Changing Language

In “Living Voice,” I discussed the official Roman Catholic position on scripture and teased the upcoming series on justification by faith. But, before we delve into the new series, I want to continue setting up the background for that post.

One of the more common problems one faces when discussing church doctrine is the fact that language changes. If you want to know what the Bible says, you have to know what the original writers meant to say. Even if you know the words they used in the original Greek (or Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament), such as eucharist or musterion (both described below), it is possible for those words to have changed in meaning over two thousand years. If you interpret them through what you believe the word means now, you won’t understand what it meant then.

In this article, I will discuss some of the major developments and changes, both intentional and unintentional, to the language of the Bible that have led to doctrinal error. A number of them have direct implications on sanctification, salvation, and justification, and so are relevant to the upcoming series on justification by faith.


I’ve written about the Greek word kephale many times on this blog. The word denoted ‘head’ (as in the literal thing sitting on the top of the neck and shoulders). It also connoted preeminence (of higher status, exalted, elevated, or the first position). It did not mean authority or leader, although often people of higher status are leaders.

The Greek word head is figuratively closer to the English word ‘face’ than it is the English word ‘head’ or ‘leader.’ For example, consider the statement “Aaron Judge is the face of baseball.” Aaron has no authority over baseball itself, but he is in a place of prominence, arguably its preeminent hitter in the toughest environment. Despite Aaron judge being a star and playing his first game for the Yankees way back in 2016, he was not even made captain of his own team until December, 2022.

In Ephesians, Paul used two metaphors involving the word head. The first, in Ephesians 1, describes a head-feet metaphor. The second, in Ephesians 5, is a head-body metaphor. This distinction is very important because the context of the former (i.e. feet) was authoritarian, while the latter (i.e. body) was cooperative. When Paul spoke of husbands and wives, he referred to husbands as the head—the face, to use the modern idiom—of the Roman marriage.

For the first four centuries of the church, kephale did not mean leader or connote authority. ‘Head’ did not mean ‘leader’ or ‘authority’ anywhere—including secular usageuntil the 4th century AD at the earliest and only in isolated, mostly Christian, instances. Richard S. Cervin notes that none of the (secular) Greek lexicons from the 1800s and 1900s contain the meaning of authority or leader, with the exception of one by D. Dhimitrakou in Athens who explicitly states that the meaning of ‘leader’ is medieval. This is why the much earlier Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament almost never translated the Hebrew rosh (head; leader) into the Greek kephale (head; preeminent).

Thus when Jerome translated the Greek scriptures into the Latin Vulgate, he translated the word as caput (which just means ‘head’):


Definition: Caput (kap-uht) is a Latin word that means “head.” It has different meanings in different contexts:

  1. Historical: A head, chief, or principal person.
  2. Roman law: A person.
  3. Roman law: A person’s condition or status.

Caput means “head” in Latin. In history, it referred to a leader or important person. In Roman law, it referred to a person’s status or condition… Slaves in Roman law did not have rights or liabilities and were not considered to have a status or caput.

Citation: here

Notice how in Roman times, the word referred to status even in the Latin. Only in medieval history did it develop the “historical” definition.

In the late 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. The Ephesians 1 reference to kephale (referring to Christ’s authority) became more well-known and influential, leading eventually to the word ‘head’ morphing to take on the connotation of the head-feet metaphor, that is, taking on the meaning of leader or chief. This was far from universal. It wouldn’t be until the medieval period before this religious use would become notable in the secular setting. However, once established, the head-body metaphor in scripture would be reinterpreted as if ‘head’ was used in the same sense as in the head-feet metaphor, establishing a so-called Christian Patriarchal view where none previously existed.

Thus was doctrinal change initiated based on a failure to appreciate how language changes over time. Even more ironic is that the popularity of the Bible itself (Ephesians 1) was what indirectly instituted that change (Ephesians 5) in the common language of the church.

This is how language develops. Head became a living metaphor for the leadership and authority of Christ in Ephesians 1. Then it became a dead metaphor, which was back-applied to Ephesians 5 in a way that was never intended. Today ‘head’ is no longer a metaphor at all but has its own dictionary entry meaning ‘leader.’[4]

In theory, church doctrine isn’t supposed to change simply because the definitions of words have shifted over time, but that’s precisely what has happened.


Regarding the Eucharist, we have three examples of language changing over time.


When the Greek word eucharist is translated from the Bible into English, it means thanksgiving. But when the Greek word is translated from the early writers into English or from Greek into Latin, it is transliterated not translated. It is often capitalized as well. This has the effect from turning the normal word thanks and thanksgiving into a title or proper name of a ceremony. By turning a literal practice of real thanksgiving into a figure-of-speech for a ritual, the language itself. presumes the later medieval development.

Historically, this had the effect of hiding the real meaning of thanksgiving from the laity. When you read one of the early fathers (such as Justin Martyr) talk of the eucharist, do you think he is talking about the tithe, the Lord’s Supper, or the Roman Catholic Eucharist? Of these three, only the first is what the word originally meant. It eventually developed the second meaning (around the 4th century) and then developed the third meaning centuries later. Now when you hear an early writer mention “The Eucharist” (capitalized by translators) you can’t help but hear Roman Catholicism where it was not previously.

The change in language allows doctrinal error to persist.

Wine mixed with water

In the first century, water was mixed with wine (merum) to produce the table wine that was consumed. This was performed as part of the meal preparation (when bread was baked and animals were slaughtered and cooked). As the centuries progressed, the processing of wine brought to the table had changed and no longer was wine mixed with water just prior to drinking it. By the 4th century, the church had no idea why Jesus served watered wine. By the schism between the East and the West, the two halves of the church were fighting over this very topic, both coming to different, but both incorrect, conclusions about the topic.

Liturgical Use of Water
“With regard to the water mingled with the wine in the Mass, the Fathers from the earliest times have tried to find reasons why the Church uses a mixed chalice though the Gospel narrative implies that Christ consecrated pure wine.”

Citation: Herbert Thurston, “Liturgical Use of Water.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 15. (1912)

The Mingled Cup, Part 3

Ambrose’s late 4th century novelty, coupled with ignorance of the ancient manufacturing process of wine, led to a comical, medieval dispute between the West and the East. The West insisted erroneously that Jesus had mixed His wine at the table (He had not), and the East denied it, insisting instead that Jesus had used straight “merum sine aqua,” merum without water (He had not). Such were the combined fruits of ignorance mixed with the novel late-antique liturgizing of a common agricultural manufacturing process to make it part of the Eucharistic liturgy.

Citation: Timothy F. Kauffman, “The Mingled Cup, Part 3.” (2016)

“At Constantinople the impression bequeathed by Cardinal Humbert and other western visitors was one of incredible arrogance. … It offended western visitors to find that at the consecration of the elements, Greeks did not add water to the cup until after the bread and the wine were sanctified.” — Chadwick, Henry, “East and West: the Making of a Rift in the Church.” (2003) p.226.

Thus did both the East and the West err and were divided. They could not even have communion with each other, which persists today between Catholics and Protestants. Both assumed that their own views were apostolic, when in fact there was no apostolic tradition and neither got it right due to historical ignorance. The cultural framework behind the language had changed, thus changing what the language meant to readers. That the Roman Catholic church claimed apostolicity for something that was plainly not apostolic is both doctrinal error and tragically comical.

Thus is the danger of language changing over time: taking a meaningless non-liturgical cultural practice into something that stupidly divides the church. It’s just as dumb as a schism over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary or whether pews should have padding.

Sacrifice of the Mass / Dismissal Sacrifice

The Sacrifice of the Mass and the Dismissal Sacrifice are two ways of saying the same thing, for “Mass” means “Dismissal.” But, their meaning has changed over time. In the time of Justin Martyr, the tithe was a dismissal of repentant baptized believers followed by a thanksgiving sacrifice. It was literally the sacrifice of the dismissal: you dismiss and then you sacrifice. Those two words more-or-less fully summarized the rite.

By the late 4th century, the dismissal had begun split into two: a dismissal of catechumens at the beginning and a dismissal at the end of the Lord’s Supper. Neither fully reflected the dismissal found in scripture or in Justin Martyr. Eventually as the thanksgiving became The Eucharist, the Roman Catholic term Sacrifice of the Mass would become synonymous with The Eucharist while completely losing its original significance. Thus would the Catholic Encyclopedia attest:

The origin of the Mass
[Missa] does not mean an offering (mittere, in the sense of handing over to God), but the dismissal of the people, as in the versicle: “Ite missa est” (Go, the dismissal is made). It may seem strange that this unessential detail should have given its name to the whole service. But there are many similar cases in liturgical language. Communion, confession, breviary are none of them names that express the essential character of what they denote. Communion, confession, breviary are none of them names that express the essential character of what they denote. In the case of the word missa we can trace the development of its meaning step by step. We have seen it used by St. Augustine, synods of the sixth century, and Hincmar of Reims for “dismissal”. Missa Catechumenorum means the dismissal of the catechumens. It appears that missa fit or missa est was the regular formula for sending people away at the end of a trial or legal process.

Citation: Adrian Fortescue, “The Origin of the Mass.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol 9. (1910)

The language had changed, leading to doctrinal error.

Jerome’s Mistranslations

Jerome made a number of errors in his translation from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.

Genesis 3:15

Jerome’s translation of Genesis 3:15 altered the original “he” into “she”:

Genesis 3:15 (Douay-Rheims)
I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.

Genesis 3:15 (REV)
I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.

This mistranslation would lead to the infallible Marian dogmas. Indeed, the interpretation of Genesis 3:15 as “she” and “her” would be declared infallibly. Later, Pope John Paul II would acknowledge that the original Hebrew was correctly translated as “he/him” not “she/her.” The “Protestant” translations had been right all along.

All of this corruption was enabled by a change in the language of scripture that went unidentified. Though the corruptions were identified, the erroneous Marian dogmas remain infallibly defined. The interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is now a dogmatically defined lie.

Psalm 99:5

Psalm 99:5 (Douay-Rheims)
Exalt ye the Lord our God, and adore his footstool, for it is holy.

Psalm 99:5 (REV)
Exalt Yahweh our God and worship at his footstool! He is Holy!

In the encyclical Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI would defend Eucharistic Adoration as if had always been the practice of the church:

53. We have a wonderful example of the stability of the Catholic faith in the way in which these words meet with such complete agreement in the constant teaching of the Ecumenical Councils of the Lateran, Constance, Florence and Trent on the mystery of the Eucharistic conversion, whether it be contained in their explanations of the teaching of the Church or in their condemnations of error.

55. Moreover, the Catholic Church has held firm to this belief in the presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist not only in her teaching but in her life as well, since she has at all times paid this great Sacrament the worship known as “latria,” which may be given to God alone. As St. Augustine says:

“It was in His flesh that Christ walked among us and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation; but no one eats of this flesh without having first adored it . . . and not only do we not sin in thus adoring it, but we would be sinning if we did not do so.”

Did Augustine describe Eucharistic Adoration?

In Vain Do They Worship Me
When Augustine wrote “no one eats of this flesh without having first adored it,” he was reading what we call Psalm 99:5 … Augustine struggled here

“because his Latin version was at two removes from the original language, being a Latin translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew” (Augustine, An Exposition of the Psalms, Introduction by Michael Fiedrowicz, pg. 22, From The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Book III, vole 15, Exposition of Psalms 1-32.).
I am in doubt; I fear to worship the earth, lest He who made the heaven and the earth condemn me; again, I fear not to worship the footstool of my Lord, because the Psalm bids me, “fall down before His footstool.” I ask, what is His footstool? And the Scripture tells me, “the earth is My footstool.” In hesitation I turn unto Christ, since I am herein seeking Himself: and I discover how the earth may be worshipped without impiety, how His footstool may be worshipped without impiety. For He took upon Him earth from earth; because flesh is from earth, and He received flesh from the flesh of Mary. And because He walked here in very flesh, and gave that very flesh to us to eat for our salvation; and no one eats that flesh, unless he has first worshipped: we have found out in what sense such a footstool of our Lord’s may be worshipped, and not only that we sin not in worshipping it, but that we sin in not worshipping. (Augustine, An Exposition of the Psalms, 99.8)

We note that Augustine was wrestling with what appeared to be conflicting commands, and he determined that the only possible way he could “worship the earth” without committing idolatry was to worship Christ in the flesh. When he says we do not sin by worshiping but we sin by not worshiping, the object of His worship is Christ, not the Eucharist… It almost hurts to look over Augustine’s shoulder as he thinks through this based on a mistranslation of a Greek translation of the Hebrew. But he manages to sort his way through, and concludes that “worship His footstool” must mean “worship Jesus.” We cannot approve of Augustine’s logic, but his conclusion is valid, nonetheless. But Paul VI’s use of Augustine suggests that Augustine taught that it was a sin not to worship the Eucharist. In what sense does Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 99:5 support Eucharistic Adoration?

The answer is “Not in any way,” for Augustine concludes his comments on Psalm 99:5 by soundly and explicitly rejecting the Roman Catholic interpretation of John 6:53, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” The Roman Catholic interpretation of John 6:53 is that Jesus taught that we are to eat the very flesh that hung on the cross, and drink the very blood that flowed from Jesus’ side. Paul VI taught that the Eucharist is

the true body of Christ—which was born of the Virgin and which hung on the Cross as an offering for the salvation of the world—and the true blood of Christ—which flowed from His side. (Mysterium Fidei, 52)

But Augustine rejects this explicitly, and has Jesus explaining at John 6:63, “Understand spiritually what I have said; you are not to eat this body which you see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify Me shall pour forth” (Augustine, An Exposition of the Psalms, 99.8). Augustine reiterated this specific point in his treatise On Christian Doctrine. Regarding the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—Augustine insisted that it is “a mark of weakness and bondage” to take the figures for what they signify:

“[O]ur Lord Himself, and apostolic practice, have handed down to us a few rites in place of many, and these at once very easy to perform, most majestic in their significance, and most sacred in the observance; such, for example, as the sacrament of baptism, and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. And as soon as any one looks upon these observances he knows to what they refer, and so reveres them not in carnal bondage, but in spiritual freedom. Now, as to follow the letter, and to take signs for the things that are signified by them, is a mark of weakness and bondage; so to interpret signs wrongly is the result of being misled by error. ” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book III, Chapter 9)

This rule, Augustine continued, “guards us against taking a metaphorical form of speech as if it were literal” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book III, Chapter 10). It is remarkable, is it not, that Paul VI used Augustine to support Eucharistic Adoration, in a commentary where Augustine taught the opposite of what Rome and her Apologists teach about Transubstantiation?

Citation: Timothy F. Kauffman, “In Vain Do They Worship Me.”

First we have a mistranslation from Jerome. Then, Augustine, while awkwardly fumbling with that corrupted text, manages to reason himself away from idolatry into the original meaning of the verse. Lastly, Pope Paul VI takes Augustine’s quote out of context to justify the very thing that Augustine was trying to avoid!

All this was enabled by an unidentified change in the language of scripture.

Sacraments and Mysteries

When Paul wrote, in Greek, of the musterion—sacred secrets— he had in mind revealed knowledge about the gospel—good news—of Christ and his saving work of grace through faith. He made no mention of sacraments. He didn’t tie the idea of separate Christian practices (e.g. baptism, thanksgiving, Lord’s Supper, prayer, helping the poor, etc.) in with the sacred secrets. Mysteries are divinely revealed knowledge.[1]

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, the Latin sacramentum referred to a sacred and legal vow taken before the gods. Eventually this would morph into the vow or pledge that soldiers made when they were initiated into the army, giving it the sense of an “initiation rite.”[2] Later, when Roman practices changed, the sacramentum became a yearly vow, giving the word a new sense of “repeated rituals.”

The two words connoted different things, but shared an overlap in their description of sacredness.

It is within this context that Tertullian—the son of a Roman soldier—contrasted the pagan mysteries—divine secrets or revelation—with the Christian “initiation rites” (“sacramentum“). Tertullian saw a natural parallel between the sacramentum and baptism. He would also add the newly baptized member’s first thanksgiving tithe offering (eucharist) to the initiation rite, as these typically happened on the same day in the early church. Even so, Tertullian never confused the divinely revealed sacred secrets of God with the Christian initiation rites (e.g. baptism, thanksgiving).

When Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate, he had a choice. In every case in the synoptic gospels, Jerome  translated the Greek musterion into the transliterated Latin mysterium. But in Ephesians and Colossians, Jerome chose to translate about half of the instances of musterion into the Latin sacramentum, in particular in Ephesians 3:3-9, Ephesians 5:32, and Colossians 1:26-27.

Why did he do this? The answer is somewhat understandable. The Latin words mysterium and sacramentum preexisted the time of Christ, and so Paul’s use of the word musterion in the 1st century didn’t automatically fit with either Latin word in the 4th century. Jerome picked the one he thought fit best, because he didn’t have good options available: in 350 years, the words had diverged too much. The advantage of sacramentum is that, ironically, in Christ the sacred things had already been revealed, so calling what was now widely known in the new state religion as “sacred secrets” (Greek: musterion) or “mysteries” (Latin: mysterium) didn’t seem to fit anymore (see the explanation here). On the other hand, the pagan mysteries—hidden, secret, knowledge only known to initiates—were directly opposed to the Christian sacraments—available and known to all.

While Tertullian had written at a time when sacramentum referred to initiation rites, Jerome was writing at a time when sacramentum referred to repeated rituals. The church was already using the terms mysterium and sacramentum in to describe the repeated church rituals (e.g. the thanksgiving offering), and so Jerome merely continued in the same tradition described by Hilary [310-367], Ambrose [339-397], and (later) Theodoret [393-458].[3]

Thus, at the stroke of a pen, did Jerome conflate the salvific sacred secrets of God with the repeated rites of the church. He may not have intended to do so, but that is the effect of his choice nonetheless.

This would naturally lead to his mistranslated of justification.


Although Jerome’s many translation errors had critical consequences, arguably none are more significant than his translation of “repent” [metanoeite; μετανοεῖτε] as “do penance” [poenitentiam agite].

Timothy F. Kauffman — The Trumpets, Part 1
Perhaps the most devastating effect of Jerome’s work is how his translation changed the Gospel. Instead of…

“Repent [metanoeite; μετανοεῖτε], for the kingdom of heaven is hand” — Matthew 3:2

…Jerome gave us:

“Do penance [poenitentiam agite]: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” — Matthew 3:2

“they preached men should do penance [paenitentiam agerent]” — Mark 6:12

(See also Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:3,5, 16:30, 17:30; Acts 2:38, 8:22, 26:20).

And instead of having Christians “declared righteous” in justification, Jerome’s rendering in the Latin was justificare, or “to make righteous”:

“One of the problems that led to confusion was the meaning of the word justification. Our English word justification is derived from the Latin justificare. The literal meaning of the Latin is ‘to make righteous.’ The Latin fathers of church history worked with the Latin text instead of the Greek text and were clearly influenced by it. By contrast, the Greek word for justification, dikaiosune, carries the meaning of ‘to count, reckon, or declare righteous.’ ”

— R.C. Sproul, “Resurrection and Justification”

Jerome’s translation was devastating to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because the Vulgate had men entering the kingdom of God by “doing penance” and being “made holy,” instead of through repentance and by believing, the glorious gospel of Justification by faith alone was veiled to many for more than a thousand years. Indeed, “many men died of the waters” that had been made bitter, for they were left trying to earn God’s grace by doing penance and hoping that God would make them holy enough to deserve heaven.

Citation: Timothy F. Kauffman, “The Trumpets, Part 1.”

Keep this corruption in mind as we enter into the new series on justification by faith.


[1] This is also why mystics and mysticism refer to the revelation of divine knowledge only accessible to the mystic: the one to whom it was divinely revealed. By definition, Jesus and his disciples were mystics: recipients of direct divine revelation.

[2] In the second century, Apuleius—a Latin Platonist philosopher—gives sacramentum the meaning of “religious initiation rite.” Presumably this is because the Roman sacramentum—the sacred oath of service taken before the gods by a soldier before he was initiated into military service—was both a legal and a religious rite.

[3] Some have claimed that the words sacramentum and mysterium were equivalent in the days of Cyprian (210-258) and Tertullian (155-250), but this is difficult to assert as not even the meaning of sacramentum was constant over that period! Jerome himself clearly believed that the two words were different enough to have to choose between them.

[4] The English word head as leader may have borrowed from other languages as well.

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