The κύριος case of Mr. Lord

Dear Fellow Word Wonderers:

Carved into the oak pulpit desktop of my first church were these words from John 12.21: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” In the context of scripture, several Greeks had come to Jerusalem during the Passover festival, and because of Jesus’ reputation following the raising of Lazarus, they desired to meet the celebrity face-to-face. Assuming Philip to be one of Jesus’ advance men, they put in a scheduling request with the disciple. Philip brought the request to Andrew, and Andrew and Philip came to Jesus, who responded with a Johannian riddle about wheat falling in the ground and dying. We never know if the Greeks got an appointment.

The purpose of the ornate script gouged into the top of the pulpit was to remind the preacher of the purpose of the sermon. Regardless of what the worshipers thought they were going to hear, the sermon was to consistently point them to Jesus, as if any other purpose would be a disappointment to the congregation’s earnest inquiry.

What has bothered me with that particular verse is the use of the English word “Sir,” translated from the koine Greek wordΚύριε, derived from the base word κύριος, which, in nearly every other instance, is translated Lord, as in the English translation of the Moravian table blessing, “Come, Lord Jesus, and be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed.” Here, too, is the same oddity. In the original German, the blessing, which begins, “Komm, Herr Jesu...,” if true to the German, should be translated, “Come, Mr. Jesus.” (Dani and I have a friend who grew up in a bilingual German/English household, and the above use of Herr led them to jokingly refer to Mr. Jesus and Mr. God.) 

Here’s the struggle for the translators of the Gospel and of German table graces. Confining the English word Lord to Jesus leaves little latitude when one discovers the underlying word’s familiarity. Were the Greeks to say to Philip, “Lord, we would see Jesus,” Philip would need to provide a brief theological explanation as to why he was not The Lord; but Philip merely relays the request to his master (there’s another complicated English word for a later musing).

Occasionally the translators could solve the problem by using a lower-case L to distinguish between The Lord and a lord, but in this instance κύριος begins the sentence, requiring an upper-case in the English. To preserve Lord’s sense of added majesty, they are left with little alternative than to translate it as Sir. (The original texts have no upper or lower-case alternatives, which made remembering passwords way easier in the ancient world.)

Which takes me back to the request carved into my first pulpit. Exactly who were my congregational “Greeks” hoping to see, a titled nobleman who was a member of the upper house of the British Parliament, or an interesting guy who some thought to be the Messiah? Who do you want to meet, Lord Jesus, or Mr. Jesus?

Preaching to satisfy κύριος minds, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor