Sunday, March 22, 2015

If it doesn't make sense it may be a euphemism!

 Two challenges for Bible readers and translators are idioms and euphemisms.

An idiom is a word or group of words that cannot be understood by their literal meanings.

The Bible contains a number of idioms and when we encounter them, if we are paying attention, we will realize that what we read simply didn’t make sense. I will discuss idioms in a future blog, but for now consider what a person from another culture with a different language would think of he or she was charged with the task of translating the following idioms (underlined) without know they are idioms:

(1) If that happens, I will eat my hat.
(2) I got it straight from the horse's mouth.
(3) I'll do it when the cows come home.
(4) You really put your foot in your mouth this time.
(5) It's raining cats and dogs outside.

If the translator simply used the literal translations of the underlined words their readers would have some strange images popping up in their minds, but they wouldn’t have a clue as to what the original author meant.

A euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.  

An example of a common American euphemism is - "I'm going to powder my nose." Just like with idioms you can’t use the literal meanings of the words of euphemisms.  Obviously, the literal meanings of the words powder and nose have anything to do what the euphemism means.

English translators of the Hebrew Scriptures often use euphemisms instead of literally translating the Hebrew word below:

It is called the tetragrammaton which means the four letters, which are transliterated “YHVH” and translated as “Yahweh.” A popular euphemism for the above name in English translations is “LORD.”  Notice that it is written with all capital letters. Readers of these translations encounter the following words in their Bible -- LORD, Lord and lord.  I would wager that many fail to even notice the differences between them. The English word “lord” has the following definition -- a person who has authority, control, or power over others; a master, chief, or ruler.[i]

Obviously, the above definition doesn’t apply when the word is used as a euphemism because of the second word in the definition – “person.” Yahweh is a god, not a person. Keep in mind that the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t come with an attached New Testament and the earliest manuscripts of New Testaments books were written in Greek. In those manuscripts we find a Greek word that is translated “lord” and it means the same thing as the English definition above.

Some English translations made by Jewish translators avoided the confusion created by using the word “LORD” by using the following euphemisms:

(1) G-d
(2) HaShem (The Name)
(3) The Power
(4) Heaven
(5) The Holy One
(6) The Most High
(7) The Blessed One

In the New Testament we find one of the above euphemisms embedded in the Greek text. It is strong evidence that the words were originally spoken in Hebrew, but later translated in Greek. The word I am referring to is “Heaven.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3)

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)

Many theological debates have taken place over the meanings of the two underlined phrases. When we recognize that “Heaven” in this context is a euphemism we realize they mean the same thing. The question often asked is – why are they different? The answer appears to be that the text with the euphemism was meant for a Jewish audience, while the text with the word “God” was meant for a non-Jewish audience.

Whenever you read your Bible don’t turn off your mind – be alert for things that simply do not make sense in English. Chances are you may have discovered a euphemism or idiom. Do a little digging in footnotes or online and chances are you may discover what it meant to the ancient author.

Jim Myers

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