Defending the Faith: 'A little lower than the angels'?

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

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The eighth psalm, memorably set to music by the late American composer Howard Hanson, is a powerful expression not only of praise for God but also of the divinely conferred dignity of humankind:

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens ...

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

“Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

“All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

“The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

“O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1, 3-9)

“Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,” says the psalm’s fifth verse, and this is remarkable indeed.

But the full power of the psalm’s tribute to human dignity has actually been muted in the King James translation, probably out of theological caution.

The Septuagint, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible from a very valuable translation principally done at Alexandria, Egypt, in the third and second centuries before Christ, uses the grammatically appropriate form of the Greek word “angeloi” or “angels.” And the Septuagint was followed in this rendering by St. Jerome’s enormously influential late fourth-century A.D. Latin translation, which is known as the Vulgate.

The translators of the King James Version of the Bible followed the Septuagint and the Vulgate in their rendition of Psalm 8:5.

Valuable though it is, however, the Septuagint is well-known (perhaps even notorious) for its tendency to distance God from humanity and to minimize or eliminate “anthropomorphisms” — ascribing human-like form or attributes to God — from the biblical text. In it, for instance, the Hebrew Bible’s references to “the image of God” routinely become “the glory of the Lord,” and “the mouth of God” is commonly changed to “the voice of the Lord.” The Septuagint regularly denies emotions to God, as well, rephrasing passages that seem to describe divine anger, repentance and pity so as to exclude such feelings from deity.

Thus, it isn’t altogether surprising to learn that the original word in the Hebrew of Psalm 8 isn’t “angeloi” or “angels,” but “elohim.”

“Elohim,” of course, is a Hebrew word that’s often translated as “God.” And, while the translators of the King James Bible appear to have been doctrinally cautious when they came to Psalm 8, others were not. The path-breaking 1545 German translation by Martin Luther, for example, says that man has been created “little lower … than God.” The modern German “Einheitsubersetzung” or “Unity Translation,” a largely Catholic product of German, Austrian and Swiss scholarship made with Evangelical Protestant input, agrees with Luther, as do an increasing number of translations into modern European languages. In the American Standard Bible, too, Psalm 8 is made to declare that “thou hast made him but little lower than God.”

But “elohim” is also, in Hebrew, a masculine plural noun. The Septuagint itself recognized this when it rendered the word not as “angel” in the singular but as “angels,” and the King James Bible is correct in that regard. Accordingly, some modern translations (such as the New English Bible) now render the “elohim” of Psalm 8 as “heavenly beings.”

But “elohim” could also, very arguably, be properly translated as “gods.” Thus, retaining the style of the King James Version, Psalm 8:5 might be revised as follows: “Thou hast made him a little lower than the gods, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.”

So rendered, the psalmist’s awestruck recognition of the worth of human beings in God’s eyes is even more astonishing.

“It is a serious thing,” observed C.S. Lewis in an essay titled “The Weight of Glory,” “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. … There are no ordinary people.”

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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