Believer/Unbeliever, Faithful/Infidel, What is best?

A question of properly translating πιστός and ἄπιστος in Byzantine Greek Church literature.

Should they be translated as believer/unbeliever, or faithful/infidel?

The translation of believer is not difficult to accept, though it is a tad ambiguous in today’s English, but unbeliever is too neutral. It does not reflect the intensity ascribed to by the majority of the original writers. Infidel may be better suited. It is a strong word that has near racist implications based on religious grounds, and has especially been propagated by media coverage of radical Islamic actions against those who do not share their beliefs. In reference to some Byzantine Church writings, infidel feels closer to the writer’s intent. Fidelis, which is the opposite word to unfaithful, and should be considered to replace believer is not used in contemporary English jargon so that is eliminated. Faithful is a better alternative than believer because it is more specific to matters of faith. Unfaithful has shifted in contemporary English to indicate a serious breech of trust in a marriage or partnership, and is ruled out. So I think faithful/infidel should be used more often in translating many Patristic texts.

This question has come up a number of times while I have been translating ecclesiastical Greek works. Didymus of Alexandria in past readings, and presently, John Chrysostom’s work, De Sancte Pentecoste have urged this question. Both these authors are by modern definition, fanatical Christians. Their use of these words are strongly charged, and I think using believer/unbeliever underplays their intent. However, the use of faithful/infidel may make too close an association with the modern readers idea of reckless fanaticism, and may be an overstatement.

There is no denial that this type of fanaticism existed. The distinction between faithful–infidel was so strong that infidels had lost status as fully human. I cannot pretend to know a detailed history of the words in question, nor trace the etymology in any minutiae, but can only offer general assumptions. I do know the definition of infidels being less than human had existed until the 8th century under the great European leader Charlemagne. Charlemagne previously forced conversions on all his defeated territories. If they refused, they would be killed, with perhaps the Jews being the only exception because of their religious heritage – though their status was considered one of the lowest ranks. This destruction of the pagans who refused to convert was considered a normative practice, and brought on the ire of two Church leaders, Alcuin of York, and St. Paulinus of Aquiliea who “insisted that conversion was the work of God, not of man, and instruction should be in terms the people could understand and not based on fear.”1

Perhaps there are other alternatives and ways to translate which I have overlooked and am not aware of. Any feedback by translators or historians who have grappled with this problem, and have come up with a solution would greatly be appreciated.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.catholicireland.net/church-a-bible/church/january-saints/1264-11-st-paulinus-of-aquileia-730-802-scholar-at-charlemagnes-court-archbishop

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer who is perpetually curious about the history of ideas and concepts. He is an avid reader of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic texts; intrigued on the connections between the Christian and the supernatural, and issues where faith and society intersect.

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