Biblical Language and Concepts
“Illumination” . . . is the plunge by which we gain a foothold at another shore of reality.
I will need the reader to bear with me for a few paragraphs.
Michael Polanyi portrays the moment of scientific discovery—what he calls “illumination”—as crossing a lake, landing on a far shore with a new vista of reality. Similarly, philosopher Esther Meek begins her definition of “knowing” by framing it as an act: “Knowing is the responsible human struggle.” Struggles happen over time and through the human body. Struggles are responsible only when we struggle for a purpose. Meek claims that as humans, we are not gifted with instantaneous knowledge. Rather, we must work for it. As all parents know, even grasping that “1+1=2” requires some initial effort to understand—even if the likes of Scout Finch no longer recall the struggle. I bring up basic addition here because most philosophers will go to mathematic examples when attempting to demonstrate their ideas about knowledge. Biblical authors, however, will not appeal to mathematics as examples to examine knowledge, though I believe they have something similar in mind.
When we use math as a proof of knowledge today, we are using the ideas associated with rigor and clarity in our culture. For us, one plus one just is two, and our access to its truth appears to us as universal—anyone can just see that it’s true. Scientist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi argues that an “illumination,” the “aha moment” of discovery, isn’t just a moment. That moment just is the culmination of the struggle to know. If even math requires striving and effort in order to understand the basics of addition, then we ought to think about what math proves and how it does so before we look at the Scriptures for a model of good knowing.
As an example, if two oranges and one apple lay on the table, a person with the basic skills of counting will have to observe what is on the table to determine that there are three pieces of fruit. Knowing that two oranges plus one apple makes three fruits reveals a learned and skilled process (e.g., discerning fruits from other objects). In order for humans to have that skill to just see that there are three pieces of fruit on the table, they must struggle to acquire the skill.
Even the ability to count objects (i.e., one orange, two oranges, three oranges, etc.) must be taught through rituals of repetition so that our ability to number objects comes through processes that we learned with our bodies as children. In a cruel twist of humanity, most of the work in teaching children these frustratingly simple skills is done in the period of their life that they simply will not remember.
As these skills are built up in us through those formative years, we are able to use them more quickly to solve simple problems, problems that were previously insurmountable to us before learning the skill. If asked how many pieces of fruit were on the table, I can easily assert “three” just by glancing. If pressed about how I came to the answer, I might report, “I just saw that there were three.” If asked when I learned to make such quick accountings, like Scout Finch I could naively say, “I’ve just always known how.” Without any parents or teachers to disabuse me of my ignorance, I could get away with such a belief about my counting ability.
Why am I talking about basic math in a chapter about biblical views of knowing? Because even when I have the ability to just see something, and even when it’s a genuine ability, that skill extends from a history of practicing, guided by adults, in order that I might be able to just see that 2+1=3. Anecdotally, parents can become frustrated with their child’s math homework because the parent does not understand how the child cannot just see the plain mathematic truth of “2+1=3.” As children, we struggled responsibly to see what is plain and obvious to adults. In short, knowing—even knowing basic math—is a process, and the moment of discovery is an event.
Examining the event without the process can create problematic views of knowledge. Problematic because they have little regard for the human body, community, and process in which they are bound up. For those interested in the biblical discourse, the ancient authors of Scripture regularly maintain the connection of the embodied person in her community struggling to understand reality over the course of time.
Knowing appears to be an acquired skill per the biblical authors. A skill is practiced until we achieve the knack for it, such as riding a bike or reading an X-ray. A child with the skill can just hop on a bike and go. A doctor who has the knack can just see a tumor in an X-ray film. However, the biblical authors presume that you must gain the skill through a guided process in order to see. Like a parent coaching their child’s first ride without training wheels or a medical student in a radiology course, we must embody guided processes in order to know. Once skilled, you see the world differently. Knowing is transformative, what Polanyi depicts as “the plunge by which we gain a foothold at another shore of reality.” Because it’s a skill, once you have it, the skill transforms you to just see something you could not previously see. You are different and, therefore, see differently.
If the biblical authors do not use mathematical examples to examine a theory of knowledge, then what is their version of rigor and clarity? Thinking through some examples might help, though they may not look very mathematical to us at first. In Genesis 3, the man and the woman of Eden just see that they are naked and hide themselves accordingly (Gen 3:7). In Exodus, the Israelites just see that YHWH opened the Red Sea and destroyed Pharaoh’s army (Exod 14:30–31). Conversely, the disciples do not see what Jesus is up to in Mark’s gospel (cf. Mark 8:17–18; 31–33). In Luke’s gospel, the disciples cannot even see that the resurrected Jesus is, in fact, the man walking with them for miles (Luke 24:31). I will return to show how these passages rigorously examine good knowing in the coming chapters.
In each case, the reader is presented with facts of the matter that the story’s logic considers plain and clear—as plain as “1+1=2.” The nakedness of the first couple, the work of YHWH against Egypt, that Jesus is the prophet of Israel, and that it was Jesus himself walking along with disciples to Emmaus are as plain to the reader as basic math. Indeed, they are painfully obvious to us readers.
What enables the characters in these stories to just see these plain facts or be entirely blind to them? In other words, what establishes a clear difference between those who can see and those who cannot? Amazingly, the biblical texts are interested in examining such questions. These Scriptures, written and collected over the centuries, have an interest in developing a philosophical position on knowing:
In fact, the biblical texts show a high interest in clarifying what good knowing consists of. The Hebrew Bible opens with a creation story that centers upon knowing good and evil (Gen 2:17), knowing nakedness (Gen 3:7), and then sexual knowing (Gen 4:1). Hence, knowing is not a side-show to the biblical narratives, but front and center in the story of Israel.
Before looking at those ancient Semitic texts, we must consider how we might import foreign ideas into the discussion, mostly due to the translation of terms. Grappling with the distance between our connotations in English and the use of “knowing” language in the Scriptures helps us become better readers. It’s as if we are packing for a trip to Thailand, when our flight is actually headed to Siberia. We have some things that will still work (e.g., pants, shoes, camera, etc.), but we are woefully underprepared to survive in that Siberian world. Likewise, if we come to the biblical texts presuming that knowledge is something akin to “data” or “information,” then we might be woefully unprepared to see what the biblical authors are attempting to show us.
Hence, I mostly avoid using the noun “knowledge.” In the world of my undergraduate students, knowledge is most often conceived of as an object, a thing to possess. The queerness of modern English does not help to clarify the matter. In English, for instance, we say that we have knowledge. We have sex. But in what way do we have either of them? My students often want to “get” knowledge and they wrongly assume that I am there as the professor to “give” it to them. Indeed, many false expectations of college courses stem from their wrong notions of education as an exchange of commodities.
Rather, most educators (and on a good day, that includes professors) see a college course as a series of embodied historical practices that are meant to change the way students see the object of study. I regularly teach an introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and my main goal is for them to read the actual texts and see things they have never noticed before—to have a skilled reading acquired through discipline and practice. Hence, knowing functions as a way of seeing the same “data,” but with skilled eyes—like a doctor sees a tumor in an X-ray that is indiscernible to you or me.
To know is to act with skill, and so discussing knowing in terms of “knowledge,” “data,” or “information” can detract from our understanding, even if we grasp what nouns such as “data” are meant to convey. To salaciously illustrate the point, what could it mean if someone asked: Do you have carnal knowledge of your spouse? What one knows, in response to this question, is not possession of information about another person. In other words, one spouse does not have anything when it comes to sexual knowledge. There is no room for the answer to consist of “data.” Fortunately, the analogy breaks down quickly from there, so I need not pursue it any further.
In the Scriptures, we should not expect that those authors frame knowing as data to be possessed, and this does not make their view of knowledge antiquated or irrelevant. Unhelpfully, the key terms from Hebrew and Greek have been translated in ways that do not always reveal their native meaning to the modern ear. Without getting into the dizzying array of meanings that words can take, we ought to consider how the basic biblical language and the concepts associated with knowing line up with our language and concepts.
Modern folk are comfortable talking about “the truth” as if it is a thing. We know the truth or not. The fact is either true or false. Some people can’t handle the truth. The truth will set you free (unless you are actually guilty).
Truth has become an object in our thinking, something to have and to hold. However, the Hebrew word group most often translated as “true” relates to a specific aspect of truth in English: fidelity. In fact, one of the few Hebrew words to sneak into the English language occurs at the end of our affirmation of a faithful petition to God. We close prayer by affirming: Amen. Amen comes from the Hebrew aman, which is the root word for several terms related to accuracy, fidelity, and faithfulness. When the North African Jewish community translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, they chose a particular Greek term to translate the Hebrew “truth” (emet): aletheia. As it so happens, aletheia also carries the connotations of fidelity and faithfulness in the Greek.
So it should not surprise us that the meaning of “true,” as used in the Scriptures, mostly relates to the reliability of something to support, to be faithful, to be steady, to have high fidelity, and therefore something in which we can put our trust. True can describe the fidelity of a boat’s path to a course set in advance, or of a carpenter’s cut to a line drawn on lumber. Because “true” (aman) is an adjective throughout the Hebrew Bible, it can be readily conceptualized as a noun: truth (emet). Even the New Testament authors felt free to conceptualize truth as a noun: Jesus is the way, the truth (aletheia), and the life (John 14:6).
As an adjective, “true” describes a surprising array of objects and actions in the Hebrew Bible, all of which are related directly to fidelity and faithfulness. Actions can be true. Reports and statements can reliably convey the situation. Most strangely, many biblical authors use “true” to describe objects such as tent pegs (Isa 22:23), roads (Gen 24:38), seeds (Jer 2:21), and more.
How is a tent peg true in the same way that reports or actions are true? Yoram Hazony explores this oddity in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, and I follow him closely here. Hazony consistently points out that truth is not something that can be assessed in a moment, but a quality that is borne out over “time and circumstance.”
What we really hope for when we drive this peg into the ground is something normative: We want it to be what a tent-peg ought to be (in our estimation) in the face of the stresses and strains of the storm.
In the Hebrew Bible, that which is true is that which proves, in the face of time and circumstance, to be what it ought; whereas that which is false is that which fails . . . to be what it ought.
This means that the biblical notion of knowing truth and knowing it truly must regard the priority of skilfully seeing something to be true “in the face of time and circumstance.”
The picture does not change radically in the New Testament, where truth (aletheia) describes people, actions, statements, realizations, and becomes a metaphor for the faithful instruction of God: “the truth” (e.g., Rom 1:25; 2:8). In fact, truthfulness becomes a supreme quality of important statements according to Jesus himself: “Truly (alethos) I say to you,” describing his speech as aptly guiding his followers, not merely as statements of truth (Luke 12:44).
In short, truth is personal in the biblical texts. It requires our attention and our expectations over time. When something is true, it does what it ought to do or faithfully represents—it is trustworthy. This creates a very natural segue to a similar word group: trust.
What does it mean to “have faith”? When I asked this question in a public university classroom, the most common response was, “To believe without reasons or evidence.” Some students were then surprised at the genuine difficulty in naming one instance in the Christian Scriptures where someone “has faith” without any reason, deliberation, or evidence. I challenge my classes every semester to show me anywhere in Scripture where YHWH asks someone to trust him without any prior reasons given. There might be a few places—but literally, only a few. The term for “believe” or “trust” (sometimes translated “faith”) in the Hebrew Bible comes from the same word group above: aman. Though from the same basic word, the form of the word and context allow it to mean “to trust” or “to believe.” The Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—recognizes that difference by translating those Hebrew words with a different word: pisteuo, which more exclusively relates to trust and/or belief in the Greek.
It appears to me as irresponsible to translate a word that basically relates the idea of trust with the English term “faith,” a word that almost universally connotes blind obedience to the modern ear. Even translating it as “believe” makes beliefs appear as something more in a mental sphere than the embodied actions of the biblical protagonists. In modern English, “to believe” can even mean “to have an opinion about.” In most instances throughout Scripture, the translated words “faith” and “belief/believe” could be replaced with “trust” or “trusting belief” for truer resemblance to the biblical vocabulary.
Moreover, the translation of aman/pisteuo into the English word “trust” has another advantage: it forces us to look for the object or person to be trusted. For example, when Jesus appears resurrected to all but one disciple (Thomas), the other disciples who saw him tell Thomas about what they had seen. Thomas insists that unless he himself touches the resurrected Jesus, he will “never believe (pisteuso)” (John 20:25). So, Jesus appears expressly for the purpose of allowing Thomas to touch his wounds—charging Thomas, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). Jesus goes on to bless those who do not see, but believe (John 20:29). And then the gospel narrator sums up the book with “these are written so that you [the reader or hearer] may believe” (John 20:31). We could even change all the language to be in terms of “having faith.” Notice what the language of “believe” and “have faith” does not do to the modern reader. It does not force us to ask the most natural question: Have faith (or believe) in what or whom? If we translate all the same terms to “trust,” the story becomes a bit more forceful with us as readers. Let me retell it briefly this way:
Trust who? The conflict in this narrative centers upon Thomas not trusting the testimony of the disciples who saw Jesus. Jesus shows up to prove the disciples’ testimony as true—faithful to reality and doing what it ought to do. The narrator interjects that this entire literary creation—the Gospel of John—was aimed at fostering trust in the disciples’ testimony, which is what the gospel is meant to represent: the true testimony of the disciple John. Translating this term as “trust” forces us to ask different questions. Merely depicting Jesus as commending Thomas to “have faith” obscures the force of the story.
Like sex, faith is not an object to have. Faith is always faith in something. As Andrew Walker and Robin Parry recently put it: “Faith in Jesus is, first and foremost, an existential commitment to and trust in Jesus; ‘belief in . . .’ and not simply ‘belief that.’” Our best term in English for translating what is most often meant by aman in the Hebrew Bible and pisteuo in the Greek is “trust,” not “belief” or “faith.”
Unless you live in a cultural cave, you already have some contact with the Hebrew word for “know.” He is small, green, quick on his aged feet, and English syntax not good with he is. “Yoda” is Hebrew for “knower,” or, “one who knows.”
In Hebrew, “to know” (yada) has a surprising range of meaning. The term can refer to someone’s familiarity, understanding, historical recall, skilled insight, and most striking, sexual intimacy. “To know,” just within the first four chapters of Genesis, includes the ever-ambiguous knowledge of good and evil, knowledge of nakedness, and three instances of successful procreation (cf. Gen 2:17; 3:6; 4:1, 17, 25; 19:5). Because of this range of meaning, Michael Carasik and Gerhard von Rad offer the simplest view, that “to know” connoted the idea of “coming closer to” for the ancient Israelite. The sexual connotation of “know” (yada), “is right in so far as the verb yd’ (‘to know’) never signifies purely intellectual knowing, but rather an ‘experiencing,’ a ‘becoming acquainted with.’” As we consider the sensory language in the Bible that depicts good knowing (“listen” and “see”), it will become obvious that a biblical view of knowing always entails the individual’s body, the social body (i.e., the body politic), time, and a distinct process that must be acted out.
In the Greek, there are two verbs associated with knowing: ginosko (noun: gnosis) and oida. The first is where we get the English terms “gnost ic” or “diagnosis.” It generally refers to the same range of meanings as the Hebrew term yada. The second literally means “to see” (oida) and is used to convey understanding or insight. Ginosko can include meanings such as “skill” or “familiarity,” which might be why it is the verb that also translates sexual union in the Septuagint (i.e., “Adam knew his wife”; Gen 4:1).
Surprisingly, in the gospel narratives, these Greek words for “know” are less important than their reliance upon the Septuagint, which contains its own compelling view of knowledge. As I said in the Introduction, it will not always be the case that the word “know” even has to appear in a text in order for it to be concerned with epistemology. For instance, Mark’s gospel borrows heavily from the language and concepts of Deuteronomy and Isaiah to convey when someone knows well or erroneously. Mark’s language rarely involves the Greek terms oida or ginosko. Instead, Mark relies on a well known and patterned use of listening in order to see that he appears to borrow from Deuteronomy and Isaiah. We will look at Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Mark in chapter 4. For now, we briefly turn our attention to those epistemic terms—listen and see.
Just as in modern English, the Scriptures rely heavily on sensory terms for descriptions of knowing. For instance, these are some ways—colloquial and not—we still talk about knowing with some of our sensory language.
Touch: to grasp; to get it; to latch onto; to take it in; to apprehend; etc.
Sight: to have an insight; to foresee; “Do you see what I’m saying?”; to get the picture; to read her like a book, etc.
We even use “taste” to convey our knowledge of something (e.g., the taste of defeat) and discriminating judgment (e.g., Her condo was decorated with taste.). Smell can reflect intuitiveness (e.g., Something doesn’t smell right about this.). And, hearing has a wide range of associations with our discernment and knowing in English. We speak of knowing as being informed: “Did you hear about the invasion?” Court cases are conceptualized as a hearing: “The judge heard the case.” We affirm our acknowledgment with our ears: “I hear what you’re saying.”
Although sensory terms have some similar uses in the biblical languages, two verbs clearly rise to prominence as indicators of knowing: “listen” and “see.” It also happens to be the case in both Hebrew and Greek that there are not separate words to mean “listen” and “obey.” So in many cases, we will see that “listening to his voice” actually means, “obeying.”
The grammatical form of the word and its context determines which English term ends up in the translation. “To see” takes on most of the varied uses we have in English. “To see” (Hebrew: ra’ah; Greek: horao) can mean visually witnessing, to “get it,” to be aware, to understand, or to know. Most basically, understanding how these two terms—listen and see—take a particular order in biblical knowing will have remarkable implications throughout all of Scripture.
The basic structure is this: In order to know well, you must listen to trusted authorities and do what they say in order to see what they are showing you. That’s it. The varied literary style of biblical authors certainly defies attempts to make this language formulaic. Different books have different ways of expressing this simple epistemological conviction. However, the stock use of this language is sufficient enough for us to trace it throughout the Torah (the books of Moses) and into the gospels.
Though “listen and see” could simply mean “pay attention,” there is a priority to them because, again, listening also connotes obedience (Hebrew: shama; Greek: akouo). Listening, or heeding, the trusted authority must come first. The authority knows what must be done in order to see what is being shown. Hence, listening to her voice means doing what she says. It makes no sense to act and then get instruction. That would be like assembling a complicated piece of Swedish flat-pack furniture, and only afterward, looking at the directions. Presumably, loose parts will be strewn about afterward.
Two matters concern us in the coming chapters. First, what is this biblical view of knowing and how can we discern it? Again, in the most plain terms possible: Knowing well entails listening to trusted authorities and doing what they prescribe in order to see what they are showing you. That is the central idea. Therefore, the coming chapter will test the idea. If correct, then we should expect to find an emphasis on listening to the trusted authority, and then embodying her instruction, with the outcome of knowing something—seeing something not previously noticed or truly seeing the same data (i.e., the correct way).
Second, is this a view of religious knowledge? I will later show that this social process of knowing described in the biblical literature lays out the foundational ideas that scientific inquiry follows today. In reality, the only thing that separates good biblical knowing from good scientific knowing is the way in which trusted authorities gain our trust. In the end, “science” is most aptly described as a community of knowers who must trust each other while soberly observing some specific facet of reality. In order to become a good scientist, you must trust authoritative guides (e.g., biology professors) who will prescribe rituals to be embodied (e.g., preparing slides for a microscope) in order to see what is being shown (e.g., cell wall deterioration). Failure to recognize who should be trusted or heed the authority’s instruction results in erroneous knowing or accidental knowing, neither of which are desirable.
In the coming chapters, I will demonstrate both that the biblical literature pursues the idea of a knowing well in community and that we can see that creational function at work in places like the scientific enterprise today.