A Mistranslation Changed Christianity’s View of God

Eric Sentell

Eric Sentell

Feb 2, 2023 (Medium.com)

“All-Powerful” or “All-Holding”?

Photo by Samuel McGarrigle on Unsplash

Most Christians regard God as all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. God knows everything and can do anything. Yet our own sacred scriptures depict a God who is not all-powerful.

But the Bible describes God as “almighty!” How can anyone claim that the Bible does not affirm God’s omnipotence?

“Almighty” in our English translations comes from a Latin translation of a Greek word that does not mean omnipotent. The Greek word translated a Hebrew word that also does not mean omnipotent.

According to Biblical scholar Thomas Jay Oord:

The authors of the Septuagint translate shaddai and sabaoth with the Greek word pantokrater (παντοκράτωρ). The prefix panto means “all;” the root krater or krateo has various meanings, including “hold,” “seize,” or “attain.”

A better translation of pantokrater, says Oord, would be “all-holding” or “all-sustaining.” That’s quite a different idea of God, isn’t it?

The Bible Shows an “All-Holding” God

The translation “God all-holding” or “God all-sustaining” better represents the meaning of the ancient Hebrew that the ancient Greek tried to capture, but it also better fits the Biblical portrayal of God.

  • God doesn’t control Pharoah’s mind.
  • He doesn’t force Moses to become His representative.
  • He relies on the Angel of Death, occassional earthquakes, Judges, and prophets.
  • He doesn’t strike Goliath dead but uses David.
  • He doesn’t mind-control the Israelites or the kings of the various empires that smack Israel around.
  • He gets consent from Mary before conceiving Jesus.
  • Jesus performs miracles within the constraints of creation, healing people but not removing germs from nature.
  • Jesus preaches but does not control or coerce people to follow him.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The God of the Bible does not demonstrate omnipotence but instead works through people, angels, and nature. He does not control people, but He influences and persuades. At minimum, it’s clear that God contends with wills that He doesn’t override.

So, the Hebrew scriptures portray a God who is present throughout and sustaining creation. A mistranslation gave us the idea of an omnipotent God who can do anything and everything … only He’s rather … selective about using His power.

The idea of an omnipotent God causes the problem of evil. And that idea comes largely from a translation error.

Jerome’s Latin Translation Got It Wrong

In the 300s A.D., Saint Jerome translated the Greek Septuagint into Latin. His translation would become known as the Latin Vulgate, and it would become the basis for modern translations.

Jerome translated the Greek pantokraker as the Latin word omnipotens. While Jerome consulted Hebrew speakers and used some manuscripts written in Hebrew, he relied soley on the Greek when coming up with omnipotens.

Oord states the implications:

Had Jerome followed the original texts, he probably would not have used omnipotens, and Christians thereafter would not call God “omnipotent.”

The Impact of Jerome’s Error

Jerome’s mistranslation influenced his Latin translation, which then influenced the writers of Christian creeds (the Nicean Creed, or Apostle’s Creed, says “God Almighty”), most Medieval and modern translations of the Bible, and virtually all of Christendom today.

Viewing God as omnipotent creates the problem of evil. An all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God should be able to prevent genuine evil.

For many people, an omnipotent God is difficult — even traumatic — to believe in. Why does God Almighty allow genocides, natural disasters, and devastating illnesses? Where is God Almighty during assaults, abuse, murders, cancer?

A Better Alternative

Thomas Jay Oord offers a better alternative. God is not all-powerful. God can do all that can be done, but even God can’t do some things.

God is love. Love is inherently uncontrolling. God, therefore, cannot control. He influences, guides, and persuades, but he cannot control humans, nature, or even atoms. To control would violate His very nature and essence. God controlling is as impossible as God forsaking us.

We have free will that God cannot override, even when we use it for evil. Nature operates according to the laws and logic God already created. Atoms have some degree of spontaneity in their movements, from forming certain molecules but not others to quantum entanglement.

To prevent evil, God needs our cooperation and partnership. To perform miracles, God needs the conditions of creation to be conducive to His work. He wants to heal everyone, but some sicknesses are too far along, some viruses too stubborn, some bodies too broken.

Oord’s view, summed up as Open and Relational Theology, makes much better sense of our lived experience and the majority of the Biblical account — even with the mistranslations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *