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Translating χάρις in the New Testament

Alex Savin

1. Introduction

One of the main challenges in the process of translation is to find coresponding terms and
structures in the target language which which may convey propperly the message of the source text.
And this is a quite difficult task since not everytime the words have the same meaning in both the
source language and target language. There are many cases when one word from the source
language doesn’t have a corresponding word in the target language. In that case the translator has to
make some difficult choises. There are also cases when one word has a multiple meaning and the
target language doesn’t have an equivalent term which contains all the meanings, but different
words for each meaning. And this is another difficult decision to be made by the translator in
finding the proper meaning and conveying it into the target language. This is also the case for the
term „χάρις” which we find in the Bible. Χάρις is a term used in the secular Greek, as well as in the
Old Testament, but it receives his great importance when used in the New Testament especially in
the writings of St. Paul, as we will see later. In this paper, our task is to analyze this term, to see
how it developed in different contexts of usage and different periods of time, which are the
meanings it has and, most important, what are the implications of its multiple meanings in the
process of translation. This survey will struggle to present the use of „χάρις” especially in the New
Testament.

2. Problems and questions

The problem related to this topic is mainly the way we should translate this term. The
question is whether to follow a formal equivalence and in this case we need to find a term fitting for
more meanings, or to opt for a meaning equivalence in which case we will use more terms in the
target language corresponding to the meanings of χάρις in different contexts. Any of the two
choices imply a compromise. If we opt for the formal equivalence we will have the advantage of
having an overall view of the author´s way of composing the text.1 But using this method we might

1
N. T. Wright expresses the same problem when talking about δικαιοσύνη: I have some sympathy for the view that
similar wording should be similarly translated, to alert readers to parallels. N. T. Wright, “Translating Δικαιοσύνη: A
Response,” The Expository Times 125, no. 10 (July 1, 2014): 487.

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lose some of the meaning.2 Using the second method we will have a better understanding of the text
but some parallels might then be lost.3

3. Steps and resurces


In order to resolve this problem we will need first to understand what χάρις means from
different points of view. We will analyze its usage in the secular Greek, then in the Old Testament
and in the New Testament. Afterwards we will try to see what implication does this have in the
process of translation.
For this we will use different dictionaries and studies, electronic resources as
http://biblehub.com, http://www.bible-researcher.com, https://www.bibletools.org and BibleWorks
9 Software.

4. Χάρις in different contexts

4.1. General view of χάρις in the Orthodox Tradition


The importance of the term χάρις comes out from the fact that it has a crucial role in the
salvation of the human kind. As a theological term it is translated in English as “grace” and in
Romanian as “har”. In the Orthodox Tradition the grace represents the very energies of God
himself. By grace the human beings unite with God. Human beings are demanded to become god,
not by nature, but by grace. Grace is the working of God himself, not a created substance and it is
neither an entity by itself, detachable from God. The teaching about the divine grace had a clear
expression in the formulation of St. Gregory Palama, namely that grace is an uncreated energy,
emanated from the divine being of the three Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, inseparable from the
divine being or from the Hypostasis.4

4.2. Χάρις in secular Greek


For a proper understanding of the term, it is necessary to see its basic meaning. In common
usage, χάρις is a delightful thing. “It may be a state causing or accompanying joy. It is joyous being
or ―charm, the element of delight in the beautiful, the favor shown by fortune, i.e., what is pleasing

2
The reader who knows the underlying Septuagintal usage would be incredulous at the idea that a single English term
might cover the lot. N. T. Wright, “Translating Δικαιοσύνη: A Response,” The Expository Times 125, no. 10 (July 1,
2014): 488.
3
I am also sympathetic to the view that similar wording might sometimes be translated differently, to alert readers to
ambiguities. N. T. Wright, “Translating Δικαιοσύνη: A Response,” The Expository Times 125, no. 10 (July 1, 2014): 487.
4
Marian Vild, “„Charis” în concepția Sfântului Apostol Pavel,” Revista Teologică 3 (2003): 19.

2
in it. As a mood cháris means ―sympathy or ―kindness, with a reference to the pleasure that is
caused. In certain expressions the idea of ―thanks is brought out, and cháris with the genitive has
the sense of ―for the sake of, ―out of consideration for. Aeschylus uses cháris for the ―favor of
the gods, but cháris is not a central religious or philosophical term. In Plato it has the meanings
―good pleasure, ―goodwill, ―favor, ―pleasure, ―what pleases, and ―thanks. Stoicism stresses
the disposition, but the aesthetic aspect persists even in ethics.”5 We can see that this notion had
from the very beginning of its usage a multitude of meanings which could be understood according
to the context.
However, the term continues to develop new meanings. In Hellenism χάρις becomes a fixed
term for the favor shown by rulers, with such nuances as gracious disposition or gracious gift. It
also gains a religious understanding: χάρις is seen like a power, which comes from the world above,
appears in the divine man and expresses itself in magic.6

4.3. Χάρις in Old Testament


The Septuagint uses χάρις especially for translating the Hebrew word chen, which derives
from the verbal form chnn. The verbal stem denotes a gracious disposition that finds expression in a
gracious action (cf. Gen. 33:5; Ps. 119:29). Initially the term is not theological. It may be used for
having pity on the poor (Prov. 14:31) or the defenseless (Dt. 7:2). More weakly it may simply
denote friendly speech (Prov. 26:25).7 The main development of the term in the Old Testament
relates to God. Examples of this action are found in Psalms, which call on God to hear prayer (4:1),
to heal (6:2), to redeem (26:11), to set up (41:10), to pardon (51:1), and to strengthen (86:16) in the
corresponding needs.
As a basic meaning, χάρις is used in Septuagint when referring to the relation between
humans and God. So we have the expression
• Νωε δὲ εὗρεν χάριν ἐναντίον κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ (Gen 6:8 BGT);
• But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. (Gen 6:8 KJV);
• But Noah found favor with the LORD. (Gen 6:8 NAB);
• Noe însă a aflat har înaintea Domnului Dumnezeu. (Gen 6:8 BOR).
“The Old Testament repeatedly speaks of finding favour in the eyes of God or of man. The favour
so found carries with it the bestowal of favours or blessings. This means that grace is not an abstract

5
Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged
in One Volume (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 1183.
6
Ibid.
7
Ibid.

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quality, but is an active, working principle, manifesting itself in beneficent acts, Gen. 6:8; 19:19;
33:15; Ex. 33:12; 34:9; I Sam 1:18; 27:5; Esth. 2:7.”8
Although it is used in relation with God, χάρις doesn’t have a deep theological meaning, it is
not understood as an energy which emanates from God, but it is used as favor, concession, credit,
gratitude.

5. Χάρις in New Testament

In the New Testament χάρις is found 153 times, in different forms. However, the noun does
not occur in Matthew, Mark, or 1 and 3 John. Using the searching tools of the BibleWorks software
we can see the occurrences of the term at different authors from the New Testament.

106

26
6 11
2 2

As we see from the diagram above, St. Paul is the one who uses the term the most, followed
by St. Luke. For this reason our survey will be based on this two authors. Although it is obvious
that it became a fixed term later, χάρις can’t be translated just as “grace”. “In contrast with a
traditional translation, a really meaningful translation would recognize a wide range of possibilities
in translating “grace”. A few examples may be noted from TEV:
blessings: Lk 2:40, 6:32, 6:33; Acts 4:33
favor: Lk 2:52; Acts 7:46, 25:27, 25:3, 25:9
mercy: Rom 11:5, 11:6
beautiful words (for ‚ “words of grace”): Lk 4:22

8
“The Meaning of ‘Grace’ (Χαρις) in the Bible,” accessed July 19, 2018, http://www.bible-researcher.com/grace.html.

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gift: Rom 4:4, 4:16, 12:3; 1 Cor 3:10, 16:3
privilege: Rom 1:5, 15:15; 2 Cor 8:4
goodwill: Acts 2:47
pleasing: Acts 7:10
service of love: 2 Cor 8:6, 8:7, 8:19.”9
In what follows we will try to see how the term χάρις is translated in different contexts
according to the various meanings it can have. For this, we will make a comparison between the
Greek text (BNT), an English translation (NAB) and a Romanian translation (BOR).

5.1. Χάρις at St. Luke

St. Luke uses in his writings a similar meaning to that in the Old Testament, other than a
theological one. For example, there are situations when χάρις obviously means “thanks”10, as we
see in Luke 17:9. In this case is not possible to translate it by “grace”:
• μὴ ἔχει χάριν τῷ δούλῳ ὅτι ἐποίησεν τὰ διαταχθέντα; (Luk 17:9 BGT)
• Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? (Luk 17:9 NAB)
• Va mulţumi, oare, slugii că a făcut cele poruncite? (Luk 17:9 BOR).

Also, St. Luke uses the secular sense of showing favor:


• αἰτούμενοι χάριν κατ᾽ αὐτοῦ ὅπως μεταπέμψηται αὐτὸν εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ, (Act 25:3 BGT)
• as a favor to have him sent to Jerusalem (Act 25:3 NAB)
• Cerându-i ca o favoare asupra lui, să fie trimis la Ierusalim, (Act 25:3 BOR)

Old Testament influence may be seen in the religious use in Luke:


• μὴ φοβοῦ, Μαριάμ, εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ. (Luk 1:30 BGT)
• Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luk 1:30 NAB)
• Nu te teme, Marie, căci ai aflat har la Dumnezeu. (Luk 1:30 BOR)

• καὶ ἰδὼν τὴν χάριν [τὴν] τοῦ θεου (Act 11:23 BGT)
• şi văzând harul lui Dumnezeu (Act 11:23 BOR)
• and saw the grace of God (Act 11:23 NAB)

9
Daniel C. Arichea, “Translating ‘Grace’ (Charis) in the New Testament” The Bible Translator 29, no. 2 (April 1, 1978):
201–202.
10
Ibid.

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• and saw this evidence of God's blessing (Act 11:23 NLT)
In Acts 11:23 χάρις has the sense of blessing. Although BOR and NAB use “grace” and “har”, there
are other translations that try to make it clearer. In this case NLT assumes that τὴν χάριν [τὴν] τοῦ
θεου is the evidence of the blessing of God.

5.2. Χάρις in the Pauline texts


As we may see from the diagram above, the most occurrences of χάρις are found in the
Pauline Letters: St. Paul uses it 106 times from a total of 153 uses in the New Testament. This thing
is capable of showing the importance of this term in Pauline thinking. Some said even that the
theology of St. Paul is “haritocentric”11. However, it is clear that for St. Paul χάρις is a central
concept, which expresses most clearly the way he understands the event of salvation. In the Pauline
writings we find not just a frequently use of the term, but also a deepening of it and of its senses.

a. Power (energy) of God given to the human kind for salvation


St. Paul uses χάρις, firstly, in a theological sense. In this care it is translated as “grace” and
“har” (Romanian). Through grace humans achieve the salvation.
• Τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον· (Eph
2:8 BGT)
• Căci în har sunteţi mântuiţi, prin credinţă, şi aceasta nu e de la voi: este darul lui
Dumnezeu; (Eph 2:8 BOR)
• For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of
God; (Eph 2:8 NAB)

• Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις (Tit 2:11 BGT)
• Căci harul mântuitor al lui Dumnezeu s-a arătat tuturor oamenilor, (Tit 2:11 BOR)
• For the grace of God has appeared, saving all (Tit 2:11 NAB)

• δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ· (Rom
3:24 BGT)
• Îndreptându-se în dar cu harul Lui, prin răscumpărarea cea în Hristos Iisus. (Rom 3:24
BOR)

11
P. Bonnetain, L’enseignement biblique sur la grâce: Extrait du Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible [|.]. (Letouzey
et Ané, 1938), col. 1001.

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• They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24
NAB)

b. Χάρις as greetings
Χάρις has a special place in St. Paul’s greetings. “It echoes the familiar chairein, but comes
into association with peace in a liturgical formula that forms a constituent part of the letter”12
• χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. (Rom 1:7 BGT)
• Har vouă şi pace de la Dumnezeu, Tatăl nostru, şi de la Domnul Iisus Hristos! (Rom 1:7 BOR)
• Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:7 NAB)

• Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἡ κοινωνία τοῦ ἁγίου
πνεύματος μετὰ πάντων ὑμῶν. (2Co 13:13 BGT)
• Harul Domnului nostru Iisus Hristos şi dragostea lui Dumnezeu şi împărtăşirea Sfântului
Duh să fie cu voi cu toţi! (2Co 13:13 BOR)
• The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit
be with all of you. (2Co 13:13 NAB)

c. Apostolic office is a special gift


When talking about the authority of his apostleship, St. Paul uses sometimes the term χάρις.
Thus, he affirms that he received form Christ “grace and apostleship”:
• δι᾽ οὗ ἐλάβομεν χάριν καὶ ἀποστολὴν (Rom 1:5 BGT)
• Prin Care am primit har şi apostolie (Rom 1:5 BOR)
• Through him we have received the grace of apostleship (Rom 1:5 NAB)

The grace of which St. Paul talks about is not the same as the one received by the believers
in the process of salvation, but it is a gift (χάρισμα)13. Thanks to this, St. Paul is able to teach, to
give advices and to write:
• τολμηρότερον δὲ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἀπὸ μέρους ὡς ἐπαναμιμνῄσκων ὑμᾶς διὰ τὴν χάριν τὴν
δοθεῖσάν μοι ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ (Rom 15:15 BGT)
• Şi v-am scris, fraţilor, mai cu îndrăzneală, în parte, ca să vă amintesc despre harul ce mi-a
fost dat de Dumnezeu, (Rom 15:15 BOR)

12
Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1186.
13
Vild, “„Charis” în concepția Sfântului Apostol Pavel,” 28.

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• But I have written to you rather boldly in some respects to remind you, because of the grace
given me by God (Rom 15:15 NAB)

d. Secular meaning
St. Paul also uses χάρις in a secular meaning. It is used as “thanks”, in a similar way of how
Sf. Luke uses it, as we showed above:
• χάρις δὲ τῷ θεῷ (Rom 6:17 BGT)
• Mulţumim însă lui Dumnezeu (Rom 6:17 BOR)
• But thanks be to God (Rom 6:17 NAB)

• Χάρις δὲ τῷ θεῷ (2Co 8:16 BGT)


• Mulţumire fie adusă lui Dumnezeu (2Co 8:16 BOR)
• But thanks be to God (2Co 8:16 NAB)

Also is is used with its base meaning of charm, what delights.


• ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν πάντοτε ἐν χάριτι (Col 4:6 BGT)
• Vorba voastră să fie totdeauna plăcută (Col 4:6 BOR)
• Let your speech always be gracious (Col 4:6 NAB)

6. Conclusions
The term χάρις has a very long history. It evolved in Greek antiquity from a profane sense,
that of favor, pleasant mood, pleasure, into a religious sense of power of the divinity. It is used by
the translators of the Septuagint for the Hebrew term chnn - goodwill, favor, grace - to show the
relations between humans and between humans and God. In the New Testament alongside of the
profane meaning, it gains a theological meaning, deeper than the one used in the Greek thinking or
in the Old Testament. It developed in the Christian thinking from favor, goodwill to the
understanding of being the energy that makes possible the salvation of the humans.
Although is a single term it has a multitude of meanings in the New Testament, which can
be understood according to the context. This thing leads to the fact that its translation becomes a
very difficult task. Trying to find and use a single term in the target language which makes the text
still understandable is probably impossible. In this case the solution is to focus on a meaning
equivalence. The translator has the duty to discover the various possibilities for translating a term
and to use them in such a manner that his translation becomes clear, easy to understand, and more
importantly, theologically alive.

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Bibliography

Arichea, Daniel C. “Translating ‘Grace’ (Charis) in the New Testament”


The Bible Translator 29, no. 2 (April 1, 1978): 201–206.

Bonnetain, P. L’enseignement biblique sur la grâce: Extrait du Supplément au Dictionnaire de la


Bible [|.]. Letouzey et Ané, 1938.

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament: Abridged in One Volume. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985.

Vild, Marian. “„Charis” în concepția Sfântului Apostol Pavel.” Revista Teologică 3 (2003): 19–39.

Wright, N. T. “Translating Δικαιοσύνη: A Response.” The Expository Times 125, no. 10 (July 1,
2014): 487–490.

“The Meaning of ‘Grace’ (Χαρις) in the Bible.” Accessed July 19, 2018. http://www.bible-
researcher.com/grace.html.