Monday, February 28, 2011


A few years ago I was having a theological discussion with a friend of mine. He was really impressed that the English word son and sun were homophones. It really appealed to him that Christ, the son, brought light into the world and Sol, the sun, also brought light to the world. Now I realize that this wasn’t the format for textual criticism so I just bit my tongue. I was tempted to point out that the significance of his revelation only applied to English. I didn’t know for sure but I was pretty sure that son and sun were not homophones in the original Greek or Hebrew. If this doctrine were so profound why would it be left for only those who spoke English to understand? But it wasn’t my job to take the air out of his sails. So, I just listened patiently and encouraged him to continue his studies.

Yesterday at church I had a similar tongue-biting experience. In Sunday School we were discussing the New Testament and somehow we started talking about the words thee, thou and thine. For quite a while we talked about the importance of using these words when we are talking about deity. Begin tongue biting. Personally I think this type of language says more about England at the time King James version was translated than it does about anything contemporary to Jesus. But I continued to listen.

Then the discussion centered on the fact that thee, thou and thine were more familiar and casual forms of the more formal pronouns for you and your. More tongue biting. One member of the audience even challenged that claim, saying that the instructor had it backwards. Thee was the more formal not you. But he stood his ground and correctly stuck to his point that thee was the familiar form and you the formal.

Then two other members of the class shared personal experiences about the formal and familiar tenses in different languages. And how when they learned the different language they were trained to use the familiar forms when referencing deity, in Spanish and Portuguese just like King James’s contemporaries did with English.

One good thing about have a wife that is so understanding of my condition is that I can quietly vent a little bit to her rather that completely sever my tongue. So I asked her, “Does anybody here know if the original Greek or Hebrew had rank distinctions like Old English, Spanish or Portuguese?” My point was the same as my point to my friend a few years ago. If we were to be having this lesson in the language the original text was written in would there be a distinction at all? It was my suspicion that we were spending valuable lesson time discussion the particulars of doctrine on a subject that quite possibly was just an artifact of translation. Until somebody could verify that Greek and Hebrew had rank distinctions in their pronouns we were just wasting time.

So once I got home I turned to the interwebs and the Google helped me answer my questions in only a few minutes. The instructor was correct. Thou, thee and thine are the familiar form and not the causal form.

“Following a process found in other Indo-European languages, thou was later used to express intimacy, familiarity, or even disrespect, while another pronoun, you, the oblique/objective form of ye, was used for formal circumstances.”

And, as I suspected, Greek and Hebrew do not even have rank distinctions in their pronouns.

“Emphasis in biblical languages was on the noun, subject, or name, whether referring to God, man, a spiritual being, or an inanimate object. There were not two or three sets of pronouns used: for example, one to convey the significance of God's name and another when referring to Abraham. Hebrew and Greek do have pronouns that distinguish between singular and plural and between subject pronouns (referring to the one performing the action of the verb); and object pronouns (the one receiving the action of the verb or joined with a preposition); but they are used without any reference to rank. In Biblical Hebrew and Greek pronouns were a matter of precision not piety.”

I guess what concerns me about issues like this is that it distracts from time that we could be using to discuss truly important things. Rather than talking about how we can help other in the congregation we were nit-picking over our choice of pronouns.

As soon as church was over we loaded up the truck and headed up to visit my new nephew and his parents. He’s still in the NICU since he was born rather small. It was inspiring to see this tiny little soul struggling to survive and seeing his parents do everything they can to help him get started right in this world in spite of his bumpy landing. I really enjoyed the time spent with him, his parents, and the nurses showing him so much love in his first week of life. The drive home gave me pause and really got me thinking about what it means to be spiritual.


  1. Reminds me of a woman I saw on TV once who said (about one of those stupid making-English-official debates), "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

    Kills me every time.

  2. Thank you for the post. We should be more thoughtful in the way we speak.

    So what does it mean to be spiritual?