Hilasterion in Romans 3:25
In Romans 3:25 there is a particularly (in)famous word: hilasterion. Biblical scholarship, and bible translations for the past century at least have been all over the place on this word, entirely unable to decide what it means. It has been variously translated with words and phrases such as: sacrifice of atonement, place of atonement, propitiation, expiation, placate, conciliate, mercy seat.
Now hilasterion and its various related words appear to be normal words in ancient Greek for referring to two parties settling a feud, or making peace, or one appeasing the other and thereby achieving some form or reconciliation. Often the word is used in relation to appeasing the gods, but can be equally used for when two groups of humans make peace.
However the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek uses the word hilasterion as a name for a piece of the ark of the covenant often called the "mercy seat" that was on top of the ark and overshadowed by the Cherubim, on which the high priest would sprinkle blood once a year and on which God's presence would 'sit'. In Ezekiel in the LXX the word is used to refer to a particular piece of an altar, a 'ledge'.
Those are the basics. So the questions that face scholars include:
- Is Paul meaning this as a reference to the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, or using this in the normal usage of the Greek word? Or using it in reference to Ezekiel's altar ledges? I am somewhat partial to Stowers' argument that since the Ark had not existed for many years prior to Paul's writing Romans, and since the Temple of Paul's time had no hilasterion in it, he is more likely to be not referring to the Ark... but the majority opinion has generally tended to the view that he is.
- If the Ark, what is the best translation? Mercy Seat? Dwelling Place of God? Place of Atonement? Sacrifice of Atonement?
- If so, what theological significance should be derived from this? What is Paul meaning when using this imagery of Jesus as part of the Ark of the Covenant? Is Jesus the New Ark? Is he the new place of God's presence dwelling with man? Is Paul referring to the atoning rituals that took place centered around the mercy seat? Is he seeing Jesus as a sacrifice taking place on the mercy seat to please God?
- If Paul is using the word in the normal Greek manner, then what is the best translation? It's not a particularly common word in Greek so it's not easy to tell. It seems to mean something vaguely like "appeasing gift", but no one can agree precisely what.
- If it's normal Greek usage... God is the one said to be setting forth the hilasterion, so is he giving the gift to us removing our enmity toward him, like Paul says elsewhere? Or is he, more complicatedly, providing a hilasterion toward himself on our behalf?
- Regardless of which meaning Paul is thinking of for hilasterion, how literally is he using it? To what extent is it a metaphor? (eg if Christ is the "mercy seat", then clearly Christ is not literally a piece of gold-coated wood that sits on the top of the Ark of the covenant.)
At the end of the day, it is my view that there is simply not enough evidence to say what Paul was meaning. It is widely believed that in Romans 3:22-26 Paul is quoting a popular Christian statement of faith which would have been known to and understood by his original readers. Thus, the original readers of Romans would have understood what the hilasterion in Romans 3:25 was meaning because they knew in advance. Whereas we today cannot know what it meant because Paul simply does not provide sufficient evidence. Thus, not only do I admit my ignorance of what Paul was meaning here, I assert my skeptical belief that no one today can determine with any level of surety or probability whatsoever what the original meaning was.
If I had to write a Bible translation of the passage I don't know what I'd write... maybe "reconciliation gift" with a footnote saying "or 'dwelling place of God'. Greek very unclear." If I had to say what I thought Paul was most likely meaning theologically here, I would lean towards the view he is speaking of God sending Christ to us as a reconciliation gift to remove our enmity towards himself, reconciling us from being enemies into friends like what is said in Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 5:16-21, Col 1:22. But that's pure speculation, Paul could be meaning almost anything, and there is no worthwhile purpose in trying to exegete ambiguous passages.
So I was somewhat amused when reading Pierced For Our Transgressions to see them argue that in Romans 3:25 hilasterion "indisputably" means propitiation and that therefore it "undeniably" teaches penal substitution. They make it all look quite simple - the only issue they discuss is whether hilasterion and variants mean "expiation" like C.H. Dodd thought or "propitiation" like L. Morris thought. They believe that Morris is right, and thus that Penal Substitution is undeniably taught in Romans 3:25. Ignorance is a truly powerful means of proof.