Translation Issue: Acts 10:4

κύριος has a range of meaning from “Lord” (meaning “God”) to “Sir.”  Which translation would you choose for Acts 10:4?

Dr. Mounce examines Cornelius’ response to the Angel of the Lord in light of how we should translate the κύριος (kurios).  Because of the wide semantic range of this word, it isn’t necessary to translate it as “lord”, and doing so might present an opportunity for theological error.

Let’s do a quick comparison:

Acts 10:4 (NASB95) — 4 And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.

Acts 10:4 (CSB) — 4 Staring at him in awe, he said, “What is it, Lord?” The angel told him, “Your prayers and your acts of charity have ascended as a memorial offering before God.

Acts 10:4 (NET) — 4 Staring at him and becoming greatly afraid, Cornelius replied, “What is it, Lord?” The angel said to him, “Your prayers and your acts of charity have gone up as a memorial before God.

The vast majority of translations will translate κύριος here as “Lord” with a capital “L”.  This translation seems to suggest that this particular angel of the Lord might represent some kind of Theophany, or Christophany if you will.  This seems very unlikely since verse three says that Cornelius saw “an angel of the Lord”, suggesting that this is one of the Lord’s angelic messengers.

In contrast, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary provides the following defense of this translation:

While the Greek title kyrios was used in antiquity for everything from polite address to worshipful acclamation, Cornelius undoubtedly meant it in some sense of worshipful acclaim—even though he might not have had any firm idea of whom he was addressing (cf. 9:5). He would hardly have been so blase in the face of this heavenly vision as to have meant by the title only “Sir.”

Longenecker, R. N. (1981). The Acts of the Apostles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts (Vol. 9, p. 386). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

The New King James removes one layer of interpretation:

Acts 10:4 (NKJV) — 4 And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.

Here we see “lord” with a lower-case “l”, indicating that Cornelius’ response was one of respect, but not worship.  I am inclined towards this rendering because I do not think there is anything in the text to warrant viewing this title as being “worshipful”.  Also of particular note here is that the angel does not correct Cornelius for rendering any form of worship to him (consider Revelation 19:10; 22:9).

This translation has the benefit of conveying the “awe” or “fearful respect” in which Cornelius responded, without giving any confusion about the status of the angel.

An alternative translation can be seen in the following versions:

Acts 10:4 (CJB) — 4 Cornelius stared at the angel, terrified. “What is it, sir?” he asked. “Your prayers,” replied the angel, “and your acts of charity have gone up into God’s presence, so that he has you on his mind.

Acts 10:4 (NLT) — 4 Cornelius stared at him in terror. “What is it, sir?” he asked the angel. And the angel replied, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have been received by God as an offering!

The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) is a kind of niche’ translation for those who want to return to their “Hebrew Roots”, and the New Living Translation is a natural-language translation, which is an extension of functional equivalence but which sees no value in the formal structures, and therefore tries to repeat the same message in the full idiom of the target language.  While I’m not comfortable using either of these translations to confirm any specific rendering, I am willing to acknowledge their decisions as being relevant.

Both of these translations – which are the only ones I could find that used “sir” – avoid any confusion about the nature or status of the angel that Cornelius was addressing.  However, “sir” might be taken as too casual when you consider that Cornelius was “terrified” and “afraid”; that just isn’t how I think most of us respond when we are afraid.

Exegetical Analysis

Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary:

κύριος (kyrios), GK 3261 (S 2962), 717×. kyrios means “master, lord, sir” as well as “Lord.” Most of its occurrences are in Luke’s two works (210×) and Paul’s letters (275×). The most plausible reason for this is that Luke wrote for, and Paul wrote to, people whose lives were dominated by Greek culture and language. kyrios occurs over 9,000× in the LXX, 6,000 of which replace the Hebrew proper name for God, Yahweh.

In the secular sense, kyrios in the NT is translated as the “master” of a slave (Mt. 10:24–25; Eph. 6:5), “owner” (Mt. 15:27; Gal 4:1), or “employer” (Lk. 16:3, 5). The husband is characterized as kyrios with respect to his wife (1 Pet. 3:6; cf. Gen. 18:12, where “master” is kyrios in the LXX). By this Peter makes his point that Sarah thought of her husband respectfully. kyrios may also communicate politeness as in Mt. 18:21–22; 25:20–26; Acts 16:30, translated with the term of address “sirs.” This word is also used to address heavenly beings such as angels (Rev. 7:14).

Mounce, W. D. (2006). Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (p. 422). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

At this point we discover something very interesting in translation:

Revelation 7:14 (NASB95) — 14 I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Revelation 7:14 (CSB) — 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” Then he told me: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Revelation 7:14 (NET) — 14 So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!

The CSB renders this word as “sir”, while both the NASB and NET render it as “lord” with a lower case “l”.  Why the inconsistency here?  What might account for the difference between these two texts?  Well, in John’s case, he was not terrified by the angel at this point in his vision; “sir” or “lord” convey the necessary aspects of the underlying word and are suitable in the text, but in Cornelius’ vision, I might suggest that the translators are trying to demonstrate the great fear that Cornelius felt when confronted by the angel.

My Conclusions

Comparing translations is an excellent way to gain insight into what is happening in the underlying Biblical text.  And in this case it appears to me that the capital “L” found in most English translations is not meant to convey worship, but reverential honor or respect; Cornelius was not addressing this angel as God, but as a mighty spiritual being that he clearly saw as being much greater and higher than himself.  Indeed, it was impossible for Cornelius to feel comfortable in the presence of this mighty angelic being because of his intense power and stature (whatever that may have been like).

From this text we are meant to feel our mortality and fragility; even a well trained Roman centurion, which were some of the toughest warriors on earth at the time, was terrified by this spiritual being.  And it is creatures like these, and ones even mightier than what Cornelius saw, that surround the mighty throne of God and worship him day and night:

Revelation 4:8–11 (CSB) — 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings; they were covered with eyes around and inside. Day and night they never stop, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, the Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come. 9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one seated on the throne, the one who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before the one seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne and say, 11 Our Lord and God, you are worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because you have created all things, and by your will they exist and were created.

We serve a Mighty God, who is surrounded by glory night and day, and from whom comes all power and authority; God lacks no power or strength to accomplish his will in heaven and on earth.  And we are the children of the King of kings, who commands mighty angel armies, who commands the storms, and the seas, and the stars; who creates and destroys according to his good will.

The thought then occurs to me that sometimes our lack of faith comes from how big we think we are, which blinds us to the true glory of the one who commands legions of angel-armies, any one of which would make a mighty human soldier tremble with fear in their boots.

To God be the glory!

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