The Difference Between Expiation and Propitiation: Or, How the KJV Blew It

14 Feb

I John 2:2 declares ‘And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’ (KJV). There’s just one problem with this translation: ἱλασμός doesn’t mean ‘propitiation’, it means ‘expiation’.

When you ‘propitiate’ a deity you do the same thing as the natives do when they trundle up a volcano and toss a virgin in it to stop the angry god from destroying you and your fellow islanders.

When ‘expiation’ occurs you do the same thing as the Israelites did when they put their hands on the scapegoat and sent it off into the wilderness. That goat ‘bears your sins away’ where they can’t harm you anymore and their effects are ameliorated.

This is why accurate translation matters. The difference between rendering ἱλασμός propitiation and expiation is the difference between pagan ritual and revelation. The God of the Bible is the God who, in Christ, carries our sins off. That’s why he is our ἱλασμός. And he is our ἱλασμός because that is what he does.

The KJV blew it on this one. And blew it big.


Posted by on 14 Feb 2012 in Bible, Theology



10 responses to “The Difference Between Expiation and Propitiation: Or, How the KJV Blew It

  1. Tim Bulkeley

    14 Feb 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Actually I think it is stronger than that, the LXX usage (Lev. 25:9; Num. 5:8; 2 Ma. 3:33; Ps. 129:4; Amos 8:14; Ezek. 44:27; Dat. 9:9) seems to me to clearly have “sin offering” as a core meaning.


    • Jim

      14 Feb 2012 at 2:46 pm

      the scapegoat imagery needs to be emphasized, however, since the ‘virgin in the volcano’ view is entrenched in the use of ‘propitiation’


  2. tim

    14 Feb 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Hmm, OTOH looking at the OED (the old paper copy which is the only one I have access to) it looks as if when Wycliffe and later the KJV started using “proptitation” to translate ἱλασμός propitiation pretty much meant “make atonement for”, in which case at the time it might have been a good or at least acceptable choice of words.


  3. Marc Regier

    14 Feb 2012 at 4:07 pm

    “propitiatio pro peccatis nostris” is the rendering of the Clementine Vulgate. Seems this problemo goes back earlier.


    • Jim

      14 Feb 2012 at 4:08 pm

      and the vulgate is jerome’s doing.


  4. tim

    14 Feb 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Again, hmm. I don’t know Latin well enough, or have the reference works to check, but it seems to me that in English the concept of throwing virgins into volcanoes is a modern addition to propitiation, which back when the KJV was translated meant something nearer what ἱλασμός meant in the LXX and so (perhaps?) in John.

    I.e. I think the problem is with retaining “propitiate” in Modern English, not with using it in Jacobean English.


    • Jim

      14 Feb 2012 at 4:31 pm

      since none of us are jacobean englanders the point is that the term doesn’t work for modern readers. it misleads. and the kjv still blew it since expiate would have worked better then too.


  5. Luke

    15 Feb 2012 at 10:30 am

    It’s funny, because I’ve been reading J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God, and he argues exactly the opposite–using the same very passage of Scripture (among others)! “If, however, you look at the RSV or NEB versions of the four texts quoted above [Rom 3:21-26; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:1f.; 1Jn 4:8-10], you will find that the word ‘propitiation’ does not appear….the version replace the thought of propitiation by that of expiation. What is the difference? The difference is that expiation only means half of what propitiation means….But in this century…a number of scholars…have revived the view…to the effect that there is in God no such thing as anger occasioned by human sin, and consequently no need or possibility of propitiation” (Chapter 18, II). It seems to me like he fears throwing out the theological baby with the bath water (for better or for worse).


    • Jim

      15 Feb 2012 at 10:32 am

      then he doesnt understand the connection between God and sacrifice. that or he’s so tied to the kjv that he can’t imagine it being wrong.