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The word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) is often translated in Romans 3:25 as "propitiation," "atonement," or "sacrifice [of atonement]" in Western conservative biblical translations. In Hebrews 9:5 it is generally translated as "mercy seat" or "atonement cover," where this is the clear meaning of the word (the NET also translates Romans 3:25 this way). Translations of 4 Maccabees 17:22 render it as "propitiation," "expiation," or "atoning sacrifice." I am unaware of any other uses of the term in biblical or other early works.

Are there any other known instances of this word in first or second century writings? Is rendering ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) as "mercy seat" in Romans 3:25 more faithful to the text, or is it better to use a theological term to clarify the concept for readers as is often done? If a theological term should be used, should it be "propitiation" or would "expiation" be a better term in light of the context?

This is not intended to be a doctrinal argument about theories of atonement, please keep responses focused on the text. I posted a corresponding question here to discuss the theological implications of propitiation vs. expiation.

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I've been told that "mercy seat" is a term which can be traced to Luther's German translation, and that is was more of a paraphrase than a translation. I don't have sources for this tho, sorry. –  Kazark Apr 12 '12 at 21:30
Tyndal, not Luther - and you're right, though it was a transliteration and not really a paraphrase. Given the sacrifice imagery, it wasn't too far of a leap for him to make. –  swasheck Apr 12 '12 at 22:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Propitiation" is the preferred choice of the two since it addresses both the context and the theology of the act. The meaning of propitiation is actually more forceful than how it is normally translated, as "appeasing." Instead, it's more in line with specifically being the object of the direct wrath of the deity in question (in the Greek mind) for transgressions. In this case, Jesus was that - he was the object of God's wrath. The result of how he assumed this wrath was the expiation of sins.

ἱλαστήριον appears in the LXX as the word for the mercy seat which also influenced Tyndale's understanding of the term. Given the thick sacrificial imagery, it's not hard to see why drew such a conclusion, which was actually a German transliteration of the word. However, contemporary Greek understanding of ἱλαστήριον does not necessarily allow for such an understanding. It is specifically related to the cycle of wrath and appeasement between the deities and humans.


I guess I am of the opinion that though propitiation and expiation are not antithetical, they are different sides of the coin.

Specific Context:

I understand expiation to be the result and not the means of what Romans 3:25 is describing. I believe that context supports this since Paul is describing the means by which what is understood as "expiation" has been accomplished. The detailed description of the shedding of blood as the means also lends itself to an understanding of "propitiation." This would have been the most natural reading to both the Jewish and Gentile (who would have had little understanding of the "mercy seat"). Additionally, the physical object of the "mercy seat" was not an object of sacrifice, but of meeting. It was the location where YHWH revealed himself to the high priest. The detailed blood imagery would not make sense if Paul (who would have tremendous understanding of Levitical Law) is building toward this as the intended meaning.

Broad Context:

Romans is dedicated to harmonizing the relationships in the Roman church - specifically validating both the Jewish and Gentile believers as part of the same, larger body. Much of the validation of the Gentile (to the Jew) is systematically accomplished through demonstrating the inadequacy of works of the Law of Moses for eternal salvation. However, the work accomplished on the cross by Jesus was sufficient for this outcome.

I do not find "mercy seat" to be a satisfactory, natural reading of this verb given the decidedly mixed audience, and the context of shedding of blood. "Propitiation" as being the object of divine wrath would be a concept that was more accessible to both groups and also satisfied the imagery of blood.

ἱλαστήριον does not literally mean "mercy seat." The LXX translators adopted this word from the Greek (since that was the goal of the LXX) as a means to describe the mercy seat. While this should carry some weight, it is not the deciding factor, given the above information. ἱλαστήριον literally means "propitiation" which was a concept already available within the Greek mind.

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Please elaborate on why "propitiation" addresses both the context and the theology of the act. What specifically in the context of the passage points to this definition over others? I am very interested in what you refer to as the "cycle of wrath and appeasement," please elaborate on the context and how it points to this view of God's mind being changed (appeased) because of Christ's death (propitiation) versus sin and death being nullified by Christ's sacrificial death (expiation). It may be that both are fitting, but I am curious why you chose propitiation over expiation. –  Dan Apr 13 '12 at 3:36
I'm not trying to be argumentative, I am genuinely confused about this passage because I have always been taught propitiation but recently heard a good argument for expiation (in a way that is antithetical to propitiation). –  Dan Apr 13 '12 at 3:37
Elaboration on the theological differences might be better here:… - but I also would really like to hear why you think this text leans more towards propitiation if you feel that you can respond solely based on the textual context. –  Dan Apr 13 '12 at 3:42
I guess I am of the opinion that though propitiation and expiation are not antithetical, they are different side of the coin. –  swasheck Apr 13 '12 at 3:44
Thanks for the clarification, I voted it up. –  Dan Apr 13 '12 at 16:41

I would suggest that propitiation, expiation and mercy seat are all viable options. My reasoning is based on theological and linguistic insights.

I subscribe to the linguistic theory of signs and signification. Words are considered signs and their meaning is derived (signified) by the real word entities they point to. When we communicate using the word "car," for instance, the communication works because the participants all have had experiences with "cars" and can therefore decipher the meaning of the word. One interesting thing about this scheme is that names are chosen based on one singular aspect of the object they represent. A "stroller" points to the fact that one can go on a stroll with a baby. The word (sign) "baby carriage" points to the same real world object (signifier) but instead of using its function for the word (sign) it uses a description of the object - a carriage for babies. It does not indicate that one can go on a stroll but this use of a baby carriage is possible and most likely implied. Another common method for creating words is the use of metaphor. A computer "mouse" looks like the rodent. The "legs" of a table have a similar function to that found with animals. The point I'm trying to make is twofold: 1.) words point to and are signified by real world entities and 2.) these entities have more characteristics, uses and functions than the name would indicate in a strictly literal interpretation of the word. A third thing about words I'd like to mention is that in most case they have the theoretical capability of referring (being signified by) various real world entities ("mouse" for instance). In order to determine what real world entity a word is pointing to one requires the surrounding context of it's usage and many times this is not enough to uniquely identify things.

Now the word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) in its most literal sense refers to the mercy seat (kapporet) which covered the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:17ff.). It makes sense that the translation in Heb 9:5 sticks to the formal naming convention of mercy seat since the purpose of the passage is a description of the ark and cheribum etc. in their original setting. However, Romans 3:25 is a different situation. It is describing a theological aspect of what Jesus death on the cross accomplished. The theological reality of what Jesus death (and resurrection) accomplished is related to but also different from the the original old testament imagery in many ways. Keep in mind that even in the old testament usage the "mercy seat" in the real world had specific functions and uses. All of these can be indicated by the use of the term "mercy seat." The usage of ἱλαστήριον in Romans is based on the old testament realities but is not identical to them. On one level the "mercy seat" is a metaphor explaining what Jesus accomplished. Also the theological realities of what occurred have changed. This is where a particular theological outlook would influence exegesis and even translation. My position is that the OT cult was a picture of what was to come. One thing that complicates matters further becomes clear when one considers roles and functions. In the original context the "Mercy Seat" was a place located in the holy of holies. At this place blood from a lamb was sprinkled on it by a priest. There are at least three separate things which come together in the original cult handling. My understanding is that Jesus combines these roles and function into one person, himself. He (the cross) is the place where it all occurs, he is the high priest and he is also the lamb supplying the blood. Based on that alone I would think sticking with "Mercy Seat" would be a bit limiting. defines propitiation as "to make favorably inclined; appease; conciliate." It defines expiation as "to atone for; make amends or reparation for". In my understanding both of these things occurred on the cross. Depending on your perspective one or the other can be emphasized. God the father was appeased because our sins were atoned for. This gets back to my earlier point about words pointing to real word things that have a complex nature. In this case the real world entity is the death (and resurrection) of Jesus on the cross and in particular what God was doing through it. It would seem none of the words is capable of encompassing the entire reality. As a translator one would have to choose the word which best emphasizes the point he/she thinks is being made. Propitiation and expiation would be viable choices for this. If one considers the readers to be astute enough to understand the depth and breadth of the theological realities one could use the word "mercy seat" or perhaps "sacrifice of atonement".

I'm not enough of a language expert or exegete to get into detail about the Greek usage etc. I'm coming from a linguistic, hermeneutical and systematic point of view.


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I really appreciated your response, Andy. I find it interesting that you consider propitiation and expiation to be complementary perspectives and both viable translation options for ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion). I recently had someone tell me that he thought these views were antithetical. I suppose elaboration on this might be better here:… –  Dan Apr 13 '12 at 3:41
@Dan, Wikipedia has a section on Propitiation and Expiation‌​. The second paragraph sums up well how I see the two working together, especially the last two sentences: ... Christ's death was therefore both an expiation and a propitiation. By expiating (removing the problem of) sin God was made propitious (favorable) to us. ... –  andypotter Apr 13 '12 at 13:29
As I read further I realized that my answer is based on a particular theological viewpoint about atonement and soteriology in general. The translation of this verse depends to a degree on your theological viewpoint. And this is something the plain text cannot answer. In this case Grammar and semantics can only bring us so far as to give viable options. After this nuances must be decided upon by theology. In my experience this is not uncommon when doing translation. –  andypotter Apr 13 '12 at 13:36
This is a very true statement. There are certain stalemates in the process of interpreting the text that require a theological decision to be made. However, these are relatively infrequent. –  swasheck Apr 13 '12 at 16:18
@swasheck do you do a lot of translation? I don't do a lot but have done a fair amount. I can't say that occurrences of theology providing guidance to translation are rampant but I think it is more than infrequent. I've often heard the phrase in theological circles, that translation is the point where theology begins. What they mean is that there is no such thing as a neutral translation because theological decisions are are necessary part of the the work of translation. –  andypotter Apr 13 '12 at 16:50

To understand what a propitiation is it is helpful to understand what it is not. This is often a surprise to people but the NT never speaks of Jesus' death as an "atonement". That is because an "atonement" is an expression of contrition and an appeal for forgiveness made by or on behalf of the perp (the one who sinned). Jesus was not making atonement.

In contrast, for Paul in the context of Romans 3 at least, a propitiation is made by a judge to appease the populace. That it is God and not Jesus who was making propitiation can be seen in the context (my translation):

Rom 3:25 - 26 God hath set forth Jesus as a propitiation by means of the good faith he expressed in the shedding of Jesus' blood, publicly demonstrating God's uprightness in the matter of the remission of sins done in the past through God's merciful disposition; To declare, I say, in the present God's uprightness in order that he might be justified, and the justifier of the one that puts faith in Jesus.

That's still a little dense so let me explain what's going on...

First of all we have to appreciate the fact that as judge of all the earth, God has an obligation to the populace to avenge harm done:

Rom 12:19 Dearly beloved, don't take revenge yourselves, but rather give leave it to God: because it is written, "Vengeance is my responsibility which I will perform," says the Lord.

So while on a personal level God is completely free to forgive the sins of anyone who has harmed himself but as judge he must not be remiss by not avenging those who have harmed others. And yet he did. When the Jews came to God in contrition and sought his forgiveness he freely forgave them because of his merciful disposition. So it was necessary to appease those who had given place to wrath in the confidence that God would one day avenge them and yet God had opted to forgive them.

It is for this that God had to show good faith by being among those who suffered wrong and yet forgave and did not get their revenge. He did this by setting forth Jesus before the populace, suffering at the hands of people that he would later forgive and never extract revenge.

By doing this he is cleared of reproach for freely forgiving sins in the past and also for forgiving the sins of those who have faith in Christ in the present and future. It is not Jesus who takes away sin but God. God forgives freely on the basis of faith, not sacrifice. The death of Jesus was to justify God for doing so.

It may be an uncomfortable thought to you that God made propitiation to the populace to appease them and clear himself but that is precisely what Paul says. Please re-read it slowly and you'll have to agree.

John refers to the same thing here:

1Jn_1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

It is the propitiation that makes him faithful and justified.

1 John may or may not be using the term in the same way.

A good illustration of this usage of ἱλαστήριον can be found in 4 Maccabees 17 wherein a demonstration, the valiant death of a mother and her seven children saved the Jews from Antiochus who saw their courage and uprightness and turned from the Jews to his other enemies. Here's the salient passage:

4Ma 17:20 These, therefore, having been sanctified through God, have been honoured not only with this honour, but that also by their means the enemy did not overcome our nation; 4Ma 17:21 and that the tyrant was punished, and their country purified. 4Ma 17:22 For they became the atnipoised to the sin of the nation; and the Divine Providence saved Israel, aforetime afflicted, by the blood of those pious ones, and the propitiatory death. 4Ma 17:23 For the tyrant Antiochus, looking to their manly virtue, and to their endurance in torture, proclaimed that endurance as an example to his soldiers. 4Ma 17:24 And they proved to be to him noble and brave for land battles and for sieges; and he conquered and stormed the towns of all his enemies.

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"This is not intended to be a doctrinal argument about theories of atonement, please keep responses focused on the text." Any citations from Greco-Roman literature to back up this claim (other texts using these terms in that same sense)? Are you familiar with the Greek philosophical notion of ἀνάγκη which you appear to be reading into Paul? Did you examine any other uses of ἱλαστήριον? –  Dan Sep 20 at 13:31
@Dan, that you would compare my exposition of the passage to ἀνάγκη suggests that you did not understand what I wrote (or you don't understand ἀνάγκη) so I suggest you read it again. Thanks. –  WoundedEgo Sep 20 at 14:47
@Dan, I added to my answer an example from the Maccabees. –  WoundedEgo Sep 20 at 15:19

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