Fun With English and Biblical Interpretation

Debates over pronunciation help us understand how and why languages change over time.

Let’s have some fun with this blog post while still making a serious point. English can be a frustrating language because it has so many exceptions to its numerous rules. Remember, I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh. That’s helpful, unless you want to spell words like foreign, counterfeit, feisty, and caffeine. Weird, isn’t it?

English can also be a lot of fun, particularly when you pay attention to how people from various locales say certain words. For example, say Louisville out loud. The way it is pronounced is a big deal in northern Kentucky. Around here, people generally say something like, “Luh-vuhl,” and it sounds like they are swallowing their tongue with each syllable. Those who articulate it differently are often “corrected.” Most of the English-speaking world says, “Loo-ee-ville” or “Loo-uh-ville,” realizing that it is named for France’s King Louis (Loo-ee) XVI, or perhaps known from the popular baseball brand, Louisville Slugger. And some of those who say “Luh-vuhl” carry their twisting of “ville” into other city names, so Nashville becomes “Nash-vuhl” and Greenville becomes “Green-vuhl.”

Part of the reason for these local-specific pronunciations is due to familiarity and the tendency to save time. We use contractions to shorten the amount of time it takes to say certain things (“cannot” becomes “can’t”). Similarly, people from a given area tend to shorten the way some local place names are said. For example, many people in my home state of Wisconsin call their largest city “Mu-wau-kee” rather than “Mil-wau-kee.” By dropping the “l” they essentially cut about half of a syllable. “Two Rivers” loses a whole syllable and is pronounced “Trih-vers.” My wife grew up in southeastern Minnesota where “Ro-ches-ter” becomes “Ro-chster” (try saying it with just a tiny hint of a vowel in the second syllable) and “Stew-art-ville” becomes “Sturt-ville” (thankfully, not “Sturt-vuhl”).

Regional accents often lead to words being spoken differently. In the United States, a person from Boston will likely sound very different than someone from southern Louisiana. And if it weren’t for radio and television helping to standardize our language, these two accents would likely become entirely different languages before too long.

Moving outside of the United States can lead to even greater differences in accents. Listen to the way New Zealanders pronounce many of their words. It seems like they don’t really like certain vowels, because they say them as quickly as possible, with the frequent exception of the long A and O sounds. Here’s a clip of Beauden Barrett, two-time world rugby player of the year and my favorite player, and two of his brothers discussing what it’s like to play together on the All Blacks. Pay attention to the way they say (or almost don’t say) many of the vowels.

Although Americans often confuse the New Zealand and Australian accents, Aussies tend to drag out many vowel sounds. Was there anyone more fun to watch and listen to than the late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter? Listen how he drags out many of his vowels.

Ironically, perhaps no English-speaking people shorten their words as much as Australians do. Check out this video guide to Australian slang.

Bear with me for two more paragraphs with rugby examples before we get to the point. These language differences are some of the many reasons I enjoy watching rugby. Not only is it a great sport, but I get to hear announcers from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. I enjoy hearing their accents, particularly Australia and New Zealand (although I especially like one of the Irish announcers because he sounds like a pirate). But even more entertaining than the accents is hearing the words they choose to use that are different than how Americans would generally speak. A player who runs fast has “heaps of pace,” according to the Australian and New Zealand commentators. Instead of a “little bit” they often say a “wee bit” and “straight away” instead of “right away.” We can easily figure out what they mean because the words mean the same thing here in America, but we choose different phrases to convey the same idea.

The differences within a given language are not confined to simple pronunciations and the use of similar words. Idioms often develop in different regions that make little sense to outsiders who don’t take the time to learn something about that culture. Sticking with rugby lingo, if a player “throws a dummy” it doesn’t mean that he tossed a ventriloquist doll or a stupid person. It means that he faked a pass to fool the defender and actually never threw the ball at all. A “lovely ball” is a great pass rather than a ball that looks really nice. And if the commentator says, “lovely hands,” he is not saying that the big brute has beautiful hands, but he generally means that the player caught the ball and deftly passed it to a teammate before the defender(s) could react. Moving beyond rugby but sticking with Australia and New Zealand, if someone is “gutted,” it does not mean that they have been disemboweled, but that they are extremely disappointed.  And if they are “feeling crook” it does not mean that they feel like a criminal but that they are ill.

Importance of Recognizing Language Oddities

These differences can be a lot of fun to discuss. In fact, feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments below (or favourites if you’re from the U.K. or Australia). I do have a deeper reason for bringing these issues up though. The changes to a language did not begin with English. In fact, these types of modifications have happened throughout history to countless languages, and they can impact the way we understand our Bibles.

Michael the archangel is frequently shown defeating Satan (the dragon).

Many Christians have assumed that translators can and should simply translate the Bible from the original languages on a word-for-word basis. That is, one word in Hebrew should be translated into its equivalent word in English. But such an approach is impossible and would make it hard to understand the Bible. It’s impossible since there simply is not a one-to-one correlation between many Hebrew and English words or between many Greek and English words. Also, these languages use different conventions than English. For example, Greek frequently uses the definite article before proper names, so if we translated every word it would be very odd to read about “the Michael and the his angels” in Revelation 12:7 (or to keep the word order the same as the Greek, “the Michael and the angels his”).

Many verses would also read quite strangely because Hebrew and Greek have idioms that the biblical writers employed. To accurately interpret these colloquialisms, we need to recognize these for what they are. Let’s look at a few examples.

After Nabal foolishly rejected David’s request for assistance, David stated, “May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light” (1 Samuel 25:22, NKJV, emphasis added). The translators of the NKJV have assisted the readers in two ways regarding the italicized words. First, they have helped us understand an idiom that could be confusing. Second, they have softened some crude language in that idiom. Here is how the KJV translates the same verse: “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.” This strange phrase is a very literal translation of the Hebrew text and appears six times in the Old Testament. The first time I saw it, I thought it referred to a stupid person, similar to how Americans might refer to someone who spits into the wind. But that is not its meaning. Instead, it was just a strange way to refer to men, since men frequently stand while urinating.

Psalm 10:15 uses an idiom that is much easier to understand. Here the psalmist asks the Lord to “break the arm” of the wicked person. But the psalmist isn’t asking the Lord to literally break the person’s physical arm. Instead, “arm” is used metaphorically for a person’s strength, so the psalmist is asking the Lord to break the strength of the evil man so that he cannot oppress the weak any longer.

In the New Testament, prior to being cast out of a man by Jesus, a demon told Jesus to “Let us alone!” (Mark 1:24). Easy enough, right? Well, not if you interpreted the Greek phrase literally, which would read something like, “What to us and to you?” This is a Greek idiom that means something like, “Why are you bothering me since we have nothing to do with each other?” or to quote one of our own idioms, “Take a hike!”

The issue of accents comes up in the Bible as well. According to Judges, many people lost their lives in Jephthah’s day because they couldn’t pronounce a word in a certain way.

The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!” And he would say, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites. (Judges 12:5–6, NKJV)

Imagine if every person from England who traveled to the United States was immediately questioned about how to pronounce schedule. And then we decided to kill them if they said “she-jule” instead of “ske-jule,” because we Americans know that “sch” makes a “sk” sound like in school, schooner, scheme, schism, and schizophrenia. But what about schmooze, schnauzer, schwa, and schlock? Perhaps the English shouldn’t die for not knowing how to properly pronounce English words. (Yes, my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek while typing that.)

Accents can account for variants in spelling, particularly when no standard dictionary is available for that language. It’s easy to see how a D can eventually be pronounced as a T, and vice versa. Think about how people say important. Is it im-por-tant or im-pour-dent? Look at some English from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and you’ll see what I mean. Authors often wrote phonetically, meaning that they spelled their words the way they sounded. Here are the first two verses of the Bible from the Tyndale Bible (1534):

In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie ad darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water. (Genesis 1:1–2)

The same thing has happened in Hebrew and Greek. Textual scholar Daniel Wallace calls the Apostle John a creative speller because he spelled the same Greek word three different ways in the same passage. Also, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew over a thousand-year period. And during that time the language underwent changes. It even changed how it was written, switching from the proto-Sinaitic script to the Aramaic script around or during the Babylonian Exile. In fact, about half of the book of Daniel and a few chapters in Ezra were written in Aramaic.


There are many other issues involved in properly interpreting and translating the biblical languages. This article was intended to provide a fun background for starting the discussion on these important issues by comparing similar situations in English from our own time.

The various changes that have taken place in biblical languages do not detract from the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. The Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture so that it would be infallible in its original autographs, but He allowed the writers to use their grasp of a given language and its conventions. He did not dictate word-for-word to the biblical writer every single letter that ended up on the page. Instead, He prepared the writers and guided the process so that what they wrote accurately conveyed the precise message God intended us to have.

Book Review: Dispensationalism Before Darby by William C. Watson

Dispensationalism Before Darby corrects a common misconception about the origins of Dispensational beliefs (image from

This book is perfectly titled and offers an immediate challenge to those who allege that John Nelson Darby invented the system of Bible interpretation known as Dispensationalism around the year 1830. Watson provided an accurate subtitle as well: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth Century English Apocalypticism. For those unfamiliar with the term, Dispensationalism is marked by three key principles, known as the sine qua non of Dispensationalism:

  1. Maintain a clear distinction between Israel and the church
  2. Utilize a “literal” (read: plain sense) hermeneutic
  3. The doxological purpose of God (God’s glory is the central theme of Scripture)

Evangelicals and other conservative Christians have traditionally adopted either Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology as their overarching interpretive framework. Generally speaking, whereas Dispensationalism maintains a strong distinction between Israel and the church, Covenantalists view the church as the fulfillment, extension, or replacement of Israel in God’s redemptive plan (most do not like the term replacement in this context). In recent decades, Dispensationalism seems to have become less popular, and there have been some attempts to find ground somewhere between the two views, such as Progressive Dispensationalism or New Covenant Theology. Much more could be said about all of these views, but this post will focus on reviewing Watson’s work.

William C. Watson is a professor of history at Colorado Christian University, specializing in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century English history. He earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in British history from the University of California, Riverside.

Righting a Wrong

As mentioned in the first paragraph, a common argument against Dispensationalism (and the pretribulation rapture) is that it was invented by John Nelson Darby around 1830. Watson proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that this popular belief is absolutely false and those who promote it grossly mischaracterize church history. It is safe to say that Darby systematized and popularized Dispensationalism, and thus it is fair to identify him as the father of modern Dispensationalism, but every major element of the belief system was commonly taught in England and North America for at least two centuries before Darby. Yes, a belief in a literal thousand-year kingdom for the Jewish people (the Millennium), a pre-tribulation rapture, a return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and other hallmarks of Dispensationalism were well known in the centuries before Darby. Of course, Dispensationalists claim that these beliefs come right from the pages of Scripture, but that is a debate for another time.

Watson’s book includes hundreds of lengthy quotations from 17th and 18th century pastors and theologians whose views either matched or were quite similar to those of classic Dispensationalism. Let’s consider a handful of examples. Note: Watson preserved the original spelling and capitalization of the various writers, which was often quite different than the standards found in modern English.

John Birchensa

John Birchensa published The History of Scripture in 1660 and used the term dispensation in the context of drawing a distinction between God’s differing plans for Jews and Gentiles in different eras.

[I]ndeavor to informe your selfe of those things which belong unto your present Dispensation. Look not for the Accomplishment of those things in your Age, which the Scripture hath declared shall not be brought to passe until future Times. Take heed how you apply those Promises that are made unto the Jewes, (and shall not be fulfilled unto them before their restoring out of their present Captivity) unto the Gentiles who shall live before the conversion of the Jewes. (Watson, 206)

Robert Maton

Robert Maton (1607–c. 1653) published several works about prophecy shortly after 1642, when press censorship ended in England. He wrote the following about Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, and Revelation:

[They] all foreshow one and the same battell…First, because they all speake of a more generall confederacy and combination of the Kings of the world….Secondly, because they all say, that the returning of the Jewes into their owne Land, shall be the occasion of this warre-like assembly…Thirdly, because they all declare, that the destruction of this great army, shall be in the land of Judea. (Watson, 139)

Ephraim Huit

Ephraim Huit (1591–1644), founder of the first church in Connecticut in 1639, wrote the following about the future kingdom God would give the Jewish people:

Thirdly, upon this comming of the Son of Man in the cloudes…the kingdom is given to the Iewes [Jews]…but upon the Incarnation of our Lord, the kingdom was taken from the Iewes, and given to the Romanes.

Huit added that the Jews of that time would be “very troublous” but they would finally be saved when Christ “and gods Church as a Bride royally attired descends from Heaven.” (Watson, 142–143)

Nathaniel Holmes

Nathaniel Holmes (1599–1692) wrote of the pretribulation rapture and even used the term “rapture,” following the example of Joseph Mede who preceded him in print by 26 years. Yet, many non-Dispensationalists claim that Darby invented the pretribulation rapture. Holmes wrote:

What may be conceived to be the cause of this rapture of the Saints on high to meet the Lord in the clouds, rather then to wait his coming to the earth. What if it bee, that they may be preserved during the conflagration of the earth, and the works thereof, 2 Pet.3.10. That as Noah, and his family were preserved from the deluge, by being lift up above the waters in the Ark, so should the Saints at the conflagration bee lift up in the clouds unto their Ark, Christ, to be preserved from the Deluge of fire, wherein the wicked shall be consumed? (Watson p. 145)

Holmes further explained that the rapture would coincide with the calling of the Jews.

The likeliest maine time to make out the true meaning of this Text [“they will look upon him whom they have pierced and mourn” Zachariah 12:10] is the time of the general Call, and conversion of the Jewes yet to come, at the beginning of the Restitution of all things…[T]his coming is meant of a coming after his Ascension, and yet before the ultimate day of doome….HEE COMETH implies a future thing…it is not intended of his last Act that ever hee will doe, which is the ultimate judgment. BEHOLD implies some eminent coming, and none more eminent than this, for the RESTITUTION OF ALL THINGS…HEE cometh…IN the clouds…this coming shall not bee so obscure, as his Incarnation…but he shall come conspicuous and glorious visibly to all upon the earth…Zechary the Prophet, and John the Apostle both prophesie in the aforesaid places of one and the same personall appearance of Christ visibly to the eyes of men on earth after his Ascension. But this cannot be understood of his appearance at the ultimate general judgement, because they speak of his pouring out of grace, and giving repentance to the families of the Jewes. (Watson p. 145)

Flawed Vessels

The writers cited above and throughout the book would not necessarily agree on every major point of modern Dispensationalism. Part of the reason for this is that these men were in the early stage of trying to figure out eschatology (study of end times). The early Reformers generally did not focus much on eschatology so they did little to correct Roman Catholic eschatology—they were focused largely on soteriology (study of salvation), and rightly so. Within a century of the Reformation, many theologians and pastors came to believe that Rome’s eschatology needed similar scrutiny.

Watson does not lionize the writers he cites, and he is unafraid to point out their mistakes. Like some today who practice “newspaper eschatology” (reading current events into the prophecies of Scripture) some of these 16th and 17th century writers viewed their own trying circumstances as the events prophesied in the Bible. Also, a handful of those cited by Watson were not entirely orthodox in more central doctrines. After all, if one happens to be correct in their eschatology, it does not guarantee the rest of their theology will be sound. Nevertheless, despite their errors and disagreements, it is easy to see Dispensational beliefs in their writings.

Concluding Thoughts

The “Darby invented Dispensationalism” myth is extremely common, but this refrain is demonstrably false. There have also been many vicious attacks on Darby’s character, but these baseless attacks disparage and slander a faithful Christian brother. Yet both of these ideas commit the genetic fallacy in that they attempt to discount Dispensationalism by going after its perceived source. Even if Darby were the originator of this view, it would not invalidate Dispensationalism. The system must be examined in light of Scripture. The fact that all the elements of the system existed long before Darby does not prove it to be true either, and Watson does not claim that he has proven the view to be true. He set out to correct a fallacious argument and he succeeded in obliterating it.

I knew before reading this that Darby did not invent Dispensationalism, and I was familiar with a few of the writings in this book, but I had no idea how common Dispensational ideas were in the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps most surprising to me were the number of Puritans who held to views consistent with Dispensationalism. I assumed that all, or nearly all of the Puritans would have been Covenantalists (given their close affiliation with Calvinist soteriology), but a sizeable minority of Puritan writers held eschatological views consistent with modern Dispensationalists. Watson wrote, “Further, many of those revered by contemporary preterists—such as Westminster Assembly divines, Anglican bishops, and renowned Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean—were actually premillennialists. While preterists claim that premillennialism is new; it is actually preterism that was considered an innovation in the early eighteenth century” (Watson, viii).

Since the book consists largely of quotes from 16th and 17th century writers along with explanatory paragraphs from Watson to introduce each writer and summarize his view, it can be a bit tedious during its 373 pages. However, it serves as an outstanding reference work. Watson apologized for this but he knew of no other way to include more than 350 primary sources and give them enough space to prevent the charge that he was pulling quotes out of context.

The book could also use one more round of editing. I found several minor formatting errors (missing spaces between words, general typos, etc.). Hopefully, these will be corrected in a second printing. However, I still wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone interested in understanding Dispensationalism, whether you are in favor of it or stand against it.

Finally, it is unbecoming of Christians to make false claims. To argue that Darby invented the pretribulation rapture and/or Dispensationalism is patently false and largely irrelevant to the debate. Many make this claim in ignorance, repeating what they’ve heard others teach. It is my hope that Watson’s book will go a long way to eliminating this notion. As Christians, we need to strive to proclaim the truth in love. That means we must seek to accurately represent the beliefs of those we disagree with when we attempt to correct them. Misrepresenting an opponent’s position might lure uninformed bystanders to your cause, but it is contrary to our mandate to be people of the truth. May we all (Dispensationalists, Covenantalists, and others) strive to proclaim the truth and love one another even though we disagree on these particular issues.