Mistranslating Pantokrater as “Omnipotent”

January 24th, 2023 / No Comments

The book I’m currently writing is called, The Death of Omnipotence. In it, I document the emergence of the idea God is almighty or omnipotent. In past blog essays, I’ve pointed out some of the problems that come from thinking of God’s power in this way.

In the book, I explain that the Hebrew words shaddai and sabbaoth, which are translated “Almighty” in most English Bibles, are mistranslations. The mistranslations occur because of a Greek translation.

In other words, scholars today use mistranslated Greek to render Hebrew words as “God almighty.”

Pantokrater in the Septuagint

In The Death of Omnipotence, I show that biblical writers believe God acts in powerful ways. But the Hebrew words shaddai and sabaoth, which so many people use to claim God is omnipotent, do not mean “omnipotent.” And they are mistranslated “almighty.”

What led to these mistranslations?

The answer comes from the Septuagint (LXX). This ancient collection is a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures. The Septuagint’s first five books – the Pentateuch – were likely translated in the 3rd century BCE and the remaining books in the 2nd century. This Greek version of the Old Testament was read during Jesus’ lifetime and influenced the Apostle Paul. In fact, New Testament writers quote the Septuagint more than Hebrew-language texts, and early Church Fathers used it more than Hebrew-language scriptures.

The authors of the Septuagint translate shaddai and sabaoth with the Greek word pantokrater (παντοκράτωρ). The prefix panto means “all;” the root krater or krateo has various meanings, including “hold,” “seize,” or “attain.” For instance, God holds (krateo) the stars in divine hands, according to John’s Revelation in the New Testament (1:16). Pantokrater might best be translated “all-holding” or “all-sustaining.”[1]

The Emergence of Pantokrater

In her explanation of how pantokrater emerged, biblical scholar Judith Krawelitzki says, “there is strong evidence that the [verb of] pantokrater has been created and established by the translators of the Septuagint.” And “it seems [translators] coined a new word,” she continues, “to avoid conceptualizing Yahweh’s power with an already known word utilized to express the power of other deities, especially Zeus’s power in Greek philosophy.”[2]

Septuagint translators, says Krawelitzki, did not want to portray Israel’s God as omnipotent. “It cannot be accidental that even in the Septuagint Psalter God’s power is not conceptualized by the notion of omnipotence,” she says. “The reluctance to name God ‘the Almighty’ seems to be rooted in the texts themselves, which prescind from any kind of theoretical reflection about the extent of God’s power.”[3]

An all-holding God is not all-controlling.

The Repercussions of a Mistranslation

The decision to represent shaddai and sabaoth as pantokrater, says G. Steins, “had considerable theological repercussions.”[4] It not only affected the Septuagint, but it also affected the New Testament and later translations of both Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

And then, six centuries later (4th century AD), Jerome translated pantokrater as the Latin word omnipotens when writing the Vulgate version of the Bible.  His decision to say God is omnipotens depends upon the Septuagint pantokrater and not Hebrew-language scriptures.[5] Had Jerome followed the original texts, he probably would not have used omnipotens, and Christians thereafter would not call God “omnipotent.”

Scholars often complain that Christian theology has been unduly influenced by Greek metaphysics and Roman views of sovereignty.[6] In this case, Greek thought likely influenced translators who chose pantokrater, and Roman ideas about kingly sovereignty influenced Jerome as he translated it as “omnipotent.” The mistranslation, in turn, affected the writers of the Christians creeds who called God “almighty” (pantokrater/omnipotens). The mistranslation even passed to Islam.[7] Jerome’s mistaken translation from a mistaken Greek translation of Hebrew led the world’s two largest religions to adopt a bogus view of divine power!

Mistaken translations of shaddai and sabaoth as pantokrater misrepresent God as omnipotent.

[1]Ian Robert Richardson notes that “when considering God’s power as providentially sustaining the universe, kratein was followed by the accusative case because that was used to express ‘holding’ rather than ‘reigning.’ See Richardson, “Meister Eckhart’s Parisian Question of ‘Whether the omnipotence of God should be considered as potentia ordinata or potentia absoluta?” Doctoral Dissertation (King’s College London, 2002), 17. The 2nd-century bishop Theophilus, for instance, says God “is called Pantokrater because He Himself holds (kratei) and embraces (emperiechei) all things (ta panta). Ad Autolycum 1, 4.

[2] Judith Krawelitzki, “God the Almighty? Observations in the Psalms,” Vetus Testamentum (2014) 442-43. Krawelitzki says that “according to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, less than 1% of the approximately 1400 references for [verb form of] pantokrater can be found in pagan literature…. (cf. G. Kruse, “PantokrateoPW 18,3 (1949), 829-830). Although the adjective [form of] pantokrater “all-powerful” is found only in 2 Mac. 3:22, it can be found often in Greek literature (cf. 0. Montevecchi, “Pantokrater,” in Studi in onore di Aristide Calderini e Roberto Paribeni II [Milano, 1957], 402). On the use of pantokrater in Greek philosophy, see H. Hommel, “Pantokrator,” Sebasmata (Tübingen, 1983), 142-143; R. Feldmeier, Nicht Übermacht noch Impotenz. Zum biblischen Ursprung des Allmachtsbekenntnisses, eds., Der Allmächtige. Annäherungen an ein umstrittenes Gottesprädikat (Göttingen, 1997), 25, 30-31; M. Bachmann, Göttliche Aumacht und theologische Vorsicht Zu Rezeption, Funktion und Konnotation des biblisch-frühchristlichen Gottesepithetons pantokrator (SBS 188; Stuttgart, 2002), 147-160.

[3] Krawelitzki, “God the Almighty,” 443.

[4] G. Steins, “Sadday,” 447. On this matter, see Wilhelm Michaelis, “Κράτος (θεοκρατία), Κρατέω, Κραταιός, Κραταιόω, Κοσμοκράτωρ, Παντοκράτωρ,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 914-15.

[5] Manfred Weippert, “Sadday,” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Vol. 3, Claus Westermann, ed. Mark E. Biddle, Trans. (1997), 1621.

[6] Among the many, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, “The Appropriation of the Philosophical Concept of God as a Dogmatic Problem of Early Christian Theology,” Basic Questions Vol. 2 (London 1971). Adolf Harnack is often the cited as one of the first to make this charge. See his History of Dogma, Neil Buchanan, trans. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1897). See also Helmut Koester, History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age in Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995).

[7] M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris f. semitische Epigraphik, I (1902), 258.

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