On the Translation of Hebrews 12:1b-2a
The passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews which sets the whole tone of this book (see the Foreword) is the only place in the New Testament where the faith of Jesus is directly spoken of. Yet it is also one of the most confusing verses in the Bible, particularly when it comes to any agreement in translation. A comparative look at the various renditions might give the reader some inkling of the difficulty, but perhaps even just a glimpse of the core section of this passage in its original Greek (even in transliterated Greek with a literal translation of each word beneath) will give the reader at least a vague idea of what the translators are working with.
di hupomonês trechômen ton prokeimenon hêmin agôna
through endurance let us run the set before us contest
aphorôntes eis ton tês pisteôs archêgon kai teleiôtên
looking away to the of the faith author (?) and finisher (?)
The nub of the conflict has been the correct meaning of the word archêgon and to a lesser extent, of the word teleiôtên. The vast majority of English translations, including various Protestant and even the latest New Revised Standard Version and New International Version, continue to follow or be strongly influenced by St. Jerome’s rendering of the Greek word archêgon with the Latin auctor or “author” while the older version of the Catholic New American Bible translated the word with the verb “inspires”. The Jerusalem Bible and New Jerusalem Bible both transpose this noun as well as the correlative term teleiôtên into a participles, thus speaking of Jesus as “leading us” in our faith, and bringing this faith to “perfection”.
However, the translations using “author” or similar terms avoiding the word “leader” are ignoring the normal accepted biblical usage of the word archêgon. True, the word can mean “author”, but this was in early Homeric or classical Attic Greek, not later biblical Greek. The koine or common marketplace Greek of the New Testament is closer to the Greek of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew (Old Testament) scriptures in which the word archêgon means “prince” (the one who is first) or “leader” (see Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek‑English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1957). Nor does the word teleiôtên really mean “perfector” except in a derivative sense. Literally it means someone who “reaches a goal” (telos) or who “reaches an end”, or “finishes” or as in the context of this image, who “completes” a race.
No doubt the usual translation of the words in chapter 12 has also been influenced by the same combination of words found earlier in 2:10 of the same epistle, where it is said that Jesus was “made perfect” (teleiôsai) through suffering as archêgon of their salvation (tês sôtêrias autôn). This becomes even more evident where the tês pisteos in chapter 12:2a is translated “of our faith” where the plural possessive pronoun autôn does not appear in the original Greek text translated by St. Jerome. Instead the word tês is simply the usual Greek definite article, which at most would give us “of the faith”, but which, in the peculiar style of Greek grammar where the genitive case of the article is not to be translated at all, the normal meaning would simply be “of faith”.
Hence, we can see two general trends of translation pitted against each other here. It is clear that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who otherwise was not at all reticent about upholding the divinity of Christ, nevertheless, unlike many of his translators, conveys a meaning that holds up Jesus as a model or example of faith and (as in 6:19) our “forerunner” (prodromos) in hope. Thus, it is not just a faith that consists in “trust” but conveys a sense of dogged perseverance or commitment that has its basis on definite convictions—“for the sake of the joy...” The most accurate modern translations attempt to convey this same dynamic notion of faith.
All this is in contrast to the general run of older translations which, apparently fearing that the literal sense of the words might confuse the faithful, substitute a reading that emphasizes Jesus as the origin of, or possibly as the object of “our faith” or “the faith”. This objectified faith, in turn, would be understood primarily as an adherence to a set of beliefs rather than the gospel sense of a venturing forth in a loving trust in God.