Regarding the cross, trees and gibbets

Posted: 20th August 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

As part of my Wednesday wilderness of words reading, I was looking at a 2004 article by Michael Marlowe on Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’ via a link from John Hobbins. In his essay, Marlowe cites an example from the NLT1 that failed to preserve internal references to the Hebrew language by NT authors:

Now consider Acts 5:30, which in the New Living Translation is rendered, “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by crucifying him.(11) Literally Peter’s words are, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” This expression as literally translated ought to give some pause to the reader. Why does Peter say “hanging him on a tree” (epi xulou) instead of “crucifying him“? Anyone who has read Galatians will know where the unusual phrase comes from, and what it means. It is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23, quoted in Galatians 3:13-14, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” See also 1 Peter 2:24 and Acts 13:29. And so by this phrase “hanging him on a tree” Peter evokes the whole theology of the cross! But apparently the translators missed it, or found this to be unimportant. By flattening out and simplifying the language they have caused the reader to miss this thought-provoking allusion.

Marlowe does mention in a footnote that the NLT Second Edition (2004) makes some improvements: In Acts 5:30 it reads “killed him by hanging him on a cross,” and it gives a literal translation in a footnote: “Greek, on a tree.” In the angst of this attack on functional translation, I whipped open my Revised English Bible (REB) to see how the relevant passages fared:

“When someone is convicted of a capital offense and is put to death, and you hang him on a gibbet, his body must not remain there overnight; it must be buried on the same day.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus; after you had put him to death by hanging him on a gibbet […] (Acts 5:30)

When they had carried out all that the scriptures said about him, they took him down from the gibbet and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:29)

Christ bought us freedom from the curse of the law by coming under the curse for our sake; for scripture says, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a gibbet.’ (Galatians 3:13)

He carried our sins in his own person on the gibbet, so that we might cease to live for sin and begin to live for righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24)

Whew! So the REB cannot be accused of the same internal inconsistency as the NLT per Marlowe. Whether “gibbet” as a translation of the Hebrew `ets and the Greek xylon is recognizable to the average English reader is a whole different issue – certainly David Ker believes that these foreign phrases have a strange smell.

Strange or not, I have learned something today, which is good. That said, I cannot escape the nagging feeling that if a “B” were to be mistakenly replaced by an “L”, then Christ would have died by hanging from the neck of a turkey…

  1. For the record, I had to look up “gibbet” the first time I came across it.

  2. what does the word gibbet mean then?

  3. It’s an old English word for the “gallows”, the (typically wooden) structure used to hang people. I think the question really is what was meant in the Hebrew context – did they hang people in the sense we’re thinking of or did “you hang him on a gibbet” mean something else?

    The Jewish Study Bible with the JPS Tanakh translates the verse from Deuteronomy as “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake […]“. The study notes say:

    22: Impale him on a stake: The Hebrew phrase may also mean death caused by hanging from a tree or gallows, or suspending someone who has already been executed from a pole or gallows. (Josh. 10.26; Esth. 9.11-14).

    The NLT Study Bible notes both possibilities, but hastens to add that this phrase does not refer to the method of execution, but rather “a shameful display of those put to death for capital offenses probably to show the Lord’s hatred of sin and to deter others who might commit such acts.