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What the Bible says about Semantic Drift
(From Forerunner Commentary)

It is common knowledge that the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was published in 1611—six years shy of 400 years ago. Since that time, the English language has accumulated hundreds of thousands of new words, and word meanings have shifted (technically called "semantic drift"), in some cases drastically. The KJV contains many instances of this, for example:

» apprehend = lay hold of (Philippians 3:12)

» careful = anxious (Philippians 4:6) or worried (Luke 10:41)

» charity = love (I Corinthians 13)

» consolation = encouragement (Acts 4:36)

» conversation = conduct (Philippians 1:27) or citizenship (Philippians 3:20)

» lust = desire (Exodus 15:9; James 1:14)

» superstitious = religious (Acts 17:22)

This is not to bash the KJV but simply to explain that, since English has evolved over the past four centuries, we need to be careful to understand the true meaning behind the English words. This means that we have to ascertain the author's intended meaning, not the translators' meaning, of a scripture. Most of the time, the difference is not critical, but sometimes it can make a huge difference—creating doctrinal error.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
'Perfect In His Generations'

Related Topics: Semantic Drift


 

Acts 17:22

If we read between the lines, Paul may be saying, "You people are better than I am in your devotion to spiritual things."

Instead of "religious," the King James Version uses the word "superstitious," which has undergone what linguists call "semantic drift." In Shakespeare's day and King James' time, this word did not have the negative association as it has now.

From the context of the account in Acts 17, it becomes quite clear that the apostle Paul was not, as some Protestant theologians like to characterize him, a feisty, wrangling, argumentative hothead. If that were the case, the philosophers of Athens, who vastly outnumbered him, could have made short work out of this smart aleck. Obviously, from their attention to his speech, they did not think of him this way.

David F. Maas
Godly Tact and Diplomacy

Acts 17:22

If we were to read between the lines, Paul might be saying, "You Athenians are to be commended for your devotion to spiritual things." The King James' rendering of "religious" as "superstitious" exposes the latter word as having undergone what linguists call semantic drift. In Shakespeare's day and King James' time, this word did not have the negative connotation as it does now.

From the context of this account, it is plain that the apostle Paul was not, as some theologians like to characterize him, a feisty, wrangling, argumentative hothead. The men of Athens, who vastly outnumbered Paul and loved a good philosophical debate, could have made short work out of any know-it-all smart aleck. The apostle Paul was thus lavish in his compliments.

Throughout his ministry, he frequently resorted to diplomatic language. At one point, he acknowledged a cultural debt both to the Greeks and to barbarians (Romans 1:14). In addition to complimenting strangers, Paul continually sought out similarities he shared between him and other groups. In a conflict in which both the Sadducees and the Pharisees were breathing fire down his neck, Paul masterfully ingratiated himself to the Pharisees, reminding them that he and they shared the same view on the resurrection (Acts 23:6-8). Paul, to the right people, let it be known that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-39; 22:25-29).

We also need to find common ground, not only with people in the other groups of the church of God, but with the world at large, emphasizing (like mountains) the things we agree upon and de-emphasizing (like molehills) the things we disagree upon.

In the process of finding common ground, we dare not compromise our core values or syncretize them with the world. We should instead practice more of what one late church of God minister counseled, "You don't have to tell all you know." Oftentimes, keeping our traps shut is the most diplomatic behavior of all (Ecclesiastes 3:7; Lamentations 3:28-29; Amos 5:13).

David F. Maas
How to Conduct Ourselves as Ambassadors for Christ

2 Timothy 3:16

Is this verse to be taken literally, or as many Bible critics allege, could the inspired Word of God—the Holy Bible—contain discrepancies? Can we find conflicts within the books of the Bible's many authors, or is there a consensus of truth and inspiration that transcends all other written works?

To the nonbeliever, the Bible is full of contradiction and error, but this opinion is predictable, coming from one who lacks the guidance and direction of the sacred book's Divine Author, our great God. But by the same token, the Bible is not an easy book to read and understand (see Acts 8:30-31). Even for the elect of God, there are difficult passages that at first read may seem to conflict with others.

While there are various contributing factors, most alleged biblical discrepancies are likely the result of two factors: 1) spiritual confusion and misunderstanding, and 2) honest misinterpretation.

In light of this, how should Christians deal with these so-called “inconsistencies” of Scripture so as to avoid the dangerous traps that any resulting misconception may produce? How do we ensure that we can provide a “ready answer” (I Peter 3:15) to those who may inquire?

First, consider the most common contributing factors that may confuse and obscure our understanding of the most important Book ever written:

1. There are vast, fundamental contrasts between the cultures and dialects of the modern West and those of the ancient Middle East. These contrasts add a layer of difficulty and uncertainty to prevailing translations from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages.

Consider also that the Bible was written by over thirty different Middle-Eastern authors over a span approaching two thousand years. Some wrote prose, while others wrote poetry. God inspired some to describe visions of the future, while He moved others to write more historical narratives. Some authors, like the apostle Paul, created accounts that even the apostle Peter found nearly impenetrable (II Peter 3:16). Moreover, since languages are constantly evolving, many words tend to change meaning and usage over time, while others virtually disappear from the lexicon altogether.

2. God's truth is often paradoxical (Ecclesiastes 7:15; 8:17; Psalm 73:1-16). While God reveals Himself and His truth in His Word (Daniel 2:22; Job 12:22), He also actively conceals Himself and His truth as well (Proverbs 25:2; Job 36:26). With focused effort, almost anyone can learn about God from the Scriptures, but in His wisdom, He places restrictions on what He allows to be revealed, sometimes masking His truth through the use of parables (Job 11:7; Romans 11:33; II Thessalonians 2:11; Mark 4:11-12, 33-34). Regardless of individual effort, faith, or closeness with God, there are certain mysteries that—by design—remain unexplained for now (Deuteronomy 29:29).

3. Satanic influence and human nature have exploited the inherent biblical complexities to prompt translator bias, transcription error, and even not a few perplexing and confusing translations.

While God inspired Scripture to both reveal and conceal in accordance with His will, Satan, in concert with human nature, has always worked in direct opposition (Romans 8:7; II Corinthians 4:4; Matthew 13:19-22; Ephesians 4:18; II Thessalonians 2:9-10). We should never underestimate our evil adversary's desire to influence the Bible's many translators, “inspiring” transcription inaccuracies, ambiguity, and obscurity wherever possible (II Corinthians 3:14-15; Revelation 12:9; Mark 4:15).

As Christians, we are tasked with gaining a deeper understanding of God through the study of His inspired Scriptures. This requires great faith and personal effort to dig far beyond the superficial meanings of translated words and phrases, and with the aid of divine revelation, to discover the genuine intentions of the divine Author. By recognizing that difficulties do exist, and by anticipating the satanic effort to exploit those difficulties, we can hope to avoid the pitfalls caused by misconception and poor translation (II Timothy 3:16; Romans 15:4; I Corinthians 10:11).

Martin G. Collins
Does the Bible Contain Discrepancies?


 




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