Most Bible translations use the word “faith” in hundreds of passages. Yet a strong argument can be made that what many people understand by “faith” – i.e., “just believing,” even if blindly – is not a Biblical idea at all! How can this be?

The Biblical Hebrew word sometimes translated as “faith” is אמונה (emunah), which actually means “reliability, trustworthiness, dependability, steadiness.” We can easily see this from the first two places in the Hebrew Bible where the word appears: a) “His [Moses’] hands were emunah until the sunset” (Exodus 17:12); b) “The Rock… a God of emunah” (Deuteronomy 32:4). For this reason, English Bibles usually translate emunah as “faithfulness” or something similar. However, in rare cases they switch to the problematic translation “faith.” A famous example comes from Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” This English version gives the impression that if someone lives by trusting and believing, then he or she will be regarded as virtuous. However, the Hebrew meaning is very different, more like, “The person of justice lives in steadfast reliability.”

The first-century Letter to the Hebrews is careful to emphasize this point. In quoting from Habakkuk, it uses Jewish-Greek πίστις (pistis) for Hebrew emunah. “My just one will live out of pistis/emunah [i.e., steadfast reliability]; and if he draws back [i.e., is not steadfastly reliable], then My soul will not take pleasure in him. But we are not of those who draw back… but rather those of pistis/emunah [i.e., who are indeed steadfastly reliable].” (Heb. 10:38-39)

This perspective sheds a lot of light on every passage where “faith” appears – including the very next verse, one of the most popular in the entire Bible. In the King James Version, Hebrews 11:1 reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” A better translation would be, “And steadfast reliability is a foundation for what is hoped, a proving/testing of invisible realities.” The rest of the chapter then gives dramatic examples of people of justice who lived in steadfast reliability before God, thus bearing witness to Invisible Truth. That idea is not the same as “faith” in the sense of feeling an inner conviction and suppressing doubts about unprovable beliefs!

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69 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! Thank you for this understanding. I’m more than surprised and enriched by it. It makes so much sense. Toda rabah! Lisa

  2. The English word faith is indeed misunderstood and I am positive I did not have enough of it to get saved, yet I was and am saved. The translation of a steadfast reliability as a foundation (Christ) helps me to explain where my strength came from (I did not have a word Holy Spirit). Our circle teaches that faith comes from READING the NT. I see in Hab 2:2 that those who READ it will run (steadfast reliability?), but am surprised to see that at the end the vision will SPEAK.

    • That is a very interesting part of the Habakkuk context! A kind of personification of the vision itself. The Hebrew is וְיָפֵחַ (ve-yafeach) “and it mouths” or “and it will open its mouth.”

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    • Referring to “the vision will speak”, Scripture says, “faith [or steadfast reliability] comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” Romans 10:17. So this “steadfast reliability”(faithfulness), this strength of being reliable, happens when we HEAR the still small voice of God SPEAK to us. For me, I can say that the Scriptural passages I remember the most come from some special moments when I actually heard the still small voice SPEAK to me about a verse or passage. Because I actually heard I am steadfast in knowing what I heard – no one can convince me about anything that is contrary to what I heard God speak.

      • Louie, I hope it is okay for me to voice my opinion here. I too heard the still small voice SPEAK but I was taught to identify as a sinner in Scripture. This one small thing didn’t change God or His Workmanship but it did lead to an identity problem. Take for example John 3:19. I walked into the light, but who am I? One who sins (therefore I must love darkness). What has been done in the sight of God is not so plain because the focus is not on God and His Power and His Time, it is on me.

        • Perhaps – a sinner redeemed by grace, empowered by grace, even the steadfast reliability is a gift by grace. We can’t boast of anything, but we can glorify God as we are faithful and reliable in our walk utilising the grace we are given.

          • Jennie, I had read the 10 commandments a few times. Jesus did the impossible and revealed Himself to me with barely any scripture in a non-Biblical language. I, on the other hand, have difficulty communicating anything in a Christian language.

  3. I like the thought of reliability and trustworthyness. God certainly is and we should be. Thinking you can’t loose out on blessing just because you believe is silly. We must become trustworthy as well. Obedience isn’t just a thought. It is an action.
    God’s reliability is well proven. Not by feelings but by his proven nature. Too many get hurt or discouraged because what they prayed for didn’t happen. They didn’t wait to see God’s plan unfold. They were expecting to tell God what to do. Sorry…. He tells us what to do.
    I recently did CPR on my husband. I will admit I begged for his life but I also know if the answer is no, then there is a reason. It is not blind feelings. It is trusting God will do what is best for us both. And we learn and grow in obedient relationship with him.
    My husband of 33 years died some years back. I accepted that it was his time, but I wasn’t happy with the outcome. Several years later I met a man who was truly seeking to learn about God and who wanted companionship in marriage. He has come to love God and enjoys Christan fellowship. When he stopped breathing and his heart stopped last week…. He came back with CPR and was amazed that he’d felt no fear. Dead or alive God can be trusted. That is faithfulness.
    Walking by our feelings alone will leave us questioning and too often disappointed.
    Faith is not intended to be a feeling. It is actually an action verb. That implies action on our part.

    • Well, that is quite an experience, to say the least! Yes, I think Hebrew emunah and the related verbal forms imply living in a particular manner, rather than just feeling or thinking something.

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        • Thanks for the question, Gary. My understanding of the original statement (in Habakkuk 2:4) is a description of the lifestyle that characterizes a person who genuinely lives in accordance with “justice” (I would argue that this word is a closer equivalent than “righteousness,” which can sound a bit vague and religiousy). The verse itself contrasts this steadfast consistency in the way of justice — which can be a hard road — with the person who is “heedless” or “reckless” or perhaps “puffed up” (with pride). Hebrews 10 also offers a contrast when quoting the statement, distinguishing those who persevere faithfully in the way of justice from feckless or unreliable people who “draw back” instead of persevering. So in my view it’s not just a question of substituting one word or another — which we could do forever, always trying to find a better approximation of the original! Rather, I think we should dig a little deeper to try to understand the whole sense of what is being communicated. Does that make sense?

  4. Thank you so much Dr. Yeshaya Gruber, it really helps to understand the root of the word “emunah”. It now makes more sense the epistle of James/Ya’akov in the New Testament. Faith + Actions -> Faithfulness or “emunah”. Just trying to grasp the big picture. Have a great week!

    • Thank you for this comment, David! Yes, in my reading of Jacob’s letter he is trying to explain the Biblical Hebrew concept of emunah while writing in Jewish-Greek and therefore using Greek words (which often convey different ranges of meaning). Philo of Alexandria – another Jewish-Greek essayist of the first century – also wrote some similar texts in attempting to convey a Biblical understanding of “faith” via the Greek language.

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    • Ditto on the James 2:18-24 passage, it reads very different this way with deeper meaning. I love how GOD turns convention on its head making us dig deeper to find HIM, Mat 13:44.
      J.

  5. How would you, Dr. Yeshaya Gruber, translate according to you, above, Hebrew understanding re: “faith,” translate / comment upon the following two references mentioning “faith”?

    Gal 3:23 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

    Gal 3:25 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.

    • Thank you for the question, Mary. Your question is about a text written in Jewish-Greek by a particular (idiosyncratic!) author, so one would have to take both those realities into account. The English word “faith” is of course not in the text at all. So what does Shaul/Paul mean here by πίστις (pistis) and the other words he uses? To do the topic justice would take more space, but my general way of thinking about the question may be inferred from the above article. The meaning he has in mind must lie somewhere along the spectrum from Hebrew emunah to Hellenistic pistis — neither of which, by the way, is all that close to English “faith.” In this passage he is telling a parable or giving a metaphor about the purpose of the Mosaic Torah. He compares this Torah to a “tutor” or “schoolmaster” whose students remain in his custody (or “guard”) for a particular period of time. Once the students graduate — i.e., successfully master the curriculum and are released out into the world — they don’t or at least shouldn’t need to go back and sit in the schoolroom anymore. Similarly, reasons Shaul/Paul, if you can already live by emunah/pistis (i.e., with “steadfast reliability” in the way of justice and truth, which is the goal), you don’t or shouldn’t need to go back and learn these things again from a tutor (compare also Hebrews 5:12). As the same author writes elsewhere, “Law” is intended not for those who are already just, but rather for those who are lawless (i.e., criminals) and still need to learn justice (1 Timothy 1:9). This whole scenario forms part of his broader argument — put forward in Galatians especially, but also elsewhere — that Gentiles (non-Jews) who follow the God of Israel and the Jewish Messiah actually should not become circumcised proselytes/converts and take up Jewish identity. Rather, according to Shaul/Paul, they should remain as Gentile God-fearers (a theme he traces to the Hebrew Torah, prophets, and writings).

      • What I have learned, is when I surrendered to pleasing GOD alone and no longer trying to balance that with pleasing people, when I pursue Him and ask Him for counsel, His Holy Spirit teaches me. Therefore, i find myself obeying the law of GOD without focusing on myself and how well i am doing, but rather, focusing on GOD and His faithfulness and trustworthiness. This focus shift has made revolutionary changes in my life and i find myself obeying without striving, simply because He has changed my heart. He is awesome!

      • Greetings, doctor.

        If I may be so bold as to sum up your reply here, are you saying that the law was akin to a teacher teaching us to be steadfast toward God but that once we achieve that steadfastness toward God, we need not be under this teacher, not so as to do away with the law but to uphold it?

        • Thank you, Sujit. Just to clarify: I was responding to the question about Shaul/Paul’s argument in Galatians 3. My understanding of that passage is indeed very close to what you described.

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  6. The just shall live by faith is found three times in the text, and faith is in things not seen, the differences in linguistics is neither here nor there. If we indeed live by faith and adhere to the word of God, we will be found just. Even in English words can have differing meanings, but in the context of the true meaning the point is adequately made. It’s beautiful to dig deep into scripture and find what is behind the text but if we keep altering the text to please our understanding then why rely on the text at all.

    • Thank you for the comment, Noel! I would argue that “linguistics” is indeed highly relevant, since that is what enables us to get any meaning at all out of the text — especially in a foreign language like English. You write almost as if you think that some English translation (which one?) is “the text,” and other translations are “altering the text.” However, all translations (including mine) are necessarily flawed, all rely on linguistic study, and — even when starting from identical original texts, which isn’t always the case — all present some unique interpretation. So the question here is not one of “altering the text,” but rather of trying to figure out what the text actually says and means in its appropriate historical and linguistic context. Sadly, for nearly 2,000 years most translations have obscured and distorted all kinds of aspects of the original Biblical texts, partly as a result of theological biases and partly due to incorrect assumptions about the historical and linguistic contexts. At IBC we are privileged to form part of what is now a major movement (both inside and outside academia) that seeks to recover the more original meanings, to the best of our ability.

    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.

    • Faith is in things “not seen” because it is in things “heard”, things spoken by God, as it is written “Faith (steadfast reliability) comes by hearing; and hearing by the word of God,” Romans 10:17.

  7. Thank you for that very interesting explanation. I was always puzzled at having to accept anything on blind faith, in as much as it would stifle genuine questions and thought. I so thankful for this eye and heart opening translation. Blessing to all.

    • Thank you, Ruth! I think that is a very important point. Indeed, how can one come to know truth if one stifles or suppresses questions? One of the drawbacks of credal religions (which say that you must believe and affirm opinions X, Y, and Z) is that they often prevent people from unashamedly giving what is often the most honest answer, “I don’t know.”

  8. Many thanks Dr. Gruber, this article has really reshaped my theological thinking with regard to the subject of “faith.” The English Bibles we now wield and read are not necessarily reliable since they lost several valuable original ideas in translation. Stay blessed!

    • Thank you, Joe! Some alteration and loss of meaning is inevitable in any translation. Sadly, however, most Biblical translations have also been heavily influenced by Christian anti-Judaic theology, which arose in the Roman Empire. Blessings to you as well.

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      • Dr Gruber, I notice you use English to form your own translation from the text“reliability, trustworthiness, dependability, steadiness.” it is my contention that Faith as a word covers them all, I use the King James and that has been proven to be the most accurate and has stood the test of time, anti Judaic theology does not come from Christian biblical text, but from Religious theology, and I do separate the two, and I think that is a shame. As a Christian I don’t hold to replacement theology, but I also am aware of Romans 11:25 and am saddened by that, For Joe to now think that English Bibles are not necessarily reliable is a travesty, 2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed, and if we struggle with some of it John 16:13 always applies. Blessings.

        • Thank you for continuing the discussion, Noel. One of the quotations that appears on the IBC website is this one from a famous poet, “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through the veil.” Personally I like many aspects of the KJV translation, which has undeniable linguistic beauty (a great accomplishment!). Incidentally, it was also used as a base for the first Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that even the very best translation, from whatever language into whatever language, will necessarily change the meaning of the original in some way. There’s just no way around that, because different languages are different… In addition, the KJV was certainly influenced by politics and, yes, anti-Judaic Church theology. The translators even admitted as much, pretty openly. Having taken about 80% of their version from Tyndale’s earlier translation (after he had been executed for “heresy”), the KJV translators explained their variations, writing (in part), “We have… avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put Washing for Baptism, and Congregation instead of Church.” In other words, the KJV committee intentionally chose to use traditional theological wordings instead of more “scrupulous” translations that would have matched the original context better. Hence we get extremely anti-Jewish – and linguistically unjustifiable – inconsistencies like “synagogue” for συναγωγή (synagōgē) in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9, but a completely different translation of the same word in Jacob/James 2:2 and of a closely related form in Hebrews 10:25. I encourage you to look into these things!

          • Although the King James Version translates ‘pistis’ as ‘faith’, it has a footnote where ‘pistis’ is used that says, ‘or faithfulness’. So right from the earliest translations into English this was known.

            But does it refer to our faithfulness or God’s?

  9. I’m excited of what I’ve learned about faith! Growing up Catholic, there were disconnects as I read scripture, which caused gaps in my understanding. Now, the more I learn Hebrew and become more Berean, the scriptures have opened to truths I never knew. These new truths shook the foundation I grounded myself in. I thought, isn’t Christianity at its core saying “I was wrong LORD, I didn’t know.” How did I miss something that is so foundational to my…..faith?

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  10. I’m not quite grasping this. I want to understand as I’ve always struggled with feeling I dont have enough “faith”. Perhaps defining justice would help me understand steadfast reliability. Is justice wanting God to reveal the truth when others are being wronged?

    • You are not alone, Kimberly. It’s a hard concept to discuss and understand in another language like English. (And of course I can’t claim that my grasp is 100% correct, either.) An example from the book of Daniel may help. When Daniel’s three friends were on trial for their life, the English idea of “faith” might have led them to say, “God will save us! We believe it!” By contrast, Hebrew emunah (faithfulness, steadfast reliability) is like what they actually said: “Our God is able to save us! But whether He does or not, we won’t commit idolatry.” (Dan. 3:16-18)

      • Hello, doctor.

        In light of your article, would I be correct in understanding that when the scriptures talk about “faith,” a closer translation would be “steadfastness” or “steadfast reliability”?

        • Yes, in my view that would be a closer translation in almost every case. The situation is complex because when including the first century we are dealing with both Hebrew and Jewish-Greek (LXX, NT) writings. As a general principle I believe your summary is correct.

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    • Regarding the question of “justice” — that should probably be a separate article. In my view, it is something like “whatever is good and right and true.” This could certainly include “wanting God to reveal the truth when others are being wronged.”

  11. If “emunah” or “pistis” means “steadfast reliability”, then I suspect that the English word “faithfulness” might express a similar meaning more simply.

    • Thanks for the comment, Seathrún. Most English translations use “faithfulness” when translating the Hebrew Tanakh (“Old Testament”). However, many of the same versions switch to “faith” for Jewish-Greek texts (like the “New Testament”) that are based on the same or very similar concepts. This inconsistency communicates a wrong impression of the original meaning in context.

  12. Is there a New Testament or Bible available that is interpreted by a Jewish scholar such as yourself? I would truly love to read it in its intended or cultural meaning.

    • Thanks for the question, Gale. There are some that go in this direction, and more work remains to be done. Take a look at:
      Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler (editors), The Jewish Annotated New Testament
      David Stern, The Jewish New Testament
      Daniel Gruber, The Messianic Writings
      Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible

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  13. In my mind a related scripture to Hab is Rom 10:9-10. There I understand “confess” to mean “to agree with God concerning” and “believe” to be “submission to the will and direction of God.”
    Please correct me if I am wrong.

    • Thank you for the comment, Jim! I’ve not looked at this passage in particular, but it sounds like an interesting idea.

  14. Dr Gruber thank you. I perfectly understand “emunah” requires action by the one who believes. I had just finished reading Genesis 22, and these words came to me: ‘he (Abraham) moved forward to obey.’ Now steadfast reliability requires me to take action for my steadfastness to yield my request. Shalom.

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  15. Yes, I have thought of Faith as Faithfulness — as in if something is promised it will be done. Not in terms of belief, particularly ‘blind’ faith, or doing God a favour by believing.

  16. Faith, faithfulness — all of the above point to one conclusion: that God is reliable. We humans can exercise faith, in other words rely on the convictions about what God has said to be true and accurate. We sometimes dissect words and passages so much so that the idea is lost.

    • Thank you for the comment, Anna! Well said — although the question here is: what actually is the idea in the text? We have to find it first and try to keep it from getting lost. 🙂

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  17. Interesting explanation. The word “faith” is so overused and so misused as to be now almost meaningless. The original language does much to help our understanding.

  18. You say that… “A better translation would be…”.. which seems to reverse the emphasis in modern versions such as the NIV.. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for”… this puts the emphasis on the hope we have, and the degree to which we hold it.

    • Thanks, Jon. To be honest, I haven’t thought about all the different implications of my translation vs others — I’m just trying to get it as accurate as I know how. Probably a lot of the different emphases in traditional translations come from assuming that “faith” is a kind of mental confidence (or perhaps “trusting”). I think this is problematic if one wants to reflect the original Hebraic concepts.

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  19. The NIV version made sense to me in that Abraham’s Faith was created because he had confidence in the hope that God had laid before him in his promises. Faith = confidence in the hope God has extended which then leads to action ie leaving Ur. A living faith

  20. I have always understood the KJV verse, “..faith is the evidence of things unseen…” to mean that biblical faith is NOT blind faith – it is evidential. The prophets performed signs and wonders to authenticate their claims. Jesus performed many signs and wonders so that the people would believe.

  21. So please explain to me why you have at the top of the page that the Bible does not need to be rewritten but reread. Every article that I have read from this web site does nothing but rewrites what the text states.

    • Great question, Philip! Actually, none of the articles (of which I am aware) attempts to rewrite any original texts. Rather, we attempt to reread them from within the relevant historical context — in this case, the first-century Jewish world. This is the same approach followed by many scholars today. A result is that often our translations differ from traditional translations that don’t take the original context into account sufficiently. Why not join our courses for a fuller explanation? I think you will find them eye-opening!

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  22. Thank you very much Dr. Gruber. This explanation on the meaning of ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ concurs exactly with the ‘believing man’ participle in John 3:16 in the context of John 20:30-31. (The Fourth Gospel was written to encourage believers not to forsake their faith in Jesus.)

  23. Heb 11:1 NIV ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for’. I have come to see that faith springs from a confident hope. Hope 1st (what God laid before Abraham to leave Ur). 2nd a confidence in the hope (Abraham believed God). 3rd Action (Faith works) = Living Faith

  24. John 20 :29,31 29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you

  25. Dr. Gruber, what is your interpretation of Hebrews 11.1 where pistis/emunah is described as “hupostatis” and “elenchus”? Do you see them subjective or objective and what texts he may have in mind in uses the two Greek words?

    • Ian, thanks for the question. I have not made a thorough study of this verse; however, the last paragraph of the article above gives a general idea of how I tend to see it. My alternative translation of the verse is based on viewing it in the context of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish-Greek LXX, and other first-century Jewish-Greek texts (such as Philo of Alexandria). As explained in the article, I see this statement as informed by the immediately preceding verses.

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  26. How would you explain this concept within Ephesians 2:8-9 I see this in that it is the Father’s grace that He gave His Son (Jn 3:16) (for Jesus is the gift of God given to us) and that it is Jesus’s faith ( steadfast reliability trust in His Father)

    • David, thanks for the question. These matters are of course very controversial, with many different approaches to trying to figure out the intended meaning of Paul/Shaul’s words. My own view is that the context is paramount: the author is arguing that Gentiles (non-Jews) do not need to become “converts” (to use our terminology). Rather, in his view non-Jews can be equally faithful to God (i.e., live lives of emunah). Hence, I see the text you mentioned as a kind of restatement of or reference to Habakkuk 2:4 (see above in the article). The point made by Shaul/Paul is (apparently) that this applies equally to Jews and non-Jews; one doesn’t have to become a “convert” in order for it to apply.

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