by David B. Capes
In October 2014 I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.” Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations. Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ. On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The Greek word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, like a king or an owner of an estate.
One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios. The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience. We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.” We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?
The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status. Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word. Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States. If you’re watching Downton Abbey, the servants might call Robert “my lord” or if you’re in Edinburgh Scotland the mayor is called “the Lord Mayor.” Other than that, you just don’t hear it. The word has lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit. For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God. Is it time to retire the word “Lord” and find something better? Does the word “Lord” conjure up some associations that detract from God’s honor?
Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it. I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it. I’d be interested in your thoughts. Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power. Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something. Then again, maybe not?!
David B. Capes is the Academic Dean at Houston Graduate School of Theology.