Tag Archives: semantics

Book Review: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

From a layman’s point of view, Wittgenstein has a fearsome reputation in the realm of modern philosophy. This is his best known work and contains the most extensive account of his thinking from his own hand. So one approaches it with a feeling that borders fear and respect. No one can expect a light read.

I picked this up the day after finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but could only manage 2-3 pages on most days.

Before dealing with the substance of the book, a word first about the structure of the book. The whole book is divided into numbered paragraphs varying from just one or two lines to a page in length. On the left hand side is the German original text, on the right hand side is the English translation. The original translation was provided by G.E.M Anscombe (no relation, as far as I know) which has been then modified/corrected. The introduction is quite baffling. It seems designed for the purist who is very familiar with Wittgenstein’s work, as there is an in-depth discussion about various manuscripts which went towards making the final work. For the most part, I think this can be skipped over.

So what of the text then? We hit a problem with the first paragraph. The opening gambit is a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, only instead of providing a translation either into German or into English, it has been left untranslated in Latin. So unless you are fluent in Latin or have a copy of the Confessions to hand (thankfully I did) then you will be left none the wiser as to the starting point. In case you don’t have Augustine, the passage used is translated thus:

“When people gave a name to an object and when, following the sound, they moved their body towards that object, I would see and retain the fact that that object received from them this sound which they pronounced when they intended to draw attention to it. Moreover, their intention was evident from the gestures which are, as it were, the natural vocabulary of all races, and are made with the face and the inclination of the eyes and the movements of other parts of the body, and by the tone of voice which indicates whether the mind’s inward sentiments are to seek and possess or to reject and avoid. Accordingly, I gradually gathered the meaning of words, occurring in their places in different sentences and frequently heard; and already I learnt to articulate my wishes by training my mouth to use these signs.”

What we then get is really a philosophy of language. Through a number of examples, Wittgenstein explores what we might mean by the word ‘mean’. He refers back occasionally to an earlier work which I haven’t read which asserts that language is built on propositions like “[this is that]”. Given the intricate nature of his writings, it is quite hard to summarise.

If I were to attempt to do so, it would be that he gives us a philosophy of “ish”, a sort of getting the gist. His contention is that philosophers have made the mistake of trying to separate words from their meanings. Rather he contends that the meaning of a word is given by its usage. This is explored at some length with a number of examples, but for the purposes of this review I shan’t do a thorough critique. That would require far more space and time than I have for here.

What he doesn’t address adequately is what happens with misunderstandings. i.e. if I use a word and mean one thing when another uses the same word to mean a different thing, how might we resolve the misunderstanding that inevitably ensues?

The book isn’t divided into chapters, so the argument rather drifts from paragraph to paragraph. Because of this, there are no clear delineators between topics, yet one can clearly see that the subject drifts if one flicks through 5 pages at a time.

Another major topic that is covered is the issue of subjectivity. He does this via talking about pain. I couldn’t help but think of a recent show at the Edinburgh Fringe that a friend of mine did, called Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity, as that could well describe a good chunk of Philosophical Investigations. It’s noticeable that Wittgenstein chooses his examples very carefully, so as to emphasise the strength of his arguments, though I could readily think of other examples that would go someway to undermining his argument.

That said, he doesn’t really construct an argument as such. Where one might expect something akin to a proposition followed by a line of reasoning to demonstrate the truth of the proposition or to have a line of reasoning culminating in a conclusion, Wittgenstein’s meandering musings don’t really seem to go anywhere. At times it feels like he goes round in circles. So when we get to the end of the main part of the book there are no great theorems, it just ends rather abruptly.

We then have the philosophy of psychology which was previously known as Part 2. One can see why it has the two names, as it follows on very much in the same vein, talking around the nature of subjectivity, but here drifting into the realm of psychology. It is in this part that we get introduced to the famous duck-rabbit which serves as one of a few illustrations about what we “see”. This is all very fascinating stuff, even if the way it is approached is not exactly user-friendly.

So, reading this as someone who is not a Wittgenstein aficionado, much of it came across as rather obtusely put, even if the basic ideas were fairly easy to grasp. I already came across a summary of Wittgenstein’s work while I was reading this, in Plato and a Platypus. This rather backs up my review so far. This is not for the faint-hearted, but one shouldn’t be put off by that. There is much here to mull over, though I may need to read a bit more around Philosophical Investigations in order to fully get it.

The changing meanings of symbols & words – abandon or reclaim?

With my computer now dead, I am attempting to write this on my phone. I’ll try to get it drafted here and then edit it during my lunch break, but if I miss some autocorrect errors, please forgive me.

This afternoon (Sunday), after church, I found myself watching a documentary on the use of the swastika in Hinduism. In short, the programme looked at the symbols origins as a way to embody good fortune, and how that was then hijacked by the Nazis. The main focus was on the continued use of the symbol and how it is seen by modern Hindus and Jews.

It struck a chord with a thought I’ve had for some time, but which I don’t think I’ve explicitly blogged about before, though regular readers may recognise the thought in earlier allusions. Though the programme dealt with a symbol, my thought relates more to words. The thought relates to the question of how far meanings can be twisted from their original intention and still be of use.

The question implicit in the programme was whether the Nazis so damaged the symbol that it has become indelibly linked with evil and should be scrapped, or whether Hindus should ‘reclaim’ it and educate people into thinking of it primarily as a Hindu emblem.

In my opinion, there are a great number of words which have been similarly tainted, though maybe not to such a violent extent. I then wonder whether we need to make an effort to wrestle them out of the modern vernacular usage and restore them to their original meaning or whether they should be allowed to change, leaving us searching for new words to enunciate old ideas.

Of course, the notion of “original meaning” is a tricky one that may be hard to pin down, given the changing nature of language, particularly English. Most I know who have formally studied linguistics speak of languages as ever-changing. From my layman’s perspective, I’ve never been convinced by the arguments presented to me. Though I freely admit I am amateur in the field and open to correction (as in any matter!), I think of the English language as a cooling lava. Yes, there have been great changes, but there must come a point at which the spelling and meaning of a word must become set. Determining such a point may be difficult, though I don’t think it’s absurd to think that such a point exists.

Take, for example, the word ‘meek’. Today, it’s common usage is a synonym for ‘weak’. It is most often heard in the phrase “meek and mild” which seems to be used as a tautology, since they are meant to connote similar ideas. Yet in it’s original usage, it meant something more akin to “power under control”. In other words, it is a word denoting strength, the very opposite of how it is understood. So ought we to use the word as it was originally meant and risk being understood or do we abandon it and “go with the flow”?

Here, I must admit that in this respect, I am something of a contrarian. I do not think that every word that has had it’s meaning undergo a metamorphosis ought to be restored back to an antiquarian definition. Neither would I propose that we give up all hope. Instead, it’s a question of effort and how that compares to the value we put in words.

From a mathematical point of view, one word I am quite passionate about is ‘complex’. To me, this denotes a large set of numbers, made up of real and imaginary parts. Then again, ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ mean very specific things to me that they probably don’t to most non-scientists. As a consequence of this, I am very careful to use the word ‘complicated’ to denote something that is tricky, intricate or entangled.

I would hope I’m not alone in having these thoughts. Maybe those words I am most passionate about are unique to me, but that’s ok.

  • Are there any words you think are regularly misused?
  • Have I used any words in a way you disapprove of?

On egalitarianism and feminism

Egalitarian and equality logo

I’ve pondered long and hard about whether to write on this subject. In fact, the first draft of this post was started in November 2011, but it got shelved, along with several others that I may dust off and heavily edit sometime. I do not write this to antagonise or offend, but rather to clarify my thinking, communicate that to you coherently and hopefully prompt you to think. I doubt all will agree with me and indeed, you are welcome to disagree with me in constructive debate in the comments if you so wish. In trying to be clear, I have not tried to keep this short, so I apologise that it is quite a long read. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

The problems in writing on the subject

Though I write this blog pseudonymously, it is no great secret that I am a man. So, the first problem then is ‘can and should a man write anything about feminism?’ I would give the answer, ‘yes’. If the answer were otherwise, then I would view that as sexist. No person should be discriminated on the grounds of their gender (indeed, I struggle to think of grounds whereby discrimination ought to be acceptable, though I am focusing here on one particular set of prejudices).

Even if we can agree that the answer is ‘yes’, can any aspect of feminism be critiqued without being dubbed “anti-feminist”, “sexist” or “misogynistic”? Again, I would say that the answer to this is ‘yes’ and indeed I shall be critiquing some aspects of feminism. I hope in so doing that I will not be considered to be any of those things just described, though I cannot but help think that given if this post gains a wide enough audience, that some might well think that of me. It was for fear of being verbally attacked that I postponed this, as it is a highly emotive topic to many.

I am also conscious of the need for precise wording. In the past, if entering into conversations, I have used slightly the wrong word which then becomes the sole focus of a verbal attack, losing all sight of the main topic of conversation. I have tried to be careful in my use of words and have proofread this a couple of times, though I cannot rule out the possibility of a misplaced word or two. If you think I have used an incorrect word in places, whereby its correction would not drastically alter the direction of my argument, then please let me know. If such a change would have a significant influence on the argument, then it is probably fair to assume that I have said what I mean. Probably, not certainly!

My position and semantics

I am not a feminist.

I support equal opportunities and equal representation of genders. I oppose discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. I do not support sexism or anything that could reasonably be described as the denigration of one gender by another.

But this does not make me a feminist. I am egalitarian.

When it comes to determining matters of prejudice and privilege, I apply a “mirror test”. I.e. if you think something is not sexist, or not racist or not religiously discriminatory, then swap the genders, swap the races or swap the religions and then see if you still think it is not prejudiced. It is for this reason that I do not think that simply by being a male, that any opinions one might have on feminism are, a priori, worthless.

Though we have a few physiological differences which need to be mutually understood and respected, we have far more in common by virtue of our shared humanity which can and should be celebrated.

In stating my position of equality, I am sometimes told that I am a feminist because some dictionary definitions state that it is about equality. I have a Collins dictionary at home and it defines feminism as “doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women.”

The same dictionary also gives the following definition of an egalitarian: “a person who believes that all people should be equal.”

These two positions may not appear to be all that different. Indeed, I would say they are not. So even though I do not align myself with feminism, I am not wholly opposed to it.

In referring to dictionary definitions, one must also be careful to avoid taking them as complete and accurate. Those who tell me I am a feminist are often keen to point to the dictionary and state that I fit the bill. However, dictionaries are not the be all and end all of semantics. I assume most readers of this blog are either christians or take an interest in religion, so let’s go there for an example. The same dictionary from which I plucked the above has this to say about ‘faith’: “strong belief in something, especially without proof.” I don’t know of anyone of any religion who would say that that is a fair or true statement. It coincides very well (maybe even being derived from?) Richard Dawkins’ erroneous view, as espoused in The Selfish Gene. The fact is, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So it is with feminism and egalitarianism. To strip them down to one sentence summaries does both a great disservice and over-simplifies things.

Some qualms about feminism

In explaining why I am not a feminist, I must point out some issues I have with the movement. Here I will look at three, which seem to me to be common. Please continue to bear in mind, this is not a wholesale attack on feminism, I wouldn’t do that. These are just issues that I see present which sit uncomfortably with me.

Praise of the suffragettes

When looking at modern feminism, one can hardly escape the impression made on it by the suffragette movement. In some ways, this might be considered the heyday of feminism, when it was at its most radical. Yet the unreserved praise that is heaped on it makes me uncomfortable. Though I admire the guts and determination of the women of this movement, as an advocate of nonviolence, I cannot condone all of the actions that were carried out in the movement’s name. It was, at the time, considered a terrorist organisation, just as the IRA was in the 80s and 90s and as Al-Qaida are today. To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor given the acts of arson carried out and other acts of violence.

Though we now have equal votings for men and women, I am not one to say that the means justified the end. So when I hear unfettered praise of the suffragettes, I cannot help but be unnerved by the advocacy of violence that is latent within. To my mind, it went a step beyond civil disobedience, which I personally view as a totally acceptable form of protest.

In any good movement, there are often unsavoury elements. But these need to be dealt with head-on rather than swept under the carpet. One of the issues that has stirred up much debate over recent months has been the replacement of Elizabeth Fry on the £5 bank note with Winston Churchill and the subsequent campaign to ensure female representation on at least one denomination of banknote (though, for the record, having been forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school, I am no fan of Jane Austen and thought that Beatrix Potter would have been a better choice). Often coming near the top of ‘Great Britons’ polls and the like, Churchill was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Anyone who has looked into his role in the suppression of the Mao Mao uprising can testify to this. For anyone interested in a critical look at Churchill, I would recommend Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire.

A word

If there is one word that riles feminists more than any other perhaps, it is the one about which this paragraph is concerned. It is a word that is sometimes too easily used in the accusative, when it ought not to be. With any feminists with whom I have had discussions which cover the territory with which this blog post is concerned, every one of them has reacted with fury at the mention of the word, adamant that all feminism is free from it. Yet the evidence of what I read and hear tells me that is not wholly untrue. By using it, I would expect this paragraph to be the source of the most disagreement and the focus of any attack on me, if it is forthcoming. Though many, indeed most, feminists that I know of could not fairly be described as having this trait, I could not claim for it to be absent from all without telling a lie. What is this word? If you guessed it was misandry, then that would seem to be an acknowledgement that what I have said is true. As stated earlier, I would ask anyone who contests this to apply the ‘mirror’ test to statements made by, and in favour of, feminists. Though the majority will not be sexist, I’d be surprised if an unbiased application of the test came up 100% sexism-free.

Representation of all women?

The third part is the question of “who is feminism for?” The easy answer is to say that feminism is for women. After all, isn’t that the dictionary definition given above? Again, though, this demonstrates the deficiency of the dictionary definition. Feminism often fails to come across as an empowerment of women; it comes across as an empowerment of feminists. Yet one has to recognise that not all women are feminists and that some actively are against it. Yet when I read, hear or see debates between feminists and non-feminists I am appalled by the level of patronisation (and yes, I am aware of the irony of the etymology of that word) shown to the non-feminists, which are often in the same “you silly woman” tone that is used by misogynists when denigrating women.

One must then face up to the legacy and ideas on one figure of modern history: the late Margaret Thatcher. Though she did not align herself with the feminist movement, she was in many ways the epitome of it. She showed that a woman could achieve the highest position of authority in the land not bestowed on them by birthright (though it’s worth noting that the monarch has been a woman for roughly 125 out of the last 176 years). Yet I am uncomfortable with otherwise reasonable, liberal feminists who speak out in praise of her. To me, as an egalitarian, no one should have their ideas and legacy attacked because of their gender, it should be an irrelevant factor. Yet I would maintain that anyone can and should have their ideas and legacy attacked if they are worthy of being so. And I would have little hesitation (though Cameron is starting to be a serious competitor) in saying that she was the worst prime minister in my lifetime; I was born after she came to power. I say that not as an attack on her because she was a woman but because of what she did. It is the defence of her, because she was a woman, that I find I cannot agree with. Again, applying a mirror test, it would be to defend Cameron’s legislative programme attacking the most vulnerable in society because he is a man. In my view, it is simply wrong. Admiring the strength of someone’s conviction regardless of where that conviction is pointed is not an admiration I could ever echo.

Consequently, we must be careful to discern, when someone is being verbally attacked, between whether they are being attacked because of their gender or because of what they have said and done. The former is sexism and is not, in my opinion, in any way acceptable. The latter, however, if done constructively and with due grace, may be justified. If anyone attempts to use anything like the phrase, “[because you are woman/man]” then their credibility may well be damaged. If their argument rests on such a clause, I would consider them to have lost that argument.

What about christianity?

If I am uncomfortable to wear the label ‘feminist’, given its negative connotations, one might fairly ask of me, “why, then, are you comfortable to be called a christian?” Indeed, there are a great many evils that have been committed in the name of the christian faith. I hope to look at this topic on the blog soon, as it’s another post I shelved a while ago. If you wish to read about these, just pick up any book on the Crusades, the Borgias or on abuse that was at first committed and then covered up. The crimes committed in the name of the church are far worse than those perpetrated in the name of feminism.

So why do I call myself a christian? It’s because there is no commonly used alternative which is well-understood. If I call myself a follower of The Way, then someone who has either been a christian for a little while or someone who is otherwise biblically literate will likely understand what I mean by that, but I doubt the rest of the population might. When I say I am a christian, I often have to spend some time giving a nuanced and suitably detailed answer to the question, “What kind: catholic or protestant?” It would take even longer if I omitted the word christian altogether. Even though many have a flawed understanding of what a christian is, the image conjured up is not wholly removed from reality.

Another factor is that of etymology. Even though most people aren’t quite as passionate as I am about word origins, the root words in our nouns and adjectives are noticed by most people. In calling myself a christian, I make it clear that my identity is found in Christ. If I call myself a feminist, then my identity is clearly something to do with femininity. If, however, I call myself an egalitarian, my identity is clearly something to do with equality.

So here comes the nub of my argument: feminism is but a means to an end; that end being egalitarianism. The promotion of women’s rights is not complete, but it has made great progress in the last hundred years. Though, as mentioned above, I do not approve of some of the means used to achieve this. No reasonable person could deny that western society has been male dominated for far too long. In reacting against this, some aspects of feminism attempt to swing the pendulum too far the other way. But over time, I think we will obtain a fair, egalitarian balance, although it would be too optimistic to expect the elimination of all forms of sexism in my lifetime.


I don’t think any reasonable person can deny the evidence that feminism has elements of sexism within it. These are by no means present in everyone who labels themselves as a feminist and I would not label anyone a sexist unless that exhibited some evidence of a prejudice against a gender. If one is passionate about promoting equal rights and representation, then you are welcome to call yourself a feminist, though you may wish to clarify your position, as I hope I have clarified my position here, even if you don’t agree with it.

But my lingering question has to be, given the negative connotations that feminism has, why not call yourself an egalitarian? To me, it lacks the connotations that detract people from supporting feminism. One could spend time and effort trying to ‘correct’ public perceptions of feminism so that it is distanced from its sexist elements and the violence in its history, or one could drop the term, as the ‘black power’ movement became the ‘civil rights’ movement.

I will oppose the denigration or prejudice of anyone on the grounds of their gender, whether they be male or female. I recognise that the majority of such sexism is directed against women and so that is where the bulk of our attention must be. The so-called “trolling” of prominent women speaking out is abhorrent and must be opposed. Not because the perpetrators are men, but because what they say is abominable. I recognise that in many areas, not least in business, there are glass ceilings, holding women back. I fully support identifying how these glass ceilings operate and how to overcome them so that the best person, irrespective of their gender, gets the right job.

That’s my position.

I am an egalitarian.

Can a christian be non-religious?

I started writing this post at the start of June and have been struggling with it for some time. What I’ve had to do is re-write from scratch as I have just run into too many problems which I shall elucidate upon below.

My initial aim was to ask whether or not it was possible for a christian to be non-religious. My Facebook profile, under the heading of “religion” states that I am a religionless christian. This, however, is highly dependent upon my particular interpretation of the word “religion. So my intention was to look at the different ways in which religion was defined (by the dictionary, by the majority of people in our westernised society and by what the bible had to say) and compare them to see if and how christianity really fitted the criteria.

The trouble came when I tried to write up the definition from ‘society’s’ view that wasn’t either too narrow-minded so as exclude many valid viewpoints or too vague so as to lose any and all significant meaning. Eventually, I worked out what the problem was: it was a question over whether religion was something someone believes or something someone does. I asked the following question on Twitter:

“Do you view religion as something someone does or something they believe? Or are the 2 inseparable?”

These are the responses I received:


“Some believe, some ‘do’. I’ve met Christians who are devout & passionate about faith, & some who do it for the social life.”

“depends on the person – “religion” is a belief, “Religion” is an act. In my experience, they don’t always go together.”

“depends on the person. I know some who believe, some who do and some that go hand in hand.”

“when my human was non-religious she thought it was a story people believed. She didn’t know it was something people “do”.”

“Both. Without belief, actions are just rituals and without action, beliefs are just empty words.”

Possibly the last of the responses comes closest to my own view. I think of religion as being typified by ritual. But christianity need not be. Of course, some denominations do define themselves by such rituals, whether it be by liturgical chanting, having communion in a very rigid, set format or marching a cross around town on Good Friday. But none of these are specified in the bible as being necessary. On the contrary, the hallmark of christianity is faith, not works. But then we have to bear in mind the book of James where we find the closest thing to a christian definition of “religion”:

“If anyone thinks to be religious among you, yet not biding his tongue, but deceiving his heart, this one’s religion is in vain. Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

He goes on to say, famously:

“My brothers, what is the gain if anyone says he has faith but he does not have works? Is faith able to save him? But if a brother or sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace; be warmed and filled – but does not give them the things the body needs – what gain is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, you have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In other words, a correct understanding of christian belief necessarily entails action. Christianity has no room for those who would like to consider themselves theorists only. But these actions are not rites and rituals. Rather, they are actions that help people practically, something no amount of chanting or crossing yourself will ever achieve.

So can a christian be non-religious? Absolutely. You can turn christianity into a religion, if you so choose, but to let become christianity is a not the best idea. I finish with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“To be a christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.”

The language of christians

Having looked at the language of Jesus a couple of weeks ago, there ensued an interesting conversation on Twitter. If I can find the all the tweets in my history, I’ll try and transcribe it for you sometime. The verdict seemed to line up with my post, though it did get embellished with the grand title of ‘the educated Rabbi theory.’

What I want to do here is try to apply the principles drawn out of that. Specifically, the issue that motivated me in writing this couple of posts is clear communication. Regular readers will be aware that I often make grammatical errors, changing my sentence structure half way through, so I am as much chiding myself as anyone else.

If Jesus spoke in the everyday vernacular using down-to-earth examples, why shouldn’t we? As Kenneth Bailey puts it in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:

Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language. Christianity does not. This fact is of enormous significance.

Although different churches have their nuances, something I notice across denominations is that there is often a failure to use straightforward English.

To give a few examples:

1) High churches will often use the transliteration ‘Eucharist’ to describe a communion meal. Of course, ‘communion’ is not the most common of words, and there is a proliferation of other words used to describe the same meal. The lack of a straightforward word, commonly understood, can act as a barrier. Other words such as “mass” then carry connotations that not everyone finds helpful.

2) Lower churches will often throw around words like ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ without properly defining what they mean. As these words are in more common use, but with different connotations, there is a risk of being misunderstood. This can be a greater risk than the obfuscation mentioned above.

3) Some churches I have been to insist on using some translation of the bible whose language is no longer the lingua franca of today. The most common of these is the King James, though I find the language to now be archaic. As for the 9 appearances of unicorns…….

This is something I can get quite passionate about, as I think the church ought to make as much effort as possible to communicate the gospel as clearly as possible. While I choose to accept the gospel, as I understand it, I don’t force it on anyone else, but I do think that if someone is going to exercise their free will to reject it, that christians should do a good job of educating the world; so if the gospel is to be rejected (or accepted) then it should be done so for the right reasons.

So if we preach sermons, write articles or chat to friends using obscure or antiquated words, then we are asking them to use a dictionary just to understand us. This is the antithesis of good communication. Surely it’s better for us to be the ones putting in the efforts so that others can be in possession of the facts and ideas in as clear a manner as possible, so they can choose to make up their minds based on the best information.

Anything which separates people from God is a bad thing. I’m opposed to turning christianity into a religion, where ritual (which may have originated as trying to get close to God) is now a major turn-off or else the ritual is mistaken for being the entirety of the faith, rather than a symbol pointing to something greater.

One word that has crept into the vocabulary which describes the alienating words used by christians is “christianese.” Kristin Tennant has written a few really good pieces on this at her Half Way To Normal blog (Should all Christian jargon be taboo? & Trimming back the Christianese) and at the end I’ve included a video which tackles the issue in a very tongue-in-cheek way.

This is not a new issue. When Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate his aim was to make the bible understandable in the common tongue. Long after it became outdated, its continued use became more a tool of social and political control, since the ordinary person could no longer understand it and relied on their local priest to tell them what it meant.  William Tyndale translated into a more modern vernacular and was murdered for doing so.

I’d like to think that no one these days would kill one another for democratising faith, though use of ecclesiastic and religious terminology, which may have been useful in another era, now serves to distance people from God, rather than help bring the two together.

The idea of God coming to earth in human form (incarnational theology) has a strong emphasis of God meeting us where we are, which transformed the Jewish paradigm of ritual purity before approaching God.

So my proposition is that christians should extend this courtesy likewise. We need to be aware of the language that we use, recognise where definitions commonly interpreted by modern folk differ from the interpretation we have and also to refrain from using turns of phrase. The gospel may be hard to accept, but it shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Let’s not put any obstacles in another’s way by our use of language.

The language of Jesus

Of late, I have been slowly working my way through Kenneth Bailey’s work  ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which I so far am enjoying almost as much as I find it challenging. I have a lot of respect for Bailey & his work, but something in the introduction has been nagging at me, as it seems to contradict another biblical scholar for whom I have a lot of respect: Tom Wright. The question concerns what language Jesus spoke and therefore what is the ‘original’ language of the gospels. Bailey summaries thus:

“We are obliged to consider four stages through which our canonical Gospels have passed. These are:

  1. The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic
  2. The Aramaic eyewitness testimony to that life and teaching
  3. The translation of that testimony into Greek
  4. The selection, arrangement and editing of the Greek texts into the Gospels”

So here Bailey seems to be assuming that all of the content of the gospels we have are translations from the Aramaic.

Wright presents a subtly different picture in the preface to his New Testament For Everyone (NTFE) where he writes:

“Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels are written in Greek. Greek was everybody’s second language at the time, a bit like English in many parts of our world today.”

At a talk I was at when he expanded on this recently he gave an example of a young boy who approached him in the streets of Jerusalem to try to sell him something. The boy tried several languages before finding out that Wright was English.

Simply because most of us who have English as our first language don’t have a second language, it is presumptuous and condescending to assume that others are monolingual.

One place in the gospels this be highlighted (though I failed entirely to notice until it was pointed out to me) is when Jesus is conversation with Pontius Pilate. In what language was the conversation conducted? Aramaic, Greek or did they have a translator present?

Of course, one may reasonably ask who was the eyewitness present who preserved the conversation for later use by the gospel writers, but I’ll leave that for you to consider.

One potential problem this leaves for the modern day reader is what happens if you try to reconstruct the Aramaic from the Greek. I am informed, though I lack the expertise to check, that some words used in the Greek have no Aramaic equivalent, or that if there is an appropriate match, that it would be more likely that a different Greek word may be used. How much this changes the theology, I don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting point.

There is an intriguing hint of the possibility of the existence of a new lost Aramaic gospel. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he quotes an earlier writer name Papias, whose works now are only known to survive in fragments, usually quoted by others. The following is taken from Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. In one passage, he makes this intriguing statement:

“Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement [sunetaxato] in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialecto], but each person [heskastos] interpreted [hermeneusen] them as best he could.”

This is the translation used in Bauckham’s work. This raises the possibility that Matthew’s Greek gospel is a translation from an earlier version composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic. I ought to add that another view in this is that ‘hebraidi dialecto’ means ‘in a Hebrew style’ rather than strictly referring to the language of composition. I don’t know enough to be able to have a strong opinion on this, so I will let you consider which is more likely.

Aramaic was the language of the ‘common’ people that Jesus would have interacted with most days. Not only that, but in his use of parables he displays a very down-to-earth approach. His use of metaphor is always done in terms that would have been readily interpreted to the first century audience in that geographical area. This is something has a great eye for, having lived and worked in the Middle East for several decades.

At this juncture, I probably ought to point out that later in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ Bailey does correct himself a little, though it is more of a sidenote to the effect that Jesus probably could speak Greek as well as Aramaic.

If we accept that Jesus primarily used Aramaic, rather than Greek or Hebrew, what then? Well, my word limit is up for this post, so I’ll carry this on later.

How do you define a christian: Concluding remarks

This has been a brief overview of some of my thinking as to how we may define a christian. I’ve looked as self-definition, creeds & confessions, the sacraments as boundaries and a cocktail of beliefs.

Hopefully, if you’ve had the patience to read it all, you will have realised that I don’t have a definitive version of what defines a christian and what doesn’t. All I have done is looked at some of the ways in which christians have been defined and shown how they fall short of making a clear demarcation. What that leaves us with is a grey area, and quite a large one at that. Does that mean that there isn’t a definition? No; I don’t think so.

Lurking in the background to all this is of course, the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those unfamiliar with it, please follow the link above. To my mind, there is a difference between there not being a definition and for me as an individual being honest enough to say “I don’t know.”

The way I think of it is like this: The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite narrow, but we can perceive multiple colours within that narrow range. We might very clearly say that an atheist is a radio wave or a Muslim may be an X-ray, they clearly aren’t in the visible light spectrum. When we look at ourselves, we are more inclined to say those in our own nearby vicinity are christians, and perceive those as being far away as being at least questionable. So you might say that I sit at the orange end and am happy to worship alongside the reds and yellows, but I’m not so sure about the purple lot. Meanwhile, those that I perceive as being merely purple are having a fight over whether they’re indigo or violet, whilst viewing me as being a long way from their beliefs and practices. Simply because there is a spectrum of belief within christianity doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “true christian,” just as you can’t really uphold the idea that there’s no such thing as “visible light.”

Most importantly, I don’t think it is the job of any individual or any organisation to make a determination of who is and who isn’t a christian. The writer to the Hebrews said “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” (Hebrews 4: 12,13). I’d rather let God decide. It’s a far better judge than I am. Each of the factors discussed in the parts of this series is, I think, a strong indicator, but any one of them alone is not sufficient to be able to tell apart who is a christian and who isn’t. Throughout this, I tried where possible (and probably failed) to distinguish between being discerning and being judgemental.

We are called to be discerning, but warned against judging others; it’s a fine line to tread and I know I get it wrong on plenty of occasions, just as I see others around me do the same (and yes, I will confess to judging people because they judge others).

I think I probably ought to call a halt to it there. So that’s an outline of my muddled thinking. Do you try and define who is and who isn’t a christian? Is it too thorny an issue? Do you think I’m a heretic that should be burned at the stake?