Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Words with Double Meanings in the New Testament

The French have a word for this phenomenon: double-entendre or double-entente. It occurs when an author deliberately chooses a word for its ambiguity in which the word has a second meaning.1 Here is an example:

In Homer’s The Odyssey, when Odysseus is captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, he tells the Cyclops that his name is Oudeis (ουδεις = No-one). When Odysseus attacks the Cyclops later that night and stabs him in the eye, the Cyclops runs out of his cave, yelling to the other Cyclopes that "No-one has hurt me!", which leads the other Cyclopes to take no action under the assumption that Polyphemus blinded himself by accident, allowing Odysseus and his men to escape.2

In a double-entendre the word chosen by the writer constitutes a bit of word play, if you will. Usually, but not always, in the contemporary use of a double-entendre one of the words will have a frivolous or bawdry meaning.

            One can object, however, that the ambiguity creates the following problem: Has the writer deliberately intended a word play or has a creative reader invented a word play about which the writer would be surprised to learn? Not all readers catch-on to what other readers find to be a double-entendre. Usually, the biblical text is thought to be comprised of serious and straight forward language. Nevertheless, some have found double-entendres in the New Testament. Here is one example (Mark 8:14-21) where Jesus uses a word (ζυμη = leaven/yeast) with respect to the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15). Leaven was used both as a negative symbol for malice and evil as well as for sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:6-8). The disciples completely missed the word play and regarded it as a reference to the leavening agent in bread (Mark 8:15-16, 21). They heard yeast when Jesus was talking about malice and evil. The author Matthew makes the double-entendre even more clear (Matt 16:11-12).

            Another double-entendre occurs when Jesus speaks to a woman of Samaria by a well (John 4:4-26). Jesus asks her for a drink of water (John 4:7). She replies why are you a Jew asking me a Samaritan for a drink (and the narrator clarifies that Jews and Samaritans do not associate with one another, John 4:9)? Jesus offers her “living” water (John 4:10), which she persists in understanding as “well” water (John 4:11-12, 15). Even after Jesus explains he is talking about a different kind of “water” (John 4:13-14), she still does not get the word play (John 4:1). She thought he was talking about well water that one imbibes for physical life and Jesus meant a spiritual water that brought eternal life (John 4:14).3

A possible instance of a double-entendre may be concealed in Paul’s comment to an addressee in Phil 4:3. What is the name of the person to whom Paul refers (translated in virtually all translations) as his “genuine fellow of the yoke” or “yokefellow” (γνησιε συζυγε),4 from whom Paul is requesting help to settle a difference of opinion between two women (Euodia and Syntyche) in the community of Jesus followers at Philippi, a Roman colony.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, a genuine fellow of the yoke, to help these women who shared my struggles in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement, and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:2-3)

It seems odd that Paul would leave unnamed one he regards as a “genuine fellow of the yoke” in their common struggle for the success of the gospel, in a section where he names three other coworkers and he also insists that all his co-workers have their names inscribed in the book of life (Phil 4:2-3). The inference I draw from the image is that the addressee as “a genuine fellow of the yoke” (in the sense, perhaps, of Matthew 11:28-30 or 1 Clement 16:17) would understand the requirements of being yoked as part of a pair. Such a person would best be able to assist Euodia and Syntyche in resolving their differences.

            Many suspect that Paul did indeed name this figure in the very language he used, in what I am calling a double-entendre: συζυγε, = vocative form of Συζυγος, which many think may be the name of the man. His name is comprised of two Greek words: συν (with) + ζυγος (yoke), or “a person with the yoke.” His name (if indeed it is a name) would be Latinized in most translations as Syzygus. Many translators suspect this might be the case, and will add the name of Syzygus as an alternative translation in a note at the bottom of the page, even though the word has not yet been found as a proper name among the inscriptions.5

How do you read these passages? Are there yet other secrets to be uncovered from New Testament language? Bible translators are good honest folk, but the products they produce are no better than their skill, professional training, critical judgment, and that their subconscious agendas will allow.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hugh Holman and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature (6th ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1992), 147-48.


3Here are a few other passages that are generally thought to contain a deliberate play on words: Matt 16:18 (Peter/rock= Πετρος/πετρα); John 2:19-21; John 3:3-8 (ανωθεν = born from above/born anew); John 7:37-39.

4Sometimes the expression is translated as “yokefellow.” For example, in the New International Version, or “companion” in Ehrman, or “comrade” by Goodspeed. It is translated as Syzygus in Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, The New Testament in Contemporary Language (NAVPRESS, 1993).

5For a brief summary of critical thinking about the issue that hasn’t changed much since 1868, see J. B. Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (12th ed.; Lynn, MA: Hendrickson, 1981), 158-59.


Bill Y said...

Great post, Charlie.
You pointed out how Matthew makes sure the reader gets the double-meaning. It’s interesting that the referent Matthew supplies is “leaven = the teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees.”
Yet the preceding verses in Matthew 16 suggest that the leaven Jesus referenced was not the teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees but rather “leaven = their inability to discern the signs of the times.”
It’s worth pondering whether these two different significations of “leaven” that attached themselves to Jesus’ double-meaning reference may have come from two different Jesus communities: in one, the desideratum is discerning the times from what they see Jesus do; in the other, the desideratum is discerning the proper hermeneutical authority by understanding what they hear Jesus teach.
You illuminated this subject with Homer. Do NT scholars entertain the likelihood that Jesus’ use of double-entendres reflects similar rhetorical practices such as what we find in the OT prophets and poets and other Second Temple Jewish writers?

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill. I cannot answer the question. I do not recall ever reading the words double entendre in a commentary. And since most of my library was left in Springfield, I do not have the resources easily to pursue the question. This particular passage is plagued by the fact that Matt 16:2-3 is lacking in many manuscripts and Bruce Metzger says that "Most scholars regard the passage as a later insertion from a source similar to Lk 12:54-56. . ."A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed., 2000), 33.

Unknown said...

Thanks. Also: you mentioned access to your books. My retirement from teaching required me to shrink my personal library for lack of shelf space here at home. In the process of giving away books to local libraries I was not prepared for the emotional tug, as though I were saying goodbye to friends.

Anonymous said...

I had the same problem. It was for me a deeply troubling experience. I wrote a blog about it: "Dismantling a Scholar's Library," Oct 7, 2019.
See: blog.charleshedrick.com/2019/10/dismantling-scholars-library.html
I now find myself buying again some of what I left behind. We moved to a new city because of my wife's illness.