~ INTRODUCTION ~
Exploring Bible Language
Alan and Margaret Fowler
Understanding Bible Language
Three important endowments distinguish humans from the animals:
- Humans can think outside of themselves; they are self-conscious, seeing themselves as part of a larger creation. This means they are also God-conscious, feeling themselves under the influence of unseen forces.
- Humans can think outside the present time. They are aware of the past and can anticipate the future. As a result, they can consciously learn lessons from the past and deliberately plan for the future.
- Humans can express their thoughts in language and this provides a vehicle for thought. “Thought, in the sense of understanding, is helpless without words—it can’t get moving.”1 Because language is the vehicle of thought, it is clearly the most important of the qualities that distinguish humans from beasts.
Although apes can be taught to recognize and respond to more than twenty words, there is no evidence that they can use these words to construct sentences. Many attempts have been made to get chimpanzees to talk but reported instances of language are found to be no more than elaborate tricks for obtaining rewards. Language is unique to humans. “Man’s vocal organs, lungs and brains are pre-set to cope with the intricacies of speech in much the same way that monkeys are pre-set to climb trees and bats to squeak.”1Douglas Spanner, Biblical Creation and the Theory of Evolution (Paternoster Press, Exeter), p. 63.
Language can be recorded visually in the form of writing. Writing has the advantage over speech in that thoughts (facts, opinions, instructions, etc.) can be stored for future use either by the writer or by other people. Through the written word people are able to accumulate huge deposits of knowledge in libraries. This means that they are able to advance their knowledge by building on the experience of past generations. Learning from the past is a tool to shape the future. The Bible is essentially a library of divinely inspired knowledge and wisdom recorded for the guidance of present and future generations. It is the glory of kings to search out this storehouse of divine wisdom (Prov 25:2).
Bible truths were expressed in the language of the time. Although guided by the Spirit of God, authors of the Bible spoke and wrote in the language of their hearers. Otherwise, how could the message be understood by their contemporaries? Our first task in the search for Bible truth is to find the most reliable copies of the original writings. We must then determine what the authors meant by what they wrote. It would be wrong to assume that even if we had an exact copy of what was written we should automatically understand what the writer intended to convey.
What does it really mean?
The Gospel of John reveals how easily language can be misunderstood. The words of Jesus were repeatedly misinterpreted by both friend and foe. Here are some examples:
John 2:19-21: Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews think he is referring to the temple building but he is, of course, speaking of the temple of his body.
John 3:1-10: Jesus tells Nicodemus, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus replies, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for his lack of understanding: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
John 4:10–14: Jesus tells the woman at the well that he could give her living water. She replies, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.” Jesus explains that he is talking about a quality of life.
John 6:51–57: Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” The Jews retort, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus later explains that he was using spiritual language and that the literal flesh profits nothing (v. 63).
John 8:21–30: Jesus says, “I am going away…. Where I am going you cannot come.” The Jews think he is talking of suicide, whereas he is speaking of his eventual ascension into heaven.
John 11:11–14: Jesus says concerning the dead Lazarus, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” The disciples say, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Then Jesus speaks plainly, “Lazarus has died.”
John 16:16-29: Jesus says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” The disciples are baffled by this language so Jesus explains that he is referring to the Holy Spirit which he will give them after he has gone away. The disciples then exclaim with relief, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech!”2The KJV has ‘proverb’ where the ESV uses “figurative speech”. The Greek word is paroimia (literally, ‘aside from the way’ or unusual). It is used only in John 10:6, John 16:25 and 29 and 2 Peter 2:22. The paroimiai or sayings of John’s gospel must be distinguished from parables and allegories. In the New Testament a parable, from the Greek parabolē (lit., ‘placing beside’), is a story with a hidden meaning whereas allegory, from the Greek allēgoreō (lit. ‘I speak otherwise’), is history with a hidden meaning, as in Galatians 4:24.
John 21:22–23: Jesus continues to speak cryptically right up to the end. When Peter asks Jesus about John, Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” The disciples think this means that John would not die but later they will know that Jesus was probably referring to the revelation which he gave John on the Isle of Patmos.
The above examples show that although they heard the actual words of Jesus, both his friends and foes often misunderstood what he meant. We should not be surprised that those who read the Bible two thousand years later may have similar problems.
Four Causes of Misunderstanding Today
The fact of reading rather than hearing the words does nothing to diminish the problem; in some ways it increases the difficulties. According to Bacon, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man and writing an exact man.” But paradoxically, although a writer will know exactly what he means, the reader can easily misunderstand. There are four principal reasons for this:
- Words may have more than one meaning and their meanings can change with the passage of time.
- All languages use figures of speech which may easily be misunderstood.
- Writing may be used in different styles and structures, namely prose, poetry and drama. A recognition of the category may be needed to understand the meaning.
- The fundamentals of the original Bible languages are very different from English, making accurate translation difficult: in particular, verb forms may have more than one meaning.
Four Principles of Interpretation
In seeking to understand the language of the Bible there are four possible lines of approach:
- take every word at its face value, i.e. literally;
- accept the interpretation of an authority, e.g., a theologian or Church;
- seek prayerfully for divine guidance; and
- adopt the principle that the Bible interprets itself.
These different approaches are not mutually exclusive but, because of human fallibility, only the fourth is totally reliable.
Taking all parts of the Bible literally cannot be right, as shown in examples from the Gospel of John. Most of the book of Revelation is symbolic, and much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and abounds in figurative language. Bible exposition is often marred by a failure to appreciate that its language is not always plain. The language of the Bible is often very complex and makes demands on our understanding. The Bible is true but it is not always literally true. Taking the Bible literally in all its parts shows no understanding of the subtlety of Bible language and no respect for Bible truth.
To leave the interpretation of Scripture to the experts or defer to the authority of a particular church is an easy option that appeals to many, but it is problematic. If we believe that the Bible is the word of God then we need to be very cautious in accepting the authority of any human institution. So doing risks allowing fallible human judgment to usurp divine authority. Churches often interpret the Bible differently in spite of each claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Four Categories of Translation
- Interlinear or word for word, as in the New Testament Emphatic Diaglott;
- Formal equivalence using the grammar and idioms of the original, as in the KJV;
- Dynamic equivalence using the grammar and idiom of the receptor language, as in most modern English versions; and
- Paraphrase with added explanation, as in the Good News Translation or The Message.
Each type of translation has strengths and weaknesses, of which Bible students need to be aware.
The Bible Interprets Itself
Since we cannot be sure that any human interpretation is correct we must give priority to the principle that the Bible interprets itself.
If the Bible is wholly inspired and infallible it cannot contradict itself and must be consistent in all its parts. Referring to the Old Testament, Peter says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). And Jesus promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things (John 14:26). Since the whole Bible was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we should expect to find harmony between all parts of Scripture. So, the best way to understand a difficult word or passage will be by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
To compare Scripture with Scripture we must first look at the context. This may be a paragraph, a chapter, or even several chapters. In many cases this will provide enough clues to determine the meaning. But if there remains any doubt, we must then broaden our enquiry and examine how the same words or phrases are used in other parts of the same book of the Bible or in other books by the same author. Finally, our enquiry may involve investigation of teaching on the same subject in other parts of Scripture.
In a search for Bible truth we must not only seek to discover exactly what was originally written but must also humbly seek to understand the writer’s intention by comparing Scripture with Scripture and allowing the Bible to interpret itself.
Based on the Introduction to Exploring Bible Language
by the late Alan and Margaret Fowler
2020 Edition Available