Clouded Beers

As explained in my blog “Bulut” on, certain Turkish television stations, no doubt with good intentions, have started with a cloud or a mist to hide beers and other sorts of alcoholic beverages in the hands of actors in movies and soap operas.

I presume that the purpose is to make people forget the fact that originally the man had a beer (or whatever) in his hand. This, in turn, is supposed to deprive the audience of the desire to drink alcohol. However, the question is whether this will work.

In many languages euphemisms are used to “hide” certain objects, persons, or locations in the general discourse. An outstanding example of this is the word toilet. In the middle of the 16th century this word was imported into English from the French word “toilette.” This word did not even refer to the place unspeakable, but carried the meaning of “small cloth, doily, dressing table.”[i]

However, when this fancy French word was applied in its new meaning, its connotations changed. Then new euphemisms had to be found, such as lavatory (literally: washing-place), latrine (also washing-place), privy (old English for private place), comfort station (whatever that means), loo (the British version), John (I really have no idea where this variant comes from), and so on and so on.[ii] Nevertheless, whatever man has done to embellish the unspeakable in his language, the new term used nearly immediately takes the connotations of the word discharged. “What is a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” as Shakespeare said.[iii]

Consequently, a cloud or mist over a pint of beer hardly makes any difference. The cloud simply turns out to be a representamen, or sign, for the object or reality behind it, and the interpretant in the mind of the person watching the movie instantly reads: beer. Furthermore, this word turns into a new representamen with its object on the shelves in the supermarket or in the refrigerator. And the interpretant in our mind says “thirsty.” In fact, this process is enhanced in Turkey as the term bulut gibi olmak (to become like a cloud) means to get dead drunk. And who knows where this connotation will take people.

There are scores of vices on television and in movies. We cannot hide these vices by using euphemisms. We would simply have to prohibit showing them. But this would only create problems of a different sort.

[i] Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Random House, 1999.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, act II.

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C. S. Peirce in Antioch

Yesterday we had an experience that made me take a second look at the ideas of the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce.

In his theory of categories in human cognition, Peirce operated with the terms Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. Firstness is the abstraction of a quality as it is immediately felt. Secondness is the brute fact behind the Firstness, and Thirdness is the “mode of being of that which is such as it is bringing a second and a third into relation to each other.”[i]

This brings us to the semiotics of Piece. He explains signification with the three concepts of representamen (the sign), object (the subject matter of the sign) and interpretant (the interpreting sign).[ii]

Yesterday, while sitting in the upper chamber of my Antioch house, I heard a loud thunder. However, the sky was blue, and besides, the thunder did not stop. On the contrary, it became louder. I experienced firstness. The thunder, furthermore, was a representamen, a sign – in this case an index – of what created the sign, the secondness. My mind, when recognising the representamen, created an interpretant: a fighter aircraft. And there the object was! Thundering past us on the blue sky!

But this was not the end of it. In my mind the interpretant itself became a new representamen (or sign): What is the interpretant of a fighter in the sky? Most often it is a drill or a war game. Nevertheless, Antakya (Antioch) is located only 50 kilometres from the civil war in Syria. The situation between Turkey and Syria is not too good, and a Turkish fighter has been shot down by the Syrians. Due to this situation, and as the noise of more fighters reached my ear, my mind inevitably created another interpretant: war.

It was interesting to experience how a change in one’s personal situation also changes the connotations in one’s mind.

Having looked at the sky for a couple of minutes, we saw that the fighters made white lines, drawing pictures on the sky. The first interpretant was dismissed: no war anyway! What then? After a couple of seconds, a new interpretant popped up in my mind: a drill in preparation of the Turkish national holiday of October 29.

Our mind always tries to understand what it finds obscure. If no immediate explanation is found, it resorts to abduction; but as things are sorted out in our mind, the explanation is found by induction and deduction.


[i] Charles Sanders Peirce, A Letter to Lady Welby, CP 8.328, 1904, quoted at,  accessed October 29, 2013.

[ii] “Charles Sanders Peirce,” Wikipedia, accessed October 29, 2013.

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The term GOD in the Bible

We may fittingly start our essays on interpretation by considering some concepts that puzzled the theologians of ancient Antioch, namely those of GOD, LORD, and LOGOS. We shall start with having a look at the word GOD.

If we consider this word in modern English, it usually carries the connotation of an object of worship or veneration. In Christendom its main connotation is that of a transcendent Creator who has revealed Himself to man. As the word GOD is used on Jesus as well, it is generally believed that he is part of a trinity consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It should be mentioned, though, that the New Testament does not use the term GOD on the Holy Spirit.

The Greeks

Many of the Christians of the second century were speaking Greek although their native tongue may have been some other language. This also applies to Antioch.  The word for GOD in Greek is θεος [theos]. The denotation of this word is defined “a God (as an individual), also God, Deity.”[i] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words has this definition: “THEOS (θεος), (A) in the polytheism of the Greeks, denoted a god or deity.” It adds: “(B) (a) Hence the word was appropriated by Jews and retained by Christians to denote the only true God.”[ii]

Among the Greeks, the term GOD had connotations of worship and devotion. You had to appease the gods or secure their approval by offering sacrifices to them. These gods and goddesses had differing functions. Therefore, one day the ancient Greek may have had to offer a sacrifice to one god and the following day to another. This is what we call polytheism. In the article Religion in ancient Greece, Wikipedia has the following observation: “Ancient Greek theology was based on polytheism; that is, the assumption that there were many gods and goddesses.” Under the subheading Sacrifice it continues: “Worship in Greece typically consisted of sacrificing domestic animals at the altar with hymns and prayer. Parts of the animal were then burned for the gods; the worshippers would eat the rest.”[iii]

Consequently, when in the world of the first century the word THEOS was heard, people were inclined to think of worship and polytheism.

The Jews

However, among the ancient Hebrews or Israelites their word for GOD had other connotations. The word אלהים [elohīm] is the plural form of the word for GOD, אלוה [elōah]. Except in the Book of Job the singular form of this word is not used very often in the Hebrew Bible. The plural is by far its most common form. It is used on God the Almighty, but also on false gods as in the Book of Judges 16:23: “Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god [elohīm],  and to rejoice; for they said, Our god [elohīm] hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hands.”[iv] Evidently the plural is used in the Old Testament, not just to indicate plurality but also to indicate respect.[v]

The word GOD in plural is in certain cases used on idols. In Exodus 32:4 we read: “After he had made it a golden calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel …” Here the translators of the King James Version have used the plural form, which is grammatically correct, although there was only one idol, one golden calf.[vi]

The word GOD is even used on human beings. Jesus was quoting Psalm 82:6 in the Old Testament when he according to the Gospel of John (10:34-36) said: “Is it not written in your law, I said ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest ; because I said, I am the Son of God?”

When the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, had the Old Testament translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the birth of Jesus, they used the Greek word θεος [theos] for the Hebrew word אלהים [elohīm]. In this translation the Greek word is in singular when rendering the Hebrew majestic plural. The plural θεοι [theoi], however, is used when the word elohīm in the Hebrew text designates real plurality.

In his Hebrew Grammar, the German orientalist Wilhelm Gesenius has an interesting observation on the term “sons of God.”

  • There is another use of  בן־ or בני to denote membership of a guild or society (or tribe or any definite class). Thus בני האלים or בני האלהים Gn 6:2, 4, Jb 1:6, 2:1, 38:7 (cf. also בני האלהים Ps 29:1, 89:7) properly means not sons of god(s), but beings of the class of האלהים or האלים.[vii]

If this is correct, the Jews in ancient times understood the term “sons of god”” to mean DIVINE BEINGS and recognised the existence of such beings although they did not hold them to be equal with the Supreme God, the only god to be worshiped.

It seems that the translators of the Septuagint Version agreed. According to the Book of Job chapter 2 verse 1, “the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD.” Here the Septuagint version says: “ηλθον οι αγγελοι του θεου παραστηναι εναντι κυριου.”[viii] ‘Sons of God’ has been translated with ’angels of God.’[ix] This is also how the term בני האלהים  [benē ha- elohīm] as used in Genesis 6:2 is understood in the early Christian writings of Peters second Letter (chapter 2 verse 4) and the Letter of Jude (verse 6). Genesis 6:2 has “sons of God” while 2 Peter and Jude referring to the same incident have “angels.”

All this is in harmony with this commandment in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 20: 3): “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is not a denial of other divine beings. However, they are not to be worshiped. A god may be a superhuman person or even a human. All the same, worship should be directed to only one person, the Creator of the universe.

The connotations are beautifully summed up by the rabbi Ernest Klein. Under אלהים in his Etymological Dictionary he writes: “1 god. 2 God (plural of majesty). 3 supernatural beings. 4 judges.”[x]

The early Christians

The first of the early Christians were Jews. Consequently, they were familiar with Hebrew, and as we see in the New Testament, their connotations in connection with the word GOD [ אלהים] matched those given by Ernest Klein as quoted above.

Many of the early Christians, however, were more familiar with the Old Testament in Greek as represented by the Septuagint Version. Nevertheless, when we read the Greek New Testament or its translations, we see that the connotations they had to θεος [theos], the Greek word used for God, were similar to those they had in connection withאלהים  [elohīm], the Hebrew word for God.

Thus the plural of the word θεος [theos] is used for false gods in Acts 7:40, 14:11, and 1 Corinthians 8:5. The early Christians, though, did not regard them as gods in the sense of objects of worship. For them there was only one God, as stressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:5, and by Jesus in John 17:3.

Serve and worship

This brings us to the two words used in connection with the religious acts performed by man towards their object of worship. In Greek especially two words are used, namely those of προσκυνεω [prosküneo:  to make obeisance, do reverence to] and λατρευω [latreuo: to serve, to render religious service or homage].[xi]

The word προσκυνεω [prosküneo] may or may not have religious connotations. The early Christians in Antioch knew from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament that Abraham “did obeisance [προσεκυνησε] to the people of the land, to the sons of Chet.” [xii] Naturally, he was not worshiping the Hittites but showing them his respect. Ruth did the same to Boaz (Ruth 2:10)[xiii] and Bathsheba to King David (1 Kings 1:16),[xiv] just to mention a couple of examples.

The word προσκυνεω [prosküneo] in the Septuagint has mostly been translated from a Hebrew word derived from the root שחה. In many English translations, it has been rendered WORSHIP. This may be correct in certain contexts, but in general the word just describes an action, that of bowing down. Consequently, the early Christians understood that this word described an action that could be performed in respect to anybody, but naturally not to any god except the Creator.[xv]

When it comes to the word λατρευω [latreuo: to serve, to render religious service or homage], it occurs 21 times in the New Testament, and always in connection with the worship of God. The same applies to its noun λατρεια [latreia: religious service] which occurs 5 times.

To sum it up: comparing the use of προσκυνεω [prosküneo] in the New Testament to that of λατρευω [latreuo], one gets the clear impression that λατρευω [latreuo] was something that was to be directed to God only while προσκυνεω [prosküneo] could be directed to anybody you wanted to show respect. This person, though, might feel it in order to decline, asking the other part to direct his respect to God.

After the apostolic age

As the early Christians, Jews and gentiles alike, regarded the Old Testament as their sacred writing, it is only natural that their idea of monotheism was the idea they found there: many persons could be called gods but only one should be worshiped.[xvi] However, also many persons who were not acquainted with the use of the word GOD in the Old Testament became Christians. Thus the connotations of this word changed within the Christian community. To them a god was not just a mighty person but a member of a pantheon. Consequently the word GOD when used on Christ gave way to some confusion. Let us consider an example.

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine abound 100 AD, or about the time when the Apostle John died in Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. Justin had a dialogue with a person named Trypho, and speaking about Jesus in his pre-human existence and about the visit of three angels to Abraham, he wrote:

  • I replied again, “If I could not have proved to you from the Scriptures that one of those three is God, and is called Angel, because, as I already said, He brings messages to those to whom God the Maker of all things wishes [messages to be brought], then in regard to Him who appeared to Abraham on earth in human form in like manner as the two angels who came with Him, and who was God even before the creation of the world, it were reasonable for you to entertain the same belief as is entertained by the whole of your nation.”
  • “Assuredly,” he said, “for up to this moment this has been our belief.”
  • Then I replied, “Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavor to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things, — numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world — above whom there is no other God — has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with
  • Then the fourth of those who had remained with Trypho said, “It must therefore necessarily be said that one of the two angels who went to Sodom, and is named by Moses in the Scripture Lord, is different from Him who also is God and appeared to Abraham.”
  • “It is not on this ground solely,” I said, “that it must be admitted absolutely that some other one is called Lord by the Holy Spirit besides Him who is considered Maker of all things; not solely [for what is said] by Moses, but also [for what is said] by David. For there is written by him: ‘The Lord says to my Lord, Sit on My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool,’ as I have already quoted. And again, in other words: ‘Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever. A sceptre of equity is the sceptre of Thy kingdom: Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity: therefore God, even Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.’ If, therefore, you assert that the Holy Spirit calls some other one God and Lord, besides the Father of all things and His Christ, answer me; for I undertake to prove to you from Scriptures themselves, that He whom the Scripture calls Lord is not one of the two angels that went to Sodom, but He who was with them, and is called God, that appeared to Abraham.” [xvii] (Italics ours.)

That Justin would speak of another god (please remember that the word is not capitalised in ancient Greek) hardly made Christians well versed in the Old Testament lift their eyebrows. After all, Justin was basing his claim on the Scriptures. However, to contemporary Christians with a pagan background, the idea of more than one god no doubt sounded like polytheism, and while shunning their former religion, they tried to interpret the Christian ‘lingo’ by means of Hellenistic philosophy. This, though, exposed them to aberrant decoding. [xviii]

The result was that some claimed that the Father and the Son are just different modes the Almighty reveals Himself. This school of thought was called Modalism. To the other extreme were the Adoptionists who said that Jesus was a common human until his baptism. At that moment (or at his ascension) the Almighty adopted him as His son and infused him with the divine Logos.

Between these two extremes a lot of other explanations flourished, but common to most of them was the idea that God the Father is superior to his Son.[xix]

The misunderstandings about the meaning of the word GOD could have been avoided if the readers of the Old and the New Testament had interpreted the text by means of the codes the writers of these texts had shared with their original target groups.

To give an example: In Turkey a police officer or a soldier who is killed during his duty is called a şehit [martyr]. To interpret this Turkish word within a Christian framework would be aberrant decoding. A similar phenomenon is the Arabic word for apostle [رسول: rasūl]. If used in a Christian context, this word refers to somebody sent out by Jesus or by the congregation (the connotations: messenger, envoy, delegate &c). If used in a Muslim context, it has the connotations of a religious leader, not unlike the Judges of ancient Israel, such as Gideon and Samuel (the connotations: prophet, the Prophet, the Messenger of God, Mohammed).[xx]

To understand a message not originally addressed to us personally or to the interpretative community to which one belongs, it is vital to acquaint oneself with the codes shared by the writer and his intended readers.[xxi]

[i] C. Berg, Græsk-Dansk Ordbog (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel – Nordisk Forlag, 1963).

[ii] W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictonary of Old and New Testament Words (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 1981), 160.

[iii] “Religion in ancient Greece” Wikipedia. Accessed August 22, 2013,

[iv] The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford:Oxford University Press, (no year)), 282.

[v]  “Several prominent epithets of the Bible describe the Jewish God in plural terms: Elohim, Adonai, and El Shaddai. Some scholars take these names to represent an early stage in Jewish religion when God was still seen as a council or family of dieties; others note that the present Biblical text always employs grammatically singular verb forms and argue that they represent a majestic plural.Similarly, the God of the Qur‘an employs the Arabic pronoun nahnu (“We”) or its associated verb suffix in many verses. Some grammarians distinguish this divine usage as a pluralis excellentiae rather than a majestic plural.” – “Majestic Plural,” Wikipedia. Accessed August 27, 2013,

[vi]The Holy Bible, 98.

[vii] Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), § 128, 2, rem. 2c.

[viii] A. Rahlfs ed., Septuagint, (Stutgart: Würtembergische Bibelanstalt, 1935 (9th edition of 1971)

[ix]   בני האלהים [sons of God/gods]  >  οι αγγελοι του θεου [the angels of God].

[x] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for English Readers (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1987) 29.

[xi] Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary, 235-36.

[xii] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, [no year]) 27.

[xiii] Ibid., 351.

[xiv] Ibid., 441.

[xv] The Gospel of Mathew uses the Greek word in connection with persons bowing down to Jesus, even by people not regarding him as divine, such as the Three Sages and a Phoenician woman. Jesus himself uses is on an action performed by a default debtor to his creditor (Mathew 18:26).

[xvi] See Luke 4:8; John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:5, 6.

[xvii] The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co. 1885) 444-46.

[xviii] “Aberrant decoding: Eco’s term referring to decoding a text by means of a different code from that used to encode it. See also: Codes, Decoding, Encoding and decoding model of communication.” –  Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners: Glossary of Key Terms, accessed September 28, 2013,

[xix] J. Daniélou, A.H. Couratin and John Kent, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, Volume 2 (Baltimore: Pelican, 1969), 79.

[xx] Rohi Baalbaki, al-Mawrid: A modern Arabic-English Dictionary (Beirut: Dal el-Ilm lilmalayin, 2005), 585.

[xxi] “Encoding and decoding model of communication: Following Jakobson’s model of interpersonal communication which moved beyond the basic transmission model of communication Stuart Hall proposed a model of mass communication which underlined the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes and a social context.” – Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners: Glossary of Key Terms, accessed September 28, 2013,

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Connotations and interpretation

As the theologians of the School of Antioch were especially preoccupied with the Old Testament, we may fittingly start our excursus on exegesis by considering three texts from the Old Testament, namely Genesis 19:8, Jonah 3:3, and Isaiah 7:14.

In their interpretation the Antiochenes used the grammatical/historical approach. First they analysed what the words and sentences of the text was saying, and then they used its historical background to find out what was meant.

Genesis 19:8

Now, let us have a look at what the patriarch Lot said when his house was surrounded by men who wanted to rape his guests:

“Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.”[i]

To us Westerners the suggestion of Lot is atrocious, and we find it hard to understand how a father can offer his two daughters to rapists. We may even get the impression that the text is anti-feministic. However, the cautious reader may realise that there is something hidden in the text that he does not quite understand.

Linguistically the text does not present any problem. It is easy to understand and there is nothing hidden in the original Hebrew text. So we have to we take to look at history, in this case at the culture of ancient Middle East.

First of all we have to remember that Lot offered his two daughters to the potential rapists to protect his guests. In ancient Middle East your guest was sacred. You had to protect him or her with all what you had, your own life and that of your family included.

For example, among the pre-Islamic Arabs, if a refugee from a neighbouring tribe came rushing in and touched the cords of your tent saying: “Dachīlak!” (freely translated: “I seek asylum”) you were obliged to protect him with what you had. Otherwise you would be regarded as a man without honour.

The story goes the Arabic prince Samaw’al [or Samuel] ibn ‘Ādiyā, who was living before the birth of Islam, once promised to keep the personal belongings of the poet Imru’ al-Qais, who was going abroad to seek support against his enemies.

As it happened, these enemies, led by a man called Hārith who had been sent by the Arabic prince al-Nu’man ibn al-Mundhir, appeared in front of the al-Ablaq castle that belonged to Samaw’al and was situated north of Medina. He demanded the belongings of Imru’ al-Qais, but Samaw’al refused to deliver the items. Then Hārith managed to catch the son of Samaw’al and threatened the father with killing the son in case the demand was not met. Samaw’al refused, and his son was killed.

Today Samaw’al is remembered in the Arabic saying “awfa min as-samaw’al” [more loyal than Samaw’al]. This illustrates very well how loyalty to guests, and to protégés in general, is appreciated in the Middle East. Lot’s offer to the would-be rapists may reflect a desperate attempt of a host to protect his guests.

However, the Middle East offers another possible interpretation. Some years ago carpet dealers, when their customers turned out to be too unfair in their bargain, used to say: “You take the carpet! It is a gift!”

Taken out of context this might be understood literally. But this was not the intention of the carpet dealer. The purpose of the expression was to tell the customer in no uncertain term that he had gone too far. [ii]

Was this what Lot meant to say? We do not know. But if it was, it would not be an unusual style in the Middle East.

Jonah 3:3

“So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”[iii]

The problem with this text naturally is the claim that Nineveh i a “city o three days’ journey.”

Years ago, when I took Hebrew lessons at the University of Copenhagen, my teacher, who by the way was Bent Melchior, the chief rabbi of Denmark, told us that these words represented one of the exaggerations you find in the Old Testament.

There is no help in the text itself. It is even added that Jonah “began to enter into the city a day’s journey.” A city of three days’ journey would be a city with a diameter of about 100 kilometres.

Again we have to consider common usage in the Middle East.

When workers from Asia Minor about fifty years ago started to immigrate to Europe, some of them told us that they came from Konya [Iconium]. During our conversation, however, we learned that they were from a small city called Kulu about 150 kilometres from Konya (5 days’ journey by ancient standard). Subsequently we realised that the name of the principal city is used on the entire province.

This, in fact, has given way to some discussion about the name of Antakya [Antioch]. Antakya is the capital of the Turkish province of Hatay. Therefore many prefer to call it Hatay instead of Antakya.

And this is not just a Turkish phenomenon. Years ago while in Egypt, we visited the ruins of Memphis south of Cairo. We went by taxi, and the taxi driver lost his way. We were somehow surprised when he asked people in the street: “What way to Egypt [مصر : maṣr]?” It dawned on me that he used the name of the entire country on its capital.

Does the Book of Jonah apply the name of Nineveh to the whole province? We do not know, but it is likely.

Isaiah 7:14

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[iv]

Here critics have rightly pointed out that the word “virgin” is not an exact translation of the Hebrew word עלמה [‘almah], which according to the dictionary carries the meaning of “lass, maiden”[v] and “marriageable girl, maiden, young woman.” [vi] The Hebrew word for virgin is בתולה [betūlah] as seen in Leviticus 21:12-14. Consequently, they say, the female in question needs not be a virgin.

However, when the Jews in Alexandria a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ had the Old Testament translated into Greek (the Septuagint Version) the translators chose the Greek word παρθενος [parthenos: virgin] when translating עלמה [‘almah].[vii] Why?

We got an answer years ago in Istanbul. While speaking with some of our friends the subject of the conversation turned to a young woman we knew. Due to her age, and due to my European background, I called her ‘a girl’ [kız]. One of my friends turned on me exclaiming: “She is not a girl. She is a woman [kadın]!” In the Middle East a girl is a girl until she has been to bed with a man. Then she is a woman.

Consequently the denotation the word עלמה [‘almah] is “young female” but its connotations of are those connected to virginity.

Interestingly the translation of the New Testament from Greek into Hebrew by Delitsch uses the word עלמה [‘almah] for παρθενος [parthenos], the Greek word for virgin.[viii]

The problem of understanding texts from different centuries and different cultures does not consist in the denotations of the words used but in their connotations. If we neglect exploring of these, we are in danger of aberrant decoding.

[i] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1960), 14.

[ii] Compare De Lacy O’Leary, Colloquial Arabic (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD, 1965), 175.

[iii] The Bible, 725.

[iv] Ibid., 550.

[v] Reuven Sivan and Edward A. Levenston, The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 194.

[vi] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987) 473.

[vii] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, [no year]) 842.

[viii] haberîth haHadashah (The Bible Society in Israel [no year]), 48.

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Antioch and interpretation


    I have for some time been writing on two blogs, or rather, some of my articles on Antioch – The Queen of the East in BlogspotI have re-published on Antiochene in WordPress. However, my long stay in Antakya, formerly Antioch, and my research in connection with my book about the place (Antioch on the Orontes: A History and a Guide (Hamilton Books, 2012)) have introduced me to the School of Antioch, a special approach to the discipline of interpretation practiced by the theologians in Antioch between the third to the fifth century.[i]

What made the approach to biblical interpretation of the Antiochenes different from that of the theologians in Alexandria and from that of the Gnostics was their reliance on history and grammar and their avoidance of using the text as a basis for allegories.

Consequently, I have decided to use my blog Antiochene in WordPress on essays about interpretation. The texts I intend to consider may be religious or secular texts, and my approach will no doubt be influenced by my interest in semiotics. The texts will to a great extent be non-fiction, texts used in connection with communication. Consequently, I do not feel that I should beware of the so-called the “fallacy of intention.    In a chapter titled “The Intentional Fallacy” Peter Lamarque has provided us with the following explanation to this expression:

    “The expression ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ was coined by the literary critic William K. Wimsatt and the philosopher Monroe C. Beardsley in a jointly authored article with that title, published in 1946. A fallacy is an invalid mode of reasoning, and Wimsatt and Beardsley claimed that it is fallacious to base a critical judgement about the meaning or value of a literary work on ‘external evidence’ concerning the author’s intentions. In another paper, they described the fallacy as ‘a confusion between the poem and its origins, a special case of … the Genetic Fallacy’. Their own position, in contrast, held that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art’.”[ii]


    But criticism of a piece of literary art is one thing, analysing communicational text is something else. Thus my approach will be more in line with the method described by Umberto Eco in his book The Role of the Reader.[iii] In this book on page Eco gives us illustrates the mechanisms of communication with this model:


As seen on this figure, it is important that the addressee is familiar with the codes and subcodes used by the sender. Otherwise the result will be “aberrant decoding” – to use the term of Umberto Eco.

I am especially interested in the connotations of words and the misunderstandings that result when sender and addressee belong to different cultures and therefore applying different codes. This problem is all the more acute when the sender and the addressee are separated by centuries – or even millenniums.

To mention a single example of how denotation and connotations of a word may change within a few centuries is the rendering of chapter 4 verse 1 in Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the King James Version of the Bible: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead …”[iv] When the King James Version was published in 1611 the word “quick” meant “living.”Today its denotation and connotations are different.

Another example of how terms are misunderstood by people of contemporary cultures is a Danish translation of an expression used by the late Saddam Hussein on George Bush Junior. In Arabic the term used for “junior” isأصغر [aṣgar], which literally means“minor.” The Danish newspaper Politikenlet Saddam Hussein speak of the “small Bush.” Saddam Hussein may not have had a great amount of respect for George Bush, but he was quoted for saying something he did not mean. Similar misunderstandings in the communication between the cultures of the Middle East and the Western World are multiple. I have no ambition in finding a solution to these misunderstandings, but I do find it entertaining analysing them.

In case you find the subject interesting, I am looking forward to your comments.



[i] See Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, Antioch on the Orontes: A History and a Guide (Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2012) 171-73.

[ii] Patricia Waugh, ed. Literary Theory and Criticism (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2006) 177.

[iii] Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

[iv] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: The british & Foreign Bible Society, 1960).

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Habib al- Najjar and St. George


 In Antakya Mount Silpius is called the Mountain of Habib al-Najjar (Turkish: Habib-i Neccar). According to a local legend a disciple of Jesus called Habib al-Najjar was martyred in Antioch in the first century. This assumption is usually based on Sura XXXVI in the Kur’an although no name is mentioned there.

As shown earlier, there was hardly any Christian martyr in Antioch during the first century, and the only martyr named Habib is from Şanlıurfa (Urfa or Edessa) and from the third century. (See “Habib-i Neccar and Sham’un,” Antioch – The Queen of the East,

Nevertheless, halfway up the slopes of the south-western hill of Silpius you find a grotto supposed to have belonged to Habib al-Najjar.


When Richard Pococke visited Antioch in connection with his journey to the Middle East (1737-42) he found a sanctuary up the slopes of Mount Silpius he called the Church of St. George. He writes:

“About halfway up the south-west hill, and almost opposite to the aqueduct: that is below the iron gate, is the church of saint George; the ascent is very difficult; the Greeks say this church belongs to them, but they permit the Armenians to make use of it; there are about three hundred of the former, and fifty of the latter communion in Antioch.” [1]

Is this church the same as the present cave of Habib al-Najjar? We do not know. Its location and the way it looks would indicate a similarity.




 [1]. John Pinkerton,A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels in all parts of the world, Vol. X (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811 ), 561.

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The Quartodecimans and the Easter Controversy

Speaking about Easter or Passover, we have to mention the controversy about the timing. This strife was finally settled at the Council at Nicaea in AD 325, where it was agreed to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on a Sunday whatever the date. In Wikipedia we read:

“The second stage in the Easter controversy centers around the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Granted that the great Easter festival was always to be held on a Sunday, and was not to coincide with a particular age of the moon, which might occur on any day of the week, a new dispute arose as to the determination of the Sunday itself, since Sundays can occur on any date of the month. Shortly before the Nicean Council, in 314, the Provincial Council of Arles in Gaul had maintained that the Lord’s Paschshould be observed on the same day throughout the world and that each year the Bishop of Rome should send out letters setting the date of Easter.” [1]

First time we hear of divergences in this question is around the AD 120. According to the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339) Polycarp (d. 155), the bishop of Smyrna and a companion of Papias,[2]who had known the Apostle John, had travelled to Rome to convince the Pope that the right thing was to commemorate the death of Jesus on the 14th of the lunar month Nisan. In Rome, and in the West, Sunday had been chosen instead to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

Quoting Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (d. c. 202) Eusebius writes:

“And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of [Pope] Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.” [3]

Interestingly, Polycarp based the celebration of the 14thof Nisan on the practise of the apostles. This would be in harmony with the words of Jesus when he instituted the Lords Supper: “Then he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it in pieces, and handed it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Keep on doing this in memory of me.'” [4]

Polycarp and Anicetus parted in disagreement, but in peace. But this was not the end of the controversy. A footnote to Eusebius has this to tell us:

“About 170 a.d. the controversy broke out again in Laodicea, the chief disputants being Melito of Sardis and Apolinarius of Hierapolis. In this controversy Melito advocated the traditional Asiatic custom of observing the fourteenth day, while Apolinarius opposed it.” [5]

Many years after the death of Polycarp, the problem was up again. Eusebius writes:

“A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour.” [6]

Polycrates, the Bishop of Ephesus where the Apostle John had died a hundred years earlier, went to Rome to see Pope Victor (d. 199). Eusebius quotes Polycrates addressing Victor with these words:

“We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.

“He fell asleep at Ephesus.

“And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.

“Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?

“All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’” [7]

It seems, therefore, that Christians in the East, Antioch included, continued to observe the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan as the day of Jesus’ death.

Interestingly, there was never any disagreement between the eastern and western churches about the date of Jesus’ resurrection. All of them admitted that it fell on Sunday, Nisan 16. The issue was about which day to observe. In the words of Catholic Encyclopedia:

“The question thus debated was therefore primarily whether Easter was to be kept on a Sunday, or whether Christians should observe the Holy Day of the Jews, the fourteenth of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews were called Quartodecimans or terountes(observants); but even in the time of Pope Victor this usage hardly extended beyond the churches of Asia Minor.” [8]

That the Sunday celebration of western churches was for the Lord’s resurrection is clear enough. But what did the Quartodecimans, or the eastern churches do on Nisan 14?

These words of Eusebius seem to clarify the matter:

“A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s Passover.” [9]

Keeping in mind that the 14th of Nisan started at sunset on Thursday and continued until Friday evening, it is reasonable to believe that the ancient custom consisted of celebrating the Lord’s Supper (also called Eucharist) in commemoration of the death of Christ. As a footnote to Eusebius states:

“The Asiatic churches, in observing the fourteenth of Nisan, were commemorating the last passover feast and the death of the paschal Lamb.” [10]

The question now is how this dissent came about. The standpoint of the eastern churches is clear: they just did what the scriptures apostles had told them to do. The West chose to celebrate the resurrection instead of the death of Christ, claiming that this was what the apostles Peter and Paul had told them to do.[11] However, both Peter and Paul are connected to the eastern city of Antioch as well, and Paul travelled extensively in Asia Minor, where the practice of the Quartodecimans was widespread.

One cannot help wondering if the western churches changed an ancient custom simply to disassociate themselves from the Jews, who celebrated their Passover on the same day Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper.


1. “Easter controversy,” Wikipedia, accessed April 4, 2013,

2. Papias is reported to have said:

“I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains.” – Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Academic, 2006) 309, quoted at Wikipedia, “Papias,” accessed on April 6, 2013.

3. Eusebius Pamphilius, ed. Philip Shaff, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, (New York:Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890 493 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ).

4. Luke 22:19, International Standard Version (© 2012).

5. Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, 487n1687.

6. Ibid., 487-88.

7. Ibid., 489-90.

8. “Easter Controversy,” Catholic Encyclipedia (New Advent), accessed April 6, 2013,

9. Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine,485.

10. Ibid., 409n1702.

11. Thus Early Church History to A. D. 451, Lesson 10, Page1, accessed April 6, 2013,

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