A Misunderstood Hebrew Idiom
by Christine Egbert
Modern English is filled with idioms: eat your heart out, kill time, blow your mind, punch the clock, crash! These are all easily understood expressions by our contemporaries. But for those for whom English is a second language, these simple idioms would require some explaining. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines an idiom as: an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.
Now imagine the confusion these simple phrases could lead to if read by not only someone of another language but from another century. Try two thousand years! Yet this is the challenge faced by English speaking Christians living in the 21 Century. Only in arrogance (or simple ignorance) can one assume to properly understand the Holy Scriptures apart from studying the language it was originally written in, including its idioms. Serious Bible students should also add a study of the history and culture of the time in which the Bible was written.
Wikipedia says this: There exist in the Hebrew language numerous idiomatic terms that do not translate easily into more widely used languages. To the extent those broader cultures rely for cultural meaning on Hebrew-language-based scriptures, those idioms sometimes prove puzzling.
Biblical scholar David Bivin gives some examples of difficult Hebrew idioms: “be’arba enayim, literally ‘with four eyes,’ means face to face without the presence of a third person, as in, ‘The two men met with four eyes.’ [The term] lo dubim ve lo ya’ar is literally ‘[There are] neither bears nor forest,’ but means that something is completely false. And taman et yado batsalahat, ‘buried his hand in the dish,’ means that someone idles away his time.”
Ancient Israelites studied TORAH believing it led to reverence, and reverence to obedience. So with that thought in mind, let’s examine one of the New Testament’s most misunderstood Hebrew idioms. Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”
Rabbinic scholars of the first Century, including Yeshua, used “destroy” and “fulfill” as technical terms when arguing a point. If a Rabbi thought one of his colleagues had misinterpreted a passage of Scripture, he would accuse him of “destroying the Law and the Prophets!” Conversely, to fulfill the Scriptures meant to interpret it correctly.
Below is an excerpt from Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by biblical scholar and member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research David Bivin and by Dr. Roy Blizzard. Dr. Blizzard studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the summer of 1966, and excavated a Philistine Temple at Tel Qasile in 1973, and at the Temple Mount in 1968, 70 &71. He has, among many other scholastic achievements, directed numerous Historical and archaeological study seminars to Israel.
In the excerpt below Blizzard interprets Matthew 5:17-18 in light of the first century idioms used by Yeshua
“Never imagine for a moment that I intend to abrogate the Law by misinterpreting it. My intent is not to weaken or negate the Law, but by properly interpreting Yahweh’s written Word, I aim to establish it, that is, make it even more lasting. I would never invalidate the Law by effectively removing something from it through misinterpretation. Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than something from the Law. Not the smallest letter in the alphabet, the jot or yod, nor even its decorative spur, the tittle, will ever disappear from the Law,”… (page 155)
Matthew 5:17 is simply one of the verses Christians misinterpret (destroy) in order to try to prove that Yeshua did away with the law by “fulfilling” it.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE BIBLE?
In 2007, A. Frances Werner released a book titled: Truth in Accuracy and Surprising Bias in the Old Testament. (ARTB ® Publishing, 2007) Werner examined twenty versions, carefully tracing the roots of every Hebrew word to document how accurately these various versions matched the original text. Her analysis of 8 million data points revealed disturbing numbers.
The King James Version(KJV) was 74% faithful to the original Hebrew, leaving 26% deviation. The translators, who opted for the Greek manuscripts, introduced 1 in 4 of the remaining deviations, or invented words. The KJV is missing over 1200 unique English words to match unique Hebrew and Aramaic words.
A. Frances Werner explains, “From the earliest times, the Christian church embraced the Greek language in preference to the original Hebrew language. There has been a fundamental mistrust in the accuracy of the manuscripts which have been handed down through the Jewish faith. Otherwise, why have translators preferred the later Greek translations to such a great degree? Is this a result of anti-Semitism?”
She ranked the New American Standard Bible (NASB) at 66% faithful to the Hebrew. The New International Version (NIV®) is 52% faithful. The English Standard Version (ESV) is 61% consistent with Hebrew. Later versions, she found, added approximately 500 of the unique words back to the text, but still leave out over 700 unique Hebrew vocabulary words. Werner demonstrated that the Old Testament translations lack simple vocabulary.
Werner states: “All Christian faiths are implicated when their Old Testaments are filled with something less than a true Semitic-based Old Testament with Hebrew and Aramaic roots. Since English is the dominant language in the world today, we have a special responsibility to set aside historical biases which are clouding the quality of the translations we are producing…” (see “Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Surprising Bias in the Old Testament” at the blog for A. Frances Werner, at http://www.AncientRoots.com.)
Werner is also the author of the Ancient Roots® Translinear® Bible (ARTB®), which was specifically designed to restore the original text.Both books are available at http://www.Amazon.com.)
BACK TO THE TOPIC
But let’s get back to our topic, misunderstood Hebrew idioms used in the New Testament.
Besides simple ignorance of these Hebrew idioms, students face another big problem, what psychologist call cognitive bias. It’s the common tendency to process information by filtering it through one’s experiences.And this, unfortunately, is where most of us start our study of the Scriptures.
Example:Because we have heard it preached, over and over, that the LAW has been done away with, when we read a passage like Matthew 5:17, our cognitive bias forces the phrase “fulfilled the law” to fit our already established theology.
HOW TO AVOID THIS ERROR
Start by looking up the meaning of words.
E-Sword, which can be downloaded for free, provides a great way to educate yourself. With a click of your mouse, you can read the actual Hebrew or Greek definition of each word in Scripture. And with another click, you can find all the places in scripture that Hebrew or Greek word is used. This could be a most interesting endeavor. Allow me to tell you about where it took me one afternoon, and I will let the reader draw his own conclusion.
KJV Genesis 25:27 And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents.
The word translated as “plain” is tam, or tawm, from H8552. It means complete; usually (morally) pious; specifically gentle; dear; perfect; plain; undefiled; and upright.
Brown-Driver-Brigs lists only superlatives. The definition “plain” is not found.
In the KJV the word “tam” is used a total of 12 times in the following verses: Job 1:1, Job 1:8, Job 2:3, Job 8:20, Job 9:20, Job 9:21, Job 9:22, Psalms 37:37, Psalms 64:4, Proverbs 29:10, Song of Solomon 5:2 and 6:9; and in Gen 25:27.
Nine times “tam”was translated as perfect, twice as undefiled, and once as upright. The one and ONLY time the King James Version translated “tam” as “plain” was in reference to (you guessed it!) Jacob, who later became Israel. Draw your own conclusions!
But let’s get back to the Hebrew idiom fulfilled. Here is the definition. G4137 pleroo, play-ro’-o. From G4134; to make replete, that is, (literally) to cram (a net), level up (a hollow), or (figuratively) to furnish (or imbue, diffuse, influence), satisfy, execute (an office), finish (a period or task), verify (or coincide with a prediction), etc.: – accomplish, X after, (be) complete, end, expire, fill (up), fulfil, (be, make) full (come), fully preach, perfect, supply.
The potential for our cognitive bias to have allowed us to believe that “pleroo” meant that Yeshua fulfilled the law as a means of ending it could have been drastically decreased, had the translator used instead “to fully preach.” For that is exactly what the context proves. Let’s read on…
Mat 5:18—22 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…
WHERE DO I BEGIN?
First off, Heaven and earth have NOT passed away and all prophesy has NOT been fulfilled!
Next, Yeshua said whoever breaks and teaches others to break one jot or tittle of the TORAH will be least in the Kingdom. Could that be any clearer? The LAW has not been done away with!
BUT WE ARE NOT THROUGH YET!
When Yeshua starts warning that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, he has not moved on to a new topic. He is about to make replete, to cram full (of meaning), idiomatically to “correctly interrupt”, to fully preach, or as our translations say, fulfill the LAW!
When Yeshua goes on to teach that being angry with his brother without a cause is akin to murder, or later when he says that looking at a woman with lust is committing adultery in your heart, he is “fulfilling” the TORAH! He is filling it up with meaning.
That is what Yeshua meant when he said he came to fulfill the TORAH, and that is how the Hebrew people of that day understood the idiom. So the next time one of your well-meaning friends tries to convince you that Jesus did away with the law by fulfilling it, admonish them to repent for destroying God’s Law.