History and Language – Tools for Biblical Exegesis

Why does the teacher of the Scriptures need to know history? Why should we invest the time to not just be acquainted with the languages and cultures of the biblical authors?

In the post-Protestant Reformation era, the idea of using just the Bible (sola scriptura in Latin) has become the battle cry of many independent interpreters of the Bible. There are some who believe that reading the Bible, just in translation, is sufficient preparation to know the Bible’s meaning. When pressed, they will often misquote passages of the Scriptures that indicate the Spirit of God will teach us all we need to know (1 John 2:27 is a favorite).

Unfortunately, this attitude has led to a lot of interpretational and exegetical error in the Church. There are many people who claim to be teachers of the Scriptures but who refuse to acknowledge any authority except their own intellect. They isolate the Scriptures, and in the name of revering the text they demote it to the level of their own predispositions and imagination. This can happen both intentionally and unintentionally. Often unintentionally, small misunderstandings and misinterpretations go unchecked and compound over time.

Allow me to share an example of this kind of poor interpretation. It involves the common use of the name Lucifer for the Evil One. We can trace the evolution of this idea through literature and history, and thereby illustrate how the study of history and language not only demonstrates how something like this can happen but also how situations like this should be a battle cry for more thorough, holistic approaches to the Scriptures.

Ask the average conservative Christian what the devil’s name is and they will say either Satan or Lucifer. 

The name Satan derives from the book of Job, where it is used fourteen times. The name is a transliteration of the Hebrew title HA-SATAN or “the adversary” or “the opponent”. It is not really a name as much as it is a title for anyone who opposes another person – whether it is the angel who opposes Balaam (Numbers 22:22) or Hadad the King of Edom opposing Solomon (1 Kings 11:14). All the same, the idea of a single, great opponent – THE Satan – appears to be a part of the Hebrew thinking, especially by the period after the Exile (Zechariah 3:1-2).

But what about the name Lucifer? Does that have an ancient Hebrew root? In reality, it does not. The word lucifer is Latin. It derives from lux, which means “light.” How did this come to be treated as a name for the devil or Satan? To get that answer, we have to go back to the prophet Isaiah and a prophecy he was given by God.

During the reign of the Judean king Yehoahaz b. Yotham (c 730-710 BCE), Isaiah was given a rather troubling message. This message (the Hebrew word is MASSA or “pronouncement”) was for the King of Babylon. The message, which appears in Isaiah 13-14, foretells the rise of the Babylonians and their eventual conquest of the land of Judah. At the time Isaiah gives this message, however, Babylon is one of the client kingdoms of the mighty Assyrians. They are perhaps the strongest of the client kingdoms, but they are just one of many.

To foretell the rise of Babylon, the oracle contains these lines:

How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!

You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God I will set my throne on high;
‘I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
‘I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-14, ESV)

In these very poetic lines, Isaiah depicts the King of Babylon using a specific form of the Hebrew word HELEL, which means “shining” or “bright.” This particular form includes an additional letter, and so is HEYLEL. This is the only place that this particular form of the word appears and it is coupled with a parallel phrase – BENIY-SHAHAR or “son of the dawn”.

Because of the phrase “son of the dawn” Greek-speaking Jews (or Christians, no one is entirely sure) translated this unique word HEYLEL into Greek as fos-forus or heos-foros (variant spellings of the same term), which was the name they gave to Venus when it rose in the dawn.  This is when Venus is brightest in the sky. When it appears in the late winter sky, it is ten times brighter than the next brightest object – Jupiter. Over time, of course, the magnitude of Venus fades and then it slips below the horizon and does not make an appearance in the dawn sky for another 263 days.

The appearance of Venus as this “son of the dawn” was a harbinger of the end of winter, since it appears in late February. As a result, it also meant that soon the days would get significantly longer. This is probably why the Greeks called this appearance fos-forus – the bringer of light”. (When Venus appears in the night sky, the Greeks called it hes-perus or “evening star”.

The Romans astronomers likewise knew about this star (or planetes as the Greeks called it). They called it lucifer – “the light bringer”. No one knows whether this is a translation of the Greek or if the Romans came up with the name independently.

Around 380 CE, a bishop of Rome named Damasus I asked one of his clerics, a man named Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, to prepare a standardized Latin translation of the Bible. Hieronymus is known to us today by an anglicized version of his name – Jerome. Working first from Greek and then from Hebrew, Jerome produced what is known today as the Vulgate – the standard Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

In the Vulgate, Jerome rendered HEYLEL/heos-foros as lucifer. He also used lucifer to render a statement about Christ in 2 Peter 1:19 – where Christ is called the fos-forus. 

For Jerome, lucifer must have meant exactly  Venus when it appears in the morning sky. But Jerome lived in a troubled time. The western half of the Roman empire was crumbling. Jerome had left Italy around 373 CE and never returned. During his lifetime, the city of Rome was sacked by German invaders and within a generation, nothing would be left but fragmented petty German kingdoms.

Sometime in the early Middle Ages, the connection seems to have been made between the Greek fos-forus and Latin lucifer with the pagan Greek god fos-forus (usually spelled Phosphorus). It was an unfortunate collision of rising Christian fervor against the old pagan ideas, which included astronomy, and a translation meant to indicate a linguistic analogy. As time and distance produced medieval commentary based on perception and not on historical reality, the king of Babylon of Isaiah’s prophecy came to be seen as the Evil One himself.

Well before the 13th century CE, the word had become a name, a title, for the devil. But in that unfortunate century, an English clergyman named John Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English. He retained, and capitalized, the word Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12, while he rendered the same Latin word as dai sterre in 2 Peter 1:19. The labeling of Satan was completely integrated into the beliefs and values of medieval England (and Europe as a whole). Subsequent English translators like William Tyndale and the KJV translators used Wycliffe’s transliteration of the Vulgate in Isaiah.

So, Satan got a new name – Lucifer – with its own mythology built around it.

The use of this name as synonymous with Satan is ubiquitous in almost any western nation with a Christian past. It was easily equated with statements elsewhere in Scripture, such as Paul telling his readers that Satan disguises himself as an “angel of light” (angelos fotos) in his second letter to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 11:14) and John seeing a vision of Satan sweeping stars from the sky (Revelation 12:1-9), which was taken to be a parallel to the poetic language of Isaiah 14.

But…

By studying the history and language, as we have, we can see that this usage of the term lucifer as a name – as if it was the Evil One’s name in eternity past – is unwarranted. The history illuminates the Scriptures and frees us from medieval misinformation.

Unfortunately, theology is subject to cultural and traditional layering. People are often not willing to alter their perceived set of truths, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is part of the burden of applying the disciplines of the humanities to theology. Many teachers of the Scriptures are vaguely aware of the historical and linguistic realities in matters like this, but they take the popular (meaning, more easily accepted) course rather than appear to be criticizing a view which has been taken to be gospel truth.

As teachers of the Scriptures, we are bound to the text – not to popular opinion, no matter how deeply rooted it is in our culture. We must use the tools of history and language (and countless others) to understand the sacred Word and to preserve it from the taints and plaque it might accumulate as humans carry it with them, often morphing original meaning as they go.

We are slaves to the text. We must strive to know it as it was written, even when it flies in the face of opinion and tradition.

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3 thoughts on “History and Language – Tools for Biblical Exegesis

    • Slaves to the text has nothing to do with textual criticism. It means that what the Scriptures say we must accept, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make us feel.

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