Why does Jesus say, “Amen, Amen, I tell you”?

In Library by ProjectWartburg

In most recent English translations of the Gospels Jesus frequently says, “Truly I say to you” or “I tell you the truth.” This conveys a clear meaning, but the problem is that in the Greek text Jesus, in the great majority of cases, does not use the Greek word for “truly” [ἀληθῶς / alethos] or “truth [ἀλήθεια / aletheia].” Even though his conversation is being reported in Greek, Jesus consistently is quoted as using the Hebrew word Amen. Jesus is coining a new word for the use of the church. If the evangelists regularly report Jesus saying “Amen I say to you,” is there a good reason why we should not? So although we are not aware of any other contemporary English translation that uses this rendering, we are using this translation because it best honors the literary intent, and perhaps even the theological intent, of the text. Here is some of the data that supports this conclusion.
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word Amen occurs 30 times. NIV 84 translates it Amen every time except twice. Two times it is translated truth. In these two cases Isaiah calls the LORD the God of Amen. Is there any reason here to change the God of Amen to the God of Truth? NIV 84 did opt to use “the Amen” (instead of something like “the Truth”) as a name for the Son of God in Revelation 3:14:
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
In the New Testament Amen occurs about 123 times. NIV 84 translates it as Amen only 30 times. The strange thing that one immediately notices is that NIV 84 like many other translations keeps the Amens in the epistles and in Revelation but removes the Amens from the Gospels. It seems strange to keep the Amens in the Old Testament and in the epistles and in Revelation and to remove the Amens from the Gospels, since it is Jesus’ use of Amen in the Gospels that connects the Old Testament use to the New Testament use and establishes the church’s use of Amen which is reflected in the epistles and Revelation.
If we take the Amens out of the Gospels, we break the link from the Old Testament to the New Testament to the worldwide church. In Isaiah the LORD is called the God of Amen. In Revelation 3:14 (quoted above) Jesus is called the Amen. It is through Christ that we say “Amen” to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 1:20). Without Jesus’ Amens in the Gospels the links are interrupted. This seems to be a good reason to restore Jesus’ Amens in the Gospels.
There are other good reasons to restore Jesus’ Amens. One of our translation principles is that we try to follow not only the theological intent of the text but also the literary intent. That is why one of our rubrics says, “Hebrew/Aramaic words used in Greek text should remain Hebrew: Amen, Alleluia, Abba, Marana tha, Raca, Talitha, koum, etc.” This seems to be a sound principle, so should we make Jesus’ Amens an exception to the rule? [Other examples of Hebrew/Aramaic words used in the New Testament are: Hosanna, Armageddon, Rabbi, Corban, and “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”] Another good reason not to translate Amen as truth is that Hebrew and Greek have other common words for truth (amet, aleth—). If we translate Amen as truth, it creates confusion and blurs distinctions when Amen and emet or aleth— occur in proximity.
Another reason for trying to be as consistent as possible is that a Bible translation is like a sweater. When you start pulling on a loose string, you can unravel a lot of things that are connected. The same principles that apply to the Amen issue apply to a lot of other terms that move from one language to another language like satan/Satan, selah/interlude, diabolos/devil. (That is a topic for future FAQs.) Though maintaining complete consistency of terms is impossible, we want to maintain consistency across the translation unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise. There does not seem to be a compelling reason to take the Amens out of the Gospels.
So all this produces a need to balance two concerns. Though there are very good literary and theological reasons to restore Jesus’ Amens, which have been missing from many recent translations, some readers may, at least at first, be uncomfortable with Jesus’ Amens. How do we bridge this gap?
Perhaps the discomfort is due to unfamiliarity. Amen is certainly a familiar word. We are used to hearing Amens at the end of prayers and declarations. Yet has anyone questioned NIV 84’s rendering of Revelation 7:12 where Amen appears at the beginning as well as the end?
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
Recall that NIV 84 also translated Revelation 19:4 by using Amen even though it is not at the end:
And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!”
Jesus is unique in his tendency and divine ability to say Amen to a statement even before it is said. Jesus says Amen so often in the Gospels that it is the most notable trademark of his speech. Anyone reading the Gospels in their entirety will soon recognize that this is one of Jesus’ benchmarks, and the pattern will become familiar.
Isn’t that a theological point worth preserving? Is Jesus with his initial Amens simply saying, “I am going to tell you the truth”? Or is he saying more, “I am guaranteeing this will happen”? This may be another good reason not to take away Jesus’ Amens.
This topic is a good one for our first FAQ because it illustrates the principle of our project to do everything we can to carry over both the theological and literary nuances of the text into the translation, even on seemingly small points. First, we ask, “What best reflects the original text?” Then, “Is it clear in English?” Next, we consider the long tradition of Bible translation. In last place come our preferences and likings.
We hope that our FAQs and rubrics will help everyone who is following the progress of the project walk through the same procedure with us and give us your feedback. When you encounter something in the translation that strikes you as new or strange, take time to study the issue more thoroughly. Whenever you do this, the main question must always be “What best conveys the theological, literary, and emotional intent of the text?” What is familiar and what is smooth are not unimportant, but they have to be secondary.
Perhaps if Jesus says, “I tell you the truth” instead of “Amen I tell you” (or as John’s Gospel has it: “Amen, Amen, I tell you,”) the loss is not great. But some things are being lost: the unbroken connection of the Amens from the OT to the Gospels to the epistles to Revelation to the church, the literary style of Jesus’ speech, and the fact that Jesus can say Amen to his promises even before he speaks them.
After weighing all input we kept this formula:
Amen I tell you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not even the smallest letter, or even part of a letter, will in any way pass away from the Law until everything is fulfilled.
Amen, Amen, I tell you: (in John’s Gospel when Amen is emphasized by being used twice).
The footnote regularly explains it this way:
Usually, people say Amen at the end of a prayer. But Jesus used this Hebrew word at the beginning of a statement, which was unique. The inspired writer simply transliterated the Hebrew word that Jesus spoke, instead of using a Greek term. This translation does the same in English. The basic meaning is I solemnly tell you the truth.
Earlier in this FAQ we noted that we were not aware of any other contemporary English translation using Jesus’ Amens. This has led some to say that this translation is an innovation or even “weird.” We wish we could take credit for making a new innovative discovery in translation, but we can’t. In the Latin Vulgate, which was the Bible of the Western church for over a thousand years and is still the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus regularly says “Amen dico vobis,” which is: “Amen I say to you.” Letting Jesus say Amen is not an innovation. It is just a return to the norm.