Monday, October 31, 2016

Pistis: Faith as Believing, Faith as Trusting

Jesus Heals a Leper
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)
Pen and ink drawing
Amsterdam: Rijskprentenkabinet

And to the man from Shomron he said, "Get up, you may go; your trust has saved you."
Luke 17:19 (Complete Jewish Bible)

Three young counselors from a non-profit agency were visiting my church to speak about their summer camp for children who lack the opportunity to attend camp otherwise. The first speaker began with these words: "Our purpose at Camp Bob is to help children grow in trust and hope and love." Yes, I thought: lovely phrasing.

Christian churches are more accustomed to the phrase "faith and hope and love." But among most churches I know, "faith" has come to mean "belief"—accepting religious doctrines, believing theological assertions. "Trust," in contrast, suggests an inward sense of acceptance and confidence, reliance and fidelity. As I listened to the counselors, my thought was that our children will be aided in their spiritual growth more by experiencing trust than by learning articles of belief. I think that Christian adults also do well to seek a prudent balancing of believing and trusting.

Here I want to explore some biblical roots of the widespread equation of faith with belief, and to suggest how a complementary appreciation of faith as trust can be supported by discerning translation of biblical texts.

I shall limit attention to the four Gospels of the New Testament, first considering the Gospel of John, then contrasting John with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These latter three are known as the Synoptic Gospels, as they "see together" or share a common orientation, whereas the orientation of John is fundamentally different. I shall take examples of English translation from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), with a few references to other translations.

The Greek word translated into English as "faith," "belief," or "trust" is pistis. Pistis occurs in many grammatical forms, both nominative and verbal. In the Gospel of John the word appears 89 times, always in verbal forms, and always translated in the NRSV as "believe," "believed," "believes," or "believing." This continues a tradition of translating that has roots as deep as the King James Version of 1611 and is almost universal among today's standard translations, such as the New International Version and the
New English Translation.

Frequently in John pistis means believing theological propositions: believing, for example, that Jesus is the only Son of God (3:18); that Jesus is the Savior of the world (4:42); that Jesus is the one who alone is God (5:44); that Jesus is the bread of life (6:35–36); that Jesus is the Son of Man (9:35); that Jesus is the Messiah (11:25–27); and numerous other constructions of the form "believe" + theological proposition.

In a dozen or so passages of the Gospel of John, Jesus scolds his followers because they do not believe theological assertions about himself. For example:
And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent. (John 5:37–38)

John's summation states clearly that the book's overall purpose is to instill belief in theological propositions:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

I think that it would be difficult to overstate the influence among Christian churches of this equation of faith with belief in doctrines. The influence of the Apostle Paul's writings is equally strong,* but here I shall keep to the Gospels.

The Synoptic Gospels are in striking contrast. John's signature construction—"believe" + theological proposition—appears nowhere. In one passage where the Synoptics use pistis in a theological context, Jesus explicitly warns his disciples not to believe theological propositions:

Then if anyone says to you, "Look! Here is the Messiah!" or "There he is!"—do not believe it [ pisteúsete]. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:23–24; cf. Mark 13:21–23)

Translators of the Synoptic Gospels most frequently render pistis as "faith"—a word they never use in translating the Gospel of John. This differentiating of the Synoptics from John is useful. But should pistis be translated only as "believe" in John? And is "faith" the best word for translating pistis in the Synoptics? I think not.

"Faith" differs grammatically from pistis. We have seen that pistis has both verbal and nominative forms. Not so with "faith," which has no verbal forms. We cannot say that someone faiths something, or has faithed something, or is required to faith something.

Translating pistis with "faith" hobbles the Greek word. The noun "faith" objectifies and makes static the dynamic spirit of pistis that is active among Jesus and his followers in the Synoptics—challenging, guiding, liberating, healing, sustaining. Pistis in the Synoptics regularly suggests a living quality of persons who come to Jesus in an atmosphere of openness and expectation, fidelity and persistence, mercy and compassion.

For these reasons I think that "trust" is frequently a better translation of pistis than "faith." Like pistis, but unlike "faith," "trust" has both verbal and nominative forms. "Trust" suggests active relying on personal qualities such as character, ability, honesty, fidelity.

For reasons that I do not understand, translators of the Synoptics rarely translate pistis as "trust." Again this is true of the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New English Translation.

I am therefore glad to report my recent discovery of the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), translated by David H. Stern. In each of the Gospels, including John, Stern uses four words to render pistis—"faith," "believe," "trust," and "honest." He bases his word choices upon discerning consideration of the word's context.

This chart summarizes the translation of pistis in the NRSV and the CJB.

We see that in John the NRSV translates pistis exclusively as "believe," and that in the Synoptics the NRSV favors "faith" and rarely uses "trust." The CJB, in contrast, minimizes the use of "faith" in all the Gospels, generously—perhaps too generously—using "trust" instead.

Stern writes that he "generally uses the word 'trust' instead of 'faith' to translate pistis because 'trust' more clearly signifies to English-speakers the confident reliance on God that generates holy deeds, as opposed to mere mental acknowledgement of facts and ideas." (Jewish New Testament Commentary, 1992, p.229)

I find Stern's translation of the four Gospels a stimulating and heartening development, deserving of widespread recognition and consideration.

Stern's use of "trust" has had a transformative effect on my own reading of the Gospels. This is particularly true in the Gospel of John, where "trust" humanizes the excessive rationalism that is suggested by exclusive repetition of "believe." Compare the NRSV summation of John's Gospel (John 20:30–31), already quoted above, with the JCB's translation of the same passage:
NRSV: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
CJB: In the presence of the talmidim Yeshua performed many other miracles which have not been recorded in this book. But these which have been recorded are here so that you may trust that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by this trust you may have life because of who he is.

(As is obvious here, Stern's translation preserves many names in the forms that were common in first-century Judaism.) 

Here are a few more parallel quotations from the NRSV and the CJB. My hope is that readers might be prompted to make their own comparisons. The websites and are of inestimable help in this kind of study. The Complete Jewish Bible is online at

Matthew 9:22 
NRSV: "For she said to herself, 'If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.' Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, 'Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.'"
CJB: "For she said to herself, 'If I can only touch his robe, I will be healed.' Yeshua turned, saw her and said, 'Courage, daughter! Your trust has healed you.'"

Mark 4:40
NRSV: "Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?'"
CJB: "The wind subsided, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you no trust even now?'"

Luke 16:10
NRSV: "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much...."
CJB: "Someone who is trustworthy in a small matter is also trustworthy in large ones...."

John 1:7
NRSV: "He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him."
CJB: "He came to be a testimony, to bear witness concerning the light; so that through him, everyone might put his trust in God and be faithful."

In this final verse I especially appreciate Stern's translation of pistis that brings together "trust" and "faithful."

For me pistis is believing—that is, understanding, testing, selecting, and accepting doctrines of my Christian tradition with thoughtful discernment. Pistis is also trusting—that is, dedicating life to the challenging, correcting, sustaining, and healing ways of Jesus. And pistis is faith—resolve, persistence, steadfastness, and patience in the lifework of believing and trusting.

As a name for this spiritual lifework I might suggest "faithing," were the word less clumsy.


*See "Facets of faith/trust in Pauline thought" by J. Lyle Story, American Theological Inquiry (Online), 5 no 1 Jan 15 2012. Also Two Types of Faith by Martin Buber, Syracuse University Press, 2003.