Atonement- A Made Up Word with an Impossible Meaning

When, in 1530, William Tyndale translated the Pentateuch, an offence against the Church for which he would pay with his life, he found there were certain Hebrew words that had no direct equivalent in English. Tyndale, who had already translated the Christian Bible into English from Greek had known no Hebrew before he started his project. He must have doubted his grasp of the language when he came across words that, as far as he could tell, had no meaning in English.

But Tyndale was both imaginative and brave, he could hardly have dared defy Henry VIII and the Bishops otherwise. If he came across a Hebrew word he couldn’t translate, he invented a new English word to explain it. Among the new words that appear for the first time in Tyndale’s Bible are network, thanksgiving, Passover, circumcised, birthright and whoremonger.

Another of Tyndale’s inventions was the word atonement. It’s how he rendered the Hebrew root c-p-r (or c-f-r) as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The root occurs frequently in Leviticus, particularly in chapter 16 where the ancient Yom Kippur rituals are described. The Greek Septuagint had given c-p-r a sense of ‘cleansing’ while the Latin Vulgate thought it had something to do with prayer. Tyndale could see from the context here and elsewhere that neither of these words were adequate. He decided that the meaning of c-p-r was closer to the idea of being at one with God, so he invented the word at-one-ment, or atonement.

Creative as it was, Tyndale’s translation does not convey the full meaning of the Hebrew root. It occurs elsewhere to mean a ransom, a village, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and a young lion. In rabbinic Hebrew kfar b’ikkar means someone who rejects the Jewish faith, in Islam the word kaffir is an unbeliever. It is a very difficult word to explain properly, let alone to translate.

Some of the time atonement does the job. But it is not really adequate. Atonement suggests reconciliation or appeasement, a mutual process in which two people are drawn together, or one forgives the other. But we have other Hebrew words for that. There is nothing two-way about c-p-r, the whole structure of Leviticus 16 suggests that as long as the Yom Kippur rituals are performed correctly, c-p-r will follow of its own accord. Unlike, for example, forgiveness or the expiation of sin. Nor does atonement take care of the other meanings of the root, it certainly doesn’t describe a village or a young lion.

In his philosophical treatise Horeb, Samson Raphael Hirsch says he cannot find an adequate translation of the root c-p-r. However, he argues that all the meanings of the root involve either the protection of a thing from external impact or the prevention of it making an impact, or both. This certainly gets closer to the meaning of the root, but how, for example does it explain a ransom or a village?

One solution that is often suggested is that the underlying meaning of the root is to cover. This would fit with Hirsch’s analysis. It would explain a village as countryside that has been covered over and a ransom as a ‘covering of the eyes’ as in 1 Samuel 12,3: ‘From whose hands have I taken a ransom to blind my eyes with it’, or Genesis 20,16: ‘Behold I have given your brother 1,000 pieces of silver as a covering of the eyes for you’.

As for the young lion, how about Psalm 34,12: Young lions are in want and starving whereas those who seek God do lack anything good? The young lion, wild and untamed, its only concern a drive for food, is covered, set apart, isolated from all the goodness in the world.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books