Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
In the previous episode about modernization, we touched briefly on the constantly changing nature of language. Words often shift, drift or drop out of use. New words are invented, or new meanings attach themselves to old words. This is not right or wrong—it is just how language inevitably works.
Sometimes, this is just a bit funny, such as when we use the wrong word. But sometimes it can be confusing and lead to problems—especially in reading important historical texts like the Book of Common Prayer (which we spoke about last time), or the Bible itself.
So more about words in this episode and how being curious and diligent in finding the meaning of words can help our Bible reading and communication.
You Keep Using That Word
I do not think it means what you think it means.
TP: Among the various problems we have with words, sometimes we just use the wrong one—perhaps we don’t really know what a particular word means. As a life-long editor and pedant, I’ve come across lots of these. One funny example is the word ‘enormity’. It amuses me enormously (so to speak) because the word ‘enormity’ in its established meaning means ‘something that is outrageously or heinously evil’. An incredibly bad crime or act of evil can be described as an ‘act of enormity’. But now we just use it to mean something incredibly enormous, instead of using the word ‘enormousness’, which would be the correct word. And so it always amuses me when the preacher says, “And we must marvel at the enormity of God’s love.”
PJ: Isn’t it fascinating?
TP: Yes, and the interesting thing is that because the word is now used so frequently simply to mean ‘enormousness’, that has now become one of the meanings of the word in the dictionary. If you go back 100 years, that meaning of the word ‘enormity’ wasn’t in the dictionary.
PJ: Yes, because the dictionary doesn’t give you a definition. All the dictionary is doing is give you a current description of what the word means at this time.
TP: Yes. So this is just fun, right? The meaning of the words changes with time. And this is fine if we know what the word now means.
But where it gets to be a problem is when we’re reading a text from another time and seeking to understand that text—particularly when it comes to reading the Bible, because sometimes the English words we use to translate the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible have shifted or broadened or changed their meaning or connotation over time, so that they no longer convey what the Greek or Hebrew words originally meant.
And this is an issue, because it means we will read back into Scripture the current meaning of the English word, rather than reading out of Scripture the original meaning of the word. And because the word of God is what we use to correct us and shape our mind and thinking, because it’s our supreme authority, we can get ourselves into a muddle by reading things back into the text. And so I thought it’d be good to just tease out a few examples of the living, shifting nature of English from the Bible, to just show that we have to be a bit careful when we’re reading Scripture.
Sometimes, we have a problem with transliterated words—that is, where the translator has not translated the word into an English equivalent but just turned the Greek letters into English letters. Examples would be ‘deacon’ (Gk diakonos) or ‘apostle’ (Gk apostolos). The fact that diakonos means ‘servant or ‘minister’, and apostolos means ‘delegate or messenger or sent one’ isn’t conveyed at all through the English words ‘deacon’ and ‘apostle’.
And so when we come to Hebrews 3:1, for example, where it says that Jesus is the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession”, we say to ourselves, “Hang on, how can Jesus be one of the apostles?!” But when you realize that ‘apostle’ just means ‘messenger’ or ‘sent one’ it makes perfect sense, because the two big themes of Hebrews 1 and 2 are that that God has sent his Son into the world to reveal himself, to become one of us, to take on flesh and blood, and to die and make purification for sins as the great high priest. And so ‘sent one’ and ‘high priest’ are are a good summary of who Jesus is in those first two chapters.
PJ: The English word ‘ambassador’ would be a better word for ‘apostle’.
TP: Yes, it would be, and we would know immediately what that means. But because the word has shifted and broadened so much in meaning, and we find it hard to think of translating it in any other way, we don’t always grasp what’s going on in the text.
Another common example would be the word ‘church’, a word that we get a lot in the New Testament, but which in contemporary English has almost no relation to what the Greek word means.
PJ: Yes, the standard word in the Greek is used twice in Acts 19, once about a riot or a crowd, and another time about a regular council meeting or a political assembly. And so the word basically meant ‘a gathering’ for which the purpose may vary.
TP: It was a common everyday word in Graeco-Roman society, but for us, the word ‘church’ now has a whole series of additional meanings. So give it a try—next time you see the word ‘church’ in your English Bibles, do a little mental cross out and replace it with the word ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’. You’ll find it considerably changes what you’re getting out of those verses.
And there are a bunch of them like this. For example, the word ‘comfort’ is an interesting one that has shifted over time as well. I’m thinking of 2 Corinthians 1, where we have God of all comfort, who comforts us in Christ so that we in turn can comfort each other, and so on.
PJ: Yes, ‘comfort’ has quite dramatically changed because it used to mean ‘to strengthen’ or ‘to establish’. An example is the famous Bayeux Tapestry where the bishop is comforting his troops by sticking his spear into their backs so as to move them forward, which is a million miles from 21st century ‘comfort’, which is a woolly blanket or a ‘comforter’. It is something to make you feel soothed. Whereas when Isaiah says “‘Comfort my people,’ says the Lord” there may be some soothing comfort to it but it is mostly saying, “Be encouraged, be strengthened.”
TP: Yes, it comes from com-forte, where ‘forte’ means ‘strength’. So comfort originally meant ‘to bring strength to’, and this is how it was mostly used when the English Bible was first translated in 16th century. And so it was natural enough word to translate the Greek word paraklesis in 2 Corinthians 1—which in most other places in our Bibles is translated ‘encouragement’ or ‘exhortation’.
So next time you read 2 Corinthians 1, where it speaks about receiving the comfort of God, and comforting one another with the comfort we have received from God, try replacing the word ‘comfort’ with ‘strengthen’ or ‘encourage’ or ‘urge on’. It changes the feeling of the passage entirely, and helps you see connections that you might not otherwise have noticed.
PJ: Yes precisely; it is like someone who comes alongside you to cheer you on and urge you on.
TP: Another example is the word ‘worship’, which is a particularly complex one, because there are, I think, four different Greek words that we often translate as ‘worship’ in our English New Testaments.
So sometimes the original word means ‘to give honour to a higher person than you’ or ‘to submit to that person’, sometimes literally in bowing down and falling on your face and prostrating yourself before somebody. Sometimes it can mean ‘to do service toward the superior person’.
So the words for ‘worship’ in the Greek have all these different sorts of connotations, but for us in English ‘worship’ is almost entirely connected with church services. Even though we try and persuade ourselves that it’s a bigger word than that—we worship God in all our lives—yet almost the entirety of the semantic range of the word is connected with either church as an act of public worship, or more recently, to that time within the church service where we sing songs to God as an act of ‘worship’. And so because of what the word has come to mean for us, we often will miss what’s going on in the text of the Bible, because we can’t help but take the common connotation of what the English word has now become and think that that’s what the Bible is talking about.
PJ: Yes, and that raises a slightly different issue—that is, you can try and fight for a word, but not if that meaning or connotation is still going to be what’s in most people’s minds.
TP: And that’s why, for example, some years ago we were having this discussion about whether ‘worship’ was a good label biblically and theologically to talk about our church gatherings. Some argued that we could rescue the word and the concept by adding something in front of it like ‘corporate worship’, but that was never going to work—because the word has changed and shifted so much in contemporary English that it was always going to be a struggle to use it to reflect biblical usage.
PJ: Yes, and now what about the word ‘praise’?
TP: Well, ‘praise’ is interesting because it’s a very Old Testament word. We get a lot of our feeling of what ‘praise’ is from the Psalms, and from its frequent use of the Hebrew root hll (which is where get ‘hallelujah’ from, in another example transliteration’)—to praise Yahweh.
In Hebrew, hll means ‘to advertise’, to tell how great somebody is so that their reputation and glory is demonstrated in front of everybody. And so the Psalms that give the exhortation to ‘praise’ then proceed to say how great God is and urge other people to do the same.
PJ: So praise is not music, necessarily.
TP: No, it’s got nothing to do with music intrinsically. Often you might set it to music to make the most noise if you want it to advertise how great someone is and to declare it together as a group.
PJ: Tony, I had trouble with talking about coffee recently, but are you now telling me that a hymn is no more than an advertiser’s jingle?
TP: Well, some hymns—because not all hymns are necessarily ‘praise’. But what we’re doing when we call on each other to ‘praise the Lord’ is to tell the whole world in God’s presence—or to tell God in everyone else’s presence—just how extraordinary God is. And we do this so that his glory, his brilliance and his reputation is burnished and made famous before everybody—that everybody gets to see and acknowledge how great this God is because of how many wonderful things he’s done. And that’s what praise is. And yet, because that word has shifted so much, when we hear the word ‘praise’ we really can’t think of anything else apart from singing, and especially singing that’s directed to God as a devotional, affectionate, heart-level kind of response. So we end up misreading the word ‘praise’ when we see it in the Bible.
PJ: You’re saying both of those examples are actually using Bible words unbiblically. Are they both lost? Is the shift so great that it’s silly to try and fight against that now, and we need just different words?
TP: I suspect so. This brings us to: what should we do about all this? The fact that it’s normal for language to shift and change is not evil in itself, but it then results in our language ceasing to communicate what is really going on in the Bible’s teaching. It presents us with a challenge, and we could probably say especially for our translators, doesn’t it?
PJ: Absolutely, yes. And we need to pray for translators and encourage and help them in the real difficulty of precision in understanding Greek and Hebrew. And this is the harder part—they also need precision in understanding where modern English is moving. J.B. Phillips did a great translation because he was a journalist who knew how English functioned. But you need to be experts in both those things to give a good translation.
TP: And although in one sense, in our modern world, we have all kinds of access to generate and distribute translations, it’s also still difficult to get a new translation actually published and widely used because you’re going to have to sell that Bible to a lot of people. And if you produce a Bible that no longer uses the word ‘church’, there will be a whole lot of people saying, “I don’t want that Bible. I want a good, proper Bible that uses the word ‘church’.”
PJ: And a Bible translation that has no commonalities in church is a dud. What I have to do each time I’m going to preach somewhere is to ask them which translation they’re using, so that I can preach on the translation they’re using, rather than my preferred translation.
TP: Yes. So we must pray for our translators. But I think we also need to prioritize and invest in good theological education that includes training in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew.
PJ: Yes indeed. And that’s one of the great joys of working in association with Moore College. There are other Christian colleges now which have diminished their emphasis on Greek and Hebrew, especially some liberal colleges, because they’re not as concerned with the original meaning of the Scriptures as they are with the meaning each person individually wants to draw from Scriptures. You can get degrees in theology from major universities, especially in Britain, without actually studying Greek or Hebrew. Well, that’s appalling from a Christian viewpoint.
TP: It is. We need at least one person in every congregation, God willing, who knows those original languages and who has the diligence and curiosity to keep asking, “What’s going on in the text?” We need teachers who don’t necessarily accept the existing translation and are willing to find different words or ways to better explain the text to the congregation.
So what would we want to say to those people who don’t know Greek and Hebrew? How can they approach this issue of English words in the Bible?
PJ: Well, in your reading, you need to read a modern English translation. But when it comes to theological disputes, when it comes to a matter of challenging ideas, you need access to one of the less readable but more careful translations which tells you more about what was in the original text. It also means calling upon your pastor to explain to you what the Greek and Hebrew was trying to say, and what the translator was trying to express, so that you don’t hang your theological hat on a particular word from a modern translation, which actually may not be in the text at all; it might be one of those added English words that have smoothed the sentence, because you can never get a perfect correlation between one language and another language.
TP: So Philip, in conclusion we would like to say that because the Bible is so important, because it is the living, active Word of God, and because it directs our lives and teaches and correct and reproves and trains us, we want to keep working hard at what the words and the sentences in the Bible mean. And in order to do that, we just need to keep reading well, and that will inevitably involve, to some degree, getting in touch with what the original languages mean and making sure that the words we’re using in English mean what the Bible words meant.