Monday, July 02, 2007

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:
  1. 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.

  2. If the Ark, what is the best translation? Mercy Seat? Dwelling Place of God? Place of Atonement? Sacrifice of Atonement?

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.)
The amount of scholarly work that has been poured into this problem is ridiculous. Plenty of PHDs have been done and books written on the subject, and virtually every work dealing with Romans 3:25 will try and deal with this. There is no consensus regarding translation or meaning. (for further reading, a guy who did a PHD on the topic in 2000 summarizes it here)

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.


Blogger Michiel Borkent said...

At this Dutch site (link at bottom) the explanation of 'hilasterion' is as follows:

In the Hebrew the lid of the Ark of the Ark (the so-called 'reconciliation lid') is called: 'kaporeth'. In the Greek NT it is called: 'hilasterion'. Here too we see that 'hilasmos' covers the the Hebrew word 'kafar'. Remarkably that the Greek word would be etymologically related to 'hilaros ' (compare to our word hilarious), which means 'joy'. If we realise that the blood on the lid speaks of him who after his slaughtering has entered in the inner sanctuary, that association is not this way strange...

Romans 3.25; Hebrews 9:12


The thought is here that the blood of the Lamb covers the sin of the world. No substitutional penalty but simply covering our sin with imperishable source of life.

Blogger Big B said...

About the use of "hilasterion" I think Paul was talking about the mercy seat (literally propitiatory seat), was where God's presence was (as mentioned). At the mercy seat, propitiation was offered only for a short time; in the New Testament, propitiation was displayed at the cross. In the NASB, Romans 3:25 says that God displayed Christ publically as a propitiation in His blood through faith. Contextually, Christ is the only propitiation for those who realize that they cannot make themselves right before the Holy God. Time to start a paper!

Michiel, I appreciate your inciteful comments! But how is it possible that Jesus' blood covers the sin of the whole world? Yes, based off of 1 John 4:14, He was sent to be the Savior of the world (literally kosmos). But how can be the case if there are sinners perishing in eternal hellfire currently?
Is the blood of Jesus efficacious? ABSOLUTELY! But only for those who God enables to turn from their sin and trust in the Savior. More to come...

Blogger jimr said...

Jesus demonstrated the righteousness of God by giving His life on the cross. The cross is similar to the hilasteron or mercy seat of the ot. This is where one took their sacred and gave it to God at the hilasteron. Jesus said if you want to have life you will give up your (psyche or essence or life). By trust or faith we embrace the demonstration of Christ and the fitting exchange(reward) is life as it was in the ot

Blogger Noticeboard said...

I linked to your blog at
I found this discussion very helpful in preparing my sermon this week.
Kind regards,
Robert Stanier
(a priest in South East London, UK)

Blogger Sister Judith Hannah said...

Dear Theo Geek... Greetings to you today in the name of the Risen LORD JESUS CHRIST... the same yesterday, today, and forever. Amen and thankfully so.

Your article on HILASTERION is refreshingly honest scholarship. I am working on that word myself with a couple of linguists.

I have discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary is quite useful in this project.

HILASTERION is closer to the archaic meaning of HILL than to HILARIOUS. HILL, in days of old, meant to cover something.

Oddly enough, Kapporeth and kippur, from the Hebrew, means the same thing.

I suspect that the confusion came in with the Latin Vulgate and the translations which used it either totally or partially, like Tyndale's English version.

The Latin Vulgate has ORACULI in it in a few places (one being Exodus 25:18). It is in the place of Luther's
"gnadenstuhle" or MERCY SEAT (which is the Septuagint's HILASTERION).

Sometimes, the Latin uses expiat...(and a variety of endings)in these verses.

The Latin also uses propitiator... (and a variety of endings) for that word ... and thus, the English translations picked it up FROM THE LATIN.

The English translations also use ATONEMENT for HILASTERION.

So we see a strange connection of Kippor/Kapporeth--Hilasterion--Propitiation/Expiation/Oraculi-- mercy seat/ atonement in the texts.

These words SEEM to be used interchangably, much to the confusion of everybody.

If we stick to the Hebrew (i.e., to cover), we might get a better understanding of HILASTERION...
especially since it was used to name the golden lid WHICH COVERED the Ark (chest or box)of the Covenant.

Since GOD'S covenants are always ratified by blood (animal sacrifices, circumcision, JESUS' Blood), it would be logical to have the HILASTERION sprinkled with sacrificial Blood, n'est-ce pas?

Once we are IN the Covenant of GOD, we are COVERED indeed by HIS+ Blood.

These are my thoughts... but I stand open to correction and more honest scholarship. Indeed, I would welcome it!

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sister Judith Hannah

Order of the GOOD SHEPHERD+
(a non-Roman order of just plain Christians)

PS... Please contact me at if you have any elucidations from the language perspective.

Blogger Jeff said...

I'm not sure if anyone has ever posted this question in light of "Christ Jesus presented by God as the mercy seat" (which to be perfectly up front about - I am completely convinced that is what Rom 3:25 is saying). But, the sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat in the Old Covenant contains an interesting view from Hebrews 13:20. The final benediction of the writer to the Hebrews states in verse 20 of chapter 13(, and I quote from the NIV):"May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep," If Jesus, himself, needed the sinless blood that he, himself, had shed to become "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep", could not the sprinkling of the blood on the mercy seat have meant something far more significant than simply the expiation of sins, since the second goat (the goat of Azazel) carried away into the wilderness the sins of the nation confessed over it by the high priest - just as Jesus bore our sin to hell and depositted it there?

Blogger Daniel Bailey said...

Hi Andrew,

This is Daniel Bailey here. I have long been grateful for your excellent published summary and analysis on this site in 2007 of my dissertation, "Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul's Use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25" (PhD diss., Cambridge, 1999). However, it seems you could have written based solely on my dissertation summary of the same title in Tyndale Bulletin (2000), since all the primary source references you cite or allude to (i.e., without the references) are included there.

My Cambridge dissertation is now available for free download from the Cambridge University Library: Simply google "Bailey" and "Hilasterion" or follow this link:

This record's DOI:

However, while I never published the dissertation as such, I have now written an extensive analysis of the problem in about 23,000 words and have appended it as a final chapter in my translation of Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2018). Title: "Biblical and Greco-Roman Uses of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25 and 4 Maccabees 17:22 (Codex S)."

The Stuhlmacher book was supposed to be available by Aug. 16, but in fact I have not seen it yet and expect my first copy will arrive later this week (today is a Sunday).

I would be happy to scan a copy of my Stuhlmacher Hilasterion essay to you, if you have an email address.

Perhaps if you are a member of SBL, you can use that site to find my email address:

I actually saw that you have written a book recently and therefore I saw your initials and surname, but I lost the link and cannot find it again. Perhaps you could forward the book name to me.

If all else fails, I can probably post my email address here, as I don't expect too many hackers will be looking for it here.

Please advise,

Best regards,

Dan Bailey


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