhsiuh.” And there’s this little aside (maybe her own explanation) that this means “The Anointed One.” And later in that same context, in 29, he has her repeating, not the novel expression but, “The Anointed One.” “Could this be The Anointed One?”

    I don’t have Barnstone in front of me and am unfortunately again out of time. But Barnstone thinks the solution for English translation partly requires the rejection of the Anglicized words Christ and Christian and Christianity, since these do not get at the Hebraic meanings of the conversations within the Greek New Testament.


  1. Hal Taussig’s “A New New Testament” (and the Open English Bible) | BLT

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