List of biblical words with uncertain meanings
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.
|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 15 times in Deuteronomy alone. 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, Hab 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. 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.|
|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 definitively 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 epiousion 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, 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.|
|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 left this word untranslated, but several other translations use "cypress" (NIV, NLT), "planks" (DR), "cedar" (ISV), and various other words.|
|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 in their own translations. 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.|
|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 the "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 sometimes 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. "Giants" is most likely an incorrect translation, as 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 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 or excluded entirely.|
|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. It's usually left untranslated or excluded entirely, but sometimes guessed at.|
This table lists the abbreviations used in the table above with their full English translation name.
|ASV||American Standard Version|
|ESV||English Standard Version|
|GNT||Good News Translation|
|ISV||International Standard Version|
|KJV||King James Version|
|NIV||New International Version|
|NLT||New Living Translation|