The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.

 

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Advent Meditations: 12 – The Date and Details of Christmas

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The first Christmas sermon I ever preached was on the topic of whether Jesus was really born on December 25th. My point was that most scholars believe was that Jesus was not born on December 25th, but probably in September, because the shepherds were sleeping outside with their flocks at night, which is not something that would be done in the winter months when it was colder at night. Furthermore, this view is based on the tracking of the stars, which some say would place the North Star in the right place in the sky sometime in autumn.

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.

Prior to 336AD, December 25th was when pagans celebrated the winter solstice. Constantine took an existing holiday and changed the focus of it and the substance of what was being celebrated. It is remarkable that in the first few hundred years of the church, the main Christian holiday was Easter, when they celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christmas only began to be celebrated much later on.

However, while that is all interesting information, I somewhat regret having spent the time given me during my first Christmas sermon on this topic. Having had the attention of people on that day, I wish I would not have focused on dates and details, but on the substance of what Christmas is about.

You see – it doesn’t really matter what day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, what matters is the fact of the incarnation. If December 25th is the day that our culture has chosen to celebrate that, then great! I’m happy to celebrate it then or any other time! But if our whole culture is open to talking about it at this time, then what a great opportunity that is to talk about the gospel and the meaning of the incarnation on a day when more people will set foot inside a church than any other day of the year. What matters is not when the incarnation happened, but that it did indeed happen!

There are some people who have a “mentality for the marginal” – a “preoccupation with the peripheral”. They focus all of their time and attention to theories about dates and details, the movement of stars and how exactly the star did lead the magi, or how exactly did the Red Sea split, or how did Jonah survive in the belly of the fish – they are concerned with gathering information on and debating peripheral matters of theology, which are tentative and have very little spiritual significance.

It is not to say that such interests are bad, except when this preoccupation with the peripheral takes one away from a focus on the great central things of the gospel – the holiness of God, the terribleness of sin, the helplessness of man and the love of God; the death of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, justification by faith, the work of the Holy Spirit and the return of Christ and the final judgment. Some people are easily sidetracked from these things by the latest speculations and theories and tidbits regarding things which have little ultimate significance.

What is wonderful about the Christmas story – the story of the incarnation – is that if you will allow it to, it will refocus you onto that which is important. It will help you keep the main things the main things. It re-centers us, by reminding us of the big picture: that the world is under the dark cloud of sin and death, but God, in his love, has sent us a savior: Christ the Lord, who is none other than God himself come to us in  human flesh. And if anyone puts their faith in Him, they will not be put to shame, but they will be saved, justified, forgiven and redeemed, and have life everlasting.