Monday, February 19, 2024

Euphemisms in the Bible?

Sometimes the biblical writers do not speak plainly and are less than “honest or frank in what they write.”1 Instead they will use a euphemism for certain body parts, acts, or ideas. A euphemism is: “The use of a word or phrase that is less expressive or direct, but considered less distasteful, less offensive than another.”2 The biblical writers, in some cases, tend to avoid the use of disagreeable, or what were considered offensive or “impolite” words or expressions.3 I have been aware of such being the case for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament since my seminary days, when it was pointed out that the expression “to cover one’s feet” (KJV, 1 Sam 24:3, Judg 3:24) was an euphemism for “relieving one’s self” (as it is translated in the RSV). Candidly, the expression means to urinate or defecate.

It turns out, however, that there are many expressions found to be euphemisms in the both Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament that are used to avoid speaking plainly. “Most of the euphemisms found in the HB/OT relate to three areas of common human experience: (1) death; (2) sexual activity and the organs associated with it; and (3) certain bodily functions,”4 whereas most “euphemisms in the NT have to do with sexual organs, sexual relations, or death.”5

The King James Version (KJV) generally translates the biblical euphemisms literally (what the text says). The New Revised Standard Version (RSV) generally translates biblical euphemisms by expressing the offensive idea concealed in the euphemism, but nevertheless translates them into an English euphemism. Here are examples of euphemisms in the NT for each of the categories: “see a man’s shame” (KJV) is an euphemism for “male genitalia” (NRSV, Rev 16:15), which itself is an English euphemism for penis and testicles; “the fruit of his loins” (KJV) is an euphemism for “put a descendent upon his throne” (NRSV, Acts 2:30), which itself is an English euphemism for seminal ejaculation and impregnation; “I do not know a man” is an euphemism for “I am a virgin” (NRSV, Luke 1:34), which itself is an English euphemism for not having had sexual intercourse; “give a wife due benevolence” (KJV) is an euphemism for “give a wife her conjugal rights” (NRSV, 1 Cor 7:3), which itself is an English euphemism for satisfy a wife sexually; “put off my tabernacle”(KJV) is an euphemism for “death” (NRSV, 2 Pet 1:14); “let your servant depart in peace” (KJV) is an euphemism for “dismiss your servant” (NRSV, Luke 2:29), which is an English euphemism for die (see Luke 2:26).

Euphemisms in the Bible are not exactly lies or untruths but they are clearly a softening of the truth in order to disguise what is considered distasteful, impolite, or offensive. They are not straight-forward, candid, or frank statements, which makes them something less than the “unvarnished” or complete truth. Their use by the writers of the Bible makes the Bible seem a more human product and little less a collection of texts divinely inspired. It hardly seems possible that the Almighty could be involved in a shading of the truth, as John (16:13; 17:17) and the psalmist (119:160) seemed to think—although the authors of First Kings (22:22-23) and Second Chronicles (18:21-22) appear to think differently. Go figure!

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s. v., “candid.”

2Ibid., s. v., “euphemism.”

3Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s. v., dysphemism: using “a disagreeable, offensive, or disparaging word or expression.”

4Here is a list of expressions considered to be euphemisms by a jointly authored essay: https://www.degruyter.com/database/EBR/entry/key_20138155-819d-446f-959d-d4e432296e9b/html?lang=en

5Ibid.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Challenge of the Proverb

Proverbs are traditional pithy sayings that briefly and memorably express some general truth about life in the world. Proverbs are distillations of community wisdom whose ideas have been hammered out of common human experience. One might think of it as a bit of homely wisdom that originates around some nameless person’s kitchen table and becomes part of community lore by oral transmission. It is a universal form emerging through the ages in various cultural contexts and languages. The Book of Proverbs in Hebrew Bible is an anthology of many such sayings.

            Here are a few American proverbs that I have learned somewhere along the way: “A stitch in time saves nine”; “The early bird gets the worm”; “Actions speak louder than words”; “Birds of a feather flock together”; “Better late than never.” One I quote to myself all the time is “Haste makes waste.” I am certain that the reader recognizes most, if not all, of these, and can easily add more to my short list.

The New Testament also has a few proverbs, but they are not necessarily traditional oral sayings that emerge out of the life of a people. In some cases, identifiable writers compose proverbs, such as George Bernard Shaw, Robert Frost, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Herman Melville, and others.1 Here are a few of the proverbs in the New Testament: Luke 4:23, Acts 17:28, Acts 26:14, 1 Cor 15:33, Titus 1:12. To these I would add Mark 2:21-22, Gal 6:7 (compare Prov 22:8). One must argue, however, for the position that these proverbs are traditional rather than having a known origin in a given author. Some of them come from ancient Greek poets. Other proverbs in the New Testament come from Hebrew Bible: Prov 11:31=I Pet 4:18; Prov 3:11-12=Heb 12:5-6; Prov 22:8 (Septuagint)=2 Cor 9:7; Prov 25:21=Rom 12:20.

Here are two traditional proverbs preserved in Luke 12:54-55. Luke has narrated them in a prose form: “He said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain’: and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’: and so it happens.”

Notice that both proverbs are not attributed to Jesus, but in the text of Luke’s gospel they are attributed to Luke’s character, Jesus, who in turn attributes the sayings to the crowds. In their present form they are neither pithy nor memorable, however. In a proverbial form they would have been orally repeated, I suppose, as something like: “Clouds in the west, rain comes on apace.” “South winds gust, heat scorches us.” So far as I know, however, these proverbs are not preserved in the literature in memorable forms. They are only preserved in these prose forms.

Matt 16:2-3 is similar to Luke 12:54-55:

[Jesus] answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.”2

Again, in the context Matthew’s Jesus takes it to be a traditional proverb by attributing it to the Pharisees and Sadducees as a group (Matt 16:1).

These verses are, however, a suspected interpolation into the text of Matthew.3 At least three modern translations of the Bible treat the saying as an interpolation and accordingly follow the lead of those ancient manuscripts that do not have the saying in the Gospel of Matthew (The Complete Bible. An American Translation; the translation of James Moffatt; and The Revised English Bible).

If there are traditional proverbs in the Bible (and there appear to be), it poses a problem for those who place such a high value on the biblical text by referring to it as “the Word of God.” Such an idea completely overlooks the human inspiration for proverbs and raises the question: Why should the traditional words of a given people, hammered out of their common sense and human experience, be regarded as divine words? The people that I know who use the expression, “the Bible is the Word of God,” do not regard that expression as metaphorical, rather they seem to regard it as literal.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proverb.

2Compare the modern proverb thought to be derived from Matt 16:2-3: “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.”

3See Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (Macmillan, 1993), 205, 344. For the reason see Bruce Metzgar, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed; United Bible Society, 2000), 33.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Once upon a time, a Man Became God

How in the world did that happen, do you suppose? Well, as with all good stories, there are several different accounts in the New Testament. The best known appears in two different versions (Matt 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-2:20).1 These narratives are blended and celebrated annually every December in Christian church and family settings. The narrative leads the reader to think that the God-Man (or man-God) was born naturally like all human children, as a flesh and blood child through the vaginal canal of his birth mother. The conception of the child by the birth-mother, however, is most unusual. Matthew says that the child’s mother conceived by a holy spirit (Matt 1:20) in fulfilment of Scripture. The child was to be called Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14), which Matthew interprets as “God with us” (Matt 1:23). Luke also describes the child’s conception through a holy spirit that “comes upon” the mother and a “power of the Most-High overshadowing her,” suggesting that conception occurs in fashion similar to human conceiving, by a spiritual sperm.2 This child, Luke opines, shall be holy and called a son of God (Luke 1:35).

            In John’s Gospel, there is a third version of the story in the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) for how a divine figure came to be man. The fragmentary narrative (John 1:1-2, 14) lacks in clarity. A figure, described as logos,3 who was from the primordial beginning alongside God and “what God was, the logos was.”4 Hence, the logos shared God’s essence, while being distinguishable from God (cf. Phil 2:6). In John 1:14 this spiritual figure “was made flesh” (cf. John 1:3).5 I take this to mean an incarnating or “enfleshing” of the logos in the sense of Phil 2:7: “taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in form as man…” How ever the author of the introductory poem to John may have conceived the event, it seems clear that conception and birth in the Matthaean and Lukan sense is not the process being described.

            A fourth version of the story appears in Rom 1:3-4 where God’s son is “born (genomenou) from the sperm (spermatos) of David according to the flesh,” and “appointed (oristhentos) son of God with power according to a spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” Jesus was a human being, a descendent of David, born of fleshly sperm, and was appointed, or declared, son of God by the spirit at his resurrection. His historical life was therefore not lived as the son of God. He was only advanced to that status at the end of his life at his resurrection.

            The early period of the Jesus movements was one of speculation about the identity and nature of Jesus. The historical matrix providing the spark that led toward the regarding of Jesus as son of God was plausibly the influx of gentiles into the gatherings of the Jesus followers.6 The cessation of early speculation about the nature of Jesus, which effectively weeded out other views and resulted in the dominance of the stories of Matthew/Luke, was occasioned by the early confessions of the church in the fourth century and at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth,7 where Jesus was acclaimed as “very God and very man.” That declaration by the council is an uneasy solution, since it is challenged by other views reflected in the early Jesus gatherings and preserved in biblical texts. So, What is your thinking was Jesus a God-man or a man-God?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1They are not contradictory narratives but just completely different, but they both agree in the birthing process.

2See Charles W. Hedrick, “Early Christian Confessions and the Language of Faith,” The Fourth R 52.1 (January-February 2019): 15-20; idem, “How Do Divine Beings Procreate,” The Fourth R 36.6 (November-December 2023): 18-19.

3Logos is a central term in classical Greek culture. Its range of meaning in English is generally covered by two different ideas: speech and reason. See the entry logos in Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed. Oxford: University Press, 1999), 882. And the discussion by Ernst Haenchen, John 1. A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6 (Robert W. Funk, trans. and ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 135-40.

4Here is the translation of John 1:1-2 in the Revised English Bible: “In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was the Word was.” It is at once as much an interpretation as a translation.

5See Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed. revised; Chicago: University, 2000), 196-99, taking ginomai in the sense of Bauer-Danker’s second entry rather than the fifth.

6Hedrick, “Early Christian Confessions,” 13-20.

7Hedrick, “Early Christian Confessions,” 17, 20.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Religion

A Christmas Miracle?

Christmas Day,

In the roadway,

I found a Lincoln cent

That failed to glint,

because it was chocolate brown,

Not copper red, but color of the ground.

“See,” said I, “It’s a penny.”

My daughter agreed with me.

But on coming home

The penny had metamorphosed;

Not a cent, as we supposed.

It was a dime,

Colored by dirt and grime.

Can it really be,

Like a rock into a tree,

That with a little time,

A red cent became a brown dime?

Why not,

I thought.

It happened once before,

In days of yore.

A man became God.

How odd!

For the last several years on my daily walking route of 2.5 miles, I have been writing a hasty rhyme each time I found a coin in order to commemorate the finding. I recently self-published a modest volume of these rhymes for the family.* They are not serious poetry, but aim at being whimsical. The above rhyme, however, neither made the book nor aims at whimsicality. It falls somewhere between simple rhyme and poem that takes aim at saying something serious about religion in rhythm and rhyme.

            Writing whimsical rhymes is something to do and it keeps my mind active, through what has been a difficult year.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*For other coin rhymes, see Charles W. Hedrick, Lost Legal Tender in the Streets: Ditties, Rhymes, Whimsical Verse (Storyworth; 2023).