Words Mean What They Mean. Right?

Tony Jones – whose blog is on my must-read list – quotes a Jewish scholar on the meaning of the word abomination, a term which comes up a lot in debates about homosexuality. Our common understanding of the word – something that is absolutely morally reprehensible to God and to all good people – doesn’t match the meaning of the ancient Hebrew word it is supposed to translate, the scholar says: in his assessment, the contemporary word “taboo” would be a better translation.
Over the last dozen years, I’ve come upon word after word like this …

Kingdom of God
Son of Man
Son of God
Coming (Parousia)

The issue is not simply that stupid, selfish contemporary people are trying to redefine words to suit our contemporary tastes or world views, as some folks infer. It’s that our ancestors were just as likely to define words to suit their contemporary tastes and world views as we are … which requires us to realize that the meanings of words are constantly under negotiation. That complicates life, I know. But life is that way, and that’s why the Scriptures emphasize the need for wisdom and understanding – requiring us to dig beneath the surface.
The narrative question in my most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, is interwoven with the related question, “What does salvation really mean?” If we draw the definition of salvation from theological debates in the 5th or 16th centuries, we will see our whole narrative differently than if we define salvation based on the primal Exodus narrative in the Bible.
Similarly, Secret Message of Jesus grapples with the meaning of Kingdom of God, and Everything Must Change with Son of God and Son of Man. This isn’t simply weasel-y word play; this is part of the search for truth, wisdom, and understanding.