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Context

There is an old hymn, often referred to as the Trisagion or Thrice-Holy. It goes like this in Greek:

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός, Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς.

(Transliterated, this reads, "Hágios ho Theós, Hágios ischyrós, Hágios athánatos, eléēson hēmâs.", see comment below, which is now obsolete after this edit.)

In English, one sees various translations:

  • Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
  • Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
  • Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

My Question

So, considering God is the Only Living God, and 'thanatos' is 'death', while the prefix 'a-' means 'without', what would be wrong with translating 'athanatos' as 'living', so that, a quite literal translation might read:

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Living, have mercy on us.

In other words, what, in a grammatical sense, is wrong with this translation/train of thought?


Caveats

  • I am not Greek, I do not speak Greek. Therefore, this is (by default) a naive question, so please forgive me accordingly and give patience when answering.

  • All general information/translations were taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trisagion.

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  • 1
    How did a question about a Greek translation end up on latin SE? O_o
    – Ángel
    Mar 31 '20 at 23:52
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    @Ángel Latin.SE handles Ancient Greek and a few other ancient languages as well; the name is a bit unintuitive, but we broadened our scope a while back.
    – Draconis
    Mar 31 '20 at 23:56
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    Thanks @Draconis. I did look at the tour and only found it mentioning "the finer points of the Latin language". Only on rereading do I find now the mention of "We also allow questions about Ancient Greek". Well, it was bound to be a silly question.
    – Ángel
    Mar 31 '20 at 23:59
  • 2
    Not important to the question, but if the Trisagion is meant to be Classical Greek (as the accentuation would imply), the transliteration would be hágios ho Theós, hágios ischyrós, hágios athánatos, eléēson hēmâs. The transliteration you’ve given is for Modern Greek. Apr 2 '20 at 22:56
  • @JanusBahsJacquet as this question has received additional attention, I have gratefully incorporated your comment into my original question so that the transliteration is correct. Thanks again!
    – Samantha Y
    Aug 21 at 3:22
19

"Living" is an undertranslation of "ἀθάνατος."

"Living" has a straightforward translation from "ζῆν" (to live): the participle "ζῶν"; "ἀθάνατος," however, means "not mortal," as opposed to "not dead." If it simply meant "not dead," then your appeal to the law of excluded middle would be justified.

  • God is living (ζῶν) and immortal (ἀθάνατος).
  • A dog is living (ζῶν) but not immortal (ἀθάνατος).

To put it in logical terms, all immortal things are living, but not all living things are immortal. Translating "ἀθάνατος" as "living" would thus be consistent with the sense of the passage, but it would not capture its full meaning.

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  • So, this suggests, and perhaps you suggest this as well in your comment on consistency, that it is theologically permissible (in context) to translate this word in that way, but it is grammatically 'undertranslated', in an abstract sense.
    – Samantha Y
    Mar 31 '20 at 16:57
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    No, I don't think it would be a good translation in any context, theological or otherwise; but at least it wouldn't contradict the correct translation. (E.g. In Herodotus, I wouldn't be wrong to say that the Persian immortals were "living," but I'd be missing the point.)
    – brianpck
    Mar 31 '20 at 16:59
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Short answer: no, athanatos means "immortal", not just "living".

Longer answer: compare the English word "immortal". It comes from the Latin in- ("not") + mort- ("death"). So you could argue etymologically that "immortal" should mean "alive" ("not dead").

However, that's not what it means; "immortal" means not just "not dead", but "unable to die". The same is true for Greek athanatos.

For an even more extreme example, technically "un-dead" represents the two parts of a-thanatos very literally. And technically, the Christian God is not dead. But "undead" actually means something completely different, making it unsuitable as a translation.

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ἀθάνατος uses the privative ἀ- (from [ἀν-][2] = "not"). Adding the privative prefix to a noun makes a compound meaning "one who is without [noun]". Since θάνατος means death, strictly etymologically, ἀθάνατος means immortal.

[2]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?la=greek&l=%E1%BC%80%CE%BD-#Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=a)/n1-contents

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    Thank you. Even though I initially accepted this answer, I'm not sure I fully understand. Perhaps this is my lack of etymological knowledge, but what prevents one from taking an analogous argument as in my question and translating 'not death' as 'life' or even 'living'? (To be fair, from a mathematical point of view, I'm appealing to the law of excluded middle, and I suppose that is unwise, as there is quite a large spectrum between death--not death/ life--not life.)
    – Samantha Y
    Mar 31 '20 at 15:20
  • Oh, I did not see the word 'privative', that spells out the grammatical concept that could explain the etymology. Searching, I found this definition: 'marked by the absence, removal, or loss of some quality or attribute that is normally present.' which, taken literally, would render athanatos as 'the absence of death' 'the removal of death' or 'loss of death', and on one hand, I would agree the latter two definitely lend themselves better to the meaning 'immortal'.
    – Samantha Y
    Mar 31 '20 at 16:53
  • On the other hand, and this dips into Christian theological territory (and hence why I originally posted this question on christianity.stackechange.com, the first rendering, 'absence of death' could be re-rendered as Life (i.e. the Light of Men, as in the Gospel of John, the True Light that came into the world, the Life and Resurrection, etc.).
    – Samantha Y
    Mar 31 '20 at 16:55
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    @SamanthaY A little more precisely, adding the privative prefix to a noun makes a compound meaning "one who is without [noun]". So in this case, ἀθάνατος = "one who is without death" = immortal.
    – TKR
    Mar 31 '20 at 19:05
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    @TKR Thank you. That makes much more sense to me.
    – Samantha Y
    Mar 31 '20 at 23:50
4

To give a partial answer:

In researching the Trisagion, I came across 14th century commentary by Nicolas Cabasilas, 'A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy'.

In this book, he goes as far as to state, "[...] the words 'Strong and immortal God' are those of blessed David, who exclaims 'My soul thirsts for the strong and living God' [...]" (pg. 59, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press).

Actually, the full text of this portion of the book gives his entire train of thought:

Next we praise God Himself, the Triune God, as the coming of the Saviour revealed Him to us. The hymn which we sing comes to us from the angels, and is taken in part from the sacred psalms of the prophet. It was gathered together by Christ's Church and dedicated to the Trinity. For the Hagios [2] (the Sanctus), which is repeated thrice, is the angelic acclamation;[3] the words "Strong and immortal God" are those of blessed David, who exclaims: "My soul thirsts for the strong and living God," [4] The Church which is the assembly of those who believe and profess the Trinity and Unity of God, played its part in gathering together these two acclamations, joining them, and adding the ejaculation, "Have mercy on us"; she wished to show, on the one hand, the harmony of the Old and New testaments, and on the other, that angels and men form one Church, a single choir, because of the coming of Christ who was of both heaven and earth.

Footnotes

[2] Greek: "holy", [3] Isiah 6.3. Revelation 4.8. [4] Psalm 42.2.

Looking at Psalm 42:2, which in Greek reads, "ἐδίψησεν ἡ ψυχή μου πρὸς τὸν θεὸν τὸν ζῶντα·" I note that the word for living here is 'zónta' and not, as my question could have, 'athánatos'.

So this question seems to have originated in the workings of the mind of the 14th century commentator Nicolas Cabasilas. In this case, the question is perhaps unanswerable in a definite way; it could have been merely figurative license.

I beseech someone with more translation expertise or knowledge of Greek grammar to consider this question, to perhaps further delineate why or why not it is reasonable to translate as I have.

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    mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2642.htm gives it as "living God" (Psalm 42, verse 3). indeed "חָי" translates as "live" and has no "immortality" connotations. (but that's in Hebrew original).
    – Will Ness
    Apr 2 '20 at 14:44
  • Indeed. I wonder where the author of the commentary got this idea from then! He writes so confidently I just connected the dots for him and assumed it must have had something lost in translation, but it seems it could have just been rhetorical flourish!
    – Samantha Y
    Apr 3 '20 at 1:26
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    I guess in polytheistic traditions of the time "god" was a local statue to which they were bringing their first-born child sacrifices and what not, and the abrahamic pitch was "look, the statues are dead, true God is living". something like that. :) re translations, Christianity did break from Judaism by incorporating many other trends and ideas in the surrounding Hellenistic world. Judaism of the day also wasn't what it was 1000 years prior.
    – Will Ness
    Apr 3 '20 at 7:44
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Contrary to what several respondents have written, θάνατος does not mean “dead” and ἀθάνατος does not mean “non-dead” or “un-dead”. Θάνατος is a noun and means “death”. ἀθάνατος is an exocentric compound (bahuvrihi) and means literally “whose death is not”, or “not having a death”, thus not merely “living”, but “incapable of dying”.

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  • Ah it seems this question doesn't die! This is a very interesting answer for which I've given an upvote. I am unfamiliar with both 'exocentric compound' and 'bahuvrihi' but you are quite bold in your answer. I will do more research. Thank you.
    – Samantha Y
    Aug 21 at 3:29
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    So if I'm understanding your argument correctly, θάνατος is a noun and ἀθάνατος is an adjective. Therefore the construction ἀ-θάνατος is not endocentric, since it doesn't have a head. However, I don't see how this argues against a putative interpretation of the word as "living." E.g., in English, we have "no-account," which is exocentric by the same criterion, but only usage can tell us whether this should be interpreted as "someone who has not yet been accounted for" or "someone who doesn't deserve to be accounted for." It seems to me that the answer to this question is all about usage. Aug 21 at 16:28
  • Also, θάνατος can also be used as a noun ("an immortal," e.g., Iliad 1.265), so it's not so clear to me that we can say a priori that ἀθάνατος must be exocentric. Aug 21 at 18:25
  • Contrary to what several respondents have written, θάνατος does not mean “dead” I can't find any answers or comments that claim this. Aug 21 at 19:26
2

I'm going to enjoy necroposting on this.

The only definitive way to tell what this word means is to look at usage. The word ἀθάνατος in Greek is both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, it means immortal, of immortal fame, or imperishable. As a noun, it means an immortal. It means these things simply because that's the way it has been used and understood by Greek speakers from the time of Homer all the way up through the present day. As a random example from Homer, we have in Iliad 1.265, ἐπιείκελον ἀθανάτοισι, which given the context clearly means "like unto the gods" or "like unto the immortals." There's just no way to make sense of this passage if we take it to mean "like unto the living."

Scholars like Cunliffe have painstakingly combed through all of Homer and catalogued every shade of meaning of every occurrence of every word. LSJ shows the same set of meanings for other ancient dialects such as Attic. If this word sometimes meant "living," they would have figured out that possible meaning from context.

I don't think there's any way to tell the meaning of this word simply from analyzing into its parts and considering their meanings and what parts of speech they are. The prefix ἀ- can mean "that which is without," but it can also mean various other things, as in ἄχολος, which means "allaying anger," not "unable to be angered."

In the context of Christianity, it just isn't plausible that koine would have weird alternative meanings for words like this that are used to refer to God and Jesus. The early Christians had to be very careful with their use of words, because they were being attacked both by the Romans and by other Jews for what was seen as the heretical or absurd nature of their beliefs about death, God, a son of God, and the concept of a bodily resurrection.

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"Immortal" has come to gather connotations in English that aren't really present in the original, namely having escaped the fate of dying rather than not being subject to it. Something like "undying" might at the current moment in language evolution be a better fit. "Living", in contrast, is a potentially temporary quality.

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  • Perhaps 'undying' is the sense I'm after.
    – Samantha Y
    Apr 2 '20 at 0:58
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    How do you know it has connotations in English that weren't present in Ancient Greek? Please edit this to provide some supporting evidence. Apr 2 '20 at 7:39
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At a level of analysis one up from grammar/syntax: this word points to the condition of transcending considerations and categories relating to time. Needs-must using the then available commonly understood means: specifically the language and concepts available then, words relating to the cycle of birth and death. Looming death being the one most easily understood as 'future for those subject to it' and so a-thanatos pointing to things beyond the birth-death cycle.

Remember, these words were meant to be understood by people who needed and well understood what we would think of as comic-book or graphic-novel pictures on the walls (icons) to tell stories as most couldn't read nor write in those days.

Important not to overthink it technically grammatically speaking. These words in repeated phrases had the same 'pointing to something more' intent as the icons on the walls and toward the front of the worship space as well. They really weren't meant to be considered outside of the wholistic experience.

(I'm what some would call a 'cradle Orthodox'. Born in the USA, ancestrally Greek with a name that got mangled 120+ years ago via Ellis Island. Close to 60 years old).

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    Thank you. I appreciate your response. I perhaps was taking an overly-academic approach to the question (that is more what my brain is used to), so I appreciate you sharing your perspective. If it's not painfully obvious, I'm as far from cradle-born orthodox as one can get, but im trying! Thank you again. Take care.
    – Samantha Y
    Apr 3 '20 at 1:25

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