Thursday, May 20, 2010

Word Games

Have you ever had a discussion about the Bible with an avowed skeptic? I have had more than my fair share. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked about Cain’s wife. One of the common arguments I have encountered (Maybe it isn’t really common. Maybe it just gets sprung on me a lot.) is that the Bible is mistaken scientifically because it says that Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish,” in one passage – and by a “whale” in another. Whales aren’t fish therefore the Bible is wrong. That’s pretty much how the argument goes.

I usually explain – if the person is sincere and not just being a wiseacre – that the New Testament Greek word is κῆτος (kētos). This word was adapted by Latin and Latinized as cetus. The scientific names that animals and plants are given are Latin. The scientific name for the order of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises is Cetacea. Critics of the Bible err when they cite this as mistake in the Bible. It is important to point out that both the Greek kētos and the Latin cetus were broader terms than our modern scheme for naming and classifying animals. The word kētos was applicable and acuurate to describe any large sea creature. We must never reply that people in Biblical times didn’t know that whales are mammals. The skeptic would simply point out that the Bible is supposed to be divinely inspired. If God inspired it, then He is mistaken about whales.

I can endure this sort of faulty reason from unbelievers. One cannot expect them to be aware or conversant with Bible languages. But I can’t endure this sort of logic when it is used by so-called Christians!

Throughout my childhood (I grew up in a Pentecostal church) I heard countless references to ‘Holy Ghost power.” If was not uncommon to hear that the Greek word for power is δύναμις (dunamis). This word is the source of our English word dynamite. It was then inferred that when the Spirit’s power was moving in our midst (whatever that’s supposed to mean), it would be explosive.

But this is the same mistake as the one about κῆτος. Dunamis was used long before dynamite. Dynamite derives its meaning from dunamis, not the other way around. Cetacea derives its meaning from κῆτος, not the other way around.

I propose a rule for preachers and teachers: If you are not fluent in the Biblical languages, don’t make pretensions of knowledge about them. Don’t do word studies and don’t try to explain the shades of meaning and nuances. If you don’t know what you’re talking about then don’t talk about it. 

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