Amen spelt in Scrabble tiles

Translation is always a tricky thing. It gets trickier when you have to translate a distinctive idiom, one which appears to be sufficiently strange in the language at large to be associated with one person’s characteristic way of speaking. I’m thinking of the phrase with which Jesus begins a number of his sayings.

Truly, I tell you
Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν
Amēn legō humīn

e.g. Mark 3:28

The translation “Truly, I tell you” is from the NRSV / RSV tradition going back to, and updating, the King James / Geneva / Tyndale translations of “Verily”. Other translations are available:

I tell you the truth (New Living Translation)
I assure you (Good News Bible / Common English Bible)
Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. (The Message)
I tell you solemnly (Jerusalem Bible)
In truth I tell you (New Jerusalem Bible)

(All Mk 3:28)

No doubt there are still others. But all have decided that “Amen” needs translating. But does it? “Amen” is a Hebrew word, but is it also an English one?

In the Old Testament, it normally signifies assent or agreement with what has just been said, for example in response to a list of curses (Deuteronomy 27:15 ff), or at the end of a psalm (e.g. Psalm 41). We have become equally familiar with it, after centuries of praying in English, used in a similar way, as the word which ends a prayer, effectively saying “Yes, that is what I’m praying for too.”

The rabbis expounded it in later centuries like this:

Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says with regard to the term amen: There is an element of oath within it, there is an element of acceptance of the statement and agreement within it, and there is an element of confirmation of the statement, i.e., that he believes and prays that the statement will be fulfilled, within it.

Shevuot 36a

The Greek Bible seems mainly to agree with our English tradition of translating “Amen” by another word. On most occasions (it’s not a very common word) it translates “Amen” as γένοιτο (genoito) meaning something like “may it be so”. Despite that, Paul (among others) shows us that Greek-speaking Jews in the first century were quite comfortable using the word “Amen” as the end of a prayer, without needing to translate it. See, for example, Romans 11:36, 15:33 or 16:27. His clearest example even suggests the word might be more widely known:

What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?

1 Corinthians 14:15-16

Perhaps then, there is no need for translators to translate the word “Amen” at all. In the culture of the biblical writers, it was known to be a word that ends prayers. It is just as (or even more) strongly known as the word that ends a prayer today in contemporary English-speaking culture. An English reader coming across Jesus saying “Amen, I tell you” has just as many clues – both to the unusual nature of the expression, and to the meaning – as someone did in the first century.

Perhaps the rot set in with Luke, whose desire for elegant writing seems to have led him into minimising the use of this striking phrase as too repetitive.

  • In Mark Jesus uses the phrase 12 times in a plural construction, once in a singular.
  • In Matthew (proportionately longer and with more sayings material) Jesus uses the phrase 29 times in a plural construction, and twice in a singular.
  • In John, where Jesus nearly always sounds very different from the first three gospels, the phrase continues to occur, but now with the “Amen” doubled up for emphasis: “Amen, Amen, I tell you”. And that occurs 20 times in the plural, and 4 times in the singular.

Luke is different. Despite being a similar length to Matthew, Luke’s Jesus only utters the phrase 5 times in the plural and once in the singular. Where the phrase occurs in parallel passages, you can often see that Luke has changed it much in the way of a modern translator. For example, in Luke 7:9, which parallels Matthew 8:10, Luke simply has “I tell you”, and in Luke 9:27, which parallels Mark 9:1 and Matthew 16:28, Luke goes for “I tell you truly” (ἀληθῶς – alēthōs).

So there’s certainly good precedent for modern versions losing the “Amen” in favour of a translation or paraphrase.

Despite that, and in a rare departure from my favourite gospel, I disagree with Luke as well as our modern translators. Beginning a sentence with “Amen” seems so idiosyncratic of Jesus, that I think we should keep it. It was odd on the ear then, and we should keep it odd on the ear now. Because of the prominence of “Amen” as a prayer-ending word in our culture, we lose no meaning by keeping the word in, and we gain a sense of this particularly characteristic way in which Jesus seems to have made authoritative pronouncements.

And I too have precedent for thinking that. Before our English translation was the Latin of the Vulgate, and there we usually find “Amen” untranslated: “Amen dico vobis”. Amen, I tell you.

By Doug

2 thought on “Translating the strange Amen”
  1. Ever watch the new ‘Battlestar Galactica’? Their use of ‘so say we all’ had much in common with Amen I think – but they never began speaking with it!

    1. Hi Sam – I watched a few episodes but never really got into it. I don’t remember that phrase, but it does sound like it does something similar – and shows how weird it would be as the first clause / word in a sentence!

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