Meaning, whether Biblical or extra-biblical, doesn’t derive from lexica and dictionaries, but from social systems.
Meaning found in the Bible, and meaning that God intended to communicate, seems to be the expertise of many an American homilist, preacher, catechist, teacher, and self-proclaimed apologist. But from where does each Scripture derive its meaning? To answer that, first ask—from where do the meanings realized in language originate?
Human beings are essentially social beings. Therefore, language must derive its meaning from the social system. Further, the meanings constitute the social system itself.
Do you want to be a respectful Bible reader? If so, you must ask a most important question—What social system or social meaning is being expressed in each text?
Meaning and Meaningful Reading
Who opens the Bible lacking a picture, an interpretation, an understanding of “the world” and how it works? We all have that, no? But think—is “the world” we imagine, interpret, and understand the world of Biblical peoples like Jesus?
More or less, we all know our “world.” And more or less, we all know how our “world” works. After all, we have been socialized and enculturated into this particular world. This is because our conditioning stems from 21st century, Euro-American understandings. Therefore we are familiar as to how “the world” works, and where everything and everyone within it fits, from this culturally specific consensus reality.
Imagine a person from our “world” socialized and enculturated this way and completely ignorant about the very different cultural world of the Scriptures. Say she picks up a Bible. Ethnocentric misreading inescapably results. The poor American reader won’t even suspect she is reading her own social system into the Gospels and other Scriptures. Almost certainly oblivious, she imagines that everyone everywhere at every time perceives, thinks, interprets and communicates just like we Westerners do.
When we look at language from the level of wordings, this should be obvious all the more. We emphasize words so much. But grammarians create words, all arbitrary and artificial, out of wordings so as to realize some meaning by them. We understand that these artificial and arbitrary creations act as labels in conveying meaning. By that I mean they mark off objects of social interest. Just keep in mind that the social system gives the labels the meanings they convey.
Words and Meaning
Take a moment to examine some Greek words.
Do you recognize any of them? Are they meaningful to you? Looks all Greek to you, huh? Each of these are said to figure prominently in Christianity. Versions of these terms are found throughout our New Testament. How about we render them into modern English alphabetic equivalents?
Does this rendering help make them more intelligible? Are they more recognizable? Are they more meaningful? Let’s go a step further…
Those familiar English words should be very meaningful to any English-speaking American Christian reading this. But we have a serious problem—how do we know they accurately translate the Greek? How do we know that the right meaning is being signified by way of our 21st century English words? It’s not just a matter of stepping outside the Greek-speaking world. We have also stepped out of the social system which gave the old Greek words their meanings!
As Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh says, whenever you move the language you necessarily change the meaning. Whether it be words or sentences, says Rohrbaugh, language only means what it means where and when you use it.
Meaning of Jesus H. Christ
What does “Christ” mean for us? For 21st century Westerners, not limited to only Christians, “Christ” is last name of Jesus of Nazareth! But for his first century Mediterranean followers, chrīstós (χριστός) was an attempt to translate into Greek an Israelite social role and political title, expressed in English as “messiah” from the Hebrew.
Things get trickier with understanding chrīstós, I’m afraid. If you asked two first century Israelites who or what the “messiah” was, you’d get at least three opinions. Other than having something to do with Israelite theocracy, no one was absolutely sure who or what the messiah was!
And yet whatever messiah meant, its meaning was bound to Israel. And that is why it is impossible to translate “messiah” and “chrīstós” adequately as all proposed social roles and job descriptions for it come exclusively from ancient Israelite society! Why would a non-Israelite care about an Israelite messiah, anyway? You should clearly see that this term has moved and its meaning has been changed.
Baptized by Meaning
English-speaking American Catholics understand “baptism” to be an initiation rite. Indeed, the word refers to one of three sacraments of initiation. But in our New Testament “baptisma” refers to dunking or dipping into a liquid. This is what John the Dunker (neither a “Baptist” nor a “Baptizer”) did to Israelites who approached him long ago. John’s dunking or dipping—not a mikveh and too early to be baptism—symbolized metanoia, that is, a transformation in how one thinks and feels about generally about life and how one relates to others in particular.
Meaning of Heaven Forbid
As we learned earlier, heaven cannot be found in Scripture, no matter how much your favorite English translations tell you it is. “Heaven” is perfectly fine for Catechisms and for Creeds, but never Bibles. In the New Testament, the Greek word “οὐρανός” botched and betrayed into the anachronism “heaven” literally means “sky vault” or “vaulted skies.” We see it in Greek plural form in this phrase (Matthew 6:9: en tois ouranois). Scholar John Pilch says this was probably influenced by the Hebrew šāmayim (or the Aramaic šĕmayin), which also mean “sky vaults.” However, most often the Greek is singular—ouranos.
See to us “heaven” means the “Beatific Vision”—an eternal relationship between God and the saved, not necessarily a physical place. But in the Bible, First and New Testaments, ouranos is very much a physical place, the divine realm where God and his fancy entourage dwells. You can never go wrong substituting “sky vault” or “sky vaults” when reading “heaven” in your Bible.
When we 21st century U.S. people really like famous people, we claim that they are loaded with “charism.” But in the Bible “chárisma” is the outcome of Mediterranean patronage. A client who has become kinified (made into fictive kin) is what one Mediterranean receives from a patron in typical Mediterranean patron-client relationships.
If you really want to understand “chárisma” in the Biblical sense, watch how interpersonal relationships work in the Godfather films.
When Americans think of an “apocalypse,” they tend to think about the stuff going on in Terminator movies, or the Omen films, or some kind of global disaster. In other words, for U.S. people, “apocalypse” means a story or vision concerning the end of the world.
But in stark contrast to those ideas, the biblical “apokálupsis” just means a revelation or a disclosure, something previously unknown now being made known.
As we saw earlier, despite the fact that so many Christians are preoccupied about the end of the world, there is no “end of the world” in the Bible. All such ideas are nowhere to be found in Scripture. Biblical peoples understood that the God of Israel, their patron, created the sky vaults and the earth. How can something created by God EVER pass away? Biblical peoples like Jesus (Matthew 5:18-19) and Qoheleth knew such a thing would be impossible. Therefore, “the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).
Meaning of Loyalty
Faith is a very important Christian concept. A beautiful systematic way of looking at Christian faith is as a gift from God by which I freely respond to the communication of divine life in Jesus Christ. 21st century Christian thinkers speak of faith in ways that are intellectual (illuminists like Augustine, Aquinas, and Lonergan), fiducial (the Reformers Luther and Calvin), and performative (activists and advocates like Dorothy Day and Dr. Cornel West).
But the Greek “pistis” means loyalty for the ingroup, the value of reliability in interpersonal relations. Biblical “faith” is all about the social glue that solidifies groups and families. Again, the Godfather Trilogy is helpful. Consider the various members of the Corleone Family, whether blood or fictive kin, and how loyalty plays a key role. Do that, and you will better grasp what Biblical “faith” is all about. It’s so far removed from American individualism!
Meaning of “He Hath Blasphemed!”
Don’t ever commit the sin of blasphemy! To us 21st century Christians, “blasphemy” can mean anything filthy we say about God. As the Universal Catechism says, number 2148—
[Blasphemy] consists in uttering against God—inwardly or outwardly—words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God … failing in respect toward him in one’s speech; in misusing God’s name.
But in the Mediterranean world of the Bible, “blάsphēmos” means to slander someone. It means to use words to dishonor someone. If you do that to Don Corleone, you get killed for that. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, all our God-talk is analogy; and all analogy is rooted in human experience. The social sciences add to this truism—all human experience is culturally specific. Therefore, all Biblical God-talk is culturally specific anthropopathic anthropomorphism.
Meaning Sowing the Seeds of Love
Love makes the world go round, yes? And God is love (1 John 4:8), correct?
But which cultural “world” are we talking about? What does Biblical agάpē mean anyway? For that matter, what do other Greek “loves”— éros, philía, philautia, storgē, and xenia—mean?
Often when Christians ponder these things, they turn to the British elite, C. S. Lewis and his 1960 book, “The Four Loves.” Big mistake!—here’s an elite early 20th century Brit commenting through a Christian lens 2,000 years thick from as much theological freight about elite Athenian philosophers and their understandings which guaranteed were remote from Galilean Jesus, Paul, or the writer we call “John.”
Put simply, whenever you find any of the so-called “Greek loves” throughout the Bible, it means “ingroup glue.” It’s group-bonding. Biblically “to love” means “to attach.” And this corresponds with Biblical hatred—“to detach.” Feelings are irrelevant—they may or may not be attached to Biblical “love.”
Meaning Behind the Anointing Oil
This Lent and Easter Confirmations are being celebrated already. Chrism for 21st century Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican Christians means sacred oil used for this purpose. But in the Mediterranean world of the Bible, “chrîsma” meant olive oil used for massages and various rub-downs. Do you see the massive changes at work in this and the other words?
Lord, Give Us Eyes that SEE!
Many U.S. Christians read their Bibles believing in the nonsense of “Immaculate Perception” and presuming that everyone everywhere at every time is human in the identical ways they have been taught to be human. Being oblivious to other social forms, of different cultures and different times and places, how could you escape from these errors?
So these 21st century Christians commit blunder upon blunder, distortion after distortion, with disastrous results. Thus when they get informed by their gospel translation what Jesus says about marriage and divorce, it should be obvious that these readers will clearly and surely refer those statements to American marriage and divorce experienced by many in our society. And it will be the same when they read about Jesus talking about taxes, or forgiveness, or God as “daddy,” or how the family should be, or what “brothers” mean, and what “loving enemies” means.
So do you really want to respect Jesus and the Biblical authors? Do you really desire to be fair with them? And do you seek to be honest with the persons to whom these authors keep referring? If so, you must grapple. You must commit effort in order to learn about their “world”—their culture. In that case, it will be necessary to learn about the social forms realized through their language. Otherwise, you’ll never grasp the meanings they tried ardently to impart!