Textual and Translational Studies in Hebrews 1:1-3
James M. Leonard, PhD (Cambridge)
One of the great moments in biblical literature, and really, in all of ancient literature, is the opening of the book of Hebrews:
1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (NIV).
Its power and magnificence is even greater in the Greek, although we miss a few things in translation. This brief analysis attempts to bring out some of the things which an English translation might miss.
“Many times and in various ways”
Sometimes the word order in Greek is important. For example, a word or phrase is often advanced to the beginning of a sentence for the sake of emphasis. This is precisely the case in Heb 1:1. Most translations begin the sentence with “Long ago,” while two translations begin with “God” (NASB, NKJV). However, neither of these two renderings reflects the important word order of the Greek. Only the RSV reflects the fact that the apostle emphatically advanced “many times and in various ways” (polymeros kai polutropos) to the first position of the text.
The point is that the apostle intends to contrast the inconsistent and incomplete manner in which God previously spoke through the prophets with the definitive manner in which he has now spoken by his Son. The old way was sporadic, unpredictable, ad hoc; the apostle makes this clear by advancing the prosaic, alliterated word pairing polymeros kai polutropos to the very first position of the entire book.
This is important not only rhetorically, but also theologically. On one hand, Deists believe that God rather standoffishly created the world, wound it up like a clock, and then got out of the way of nature and humankind. On the other hand, first century Jews believe that God actually intervened in human history, spoke certain words through the prophets, gave them adequate guidance through the Hebrew Scriptures, and had been absolutely and regrettably silent since Malachi’s last utterance in 400 BCE. The apostle affirms the Jewish view, emphasizing the sporadic and scattered manner in which God spoke, but he does so in order to say that now the last days have come, and that God’s Word has been uttered finally and definitively in the person of his Son.
No longer was God content to speak piecemeal. The revelation of God’s will in his Son is perfect and definitive. This is so because the Son is the heir of all things, the agent of creation, the effulgence of God’s glory, and the exact representation of God’s being. No doubt the apostle loved that which was spoken by the prophets long ago at many times and various ways, but the Son says it all.
The apostle says that the prophets spoke to “the fathers” (tois patrasin). The problem is that a number of translations insert the possessive pronoun “our” to modify “the fathers,” when the Greek does not warrant it!
without “our” with “our”
NKJV “to the fathers” NLT “to our ancestors”
HCSB “to the fathers” RSV “to our fathers”
NASB “to the fathers” NIV “to our forefathers”
ESV “to our fathers”
At first, one would suspect that there were a text critical question here, and to be sure, a few Greek manuscripts do include “our” (hemon). However, such manuscripts are paltry few, none of which would prompt any text critic to include “hemon” into their edition of the Greek NT. Ultimately, the translators have treated the insertion of “our” as a translational decision, not as a textual decision. They inserted it merely as a translational aid, not because they found hemon in the Greek text.
This decision is somewhat disappointing exegetically. What if the apostle consciously chose not to say “our” in deference to the few Gentiles who might have been part of his readership? What if the apostle wanted to distance himself and other believers from the Jewish persecutors who might have been appealing to “our forefathers” in their on-going debates against the Christian community? By inserting “our” into their translations, the translators may have inadvertently skewed the exegetical process.
The reason why the translators inserted “our” was to make a smoother reading. After all, our minds trip over a phrase like “God spoke to the forefathers,” and so we automatically supply the possessive pronoun. However, we should never sacrifice exegetical accuracy and interpretational neutrality for smoother readability. The ESV is especially disappointing here, in light of its attempt to provide a more “transparent” English translation through which one might see back into the Greek.
God Having Spoken
Many of our English translations render the main clauses of vv. 1 and 2 as coordinate clauses:
v. 1 God spoke to our forefathers at many times and in various ways ….
v. 2 God has spoken to us through his Son….
In order to make these two coordinate clauses work in English, one needs to doctor them up a bit. One way to do so is to graft the two clauses together with the contrastive coordinate “but.” Thus, the NIV reads, “In the past God spoke…at many times and in various ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son” (compare also RSV, NLT, CEV, and NRSV). A second option is to chop the two clauses into two independent sentences. Thus, HCSB reads, “God spoke…at different times and different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by [His] Son.”
In reality, the two clauses are not coordinate clauses at all. In the Greek, the first clause is actually a dependent clause modifying the main clause of the second verse. The first verb is not a main verb, but a participle. Minimalistically, the participle may be rendered as “having spoken.” The difference between making them both coordinate clauses and making the first clause a modifying dependent clause can be depicted in the following sentence flow:
As coordinate clauses
God spoke to our forefathers….
at many times
in various ways
God has spoken to us….
As a dependent clause modifying the main clause
having spoken to our forefathers
at many times
in various ways
God has spoken to us
So, syntactically, the apostle’s thrust is not to contrast the two clauses, but to modify the main clause.
How does the participle “having spoken” modify the main clause? Depending upon the context, a participle can have multiple meanings. In this case, however, the participle is most likely intended to be either concessive or temporal:
Concessive: “Although God spoke to the forefathers at many times and in various ways, in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
Temporal: “After God spoke to the forefathers at many times and in various ways, in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (cf. NASB).
Both options seem possible. One is hard pressed to make a decision one way or the other.
The translations nearly always insert “his” to modify “Son.” Thus, NIV reads, “…but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (cf. NLT, CEV, NKJV; HCSB, NASB, NKJV give indication that “his” is supplied for clarity). “Son” here is anarthrous, that is to say, it lacks the definite article “the” in the Greek. Not surprisingly, the RSV and NRSV best reflect the exact wording of the Greek: “…he has spoken to us by a Son.”
The apostle does not mean to suggest here that Jesus is just one of many sons. Rather, his intention is that the one speaking to us does so as a Son. His proclamation is significant because he holds a Son-ship status.
Because so many translations insert “his” into the text, English-only preachers are liable to miss the apostle’s emphasis. “His” makes the emphasis fall upon Jesus’ relationship to God. Certainly, this is emphasized in many places and is theologically correct. However, in this passage the emphasis is not on Jesus’ relationship to God, but rather his status as a son: Not by prophets does God speak in these last days, but by a Son. Not by angels does God speak in these last days, but by a Son.
The translations analyzed in this essay achieve a relatively high degree of accuracy and linguistic aesthetics. None of them is badly mistaken in this passage, and they all offer a legitimate translation. I have included the complete text of this passage from the translations analyzed in this essay, listing them from the most formalistic to the most dynamic as reflected in their translations of Heb 1:1-3.
RSV In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….
NRSV Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….
NASB God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….
HCSB Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by [His], whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe. He is the radiance of His glory, the exact expression of His nature, and He sustains all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
NKJV God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….
NIV 1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
NLT Long ago, God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. Abut now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he made the universe and everything in it. The Son reflects God’s own glory, and everything about him represents God exactly. He sustains the universe by the mighty power of his command. After he died to cleanse us from the stain of sin, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God of heaven.
 I have perused the following translations in analyzing the prologue to Hebrews: ESV, HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, and RSV. The entire text of Heb 1:1-3 for each of these translations is found in the conclusion of this essay. Peterson’s The Message is excluded since it is surprisingly mundane in this passage and elsewhere fails to qualify as a legitimate translation. NKJV was included because it usually follows the Textus Receptus and alerts the reader of textual issues; KJV was excluded because of the inclusion of the NKJV.
 This is probably what has happened in the copying process of those few mss which add hemon to the text.
 This is one of many such inconsistencies made by ESV, despite its publishers animus against other translations which sacrifice “transparency” for readability.
 An annoyance of the NKJV, NASB, and HCSB is that all pronominal references to God and Jesus (his, he, him) are all capitalized. While this is consonant with widespread devotional literature, it is contrary to standard English, historical translational practice (KJV and most standard translations do not capitalize them), and to well established style rules in scholarly journals as articulated by the Society of Biblical Literature.
 Once again, the ESV is guilty of false advertising in that its translation is not very transparent.
 Based on the entire Bible, the translations would normally follow this order, from formalistic to dynamic, with those not analyzed herein listed in parenthesis: (ASV, KJV), NKJV, RSV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, (TEV=GNB, NEB, REB, JB, NJB, NCV, CEV, Peterson). While assigning relative degree of formalism/dynamism of the translations based upon a single passage is difficult, I have given special consideration to 1) the word order of the opening line; 2) the interpretational addition of the pronoun “his” to modify “Son in verse 2; 3) the interpretational addition of the pronoun “our” to modify “the fathers;” and 4) the phrase to hremati tes dunameos autou (“by the word of his power” or “by his powerful word”). Thus, we may depict our translations of this passage from most formalistic to most dynamic (recalling that only one of the dynamic translations was analyzed):
RSV NRSV NASB HCSB NKJV ESV NIV NLT.
 “By himself” represents the sole translatable textual issue of the passage. The other translations do not include “by Himself.” The decision is somewhat difficult, with intrinsic probabilities weighing slightly in favor of the shorter reading against the NKJV, since it is thought that “by himself” is likely to have been added to clarify and strengthen the force of the middle voice of the verb “to make” than to be accidentally omitted. The documentary evidence is difficult to evaluate. The longer reading is only apparently supported by the sixth century ms D (Claromantanus), convoluted as it is with an expansionistic text. P46 (c. 200) supports the longer reading of the NKJV, as do a few important non-Byzantine miniscules such as 1739 and 1881, and the Syriac and Coptic versions. Most textual critics are impressed by the support for the shorter reading by Sinaiaticus, B, and the Western tradition.