Little Words

Those “little words” mean a lot.  To, from, at, in, on, for, to, and all the rest of the prepositions, words without a really precise definition.  When we were hosting international students, these little words caused more confusion than any other part of the English language.  But their meanings make such a difference in clarity of communication.

I was reflecting on this after seeing a handpainted sign on a rural road, for the gazillionth time, posted on a tree, with a Bible verse on it. I have seen this particular verse painted on trailers, nailed to fence posts and trees, spray-painted on barns.  Handpainted, professionally painted, printed on handbills.  It is posted all over the West and for all I know, the entire country.  You may have seen it as well. It’s Acts16:31.

I have been noticing it for decades, in fact, and was always puzzled by the grammar. It bothered me.  Did they make a mistake, I wondered as a child?  Don’t they mean believe “in”?  We, as Catholics, always said believe in.

My New American Bible translates the verse like this:  Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.

The King James Bible translates it like this:  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

Basically the same, yet that second word, that one small word in the sentence changes the meaning so much.  And in these reflections, I certainly don’t mean to disparage anybody.  Perhaps I am too literal, but the word “on” indicates to me  a position, as in on top of, or affixed to.  Maybe this refers to a foundation, to believe on Jesus as the foundation of your life, that He is the rock upon which your faith is built.  Not a bad understanding, not a bad metaphor, not really.

Except, all houses are built on similar, strong foundations, but they all go different directions in their architecture, seldom any two alike in the details of height, structure, shape, and appearance.  The foundation is simply the bottom, one can branch out from there without much reference to what they are on.  They are connected to their foundations, but they are not part of it, they remain a distinct and separate part.  Which is not to say that people who read the King James Bible are not paying attention to their own foundation in Jesus Christ or are separated from Him and gone their own way.  That is not necessarily so.  But a look at the vast number of Christian denominations and their varied teachings does lend some support to my understanding of this verse, I think.

The word “in” calls to mind union, oneness, togetherness, communion.  It is an intimate word.  As we say at Mass:  Through Him, with Him, in Him.   Not separate, or resting upon, but part of Jesus Himself through the mystery of the Eucharist.  We eat His Body, drink His Blood, and take Him within us as part of our every cell, our body and our soul.  He is one with us, and we strive to be one with Him for all of eternity.  God has opened Himself to us in complete and embracing love.

I don’t know what the original (Greek?) wording is, or how it is most properly translated in the Scriptures, but nevertheless I feel that the theology is most beautifully expressed in our own Catholic tradition.  I would be interested in hearing if you are familiar with this verse being painted on signs throughout our land, and how you interpret this difference in wording and its implications.

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About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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8 Responses to Little Words

  1. Biltrix says:

    Prepositions are the bane of good translation. And it is particularly troublesome in English, I find, with our two word verbal idioms. For example, I remember a particular priest whose first language was not English who would unwittingly insert a preposition in Eucharistic Prayer I (old translations), at the part where it said, “and count us among those whom you have chosen.” He would always say “and count on us among those you have chosen.” Considering the context, it’s a big difference. The problem is that he did not consider the idiomatic meaning of this two word construction.

    Then there’s the development of the English language, where some expressions change and become obsolete. That’s the issue with the King James version of the Bible, which continues to be a mainstay with Protestants. I don’t object to it. But I have to say that it really boils down to a matter of taste. Some find the obsolete language poetic and even denoting reverence, kind of like we do with the Lord’s prayer and Hail Mary (thees, thous, and thys… hallowed be…). That, I believe is the issue with the preposition on in this verse. If I had my Greek NT handy, I could look up the verse to confirm this, but I recon that the Greek preposition in the verse in question is en, which can mean in or on, depending on the context.

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks for a nice, clarifying response. It makes sense. I have been pondering this for ages, finally decided to put finger to keyboard and get it out!
      I am glad you are well-versed enough in translations and translating that you could explain.

  2. Rosemary A. says:

    As a former Independent Baptist (among whom undoubtedly were some of the painters of this ubiquitous verse), I think I can shed some light on that. Many fundamentalist groups teach that it isn’t enough to believe “in” Jesus. (By that, they mean believing he existed.) Even the Devil, they point out, believes He existed. They say we need to fix our eyes ON Him, to rest all of our faith ON Him, to cast our cares ON Him. This also connects with the Protestant belief in sola scriptura, and “once saved, always saved”; (the idea that once you have believed “on” Him and have a personal relationship with Him you need nothing else for salvation). Having lived this myself, I know there are genuine conversions of life in these denominations. There are beautiful Christian people bearing the fruit of the Spirit and pouring out the alabaster boxes of their lives in gratitude for what Christ has done for them. But there are also those whose lives seem to show no evidence of conversion or love, and who seem intent on doing whatever they please, because they think they will only “lose their reward” at the Judgment, but still get into Heaven. I ceased being a Baptist in the 1970’s, and was active in several other denominations until 2003. I entered the Catholic Church in 2004 and have found everything I had been searching for. The Eucharist is so precious to me that I still weep for joy when I receive His Body and Blood. I believe in Him. ~ Rosemary in Ohio

    • reinkat says:

      This was fascinating to me. Thank you for taking time to respond and explain your understanding of all of this. I am hearing that there is indeed a difference in meaning, and a deliberateness to the use of “in” or “on” in the translation of the verse. Lots of implications.
      I agree that there are genuine, beautiful Christian lives in all of the denominations, who have heard, follow, and are grateful to God for all of his graces. And those who basically shame the name of Jesus with their actions, in every denomination, including my own Roman Catholic church.
      Thanks for all of your input, and God bless you.

  3. lilyboat says:

    This was a very interesting & educative post! As a foreigner, I can say that the in/on usage and those little prepositions really give me a hard time!!!! 😀

  4. geloruma says:

    Thanks for the post Reinkat,
    I only wish we had that kind of Graffiti here in England – ! Its slowly becoming a big brother state which is a little scary.
    I used to use the New Jerusalem bible study edition, until I found it had some inclusive language in it. I was checking up a passage in light of a forthcoming visit from a JH who had once been Catholic – only to find that because they had changed (I think it was ) ” the virgin was with child” to “the woman was with child” – which completely negated a point I was making about Mary’s significance. (Unfortunately I can’t remember the precise verse.)
    After that I looked for what was presently the most Authentic translation of the Bible and found it to be the following:
    Revised standard version second edition. ( second edition is important!) Ignatious Press.
    I use that now for my spiritual reading (rarely do I refer back to the NJ for the odd snippet!)

    • reinkat says:

      thank you for your comment and observations. I have found that being careful about which translation is used is very important. When I really am uncertain, I consult all 5 translations that I have on hand to see how each handled the verse. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it confuses!

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