Unlike other examples of eisegetical zeal, in which people import a product of their own imaginations into their reading of the text, the problem is right there in the translations! The translations themselves encourage interpretive license when it comes to Hebrews 11.1! Philosophical categories have so informed the way this verse has been understood over time that the English result is often misleading. What is obscured is the Jewish, covenantal context.
Now, in the cluster of translations most commonly used by English-speakers, three interpretations are easily discovered. These three interpretations match up to the three major ways this verse has been interpreted over time. My task here is to use these translations to describe these three interpretations, to compare the translations against a simple exegesis of the Greek text, and to argue for one of them based on Paul's description of the faith of Abraham in Romans chapter 4.
First, then, I will define the three interpretations to be considered. Each "group" of example translations below represents one of these three interpretations. Here they are:
- Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV & NKJV)
- Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (NIV)
- Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (ESV, NAS & NRSV; also, Tyndale's 1534: Fayth is a sure confidence off thynges which are hoped for, and a certayntie off thynges which are not sene.]
It does not take long to see that the first group suggests that faith is something of itself. Faith is a substance. Faith is evidence. There is a thing among things called "faith". Consider B. W. Johnson's remarks in The People's New Testament (1861): "The old meaning of substance, as well as of Hupostasis, the Greek word here used, is "stand under," that is to be a foundation. Faith is the foundation on which all our hopes for the future are built."
The second group, represented by the NIV, is more existential. This group suggests that faith is a mode of human being-ness. I am being sure. I am exercising faith. Faith is an act of will whereby I choose to hope. The evidence for my confession is then the public strength (passion, fanaticism, political radicalism, etc.) of my advocacy.
Unlike its predecessors, the third group takes a more passive approach. In this third group, faith is the passive product of some outside influence. One does not become assured or convinced by oneself. Rather, there is something that assures, something outside the self. There is something that makes its case so that I become convinced. Faith is then not a personal state of being evoked by the intent and action of my will. It does not originate from me. Rather, faith is a creature's appropriate response to something God has done. Faith is the God-ward expression of human trust.
Now I will turn to the Greek text and provide a translation with an accompanying paragraph of simple exegesis.
Hebrews 11:1; faith; biblical theology; exegesis.