John Locke on the Language of Paul’s Epistles

Google Books now has a copy of John Locke’s A Paraphrase & Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (1853) up (it may have been there for a while, but I just recently noticed it–thanks to an interesting post about how Locke anticipates some of the New Perspective writers over at Dr. Mike Birds blog).

Something I found interesting, particularly given the timing of Locke’s writing were his comments on the Hebraic pre-text underlying the Greek language of the letters themselves.

The language wherein these epistles are writ is another, and that no small occasion of their obscurity to us now: the words are Greek; a language dead many ages since; a language of a very witty, volatile people, seekers after novelty, and abounding with variety of notions and sects, to which they applied the terms of their common tongue with great liberty and variety: and yet this makes but one small part of the difficulty in the language of these epistles; there is a peculiarity in it that much more obscures and perplexes the meaning of these writings than what can be occasioned by the looseness and variety of the Greek tongue. The terms are Greek, but the idiom, or tun of the phrases, may be truly said to be Hebrew or Syriac. The custom and familiarity of which tongues do sometimes so far influence the expressions in these epistles, that one may observe the force of the Hebrew conjugations, particularly that of Hiphil, given to Greek verbs, in a way unknown to the Grecians themselves. (p vi – Preface)

Given the prominence that the Hebraic Roots and New Perspective movement have given to the importance of recognizing and understanding Semitisms (semitic idioms) in the text, I found it fascinating to read John Locke’s comments. After all, whether a book was originally written in Greek or subsequently translated into Greek is sort of a moot issue. The point is that they were written, without exception (other than the possible exception of Dr. Luke) by Hebrew speakers, to whom the Hebrew language and the Hebraic mindset were native.

I wonder if Dr. Robert Lindsey ever read Locke’s book?

3 thoughts on “John Locke on the Language of Paul’s Epistles

  1. My approach to the analysis of idioms is based on determining the etymology of the idiom. It is no better or more accurate than the determination of the etymology of any other word or phrase. However, the phonetic aspect is often easier because most idioms have more syllables than most single words.

    To use an idiom properly does not require any knowledge of its etymology. However, this knowledge may help an L2 student remember an idiom and how/when to use it.

    When I was a young kid, all of my friends and I knew the meaning of “escape by the skin of my teeth” and not a single one of us knew it was the translation of B’3or SHinai, a Hebrew pun on the word B’QoSHi (which means barely, hardly, with difficulty) in the biblical book of Job 19:20.

    The majority of idioms are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into words that look / sound / feel like the target language. For English idioms, there are not a lot of foreign languages involved: Germanic languages, Latin, Aramaic (during the 600 years it was a lingua franca), French (1066), Hebrew & Greek (biblical translation), Arabic (7 Crusades, Spanish Armada 1588 => Black Irish), Yiddish (in England prior to the Expulsion in 1290; 1840s from Germany, early 1900s from Eastern Europe), etc.

    A minority of idioms are the translation of foreign idioms. These are more difficult to analyze because one needs to know not only the language of the source but also the foreign language into which the transliteration (sic) was made, which may or may not be the same. Additional intermediate translations should not affect the result if they were faithful.

    A cute translation idiom is “count sheep !” to go to sleep. This is probably the translation of a Hebrew pun S’PoR TSo@N on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) sond (as in soundly / deeply). This English idiom has been
    retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR KeVeS = to count sheep.

    In a few cases, the “original” was a euphemism and not “plain text”. I suspect this is the case with “kick the bucket”. It seems to be the direct transliteration of a Semitic euphemism for dying: to make love in Paradise.
    Using 3 for aiyin with its ancient G/K-sound: 3aGaV = make physical love + B’3aiDeN = in Eden. 3G => Kick, vB3Dn => BucKeT.

    In other words, this type of idiom formation represents the target languag-ification of a foreign word or phrase. It can be most easily illustrated with a foreign phrase that did *not* become an idiom: Latin e pluribus unum = out of many, one. This is a motto of the USA. If it had become an idiom, it might have become “a flower bush you name” but would retain its original Latin meaning. It would probably acquire a folk etymology, such as: we could give a flower bush many names, but we usually give it only one.

    Transliteration idioms are most easily formed at a time when most target-language speakers do not read and write. They hear a foreign word/phrase, understand its meaning in context, and convert its sounds into target-language words they do know.

    For a rare modern example, “face the music” is attested in the United States from the 1840s. This “music” is probably from Yiddish MoSKoNeh = inference, deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

    Etymology is not an exact science. The 3 etymologies that a non-linguist is most likely to “know” are all false. Muscle is not from Latin musculus = a small mouse. Sabotage is not from French sabot = an old shoe. And cabal is from Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, not from Hebrew Kabbalah = esoteric knowledge, literally, received (tradition). Porcelain has nothing to do with a porcine vulva, and gossamer is from Latin Gossypium = cotton, not from goose + summer :-). But that is another story.

    For more examples of idiom etymologies, do a Google search for

    Best regards,
    Israel “izzy” Cohen

  2. The quoted fragment of Locke on the language of St. Paul’s Epistles reminds me of Spinoza’s statements on the language of the Bible. In chapter VII of the Tractatus theologico-politicus he explains that a scientific ‘historia’ of the Scripture requires first of all a study of the nature and properties of the language in which it is written and in which its authors were accustomed to speak. “We shall thus be able to investigate every expression by comparison with common conversational usages. Now all the writers both of the Old Testament and the New were Hebrews: therefore, a knolwledge of the Hebrew language is before all things necessary, not only for the comprehension of the Old Testament, which was written in that tongue, but also of the New: for although the latter was published in other languages, yet itys characteristics are Hebrew” (nam quamvis aliis linguis vulgati fuerint, hebraizant tamen). Locke knew Spinoza’s work very good (and transcribed certain passages). – Locke scholars who are interested in this matter, may ask my rough draft “Apple and worm. An Essay on Locke’s Philosophy as a Disguised Spinozism”.

  3. Well Spinoza nailed it on that one. And he had the linguistic background to know whereof he spoke, what with his Sephardic descent.

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