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FIGURES OF SPEECH IN THE BIBLE

A figure of speech is a departure from normal discourse for the purpose of emphasizing something. For example, I might say "The ground is dry," and that would be a literal statement. Or I could say "The ground is thirsty," which is not literally true but it emphasizes the experience of the drought.

The basic figure is SIMILE. A simile emphasizes a resemblance between two things by simply saying it: "You are like a dog." The figure rests on one word.

A METAPHOR emphasizes a resemblance by saying they are the same: "You are a dog."

Then we have a big word: HYPOCATASTASIS. That is Greek for name calling. The hypocatastasis just says to the fellow "Dog!"

A PARABLE is an extended figure of speech: a story based on a simile, metaphor or hypocatastasis. If the story is possible it is a MYTH. If it is impossible it is a FABLE. If a fable includes an explanation of the meaning then it is an ALLEGORY. An unverified history is a LEGEND.

Most people have no clue about any of these things, but all were carefully studied and catalogued by ancient Greek scholars. There has been no significant work in the field in the last two thousand years. E. W. Bullinger (1837 - 1913) compiled a list of figures in the bible, about 900 different kinds, with a brief description of each. He published it as "Figures Of Speech In The Bible" and you can buy a copy at amazon.com or any book store.

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  • There are many figures of speech in the Bible, the problem we have is discerning them and what they mean.  Indeed Jesus used many figures of speech.  Our problem is that most figures of speech originate from common culture, as it does today and we have little knowledge about of idioms of the period.  Indeed we have only recently discovered that the early Gospels were not written in classic Greek but a strange mix of of Greek ad Hebrew, Greek with Hebrew words and grammar, a meeting of two languages, as much as cultures.  So it is difficult to discern where in the texts are, and which are and are not true figures of speech, then we have to decide just what it means because the meanings of both Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew words have changed, just as English word meanings change over time.  Just take the word 'gay', not half a century ago it meant someone who was happy and joyful, today it means to be homosexual, which often means the opposite.  So a phrase like "He set the place on fire," would need to be taken in context, by the words before and after it, maybe several sentences.

    • u2 Timothy 2:15 King James Version (KJV)

      15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

       

      You are correct. With over 900 kinds of figures of speech it can be a challenge to identify one, but in most cases your first clue is that the written passage is impossible.

      For instance the story of Jonah specifies "a big fish". There is no fish big enough to swallow a man. There is one species of whale, but a whale is not a fish. So the story is a fable.

      Another example is "born again", John chapter 3. That was an idiom in Nazareth, but Nicodemos was not from there and had no idea what the expression meant.

      The Revelation To St. John is addressed to Jews and contains Jewish idioms. That is why most people can't understand the book.

  • In academic circles the term "myth" is often used to indicate a sacred story, with no opinion as to its being true or false.  I find many Christians takeing Judgment metaphors as literal.  It is a good idea for Christians to brush up on this stuff a bit.  

  • This is beautiful and thanks a lot for sharing Vern! You are awesome.

  • That book looks very interesting.

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