One of the most ambiguous words used by believers and atheists alike is when they say they are taking the Bible “literally.” It is ambiguous because of the underlying assumptions people make about the biblical translations. Word meanings can change over centuries and sometimes over decades. We can think of words, such as “gay,” which have changed in meaning in our lifetimes. Sometimes believers get confused by the meaning of Bible words in the King James Version. Skeptics especially like to criticize anatomical Bible words for being inaccurate.
At one extreme, some Bible fundamentalists insist that the King James Version was given by direct revelation from God to the translators in 1611, and that it is 100% correct. There are massive difficulties with that view. There are both translation mistakes and antiquated vocabulary in the KJV. Many words used in the KJV have gone out of use or have different meanings today.
A translation error we have mentioned before is in Genesis 6 where nephilim is translated “giant.” That mistranslation was a carryover from the earlier Latin Vulgate translation. In the Vulgate, the Latin scholars translated nephilim as gigantus which means “giant.” The KJV translators didn’t go back to the true meaning of the word nephilim which is “fallen ones.” The Hebrew word nephilim is derived from naphal which means to fall, fall away, or be cast down.
At the other extreme, atheists, skeptics, and biblical minimalists have claimed that the Bible is full of errors. They say that anatomical Bible words show a lack of understanding of basic science. The Hebrew word for kidneys is kelayot and it was used by the ancients in the sense of “mind” or “interior self.” We find it used eleven times in the Old Testament in reference to humans. In the KJV it is usually translated “reins.” We all know that the kidneys filter our blood and remove wastes, but the Bible never identifies the kidneys with that function. In Job 19:27 kelayot is translated “heart” or “mind” in most translations. In Proverbs 23:16 most translations read “innermost being.”
So does this mean that the Bible is not the word of God because our creator should have understood that kidneys are not the seat of our inner self? We believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. We have stated before that we must understand the Bible literally. To take it literally means to look at who wrote the passage, to whom it was written, why it was written, and how the people of the day in which it was written would have understood it.
The biblical passages we have referred to were written to common people in an ancient time in words that they could understand. If they could not understand it, they would never have passed it on to us. Our knowledge of human anatomy is far beyond that of the ancients. We can understand what the Bible is saying and so could those who lived in ancient times. The Bible is God’s word for all time, not just today. We will continue with more on anatomical Bible words tomorrow.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2018