There is a wonderful example of how the way things are written can affect understanding in the July 2018 issue of Reader’s Digest (page 48). The story is that a professor wrote the following sentence on the blackboard: “Woman without her man is nothing.” He then asked each person in the class to rewrite the sentence with correct punctuation. The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” The women wrote: “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.” It is obvious that punctuation causes misunderstandings!
When one reads the Bible in English, the same problem occurs. The original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible were written in a completely different way from modern English. The original documents usually have no punctuation and sometimes not even spaces between words. This is rarely an issue for someone simply trying to understand the basic message, but when people start digging into questions that are technical in nature, it can become an issue.
An example of this is Genesis 1:1-2a. In the King James Bible, there is no punctuation. The Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible reads “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth– the earth hath existed waste and void.” In my studies with Jewish scholars, I was told that the understanding of this in their tradition is that God created the Earth and heavens and the earth became wasted and chaotic.
None of this has much to do with the basic message of the Bible. However, when you compare the scientific evidence with the biblical account, it is important to know how the people of Moses’ day would have understood the words. Sometimes modern punctuation causes misunderstandings of the account which conflict with the evidence of science.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
One of the problems both skeptics and believers have to deal with is the meaning of words. Words have different meanings depending on where you live and when you live. The phrase “he is gay” has a whole different meaning today than when I was in high school in 1955.
The July issue of Reader’s Digest carried an article about the differences in English word usage and meanings in today’s America. The magazine gave examples of words that mean different things in different geographic locations.
There are also different words used for the same thing in different parts of the country. While in some areas the phrase is “you all” in the south it is more commonly “y’all, ” and in Pennsylvania, it’s “yinz.” In the west, it’s called a drinking fountain, while easterners tend to call it a water fountain, and in Wisconsin, it’s a bubbler. In the west, they are fireflies while in the east and south they are lightning bugs. While in other areas of the country they may be traffic circles or roundabouts, in Massachusetts they are rotaries. In some areas it’s soda, and in others it’s pop. There are many other differences, but you get the idea.
Can you imagine the trouble we have in trying to understanding the full meaning of the Hebrew or Greek words of the Bible texts? It reminds us that when we are dealing with Scripture, we need to consider some important things. We must keep in mind who wrote it, to whom it was written, why it was written, and how the people of that time and place would have understood it. Failing to consider those things has caused many misunderstandings.
Here is one final thing to consider. Not only does the meaning of words and the words we use vary, but also the way we pronounce them can be different. How many syllables do you think there are in the word caramel?
–John N. Clayton © 2017