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“Inconceivable!” When Old Words and New Meanings Meet in Bible Study



Today is a guest post by Scott A. Woodlee, pastor of Franklin Alliance Church (in Franklin, PA) and a contributor with Biblical Literacy Ministries. 


In the movie The Princess Bride the Sicilian mastermind Vizzini decries, “Inconceivable” after every foiled attempt to outwit others. For him, to have someone be able to match with himself is utterly, well, “Inconceivable!” After awhile one of his henchmen, Fezzick, suggests, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Sometimes I want to say the same thing when people read the Bible.

There are times that words now mean something entirely different than what was being communicated originally. Many times it is because the word has changed meaning diachronically (meaning, through usage over time). Lets look at a couple of English examples.

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Wireless. Let’s start with a fun one not associated with the Bible. If you were to mention wireless to someone today they would most likely think about Wi-Fi or networking  via phones, computers and the like. However use the word with a WWII vet, especially a radar station worker from England and they will think of something entirely different. Even directly after the war when one spoke of the wireless in one’s home, it was the radio because it received wireless transmissions. Just 60 have passed and the term has forever been changed.


Thou/Thee/Thy/Thine. I often hear people talk about the Bible and the use of the archaic forms of second person pronouns. Thou (subjective), thee (objective), and thy/thine (posessive) second person pronouns are no longer used. They were part of a system of respect. With your friends and family the second person “you” would be used whereas in more formal speech to superiors and the like the “thou/the/thy” would be used. Some of this language is kept in various translations like the KJV and the NASB in the Psalms or prayers because they want to highlight that when we pray we are in a close relationship with the Lord. But what I have oft heard is the exact opposite. Since it sounds old and rather, “stuffy” we often employ thy and thou to sound formal and noteworthy. Over time the sense of the word has become to opposite of what the writers intended when employing these terms in the text. Thus, I declare unto thee, “What a friend thou hast in Jesus!”

Sometimes we overlay meaning to words from our culture or time period that might not be what the original biblical author intended either. Here are a few examples.

Cows. Amos calls pretentious divas, “Cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). Now to the modern male, calling any woman cow is like calling her “fat” and is avoided at all costs. Being fat in our current culture is defined as being unattractive, lazy and undesirable. However in a farmer’s eyes, especially back in the time of Amos, a fat cow was a desirable cow. The fatted cow given butchered on occasion of celebration. What Amos is saying is that these ladies are luxurious and are so powerful their men do their bidding as they oppress the poor and needy. Is Amos being offensive? Yes, but not by calling them fat, lazy, undesirable women but in stead is comparing their great increase of luxury on the back of the poor.

Dove. We often think of the dove as a picture of peace. But when Hosea calls Ephraim a dove (Hosea 7:11), he defines dove as silly and senseless; not a very pleasant image.

cherubimCherub(im). Cherubs are cute chubby babies, well, according to the greeting cards and Christmas displays in the mall. But I don’t think it means what you think it means when they are mentioned in the Bible. Some suggest that they looks a bit more like large winged lions with bearded human faces that stood as guardians of sacred spaces willing to do harm to any uninvited guest.

Slavery. This word brings a great bag of feelings to the text due to our American history. In the ancient world some slavery was bad, others were willing to indenture themselves to others to pay off debts and afterward find that their life is better suited to stay in that role. While working on a new English translation of the bible, these scholars debate how to translate a word with so much phenomenological meaning. – [Common English Bible Editors Discussion]

Some words make good Greek students shout, “Inconceivable” as well. When meanings from English cognates are used to define New Testament meanings in order to bring out a “deeper meaning” many of us cringe because you cannot take a word’s meaning from the future and use it to define something in the past, especially when working from similar sounding words of one language to another. Take these examples:

Power/Dunamis. The Greek word for power (to have to ability to do something) was used as the background word for the stick of powerful sawdust used in construction, gold mining and Looney Tunes cartoons does not mean that in the Greek New Testament that God gives us explosive power!

Cheerful/Hilaros. Now sometimes I am in a cheerful mood, but being cheerful and thinking something is hilarious, though losely connected, are far from the same thing. So when Paul says, “God loves a cheerful giver” he isn’t saying God is amused to a knee-slapping tearful state nor that you should be as well. He means, well, cheerful, rather than indignant or begrudging.

In another article we will look at how feelings can change concerning words based upon a diachronic prejudice. We will encounter Philistine, Christian, Redskin, and Gay.

So what is the simple takeaway for today? Be careful in taking personal, cultural, and current definitions of words and place them out of history upon older worlds. The writers are not there to defend themselves and remind you, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means, at least when I wrote it a few millennium ago!”

3 thoughts on ““Inconceivable!” When Old Words and New Meanings Meet in Bible Study

  1. Great thanks for contributing. Keen insights.

  2. Sam says:

    Excellent. I agree. I get frustrated as a follower of Jesus and as a minister when I hear Biblical terms (in modern English) having their modern English understandings applied to their original Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic meanings. I want to know what the phrase meant at the time it was written.

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