Fickleness of Language

Navigating the Bible can be confusing at times. Understanding the very nature of human language can help to clear up some of the confusion.
Navigating the Bible can be confusing at times. Understanding the very nature of human language can help to clear up some of the confusion.

Recently I’ve been delving into alleged “mistakes” in the Bible. There is a lot to say on this subject, but I’d like today just to throw a few thoughts into the ring.

In considering whether a Bible passage has made a “mistake”, it is crucial to understand what we mean exactly by “mistake”. Language is used in so many different ways, and it is by no means exact in the same sense that the language of mathematics may be said to be exact.

If I propose, for example, that E=mc2, I am proposing something that is quite unambiguous. I have defined exactly what I mean by each of the symbols. For example, I have defined mass as being that particular property of a thing that allows it to be acted upon by forces like gravity. I would have a clear distinction in my mind between the concepts of mass and weight, the weight being of course the force exerted by gravity on the mass: proportional to it, but not identical to it. I would also know exactly what the ‘square’ symbol means – to multiply the preceding pronumeral by itself, to do so once and only once. I know that it means that the ‘c’ is squared, but not the adjacent ‘m’, according to a convention where in the absence of brackets, you square only the one pronumeral. And so on; it is a brief yet incredibly precise statement that leaves no room for misinterpretation, given modern mathematical conventions.

But how precise is a sentence like “And she brought forth her firstborn Son” Luke 2:7?  What does the language tell us, and what does it leave open to interpretation? There are of course some implications that no one would object to, such as:

 

  • Mary was the biological mother of Jesus.
  • Jesus was the first child to be born of Mary.

 

Then there are some points that we could be reasonably confident about:

 

  • Mary gave birth to Jesus in a natural way (not by a miracle – He didn’t suddenly appear outside her body without passing through the birth canal).

 

Then there is speculation:

 

  • Since the text uses “firstborn”, this implies that there must also have been a second at least, and possibly more children born of Mary in later years.

 

This last assumption is of course the source of debate between those Christians who believe in the perpetual virginity of St Mary and those who believe that Jesus had biological brothers. The debate remains inconclusive (in the sense that neither side has convinced the other) partly because the actual text leaves the issue open. In fact, “firstborn” refers only to what came before, not to what came after. A firstborn son may just as easily remain an only son.

This imprecise nature of human language becomes a more pressing problem when we are faced with what may appear to be an outright mistake in the Bible. Here is an example, quoted on a popular atheist website:

 

Matt 4:8: ” Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” Unless the world is flat, altitude simply will not help you see all the kingdoms of the earth.

Source: http://www.freethoughtdebater.com/tenbiblecontradictions.htm

 

What has the critic done here? They have read the text in one, narrow way, and then used that reading to show that the author believed in a flat earth. The implication is obvious: the author of this was backward and just plain wrong about the world; people who still believe in it today are the same.

But let’s go back to the text. Is there anything there that narrows the meaning to necessarily imply that if one went to the top of a mountain high enough, one would naturally see all the kingdoms of the world? In fact, it is easy to apply a number of alternative readings. For example:

 

  • The devil took Jesus up onto the high mountain for effect, not for a vantage point. Everyone knows that things look tiny when seen from a distance – that is not impressive! The top of a mountain was more likely chosen for a sense of height and loftiness that might inspire Jesus to desire greatness.
  • If the devil showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world in a vision, or described them with words, then in fact, he could just as well have shown them anywhere, even in a cave.
  • If we take the word ‘all’ literally, then “All the kingdoms of the world” must necessarily mean all kingdoms, not only in geography, but in time as well. Thus, the devil must have shown him kingdoms long gone, and more importantly, great kingdoms yet to be. Being on a mountain top will not help you see into the depths of time – no one has ever thought that. Therefore, the vision of the kingdoms was a supernatural one, not a natural one.

 

The point of the author is not to illustrate how far you can see from the top of the highest mountain. To focus on that aspect of what he wrote is to completely miss his point, which means, unfortunately, to make your argument unworthy of serious attention. The point was that the devil lay before Christ the temptation of great power. It does not matter whether he offered him absolutely every single kingdom from the dawn of time to the end, or if he merely offered Him a selection of the top five only. It does not matter whether he included in the deal only royal monarchies, or whether he also included democratic oligarchies, dictatorial theocracies and any other form of political system. One might just as well point out that since he only said “kingdoms of the world”, he was unaware that any other political systems existed and was thus painfully backward and just plain wrong.

But language is not meant to be treated this way. When we read a passage, any passage, Biblical or otherwise, our purpose is to understand the message the author wants to communicate to us. Human thought is so rich and variegated that using language well is considered not a science, but an art. Meaning cannot be tied down as precisely as a physical concept like the equivalence of energy and mass so simply expressed in Einstein’s iconic equation above. Nor would we want it to.

The critic of the passage above is nit picking, plain and simple. That’s a great way to go if you don’t care about knowing the truth about things.

Fr Ant

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One Reply to “Fickleness of Language”

  1. Great article Abouna!

    One thing that comes to my mind about this point is when Jesus on the cross said to John the beloved to take St Mary as his Mother. This stands out to me that St Mary had only one Son that died on the cross.

    25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” 27 Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. John 19:25-27

    I have a question similar to this issue, but very trivial compared to the perpetual virginity of St Mary. In the bible does the “Red Sea” really mean the Sea was Red? Cause I heard it was actually a “mistake” and it should be the “Reed Sea” or “Sea of Reeds”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_Sea

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