Old origins of modern expressions

From Time to Time - Part 3

KJV and four earlier translations (all but Wycliffe)

Matthew 15:1-14, The blind lead the blind

Matthew 16:1-12, Signs of the times

Genesis 4:8-16, My brother's keeper; bonus: mark of Cain

Leviticus 19:11-18, A stumblingblock

Matthew 6:1-8, Left hand know what thy right hand doeth

Mark 6:7-13, Shake off the dust from/under your feet

Revelation 9:1-11, Bottomless pit

KJV and all earlier translations

Matthew 16:13-20, Flesh and blood

Matthew 27:15-24, Washed his hands

Deuteronomy 32:1-12, Apple of his eye

KJV only, but a history in Old or Middle English

Job 3:1-12, Give up the ghost

Wording from an earlier translation, not in the KJV

Proverbs 13:20-25, Spare the rod

Matthew 25:31-34, 41 Separate the sheep from the goats

Indirect: None of the early translations have exactly this wording

Exodus 31:12-18, Written in Stone

Job 10:9-19, From cradle to grave

Job 15:1, 6-10, Old as the hills

Ecclesiastes 5:10-16, You can't take it with you

Jeremiah 15:10-18, Eat one's words

Isaiah 9:17-19; Ezekiel 15:1-6, Add fuel to the fire

Daniel 2:26-43, Feet of clay

Malachi 4:1-6, Root and branch

Hosea 8:6-7; Galatians 6:7-10; 2 Corinthians 9:1-6, You reap what you sow

1 Timothy 4:1-9, Old wives' tales

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, Nothing new under the sun

More Old Origins of Modern Expressions

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KJV and four earlier translations

Matthew 15:1-14, The blind lead the blind (09/06/22)

A long time ago, back when I still had a vegetable garden, some Jewish friends visited late in the summer. By then the tomatoes were a jungle, and I was having a hard time getting into them without getting my crutches all tangled up. So my friend went out with me to pick some tomatoes for dinner, but there was another problem: he is red-green colorblind. I stood on the sidelines and pointed him to the ripe tomatoes. After a bit, he said, "What we have here is a case of the lame leading the blind." HAHahahaha!

Now, if a Jewish friend can make a contextually relevant joke using the New Testament, don't you think we Christians ought to read the Old Testament a little more than we currently do? Jesus thought the same thing about the Pharisees.
Matthew15:14 Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

Matthew 16:1-12, Signs of the times (09/07/22)

You've probably noticed that we've come to expressions that occur not only in the King James but also in four earlier translations. You might remember this cool chart that shows the relationships among them.

Poor Jesus! He has just fed 4,000 men, plus women and children, with seven loaves and a few fish, and now the Pharisees and Sadducees are asking for a sign. He's justifiably exasperated. The signs of the coming of the kingdom of God - the signs of the times - are all around them, but they can't see them. Well, fine, they don't want to see them. Then Jesus goes out onto the lake with his disciples, and they haven't made the connection between the messianic banquets and the signs of the times! I can imagine Jesus being tempted to beat his head against the mast as a further sign to them that they still haven't understand a word that he has said.
Matthew 16:3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

Genesis 4:8-16, My brother's keeper; bonus: mark of Cain (09/08/22)

The story of Cain and Abel gives us two common phrases, "my brother's keeper" and the "mark of Cain." I normally use "my brother's keeper" in the same way Cain did, namely, to wash my hands of my brother, his whereabouts, and his welfare. (I don't actually have a brother, but I still say, "I don't know. It's not my day to keep him" about other people.) The fact is, we are our brother's keeper. And the second fact is, God put a mark on Cain to protect him, not to label him as a sinner, which is the way we use it. Sometimes tiny stories have big lessons for us, but we do have to read them for ourselves to learn what the lessons really are.
Genesis 4:9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

Genesis 4:15 And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

Leviticus 19:11-18, A stumblingblock (09/09/22)

The main reason I discourage people new to Bible study from using the King James Version is that all the funny spellings, italics, ye's and thous, and doeths and hasts are a stumblingblock to understanding.

On the other hand, it's a great study tool for serious students. Ye and thou tell you whether the "you" of virtually all modern English translations is plural or singular. Italics tell you whether words like am or him have been added to the translation. When I started taking Greek, frequently I would get all the words and not understand what the verse was saying. I'd consult a modern translation, and sometimes I'd still not understand the Greek! I'd haul out my KJV, and aha! perfect clarity of the transition from Greek to English. I still keep a KJV handy when my study buddy and I are reading in Greek.
Leviticus 19:14 Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD.

Matthew 6:1-8, Left hand know what thy right hand doeth (09/12/22)

Notice that today's saying didn't originate in the King James Bible. It goes all the way back to Tyndale's translation, and from there it was adopted by the Geneva, Bishops', and Douay-Rheims Bibles and the King James Version. Now, on the one hand (Hahahaha!), the English in these is word for word what the Greek has, but on the other hand, it does have a nice ring to it, which was also important to the translators of the KJV.

Nevertheless, when we say that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, we don't mean it in a positive way. We normally mean that one section of an organization doesn't know what's going on in another section, and that in fact they are working at cross purposes. If we're speaking of an individual, we mean that his or her actions are confused or confusing. Both of these are far from Jesus' meaning, which the Contemporary English Version captures perfectly: "When you give to the poor, don't let anyone know about it."
Matthew 6:3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.

Mark 6:7-13, Shake off the dust from/under your feet (09/13/22)

Have you ever moved from one town to another? Did you shake the dust off your feet on the way out? Jesus told his disciples that when they left a place that had been unresponsive to the good news they were bringing to shake the dust off their feet "as a testimony against them." "You aren't interested, so we're out of here!" When I've heard people use this expression, I've felt that they were using it in a similar way, but with a twist: "I'm so glad to be out of here!" Either way, they're gone, and they ain't coming back.
Mark 6:11 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.

Revelation 9:1-11, Bottomless pit (09/14/22)

Don't you think a bottomless pit is something you keep putting stuff into with filling it? The bottomless pit in Revelation is something that stuff keeps coming out of, completely separate from the lake of fire. Huh! I never noticed that. That's understandable, because I don't spend much time reading Revelation.

What I found to be most interesting in this passage was John Wesley's comments. He takes it as an accurate description of the Persian invasion and oppression of the Jews (from the dates, he is referring to what we call the Babylonians). The locusts are "A known emblem of a numerous, hostile, hurtful people." For vs. 7, he says, "The Persians excelled in horsemanship. And on their heads are as it were crowns - Turbans. And their faces are as the faces of men - Friendly and agreeable." For vs. 8, he notes that "All the Persians of old gloried in long hair." Finally, vs. 9 says that the wings of the locusts made a noise like chariots, "With their war - chariots, drawn by many horses, they, as it were, flew to and fro." Wesley is pretty good reading; I should let him take over this Bible study completely.

Wait a minute! Revelation is about Babylon? No, Revelation is about Rome's oppression of the Christians, but remember that saying bad things about Rome was a good way to get thrown to the lions. Talking about Rome by disguising it as Babylon was safer.
Revelation 9:2 And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.

KJV and all earlier translations

Matthew 16:13-20, Flesh and blood (09/15/22)

Whenever we hear some new idea put forward that flies in the face of 2,000 years of Church tradition, let alone scripture itself, my husband and I say, "People have to write their dissertations on something." We don't hold it against them. Nevertheless, I'm always a bit puzzled when a translator abandons the literal Greek, all the early translations, and widespread modern idiom simultaneously! The Williams New Testament translates the literal Greek for "flesh and blood" - which we all use to this day exactly as scripture and all of the early English translations do, to mean "a human being" or "my very own human kin" - as "man." Why make that change?
Matthew 16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
On the other hand, Williams gets the Greek exactly right in vs. 19, "whatever you forbid on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be what is already permitted in heaven." The Greek says "will have been bound" and "will have been loosed," not, as the KJV would have it, "shall be bound" and "shall be loosed." Peter has the power of accurate reporting, not the power of God to bind and loose.

Matthew 27:15-24, Washed his hands (09/16/22)

Hmm... didn't I say just the other day that asking "Am I my brother's keeper?" is a way of "washing my hands of my brother, his whereabouts, and his welfare"? I forgot that today's reading was coming up, and I just naturally used one idiomatic expression to explain another. Not only do we use "brother's keeper" in the same way Cain did, we "wash our hands" in the same way Pilate did - to disclaim responsibility. People, we need to find a better peer group!
Matthew 27:24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

Deuteronomy 32:1-12, Apple of his eye (09/19/22)

Let's think for a minute about Washington. If I say to you, "Washington announced today that classes will begin one week earlier than normal statewide," you know right away that I'm talking about the State of Washington. If I say, "Washington announced that the whole cherry-tree thing was an accident," you know I'm putting words in the mouth of George Washington. And if I say that Washington has sent a message of condolence to King Charles III, you know I'm talking about the government in Washington, D.C. "Israel" is the same: We can be talking about the person Israel, a.k.a. Jacob, son of Isaac; or we can be talking about the northern kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the southern kingdom of Judah; or we can be talking about the twelve tribes or the remnant thereof that descended from the person Israel a.k.a. Jacob, either physically or spiritually. Usually you can tell which is which from the context.

Moses is reminding the people - in poetry, hence all the parallelisms - of the tragedy of of the LORD's people. The LORD took the nobody Jacob, renamed him Israel, and made him into a nation, Jacob a.k.a. Israel. The nation was the apple of the LORD's eye, and they rebelled. A sad story. By the way, the apple of one's eye is the pupil. Who knew? Not I.
Deuteronomy 32:10 He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.

KJV only, but a history in Old or Middle English

Job 3:1-12, Give up the ghost (09/20/22)

We've seen before that Hebrew poetry specializes in saying everything twice, so I want you to pay special attention to vs. 11. In the KJV, we see Job's question twice: "Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" The Hebrew, the Greek, and every other translation I looked at have it twice, as we would expect, except one. Even the Easy-to-Read Version and the Bible in Basic English have it twice. In the Contemporary English Version, however, the repetition has given up the ghost. Sometimes this kind of difference is the result of using better manuscripts or just of better translation. But sometimes not. Brothers and sisters, unless you want to learn Hebrew and Greek, you really should buy and regularly read a second, unrelated translation. These are the only two ways we have of recognizing when a translation differs from the norm, for good or ill.

According to David Crystal in Begat, some of the phrases we know from the King James Version didn't appear in any of the earlier English translations, but they did have a history in Old or Middle English. Such a one is "give up the ghost."
Job 3:11 Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?

Wording from an earlier translation, not in the KJV

Proverbs 13:20-25, Spare the rod (Wycliffe, Bishops', and Douay-Rheims only) (09/21/22)

You know, I really like the Bible in Basic English for Hebrew poetry, although that doesn't haven't anything to do with our current topic. We've all heard "spare the rod and spoil the child" so many times that if you're like me, you're surprised that that isn't what the proverb says. This is one where the common saying probably originated in the Bible, but promptly changed into something else.
Proverbs 13:24 He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
By the way, this is one of those times I mentioned that the King James differs by only one word, but David Crystal didn't count it as being in the KJV.

Matthew 25:31-34, 41 Separate the sheep from the goats (Geneva, Douay-Rheims) (09/22/22)

Apparently, Jesus first started separating the sheep from the goats in English around 1560 in the Geneva Bible, but then in the KJV he divided the sheep from the goats. Even though the last edition of the Geneva Bible was probably published in 1644, we still normally separate our flocks, we don't divide them. This is one of the few places where an older expression survived in common usage in spite of the King James, and it has been adopted by many modern English translations.
Matthew 25:32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.
I'll just point out again that God initially had no plan for the goats, but unfortunately it turned out that they weren't suited for an inheritance in the kingdom. Apparently the only other choice was the eternal fire, which hadn't been prepared for them at all, but rather for the devil and his angels. Only volunteers go to hell.

Indirect: None of the early translations have exactly this wording

Exodus 31:12-18, Written in Stone (09/23/22)

You and your fellow readers occasionally write to say that you disagree with something I've said, and I suspect you disagree with me a lot more often than you write. That's okay. What I say isn't written in stone. For that matter, it isn't even written on paper. I write, back up, and archive on line in electrons. To the best of my knowledge, fellow reader and volunteer extraordinaire Rob also works on the archive only in electrons (confirmed). But what God says is written in stone, no matter where it's written.

We have now come to modern idioms that are from the Bible, even though they aren't in the Bible. Of the electronic translations I have, only the Easy-to-Read Version has "written on the stones" in Exodus 31:18, which is no doubt because it's following the modern idiom. That isn't what the Hebrew or Greek say, however. They, along with all my other translations, have tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
Exodus 31:18 And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

Job 10:9-19, From cradle to grave (09/26/22)

In the United States, and I think also in Europe, you have cradle-to-grave responsibility for any hazardous waste you generate. Do you have kids? You have at least some responsibility for them from their cradle to your grave. "Cradle to grave" in modern English means "from inception to final disposal," and it's typically applied to the development, marketing, and final disposition of products, and less commonly to people.

This differs somewhat from Job's complaint to God. (Job complains a lot. "The patience of Job" is an oxymoron.) He wishes he had died at birth, with no intervening development or responsibility on his part between the cradle and the grave.
Job 10:19 I should have been as though I had not been; I should have been carried from the womb to the grave.
By the way, apparently one edition of Wycliffe has "from the womb to the tomb," and that expression is still in use. "Cradle to grave" is based on, but not in, the early English translations.

Job 15:1, 6-10, Old as the hills (09/27/22)

Four of Job's friends have come to sit with him in his affliction. Most of what they say amounts to "Job, you wouldn't be suffering if you hadn't committed some sin. You might as well admit it." (I recommend strongly against this approach. Be like Thumper Rabbit: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nuthin' at all." Just be there and be quiet.) Anyway, Eliphaz is responding to Job's complaints by saying that he's too young to know what he's talking about. "Were you born before the hills?" he asks. "Old as the hills" comes from the Bible, but it's not in the Bible.
Job 15:7 Art thou the first man that was born? or wast thou made before the hills?

Ecclesiastes 5:10-16, You can't take it with you (09/28/22)

Have you ever had to deal with the stuff left behind when a friend or loved one has passed away? This has happened to me and my husband several times now, and each time we make a solemn vow to get rid of some of our own stuff before our children have to deal with it. It hasn't happened yet. Probably we're looking for a loophole that will allow us to take it along when we go, but the writer of Ecclesiastes says you can't take it with you.
Ecclesiastes 5:15 As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.

Jeremiah 15:10-18, Eat one's words (09/29/22)

Sometimes I leave out a critical word like "not" and say the opposite of what I mean, or I make some other egregious error, but it's okay - I can always count on one of you for a correction. The next day I have to eat my words. When Jeremiah eats the words of God, it's a much more pleasant experience. This is one of those sayings that means the opposite in modern English of what it does in the Bible.
Jeremiah 15:16 Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts.

Isaiah 9:17-19; Ezekiel 15:1-6, Add fuel to the fire (10/02/22)

Early in my working career, an older colleague said, with some admiration I think, that I would walk by an open door, throw in a grenade, and keep walking - an allegation that was totally unfounded! He was saying that I would add fuel to the fire. When we throw fuel on the fire, we are making a bad situation worse.

Isaiah and Ezekiel were fairly late pre-Exilic prophets, and mostly their message was to the effect that "Israel and Judah have sinned so badly for so long that there is no hope left for them." God is going to put both the people and the nations, in particular Jerusalem, into the fire as fuel. At first, I thought this wasn't quite the way we use the expression today. Then I realized, no, it's the same: the situation is really bad, and God is about to make it worse.
Isaiah 9:19 Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire: no man shall spare his brother.
I'm sure you remember that the vine is a common symbol for the children of Israel. In Ezekiel 15:4-5, God is asking, "Are the children of Israel any better than anybody else, that I should excuse them from sin? Nope."

Daniel 2:26-43, Feet of clay (10/03/22)

Have you ever greatly admired someone, only to find out that they had feet of clay? This expression is another one that has its origin in the Bible. King Nebuchadnezzar had an alarming dream about a great statue with a golden head, chest and arms of silver, legs of iron, and feet of clay. His kingdom seemed great, but in the end, it was headed for destruction.
Daniel 2:33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.

Malachi 4:1-6, Root and branch (10/04/22)

We had an arborist remove a dying locust tree a couple summers ago, and his crew even took out the stump, but little trees kept springing back from the roots that they had missed. My son and grandson have been working diligently to remove them root and branch. To remove something root and branch is to destroy it utterly.

Malachi is one of the very latest of the Old Testament prophets. He concentrates on priests and people who fail in their religious duties and on the scandal of Jewish men divorcing their wives to marry pagan women (remember that earlier generations of Jews had frequently fallen into apostasy by marrying pagan women). Malachi says that the day is coming when the LORD will destroy these evildoers root and branch.
Malachi 4:1 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

Hosea 8:6-7; Galatians 6:7-10; 2 Corinthians 9:1-6, You reap what you sow (10/05/22)

We have two related idioms from Hosea and the letters of Paul: "Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind," and "You reap what you sow." The former is very close to what the scripture has, and the latter is a paraphrase. For that matter, Paul was probably paraphrasing Hosea! Both Hosea and Paul are saying that what we do now affects our future, whether for good or ill. For the rest of this week, let's sow good and sow it bountifully.
Hosea 8:7 For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.

1 Timothy 4:1-9, Old wives' tales (10/06/22)

It seems to me that to some extent "urban myths" have replaced "old wives' tales," which in turn replaced the biblical "old wives' fables." All three idioms mean that everybody has heard certain stories, but nobody can substantiate them. Paul told Timothy not to participate in this kind of stuff, and we should follow his advice. When (not if) someone sends you an email with an old wives' fable in it, please check it out, e.g., at Snopes or Truth or Fiction, before you forward it to all your friends.
1 Timothy 4:7 But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, Nothing new under the sun (10/07/22)

We've come to the end of our sampling of the modern expressions that come from the King James Version and its English predecessors, the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva, Bishops', and Douay-Rheims Bibles. David Crystal said in Begat that there are 257 such phrases; others would count differently, but that's probably in the neighborhood. You probably recognized nearly all of the ones we looked at, and you would probably have recognized the rest of them, too. It all goes to show that there's nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiates 1:9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

More Old Origins of Modern Expressions
From Time to Time - Part 1
From Time to Time - Part 2

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