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Three (Specific) Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Typically on these lists I’ve addressed concepts and categories instead of actual Hebrew and Greek words from the Bible. This blog is meant for public consumption, so I rarely delve into scholarly minutiae. But here are some specific words from well-known biblical texts that are begging to be revisited and reconsidered.

Luke 2:7: The Greek word kataluma doesn’t mean “inn”

We’ll start with this one since it’s not particularly controversial, though it has the potential to completely transform the way we read Luke’s nativity story. The familiar reading sees Mary and Joseph turned away by an innkeeper with no vacancies, forced to birth their baby in a filthy barn among the livestock. While this is a suitably ironic and dramatic setting for such an important event, it also strikes us as a tad melodramatic and harsh. Were first century Judeans really so cruel as to force a pregnant women to deliver in a pigsty?

The word kataluma doesn’t connote an inn or public place of lodging, instead it refers to the “upper room” within a family home where guests stay and share meals with their hosts. This is the same word which describes the room where Jesus and his followers celebrated the “Last Supper” (see Mark 14:14).

In this clarified reading of the story, Joseph returns to Bethlehem to find his family home full of visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins in town for the census and holiday. The kataluma is already at capacity. His family doesn’t toss Joseph and Mary out back in the barn to fend for themselves, rather they invite them into the main living quarters of the home, where the host family resides and where the spotless sacrificial animals are kept and cared for, and where stone hewn mangers are carved into the very structure of the house. The context and circumstance of Jesus’ birth were indeed humble, but he was actually born in a place of relative honor and comfort, according to Luke. It is not difficult to see the theological implications of what the gospel writer is doing here.

Isaiah 7:14: The Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean “virgin”

Now things get a little more dicey. Christian apologists will deny and fight this one until their last breath, but it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 does not refer to a virgin but simply a young woman of childbearing age. In the specific context of Isaiah, the prophet is clearly forecasting the natural birth of a child in his own immediate future. The point of the verse is not the mother or the birth but the child that will be born, and he will be a king who will defeat the Assyrians (7:20). That king was born, and his name was Hezekiah.

When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in the third or second century B.C.E., almah was approximated with the Greek parthenos, which does not necessarily refer to a sexually pure virgin, but usually refers to a young, unmarried girl. By the first century C.E., the Jewish authors of the New Testament were using that Greek translation (called the Septuagint) as their primary scriptural source, and the writer of Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 as one of five Hebrew Bible “fulfillments” in the early life of Jesus. This point is this: Isaiah once said that a parthenos would give birth to a savior child, and it is happening again.

People often misunderstand what I’m arguing here. This discussion has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin or whether the author of Matthew is “wrong.” The point is that Isaiah 7 was never about a miraculous virgin birth in its original setting. Matthew performs a hermeneutical maneuver (band name!) based on a reading of the Septuagint to compose Jesus’ origin story. I assume that this author understands perfectly well what is really going on in Isaiah, and exploits parthenos as a license to draw a connection between two stories about two kings.

(SIDE NOTE: You’ll notice that conservative and complementarian Bible translations like ESV make a point to always translate almah as virgin in the Old Testament, which sometimes results in creepy renderings of verses like Proverbs 30:19.)

Romans 3:25: The Greek word hilasterion doesn’t mean “propitiation”

“Propitiation” refers to the appeasing of an angry deity by means of sacrifice or ritual. Blood is spilled or life is taken, and the wrath of the god(s) is satisfied or abated. The King James Bible translated the Greek hilasterion as simply “propitiation,” which rendered Romans 3:25 as “Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” This verse, more than any other passage in the New Testament, became the “smoking gun” for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which understands Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice which appeased the wrath of God, if only for those who will believe in it as such.

But the word hilasterion, admittedly difficult to define succinctly, has more to do with “expiation” than “propitiation.” Both concepts deal with the problem of humanity, sin, and God, but while propitiation refers to a godward flow of appeasement and sacrifice, expiation connotes an outpouring of forgiveness and pardon from God to humanity. It has to do with the removal of guilt and the application of mercy rather than the satisfaction of a divine bloodthirst. In the Greek text of the Torah, hilasterion is the name of the “mercy seat,” the footstool of God (and the “lid” of the ark of the covenant) from which God dispensed forgiveness and blessing.

Given all of this and the greater context of Romans 3, it seems that the cross (for Paul) is not the place where God’s wrath is poured out on the innocent Jesus, but rather the place where God’s mercy confronts and forgives human sin and evil. It is precisely by absorbing wrath, not dispensing it, that God’s mercy is made known through the cross.


Three More Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

The response to my first “Bible words” post was quite positive, and so I offer this exciting sequel. Here are more words that have taken on new layers of meaning throughout the centuries and which may carry some unhelpful and counterproductive assumptions for many American Christians. Or, as in the case of our first word, we might have simply lost our view to the origins of an over-familiar term.

1. Christ

What We Hear: This is an example of a word that has taken on such a heavy load of theological meaning that its original setting is easily overlooked or forgotten. There are actually two extremes when it comes to a modern understanding of “Christ.” For most Christians, Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the object of Christian belief and worship. For others less familiar with Christianity, it might as well be Jesus’ last name: Jesus Christ, son of Joseph and Mary Christ, the Christs. The former is Christian doctrine, the latter is a misunderstanding. But the native context of the term “Christ” is not the Greek-influenced world of early Christian interpretation, but the Jewish world in which Jesus himself lived, operated, and died. “Christ” may now mean much more than it did in its ancient Jewish setting, but it can never meaning anything less. If we proclaim that Jesus is “the Christ,” we should probably do our homework and understand the term as fully as we can.  Continue reading


Three Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

OK, so the headline isn’t fair. More and more Christians are educating themselves in the origins and contexts of the Bible, and no one can pretend to have any special secret knowledge that isn’t readily available to anyone. At the same time, in mainstream American Christian culture, these words (and many more) are often locked into unhelpful, non-biblical settings that obscure their true depth of meaning. These concepts are long overdue for some clarification. This isn’t “everything you know is wrong!,” I simply offer a few educated considerations.

1. Angel

What We Hear: Thanks in large part to the imagination of medieval Europe, most people in the western world today envision angels as shimmering, winged Caucasians who live up in the clouds. When our English Bibles say, for example, that “an angel” or “the angel of the Lord” appears in a narrative, we immediately picture a flying Osmond in bleached robes. Some Christian traditions teach that there are classes of angels, like archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, each with different stations and privileges. Clarence Odbody, AS2.

But Consider This: The Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel” in our Bibles simply mean “messenger,” or “one who brings tidings.” In these texts, “angels” are just people, at least in appearance, and they are usually on a mission to deliver important news. These are the “men” who visit Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, or the messenger Gabriel who comes to Mary in Luke’s nativity. These angels are never said to have wings, and usually appear in broad daylight among people in the real world.

In quite a different category we have strange creatures like seraphs (beings made of flame), cherubs (winged lions), and various “beasts” which inhabit visions and apocalypses. These beings often have wings but are never called angels. Our inherited readings of the Bible have conflated both categories into a single race of heavenly sprites. In reality, they inhabit a wide range of meanings, contexts, and genres.

2. Satan

What We Hear: Satan, or the Devil, is the personal enemy of God, the supernatural lord of evil who rules over hell, thwarts God’s plans, and tempts boys and girls to sin so they won’t get into heaven. Many Christian traditions maintain that Satan was once an exalted angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven along with his legions of demons. Most people assume that this is part of the Bible’s storyline, but apart from a few possible cryptic references, it’s not actually there. It grew out of Jewish legends, literature like the Book of Enoch, and the biblical interpretations of church fathers like Origen.

But Consider This: “Satan” in the text of the Bible is never a proper name, but always a descriptive title with a definite article: “the satan” or “the accuser” in Hebrew, “the devil” or “the slanderer” in Greek. This label is applied to many things in many contexts. In the book of Job, the accuser is one of God’s heavenly employees whose job is to prosecute and torment humans. The satan only appears a couple more times in the Hebrew Bible, as in 1 Chronicles 21 where it’s a negative spiritual influence that causes King David to make an unwise decision. (Though in the alternate telling of the same story in 2 Samuel 24, it is God who incites David to make the same decision.)

In the New Testament, “the slanderer” appears to Jesus in his desert vision quest, tempting him to abandon his earthly ministry before it begins. Jesus calls one of his closest friends, Peter, a “satan” for doubting him. In the book of Revelation, the accuser is depicted as a great red dragon which corrupts and manipulates the Roman Empire until it is defeated and destroyed once and for all. In each of these different formats and contexts, the one thing connecting all depictions of “the satan” is a spirit of condemnation and shame. Whether the satan is a singular figure, a spiritual reality, or a state of mind, it always brings accusation and oppression. It is the opposite of mercy and forgiveness.

3. Apocalypse

What We Hear: The end of the world! An apocalypse, according to its modern usage, is a cataclysmic event that brings either society as we know it or the entirety of space-time to an end. Zombies, aliens, horsemen or climate change, something inevitable is coming and all we can do is hope to survive and be on the winning side when it’s all over. When it comes to the Bible, the apocalypse will be the holy war to end all holy wars, a series of trials and battles that are already preordained to the smallest detail. There is nothing we can do to stop it from coming, but we should still accuse everyone we don’t like of hastening its approach.

But Consider This: In biblical terms, an apocalypse isn’t an event but a type of text, a genre of literature. The word “apocalypse” means “hidden,” and these texts employ visual metaphors and poetic imagination to “reveal” the hidden spiritual reality behind an earthly crisis in the author’s own time. The first biblical apocalypses (eg. portions of Ezekiel and Daniel) emerge after Israel’s exile in Babylon and later Persia. Both of these cultures produced apocalypse-style texts, suggesting perhaps that Israel’s artists and prophets were subverting the cultures of their captors and adapting them for their own purposes. And those purposes, despite the connotation of “apocalypse” today, always involved bringing hope to a people in trouble.

We might think of apocalypses as the political cartoons of the ancient Near East. They are certainly more serious and consequential, but they function in a similar way. In Revelation, the only extended apocalypse in the New Testament, Rome is satirized as a monster and a whore, while Jesus is depicted as a slain lamb. The metaphors are mixed and the images are impossible, but the coded message of hope in the face of political turmoil would have been crystal clear to its original readers. None of this precludes apocalypses from being spiritually inspired or communicating timeless truths, but it does suggest that they are products of ancient historical crises and that they will always speak louder in those contexts than in our own. And when they do speak, their true voice is one of expectation and rescue, not inevitable doom.