Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 2, 2010


The photo shows a sign outside a church — you’ve seen them: the pastor posts a witty or funny or serious thought for the week, usually related to Sunday’s sermon.

Today’s example is not witty or funny. It says, “The wages of sin is death.” Uh oh, you think, this is it. The run-up to Election Day has finally driven Nixon off his rocker entirely and he’s going to break his vow about not writing about religion.”

Fear not. This is about language. And not “Language” with a capital L. Just a small item in the giant library of items filed under “language.”

I drive past this sign nearly every day, and the message hasn’t changed for several weeks. The pastor may have lost his or her ladder, or maybe he or she is going to keep preaching this subject until everyone gets it. It’s a darned arresting statement, anyway: kind of startling to be tooling along in the morning hoping to go earn one’s own wages and see something like this emblazoned against the western sky. In case you’re wondering, I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up; the line comes from the New Testament of the Bible, Romans 6:23.

After reading this daunting line for a few days, though, I got to wondering about it because, you see, I only remember about ten things from Miss Corwin’s Latin class, and one of the grammatical constructions I remember is present in the original Latin version of this phrase from which most of our biblical translations derive. I only remember this example because I’ve watched Sir Richard Burton numerous times in the film of  “Doctor Faustus,” (1967). As the play reaches its climax, Faustus is regretting his ill-considered deal with Mephistopheles, and starts reading the rule book (the bible), hoping to find a loophole in his contract. He reads, translates, then comments:

“‘Stipendium peccati mors est.’ ‘The wages of sin is death.’ That’s hard, Faustus.”

“Stipendium” means “wage” or “payment.” “Peccati” is probably the genitive (possessive) form of “peccatum,” “sin.” Therefore, literally translating the phrase one might reasonably come up with “The reward/wage of sin is death” (the Romans put their verbs at the end of the phrase, causing endless grief for us speakers of English, who verbs at the end of phrases never put).

But, Marlowe is providing what you must agree is a more poetic and artful phrase that fits his iambic pattern: the WA-ges of SIN is DEATH. You can kind of chant it to yourself as you drive along: ta DA-ta-DA-da-DAH!

Interestingly, this is the way the King James version translates the line, too. I’m no biblical scholar, but maybe one of you biblical scholars out there can let us know if the gang working on that translation at the end of Marlowe’s lifetime picked this up from him. They were working at precisely the same time.

BUT, it started to bother me. After days and days of seeing this sign, I wasn’t moved to repent, but I did get the uneasy feeling that “wages” shouldn’t be plural and then use a singular form, “is.” Wages is? We don’t say “cows is content” or “politicians is liars;” why should it be “wages is?” The Latin, “stipendium,” is singular. If Miss Corwin succeeded, then I correctly conclude that the plural is stipendia or stipendiae. I think we’ll all admit, it’s not as sonorous to say, “The wages of sin ARE death.”

Well, it took a few days, but I finally accepted the notion that “wages” must, at least in Marlowe’s (and King James’) day have been a valid collective noun, and, although it appears to be plural, it’s treated as a singular entity. I think that the passage of time has worn that collective sense away from “wages.” However, I must admit, that there’s something about the power of that iambic phrasing against the sky of Hawthorne, California that is much more compelling than, “the payment for sin is death.”

I do wish the pastor would get up there and change the sign, though. Maybe something like, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Much better for driving to work.


  1. Not as entertaining, but a church sign we saw in NC this weekend read something like “Under same management for 2000 years”


  2. …..well Im glad you have got THAT off your chest Brad.
    As I drive to work, I see nothing but minerets and gorgeous golden domes glinting in the Malaysian sunshine – no mention of wages however!


  3. Haggai 1:6, in the King James translation:

    “Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.”

    While most translations of Romans 6:23 also follow the “”wages” is collective/singular” approach, a higher percentage of translations render “wages” in Haggai as plural.

    Not sure what that all means yet, but I’ll throw it out there. Anyway, I”m down with the “wages” is collective camp.


    • Criminy, I ask for a biblical scholar and my brother shows up! Thanks.


  4. As one of the very few who read this and was likewise enlightened at dear old LHS by Miss Corwin (Freshman year, Home Room), I second your final thought.


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