List of biblical words with uncertain meanings

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This is a list of words that appear in various books of the Tanakh or New Testament whose true meaning has been lost, so modern scholars can only guess at what these words originally meant. They are sometimes helped because the words contain a known root, prefix, or suffix giving us a clue as to what they might have meant, but many of the words in this list are unknown because they exist only a single time in all of antiquity.

Despite having no certain meaning, translators frequently give them one, often without even so much as a foot note letting the reader know the word's meaning is uncertain. This is probably done because if readers saw just how many words have uncertain meanings, they might lose faith in their scriptures.

The reason I compiled this list is to help combat the belief that scripture is the inerrant word of a god. This list is evidence that, even if the scripture were perfectly recorded, it wouldn't matter, because nobody can be certain of what it means.

This list is far from complete, and, as I continue to learn about ancient writings, I will keep adding to the list. Those uncertain words with a greater impact on religion are highlighted in yellow.

Transliteration Native Examples Strong's Notes
arbeh ארבה Exo 10:4; Lev 11:22; Deu 28:38; Jud 6:5; Psa 78:46; Joel 1:4; Nah 3:15 H.697 This word is used all over the old testament when referring to a plague insect and is usually translated to "locusts," but there is confusion with chasil, gazam, and yeleq which are also often translated to "locust."
chabab חבב Deu 33:3 H.2245 This word is used only once in antiquity. It is almost always translated to "love," even though the actual Hebrew word for "love" is 'ahab, which is used elsewhere in Deuteronomy 15 times. The translation to "love" is a guess based on similarities with similar Semitic words, but the actual meaning is unknown.
chabaqquq חבקוק Hab 1:1, 3:1 H.2265 The Book of Habakkuk is so named because two headers contain the word chabaqquq which is assumed to be a person's name, so it's left untranslated. Scholars are uncertain of the word's etymology; if it has a Hebrew origin, it could be related to khavak which means "embrace," but if it has an Akkadian origin, it could be related to hambakuku, a type of plant, but either is a guess.
chasil חסיל IKi 8:37; 2Chr 6:28; Psa 78:46; Isa 33:4; Joel 1:4 H.2625 Used several times in the old testament when referring to a plague insect and is usually translated to "locusts," but there is confusion with arbeh, gazam, and yeleq which are also often translated to "locust."
elqoshi אלקשי Nah 1:1 H.512 In Nahum, the author Nahum is said to be of elqoshi, which is usually translated as "Nahum the Elkoshite" (KJV, NIV), but sometimes "Nahum of Elkosh" (ESV, ISV). In both contexts, elqoshi is presumed to be a city or ethnicity. The word itself is used only once in antiquity, so its definition cannot be ascertained, but a hint is found with the Hebrew prefix el which means "god." The only translation I've ever found is "god the ensnarer," but it had no citation.
epioúsion ἐπιούσιον Mat 6:11, Luk 11:3 G.1967 From The Lord's Prayer, traditionally translated as, "give us this day our daily bread." The actual Greek word for "daily" is kathimeriná, nobody knows what epioúsion means because it's not a Greek word and it exists nowhere else in antiquity. The only hint at what the word might mean is that it uses the Greek prefix epi which means "above" or "upper." Because of this, some translators presume that epioúsion means "needed" or "necessary" (NLT, GNT), to which "daily" isn't much of a stretch, but it's based on a guess.
'eshdath אשדת Deu 33:2 H.799 The Book of Deuteronomy contains a combination of esh (meaning "fire") and dath (meaning "law"), which exists nowhere else in antiquity. Early translations left it literal, "fiery law," (KJV, DR, ASV), while modern translations ignore the dath portion and say "flaming fire" (NLT, ESV, GNT, ISV). The NIV seems to leave out the word entirely, but has a footnote saying its meaning is unknown. It's forgivable to presume this refers to the Ten Commandments, the Torah, or some other form of Yahweh's laws, but the words used to describe them are common throughout the bible and are never written like this anywhere else.
gopher גפר Gen 6:14 H.1613 Elohim tells Noah to build an ark made of gopher wood. This word does not appear to be Hebrew and it exists only once in all of antiquity. Early translators (KJV) left this word untranslated, but several other translations use "cypress" (NIV, NLT), "planks" (DR), "cedar" (ISV), and various other words.
gazam גזם Joel 1:4, 2:25; Amos 4:9 H.1501 Used a couple times in the old testament when referring to a plague insect and is usually translated to "locusts," but there is confusion with arbeh, chasil, and yeleq which are also often translated to "locust."
karah כרה Zep 2:6 H.3741 Because Biblical Hebrew doesn't contain vowel markers, scholars can't be sure this is a unique word, a typo, or a strange usage of one of the other three forms of karah which typically mean "to dig," "to get by trade", and "banquet," none of which fits this context. If it is a unique word, this is the only time in all of antiquity it is used. The most common form of karah means "to dig," but here translators can't agree on whether it should mean "cottages" (ASV, KJV), "wells" (NIV), "camps" (NLT), "meadows" (ESV, ISV), "huts" (GNT), or "resting place" (DR).
makshelah מכשלה Isa 3:6; Zep 1:3 H.4384 Translators can't make up their mind on this word even within a single translation. It's usually translated to "stumbling block" in the Book of Zephaniah, but "ruin" in the Book of Isaiah (ASV, ESV, ISV, KJV, NIV, NLT). The GNT ignores the word in both passages, the ISV in one passage. Scholars note that makshelah contains the same letters of the word kashal, meaning "to stumble," which is where the "stumbling block" translation comes from, but scholars have also noted a similarity with the Arabic and Syriac words for "cut up/off/oneself." Nobody can give a definitive answer.
megraphah מגרפה Joel 1:17 H.5043 This word is only used once in the Book of Joel. It is based on garaph which mean's "cast off," and is traditionally translated to "clods" as in, clods of dirt, however, this is a guess. Most English translations maintain tradition and use "clods" (ASV, ESV, KJV, NIV), however others assume it refers to drought, "parched ground" (NLT), "dry earth" (GNT). The ISV simply uses "furrows" and the DR strangely uses "dung."
nachum נחום Nah 1:1 H.5151 The name or title used at the beginning of the Book of Nahum. It is assumed to mean "comforter," probably because it uses a spelling similar to other words that are sometimes translated to mean "comfort" like nichum. However, since the word exists only once in all of antiquity, the actual meaning is unknown. Because the word is assumed to be a name, it is always left untranslated.
neginotai נגינותי Hab 3:19 H.5058 Habakkuk contains a unique variation of a more commonly used word neginah which itself has a variety of translations, mostly having to do with music. It is often excluded entirely (GNT, ISV, ASV, DR), but, when it is included, it is usually translated to something along the lines of "[to be played] on stringed instruments," which is a guess.
nephilim הנפלים Gen 6:4; Num 13:33 H.5303 Most modern translations leave nephilim untranslated (NIV, NLT, ESV, ASV, ISV), but older translations used the word "giants" (KJV, DR). People who believe the KJV is a perfect translation believe this so dearly that they have fallen for giant skeleton hoaxes. The actual Hebrew word for "giant" is rapha', so this is most likely an incorrect translation. Many scholars have noted the similarity with the Hebrew word nflh which means "fall," and argued that nephilim means something like "fallen ones." Many other definitions have been suggested, but, with only being used in two sentences in the entire Torah, nobody can give a definitive definition.
selah סלה Psa 3:2; Hab 3:3 H.5542 This word exists dozens of times in Pslams and three times in Habakkuk. From how it is used, it appears to denote a musical rest in a song. Since its meaning is uncertain, it is usually left untranslated (ASV, ESV, KJV) or excluded entirely (DR, GNT, NIV), although a couple translations use the word "interlude." (ISV, NLT)
shigionoth שגיון Psa 7:1; Hab 3:1 H.7692 This exists only once in Pslams and once in Habakkuk. From how it is used, it might denote a style of music. Translators are very inconsistent with this word, even internally. It's left untranslated in both passages in the KJV and NIV. The GNT excludes the word in both passages. The ASV and ESV exclude it in one passage, but leave it untranslated in the other. The ISV excludes it in Psalms, but uses "music" in Habakkuk. The DR uses "psalm" in Pslams, but excludes it in Habakkuk. The NLT uses "psalm" in Psalms and "sung" in Habakkuk.
yeleq ילק Psa 105:34; Jer 51:14; Joel 1:4; Nah 3:15 H.3218 Used several times in the old testament when referring to a plague insect and is usually translated to "locusts," but there is confusion with arbeh, chasil, and gazam which are also often translated to "locust."

Translation Abbreviations

This table lists the abbreviations used in the table above with their full English translation name.

Abbr English Translation
ASV American Standard Version
DR Douay-Rheims Bible
ESV English Standard Version
GNT Good News Translation
ISV International Standard Version
KJV King James Version
NIV New International Version
NLT New Living Translation