Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Queen and her Diamond Jubilee

Etymology has to do with the origins of words, their historic roots and their development. All words have roots but the meaning of a word is not determined by its root but rather by its use. Language is a living thing and words change their meaning over time. It is sometimes the way of Bible students to refer to a Hebrew or Greek word and then redefine its meaning so that it reflects the original roots of the word. This is an area where a little learning can truly be a dangerous thing. Words don't just have roots, they have histories and histories change the way a word is used and consequently its meaning.

I was thinking about this over the last few days when in the UK we have been taken up with the affairs of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. That phrase shows how the history of a word can change its meaning. The word 'jubilee' has Hebrew roots. In fact, it has to do with the blowing of trumpets and was originally an event which took place every 50 years when debts were cancelled and slaves were set free. So a 60 year, diamond jubilee is an idea that cannot be re-attached to its Hebrew roots. The phrase has other problems, the Anglo-Saxon word 'cwen' which is the root of our word 'queen' actually means the 'wife of a king'. This is beginning to get complicated because the current United Kingdom 'queen' is not the 'wife of a king'. We cannot interpret the phrase 'Queen's Diamond Jubilee' just by referring to the roots of the words, we have to take into account the passing of centuries, remembering that 'words have histories'.

It works in the opposite direction too. When we read the Bible we need to guard against the danger of importing the modern usage of a word back into a Bible passage. Let me illustrate briefly. The word 'guilt' has now come to mean 'shame'. So when we read of 'guilt' in the scriptures we need to remind ourselves that it is not referring to a feeling but to the verdict of a judge. Biblically, to be guilty is to have come under the judge's condemnation, our feelings have no relevance in the matter.

So how can we guard against the twin dangers of going too far back to a word's root or going too far forward to the modern usage of a word? Simply by saturating ourselves in the context of the word as we find it in the scriptures. Remembering that the meaning of a word is determined by its usage, not its original or contemporary meaning but its historical usage. Of course all this takes time and patience, high cost values in an age of quick-fixes and sound-bites. But there is no other alternative, in studying the Bible we have to invest to profit.

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