Guilt by Pronunciation: How the quirks of language can waylay unsuspecting Bible students

The Apostle Paul wrote,

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:8 KJV

What a curious thing to say. Paul wants Jesus to eat us all!

No, really. It says so right there.

Wait. That’s not what Paul meant, you say?

Well, of course not. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s easy to see that the original intent isn’t what it seems to be in plain English, so we know that Paul was using an expression that just didn’t translate well. With a little thought, we can work out that he actually meant “with the heart/affection of Jesus”.

Every language uses metaphors and colloquialisms that can be difficult to translate. In the case of Philippians 1:8, the King James translators used English words that people of the 17th century were likely to understand, but that have changed meaning over the centuries or fallen out of usage altogether. The result is very strange and startling to modern ears. Fortunately, it’s so odd that very few people will take it literally.

However, there are a number of similar mistakes that people commonly make either because they are not considering potential problems with translation or because they are unfamiliar with the historical realities of how languages, culture, and expression change over time.

Cognates and False Cognates

Let me give you two examples of bad interpretation resulting from a failure to understand history and language that remain bizarrely persistent despite obvious problems.

If you’ve ever studied another language, you have probably encountered the term cognate, which means a word that sounds the same or very similar to a word with the same meaning in another language. Here are a few examples:

  • English “music” – Russian “muzika”
  • English “perfect” – Spanish “perfecto”
  • English “sabbath” – Lithuanian “sabatas”

Cognates are very common among languages within the same family. Russian, Spanish, English, and Lithuanian all descend from a single, ancient language that linguists call Indo-European because it is the ancestor of languages that are spoken today from India to Europe and everywhere that those people have migrated. There are many language families in the world. You can get an overview of the topic here: https://infogalactic.com/info/List_of_language_families.

Even worse, some words in the same language can have the same sound or spelling, but still have different meanings or linguistic origins. Consider the English word “ball”.

  • Ball – An air-filled sphere used as a toy or as an integral part of a sport.
  • Ball – A party characterized by formal dress and dancing.

Without more information, the meaning of even a simple sentence like “Let’s go to the ball.” is ambiguous.

One language can also have words that sound similar to words in other languages, but have completely different meanings or descend from different original words. These are called false cognates, and they can be very tricky for students. Languages in the same family frequently have false cognates (Carpeta doesn’t mean carpet in Spanish. It means folder or binder.), but they can also occur in languages from different families, like English and Hebrew.

  • English “show” – Japanese “sho“, which means document.
  • English “data” – Portuguese “data“, which means calendar date.
  • English “offer” – Swedish “offer“, which means victim.

I’m sure you can see how all of this might be very confusing for someone who isn’t fluent in both languages. Frequently, a little knowledge can get people into trouble in this respect.

God vs Gad

Another good example that I see on social media all the time is the English word “god” and the Hebrew word “gad“. They sound the same and are even spelled the same (gd) if you use Hebrew characters instead of English, because Hebrew doesn’t use vowels. The English word is a generic noun we use to refer to any deity, while the Hebrew has several possible meanings.

One of the Sons of Israel was named Gad. Translators disagree about what his name means because there are at least three Hebrew words that are spelled and pronounced in the exact same way. They variously mean “fortune”, “troop” or “crowd”, and “coriander”. So was Gad named Fortune, Troop, or Coriander? We can probably eliminate Coriander, but translators disagree about whether his name means troop or fortune.

To complicate matters even further, many ancient cultures had gods of fortune or prosperity, and Isaiah 65:11 contains a reference to such a deity that went by the name Gad, literally the god of fortune.

This seems like a pretty minor issue, until you learn that some people believe we shouldn’t call YHWH “God” because we are commanded not to call on the names of false gods. If they are right, then we might be guilty of idolatry (at worst) or disrespect (at best) by referring to YHWH as “God.”

Here is where an awareness of history, linguistics, and common sense comes in very handy. If there is a real historic or linguistic connection between the Hebrew Gad and the English God, then we should seriously consider this objection. If there isn’t, then it’s safe to dismiss it as nonsense.

Gad – All three Hebrew words come from a common Hebrew root verb (gadad) that means to cut or furrow. The derivation probably came from one of three possible implications of cutting:

  1. Almost all wealth ultimately comes from the ground, whether it be through farming, ranching, or mining. All of which involve cutting or furrowing the ground to get something valuable out of it.
  2. Uncovering a hidden treasure requires digging, cutting, or breaking something to get to it.
  3. Wresting wealth from someone else’s control requires force, which usually involves a troop with weapons designed for cutting or piercing.
  4. There is no real doubt among linguists that the word gad is native to Semitic languages and probably wasn’t adopted from some other language family. In other words, the Hebrews didn’t borrow the word from the Germans or their ancestors.

God – According to etymonline.com, the English word god has remained unchanged in meaning for at least 1500 years, but comes from a Proto-German word that probably meant “that which is invoked” or from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant “poured out”. In either case, it is definitely of Indo-European origin, and not Semitic. In other words, the proto-Germanic people didn’t borrow the word from the Hebrews.

Here are the possible connections:

  • They sound alike…but that’s not really a connection since both words have ancient, unrelated roots in different language families.
  • Isaiah 65:11 mentions setting a table for “Gad” and filling cups for the God of Destiny, and a possible Proto-Indo-European root for “god” might have something to do with pouring stuff. However, the god associated with pouring drinks in Isaiah is Destiny, which, in Hebrew, is meni not gad.

Seems pretty weak to me.

The Hebrew word is a common noun that was expanded to a title (god of fortune), that was then shortened again to be used as a proper noun (Gad/Fortune). Misuse of the word gad doesn’t make it pagan anymore than the words sun and moon, both of which have had their associated deities. If we had a god of fortune and over many centuries came to call it simply “Fortune”, that wouldn’t make the word “fortune” pagan. It would only make pagan those people who worshiped fortune as if it could be a god, when in fact, the true God really is a fortune in almost every sense of the word.

We can’t abandon every word simply because some group of pagans might have once slapped it onto an imaginary being.

As I hope you see, the connection between “gad” and “god” is so extremely tenuous that I think it’s safe to say there is no connection there at all. Gad and god are merely false cognates, words from different languages that sound the same, but aren’t.

Jesus Doesn’t Come from Zeus

There are many, many other examples of mistaking false cognates for true ones.

For example, some people claim that the name Jesus is derived from Zeus (as in Yay-Zeus or something like that), despite it being spelled and pronounced very differently. The Hebrew name Yeshua was commonly transliterated into Greek as Iesous (Iesou plus the masculine ending -s) long before Jesus/Yeshua was born. Being a transliterated Hebrew name, and not a translation at all, it is meaningless in Greek, so claiming that it means “healing Zeus” or “hail Zeus” is pure fantasy, as every scholar of ancient Greek will attest.

Be Skeptical of Theological Claims Based on Spelling or Pronunciation

I could give you more examples, but I hope this is sufficient to demonstrate that similar sounding words in different languages don’t necessarily share any meaning or history. Whenever you encounter theological claims based on the spelling or pronunciation of English words, be very skeptical. The English language didn’t even exist until many centuries after the last book of the Bible was written, and the Old Testament was written in languages that aren’t even in the same linguistic family tree as English.

When in doubt on any similar kind of question, check with a reputable linguist and historian, not with a theologian or blogger, not even one who wrote a book or two. Especially don’t rely on the claims of social media denizens.

In the meantime, don’t stress about it. Focus on what’s clear and important first. Worry about obscure questions and gray areas more after you’ve mastered love and mercy.

—— Back to Common Sense Bible Study home page ——

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