Friday, July 22, 2011

RKIA's Guide to Reading the Bible... part 8



Don’t assume you know what a word means in English. English is a very complicated language. Still, English speakers are always telling everyone in the world what things mean, even if we don’t know that we don’t know what our own language means. “Why,” you may ask “is this at all important in understanding the Bible?” Since around 1600 when all those swashbuckling heroes like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Pocahontas and Errol Flynn sailed throughout the world making the world English, the English language has been the language of evangelization. Wherever an Englishman buckled his swash, it seems he left a copy of the King James Bible in his hotel room. Thus, the assumptions and errors of English speaking people have become the errors and assumptions of much of the Christian world.

The English language belongs to the Anglo-Frisian sub-group of the West Germanic branch of the Germanic language family. If it were just Anglo-Frisian that would be fine, but it seems that at one time everyone in the neighborhood wanted to invade England. I suppose it had something to do with the lovely climate and the wonderful cuisine. The Celts lived there at the time of Christ, and then came the Romans, then those pesky Anglo-Frisians, after them came the Norwegian and Danish speaking Vikings. Then more Latin came with Christian missionaries and then more Vikings who spoke French and finally a smidgen of Greek during the Renaissance. Finally, in the USA we have such all-American words as taco, pizza, canoe, rodeo, boondocks and schmooze. English never met a language that it didn’t want to absorb.

We have grafted words from everywhere onto our Anglo-Frisian grammar, so that everything has five different names, as seen above: cuisine, a fancy-schmantzy French word for food. Because English is so malleable (a fancy-schmantzy Latin word for changeable) the meanings of words change constantly. When I was a boy in a former century, “cool” had to do with the weather and “gay” referred to Paris in the 1890's. Who knows what they will mean in another 20 or 30 years? The mind boggles. This is why I want to fall on the floor howling with laughter when someone asks me for the best translation of the Bible.

The big words in Catholicism are still in Greek: Eucharist, Baptism, Pentecost, Liturgy, Canon, Ecclessial, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, Chrism, Monk, Martyr, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Apocalypse and almost all the other names of books in the Bible. Bible, too, for that matter. They are all Greek words.

For instance we all know what the Bible is, right? As mentioned, it’s that big book on the coffee table. Nope. It’s a Greek word that means “Books.” Apocalypse. We all know what that means. It’s the Beast and Armageddon and the rapture and people running around screaming and lots of cheap made for TV movies, right? Nope. “Apocalypse” means “unveiling” and for Greek speaking Jews it often referred to a wedding. (Certainly, I have known some marriages that were apocalyptic in the modern sense, with the running around and the screaming, but that is not what is meant here.) We assume that we know what words mean and we don’t. We know what we use them for now, not what they meant in their historical context. Reading an ancient text as if it were a TV Guide is called “anachronism.” You guessed it, a Greek word meaning “up (or out) of proper time.”

There are three words that you need to know in Greek in order to even begin to make sense out of the New Testament. One is “apostle” which we have never bothered to translate from Greek, “The Twelve” an Anglo-Frisian phrase (in Greek “hoi Dodeka”) and the third “disciple,” a Latin word. We assume that all three have the same meaning, The Twelve, Apostles, Disciples, it’s all the same thing, right? Nope. Three different words, three different meanings, three different groups of people, which overlapped.

By the by, you need to know that Greek did the same thing that English does. It makes verbs (action words) into nouns (persons, places and things). We bus people in a bus to a school where we school them in the English language. Don’t pretend to be confused. You actually talk this way if you speak English.

Back to apostle. In Greek, it is both a verb and a noun. It means missionary, or better still delegate, or in Anglo-Frisian, “someone sent out with the right to tell you how to do things.” The noun apostle (a delegate, or one sent out) appears about 80 times in the New Testament. As a verb (“to delegate” or to “send out”) it appears about 125 times. The word disciple means “student” and it appears about 216 times. The phrase “the twelve” appears around 24 times, but "twelve apostles" appears only four times and "twelve disciples" appears only twice. (BOY, THIS IS SURE BORING AND POINTLESS!!!) Hold on a minute! It’s not boring if you really want to understand the Bible.

Disciples, Apostles and The Twelve were not all the same people. The three words denote increasingly exclusive categories. Jesus had lots of disciples. The Bible talks of his appearing to “more than 500 of the brethren at one time.” (1Cor:15,6) So Jesus had lots of students. He sent some of them out. (In Greek, He “apostled” them) “And when it was day he called His disciples to Himself and chose twelve whom also he named apostles.” (Luke 6:13)

There were also a lot more apostles than just twelve. “After these things the Lord appointed seventy others and sent (“apostled” or “delegated” same word in Greek) them in pairs before Him into every city and place where He Himself would come.” (Luke 10:1)

So, you have hundreds of disciples, but maybe less than 100 delegated missionaries and among them an inner circle of twelve, appropriately called “The Twelve.” By the way, Twelve was an important number in Hebrew, it denoted the governing authority. Twelve tribes, twelve patriarchs, twelve judges etc. So you have a governing nucleus of twelve in the Bible. This is important because it clears up a lot of problems. Everybody talks about the “twelve apostles.” The Bible almost never called them the “twelve apostles” it just calls them “The Twelve.” There were lots of apostles, but only twelve of The Twelve.

It’s clear that Jesus established leadership and structure in the Church. Have you ever wondered how Paul got to be an apostle? He was not one of the original twelve. It’s simple. He was an apostle because Jesus delegated him on the Damascus road. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was an apostle. If you don’t understand this you might end up thinking that Paul and the leadership of the Church didn’t get along. He always seems to be at odds with the apostles, especially James. He had no problem with Peter and John and the other members of the Twelve, but he certainly took issue with self appointed delegates, and the James he is at odds with is not the Apostle James who died in 44AD, but James the Brother of the Lord, who seems to have been the leader of the Jerusalem Church and its very kosher conservative adherents.

When you understand who’s who you begin to realize that the books and letters of the New Testament were written in a very human context, a struggle about the nature of the Church and her leadership. God did amazing things with a crew of schlubs who are not unlike us.

You also have another group, a much more irritating group, called the “Desposyne.” You don’t hear much about them and with good reason. We’ll talk about them later.




  1. I had to find an appropriate quote to use as a response for this one. A little poking around turned up this one, thanks to

    "We should have a great fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves." ~John Locke

    There are a lot of cases where the original names used had significant meaning, and this meaning is totally lost on modern readers. Any relatively recent printing of the Bible is going to be littered with footnotes that explain these plays-on-words. I'm unaware of any translations that explain the alternate meanings of terms like the ones you reference, though.

    Sometimes, knowing the cultural references is absolutely vital to understanding. I came across an example of this recently while reading "Don Quixote of la Mancha": in the first chapter, the author mentions that the village priest has "degrees in Siguenza".

    Now, this meant nothing to me the first time I read it; this time, I'm reading a version that has footnotes, and the note basically explains that this 'university' is something that was subject to ridicule at the time -- essentially, the town priest went to community college. This totally changes the perceptions of later events, where they show the priest as the most learned person present.

    To get back on topic, a true understanding of scripture requires some idea of the culture and circumstances under which each book was written. Clearing up the issue with disciples/apostles/the Twelve almost begs for a Venn diagram.

    Or a pie chart.

  2. Hello Fr. Simon-
    My name is Kelly Kracht and I work for the Maximus Group, a Catholic marketing and communication agency in Atlanta, GA. We are helping to promote The Mighty Macs movie- and are reaching out to Catholic bloggers across the US, inviting them to special pre-screenings (view trailer here: ). We have a screening in Skokie, IL and I would love to invite you, however I don't have your email address so that I can send you the e-vite? Please email me at, with your location as well so that I know which screening to invite you to.

    Thank you and God Bless,
    Kelly Kracht