Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

What Did God Really Mean by That?

Last month I talked about some problems that readers encounter in interpreting canonical language in legal contexts, using the U.S. Constitution as an example. The other area in which canons play a pervasive and highly influential role is in religion. We deal with problems of meaning in religious canons in some ways that don't work in the legal context, where one size has to fit all. In sacred canons, since there can rarely be any fiddling with the text, there is nearly unlimited fiddling with interpretation of the meaning.

The creators or curators of religious canons don't normally make provision for subsequent revision. Instead, they use whatever is available to give their words the imprimatur that should, in principle, minimize doubts around meaning, intention, and authority far into the future. Confidence in the authenticity of religious canons and scriptures, possibly authored by people of the past known mostly by fabulous stories, requires a strong act of faith, but perhaps not as strong as the ones that must precede it. You have to accept first of all that God (in whatever form you conceive him/her/it) exists, and you have to accept that communication from God can be codified or transmitted in the medium of language, which is demonstrably a human invention. That's a subject I waded into before (follow the link), and that readers responded to thoughtfully.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this "set in stone" aspect of religious canons, variations in the interpretation of their meaning, intention, and importance has historically been extremely varied. One reason for this is the principle of plurality. Many doctrines compete for the hearts and minds of devotees, and within any doctrine, many interpretations are possible. As long as those who interpret a text one way can tolerate and co-exist with those who have a different interpretation, all can be well. That doesn't work for legal canons, as we saw, because everyone has to live with the same interpretation that is decided by authority.

Another principle that facilitates conflict-free coexistence of competing or contradictory sacred canons is freedom of religion. If that freedom is missing, religious canons may be perceived to be as burdensome and inflexible as constitutional law. Where that freedom is granted or insisted upon, human creativity gets hold of canonical language and runs with it.

Consider the Qur'an. For practicing Muslims, it represents the revelation of God to the prophet Muhammad, transmitted by the angel Gabriel over a period of more than 20 years. So, spoken by God, transmitted by an angel, and recorded by a prophet: there's not a chink in the armor of those credentials and ordinary mortals may not find standing to question them. You either accept the Qur'an for what it's reported to be, or you don't. Or to put another way, you either are a Muslim or you're not. But if you are, you are not bound to a particular way of interpreting the Qur'an. You can, in principle, choose among the schools and traditions of Islam and find one that accords with your aspirations. Since its emergence in the 7th century, Islam his bifurcated and ramified to where it is now expressed in many different varieties, as helpfully laid out in this infographic.


The situation with the Bible (as popularly understood: Old and New Testaments together) is somewhat different. Its long and complicated history, provenance from many sources, and existence in many versions and languages in which none has hegemony mean that the religions arising from the Bible — Judaism and Christianity, at least — have myriad interpretations of canonical language and ways of expressing its implications and dicta. In Christianity alone there are sects as widely diverse as Quakers and Catholics, Mennonites and Maronites. Such a diversity of faiths exists and persists for numerous historical reasons, but also because, as I noted above, religious canons are subject to nearly unlimited variation in interpretation of the meaning.

It's possible, though not necessarily helpful, to classify Bible-based religions and their sects in scalar fashion, depending on how seriously they regard the language of the Bible. At one end you have Biblical inerrancy or literalism, (popularly: fundamentalism), present in both Christianity and Judaism, in which the Bible is regarded as the inerrant word of God. The other end of that spectrum may hold Biblical language to be merely inspirational, literary, or of historical interest; points of view that are sometimes collected under the term Biblical minimalism. Even with such widely divergent views on the nature of canonical language, coexistence works where tolerance prevails.

Some religious communities borrow a page from the playbook of legal canons and declare that their interpretation of canonical language is the one true and correct way to interpret it, and that all other interpretations are incorrect. This is the foundation of religious intolerance. Such a rigid attitude does not usually enjoy any enforcement mechanism outside of the community that holds the one true way interpretation of sacred texts; the community has to devise its own enforcements and punishments, such as shunning, shaming, or excommunication. Where this sort of religious authority is aggressively asserted with the support of a government, army, or militia, it becomes the foundation of religious persecution.

The great variety of religious canons in the world, coupled with their myriad expressions in faith communities, is a pretty good indication that religion is in many ways a free-for-all. People will, in whatever circumstances they find themselves, find a way to apply canonical language to their present reality in a way that preserves the sanctity of the canon while allowing behavior or views that are accepted as normal. Canons, whether you believe that their prime movers are divine or not, are the work of humans, and are surely among our most imaginative creations. But our ways of interpreting and implementing the language of religious canons are equally imaginative and creative: they answer to our need to build narratives that support our ever-changing ways of looking at and living in the world. The conceit that a particular interpretation of a particular canon has some sort of unique fix on truth is problematic to maintain in a synchronic view, and impossible to maintain in a diachronic view of human experience.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 1st 2018, 8:08 PM
Comment by: David N. (Altamonte Springs, FL)
Great article. I believe that as mentioned, Biblical inerrancy is literalism that leads to totalitarian government. Unfortunately religious forms that promote any form of inerrancy doctrine confines itself to those politically established beliefs and becomes blinded by their own beliefs. It is said that Jesus never spoke without speaking a parable or proverb. These types of expressions provide many different understandings to a single issue that only have individual application in relation to problems of life. The inerrancy doctrine is not used for individual growth but for political gain. The key for me is in the action of each word does the action reflect the word. In the Genesis story, instructions were given by an existence named God to name everything according to it's kind. In this manner all matters and matter are properly identified with a name. When a name is altered to represent a new action, the new action creates an artificial intelligence or a lie no longer reflecting the original name and it's action. This only happens through political acceptance of a new policy, establishing new meaning.
When God is identified as Existence the content of the scriptures will take on new meaning. After all everyone when they pray are asking for a new existence to take place in their life. Everything that exist was created from an existence. Everything that does not exist is created by a human of something they want to exist but does not and can not exist, but only existing in the minds of it's political believers.

David Norton
Thursday October 4th 2018, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
David N, I believe that inerrancy is rightfully used for personal growth, understanding that, over my lifetime and within each of my life situations, many different understandings of individual application in relation to problems of life will be needed. As soon as we get into policy-making within a political arena, we have human religion--or outright politics--which typically stand in the way of a personal relationship with the Creator, which is what He designed us for.
Thursday October 4th 2018, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Vern H. (Brampton Canada)
As a young lad, I read my mother’s late 19th century King James Bible. In its preface, it warned against altering any words therein. I later read a newer 20th century version and noticed what seemed to me, a considerable alteration. On comparing passages, my observation proved correct. The earlier version stated, “Judge not lest ye be ‘so’ judged,” while the latter one advised, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” In my opinion, there is quite a distinction in meaning. To be “so judged” implies that judging another’s motive without knowing that motive with certainty, illuminates one’s own moral perspective regarding the motive for a specific action. But to not judge anyone, ever, for the simple fear of being judged, goes against common sense. Your fascinating article makes me wonder how much literature across the centuries has suffered entropic linguistic distortion at the bidding of unwitting pragmatic editors who value brevity over meaning.
Saturday October 6th 2018, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
That's a valid point, Vern. When I look at the differences of dozens of translations of the Bible in English alone, I see variations that make me wonder if the producers of them were actually looking at the same texts. Take Exodus 22:18, for example, which in the KJV is the famous "Thous shalt not suffer a witch to live," but in the New American Bible (revised edition) becomes "Anyone who lies with an animal shall be put to death." Gosh, should I keep the cats off my bed? is a great website for looking at the same verses in different translations of the Bible in multiple languages.
Thursday October 11th 2018, 10:37 AM
Comment by: G Thomas F. (Framingham, MA)
Orin, If you look at the whole chapter, you will see that the numbering of verses is off for Ex 22. Verse 17 says "You shall not let a woman who practices sorcery live." Not sure how that happened, but made a mistake somehow.
Tuesday October 16th 2018, 1:45 PM
Comment by: John P.
Thank you for taking the time to write such a well thought out column on, in part, the inherent difficulty in interpreting the intent of the bible.

I wanted to comment on your statement: "religious canons are subject to nearly unlimited variation in interpretation of the meaning" and its implications.

The "unlimited variation", has understandably led to some of the most offensive egregious acts known to humanity. But in defense of the Bible and its originator I would like to conclude with an additional well thought out observation by Faber:

"Many there are who, while they bear the name of Christians, are totally unacquainted with the power of their Divine religion.

But for their crimes, the Gospel is in now wise answerable.

Christianity is with them a geographical, not a descriptive, appellation." - Faber
Sunday October 21st 2018, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
Re John P.'s quote of Faber, last line: it reminded me of the fact that within six months of moving to the South, I personally made the declaration that, "in the South, Christianity is just another political party."
Sunday December 9th 2018, 10:33 AM
Comment by: MARSHALL N.
David N., any that say that "Jesus never spoke without speaking a parable or proverb" have never read the Gospels. Orin, the inerancy doctrine does not lead to religious intolerance. Rather, it is a prideful heart that bends the original Word to our desires and corrupts God's message.
Monday February 11th 2019, 4:23 PM
Comment by: Harold W.
David Norton needs to watch his grammar:
I believe that, as mentioned...
religious forms which...confine themselves...
The key for in the action of each word:
does the action (actually) reflect the word.
(Existence? What does that mean?)
its kind (not it's). its action.
After all, ...
everything that exists.
(last sentence makes no sense). its political believers.

(Surprises that no one else noted the mistakes.)

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