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The Repentance of Judas – a Translational Quagmire

May 29, 2013

MC900297791The KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV (early printings) and other versions read in Matthew 27:3 that Judas repented. The NASB, NIV, NKJV, Holman, Phillips and others cite him as experiencing only remorse or regret. So what is going on with the translations?

Actually, there is a historical translational error at just this point. The Greek New Testament has two important words in this regard, metanoia- a change of mind, and metamelomai- regret/remorse. The first word is usually translated “repent”, the second word should be translated “to feel remorse or sorrow” but is sometimes also translated “to repent”.

But this is where it begins to get sideways, due to the fact that the English word ‘repent’ is not actually a correct translation of metanoia (change of mind). This is because the English word repentance means to feel sorrow but the Greek word it translates, (metanoia), does not. The English word repentance should have been reserved to translate the Greek word metamelomai (to feel sorrow).

This situation parallels the earlier Latin Bible which has its own mistranslation of metanoia (change of mind) by the Latin word paenitentia (think penitence), and which underlies the Roman Catholic evolution of a formal sacrament of penance. So it is, in fact, a traditional translational ambiguity almost as old as the church itself.

As if this were not enough, the situation is even further compounded by the fact that the English language, oddly, does not have a word available to translate metanoia (change of mind). A. T. Robertson, the great Baptist Greek scholar, is brought to say that the Greek word metanoia has been “hopelessly mistranslated.” Quite right.

The result is that many think that repentance means sorrow, which is true only of the English (and Latin) word but not the Greek that it is supposed to translate. Wherever you look in church history you find manifold appearances of this down to the present day. Some will no doubt respond, “I have read this author and that one, and this confession and the other, and they all indicate that repentance means sorrow for sin.” Exactly. The word has been mistranslated early and most all of theology has followed in that continuously corroborated path.

Given the importance of the word, the implications are profound. Nothing generally is considered more indicative of spiritual change than a few penitential tears. But Judas had that.

There has been, and remains, an intuitive tendency in most believers to conceive of the great transformational issues of the faith in emotional terms rather than intellectual, a change of feeling instead of a change of mind. And in a greater way yet, of course, all error springs from the evil one who is constantly substituting counterfeit concepts as a means of undermining the truth, smiling contentedly as confusion reigns in the minds of men.

So what are we to say about Judas? Paradoxically, it is in one sense correct to say Judas repented, since the English word lexically means to feel sorrow and the Greek word with respect to Judas is not metanoia (change of mind) but simply metamelomai (sorrow/remorse). On the other hand, given the existing translational tradition in which the English word repentance is used to translate the Greek word metanoia (change of mind), all that is created by attributing repentance to Judas is confusion.

Given this, it should probably be translated Judas felt sorrow or remorse as the NKJV, NASB and NIV correctly state.

Nevertheless, the translational ambiguity related to the subject of repentance has created a pervasive theological misconception. The evil one must be well contented with the situation and I am afraid that Robertson is right when he says the Greek word metanoia has been “hopelessly mistranslated.”


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