Hebrews 1:1-4: Translation Issues

In some passages, I may divide discussing translation issues into one section on how a passage is rendered into English, and another on the textual issues, but this passage has only one textual issue of any consequence.

Textual Issues

In verse three we have the following general options:

  • “when He had by Himself purged our sins” (NKJV), also the reading of the KJV, Darby, and YLT.
  • “After he had provided purification for sins” (NIV), also the reading of the remaining translations available to me.

The issue is the presence of either Greek “di’ heautou” or “di’ autou” preceding the word “katharismon (cleansing).” The bulk of modern translators have chosen to follow those manuscripts that leave out those words. And there are some very good ones there–Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus, for starters, a very good trio of witnesses. But for the alternative text we do have P46, which is the oldest known manuscript to contain this passage, along with the bulk of the Byzantine tradition.

In this case, however, internal evidence, combined with good external evidence, overwhelms even the testimony of P46. One of the principles of textual criticism is that you accept as oldest that reading that can best explain the others. In Greek we have three variants: “autou” alone, “autou, di’ heautou”, and “autou, di’ autou.” These do seem to involve explanatory additions, explaining how the cleansing was accomplished. In addition, I would note that this seems to break the very compact style of expression in the prologue.

Translation Issues

There are basically two categories of translation issues to consider: The structure of the passage and the translation of the two keywords describing Jesus and his relation to the Father in 1:3.


In Greek, this entire passage is one sentence. Various translations have dealt with this in different ways. English readers may miss the point of verse 4, which is pointing forward to the first element of the author’s argument that Jesus is greater than the angels, if that point is included in the same sentence or even in the same paragraph as verses 1-3. Many versions do divide this long sentence into multiple English sentences, but only a few, such as the NLT, which places verse 4 in the next section, and the CEV, which places part of verse 3 and verse 4 in a separate paragraph.

The difficulty with including it in the first introductory paragraph is that this leaves the reader without a thesis sentence for the material in verse 5ff. Verse 4 tells us what our author is about to argue. First, he will argue that Jesus is greater than the angels (1:5ff), and then he will say he is greater than Moses and the Torah (3:1ff). This is a good example of a case in which a reader can be led astray by the divisions presented in a Bible edition. There were no such separations in the Greek manuscripts. These are features of modern Greek editions, and modern translations. Always be prepared to “think across the boundary.”

I personally prefer the option of putting verse 4 into a separate paragraph which will allow us to see it as a transition point, but you’ll notice that in my outline of Hebrews, I don’t follow my own rule. In that case, however, I carry over the thought by labeling point II.A. “Jesus is Greater than the Angels.”

Key Words

There are a number of key words in this passage, and I will discuss them when dealing with interpretation of the passage. Two terms in the first part of verse 3, however, have evoked a broad range of translations. My own translation of this line follows:

3This Son is the brightness of his glory and the exact representation of his real essence.

The Greek word I translated “brightness” is “apaugasma” and the phrase I translated “exact representation of his real essence” is “charactEr tEs hupostaseos autou.” The first of these may mean either something shining on its own, or reflecting the light of another. This is why some translations will use the term “reflection” in their translation (“The Son reflects God’s own glory” NLT). A good parallel to this is Wisdom of Solomon 7:26:

26For she is the radiance of the eternal light,
and the spotless reflector of the activity of God,
and the image of his goodness. (my translation)

By putting “radiance” and “reflector” in parallel, the author suggests a more passive understanding. Nonetheless, Wisdom of Solomon is referring to wisdom, while Hebrews 1:3 is referring to Jesus. Those with a high Christology may well prefer “brightness” or “radiance.”

My use of “exact representation” comes directly from the Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. This is the word from which we get the English “character,” but the meaning we normally find in the literature contemporary more or less to the book of Hebrews is something like “stamp” or “impression.” In combination, these terms state that Jesus presents God to us exactly, and I think this view will be supported by our later study of the book.

There is some remarkable theology in these few verses, and I look forward to blogging about some of the things we can learn from it.

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