Glenn -- Attached is what I know on this. It is a lexicon on the word
Comes from Dr. Ken Hamstra here in Austin, who has given me permission to post
Note that it is a draft, not a "final paper."
First Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas
The Scripture Class
Copyright 1994 by Kenneth Warren Hamstra draft -- draft -- draft
OCCASIONAL LEXICON # 4 BLASPHEMY AND KINDRED NOTIONS
One of the clearest early (classical period) Greek uses of the
term blasphemy/to blaspheme is found in Plato, The Republic, Book II (@
381-382. In this segment Plato's 'Socrates' (who by this time in Plato's
teaching speaks for Plato himself) is carrying on a dialogue with
Adiemantos on the nature of God (or the Gods, since Plato uses the terms
quite interchangeably at this time). This section is instructive, so it
seems worth citing at length, for it sums up an understanding of the
blasphemy concept in the Greek-thinking world (as distinct from the
Jewish world) at about 360 BCE. I use the translation by W.H.D. Rouse
Plato's 'Socrates' and Adiemantos are considering how a thoughtful person
might best consider the writings of the poets (i.e., creative thinkers
who were neither mathematicians nor philosophers) with regard to God or
the Gods. Remember as you read this that Plato was of the opinion that
the poets lie a great deal, and it is this lying--in the interests of
drama, for instance--that 'Socrates' is centering upon.
(Socrates): "...then everything which is in a good state, either by
nature or by art or both, least admits change by something else."
"So it seems."
"But think, God and what is God's is everywhere in a perfect state?"
"Then in this respect God would be least likely to take on many
"Least likely, indeed."
"Now as to himself: Would he change and alter himself?"
"Clearly he would," said he, "if he does alter."
"Does he change himself for the better and more beautiful, or for the
worse and more ugly than himself?"
"He must change for the worse if he does change," said he, "for I suppose
we shall not say there is a lack in God of beauty or virtue."
"Quite right," said I; "and if thus perfect, do you think, Adeimantos,
that anyone, god or man, would willingly make himself worse than this in
"Impossible," said he.
"Then it is impossible," I said, "that God should wish to alter himself.
No, as it seems, each of them, being the best and most beautiful
possible, abides forever simply in his own form."
"I think that is absolutely necessary," he said.
"Then no poet must tell us, my excellent friend," said I, "that
Gods like strangers from a foreign land take on all sorts of shapes and
visit cities [Odyssey xvii, 485] and no one shall lie about Proteus
[Odyssey iv. 456 - who changed into all sorts of shapes to escape
capture] and Thetis [Pindar: Nemean iv, 62 - who did the same because
she tried to escape marriage with Peleus], and in the tragedies and other
poems no one shall bring on Hera [in a lost tragedy by Aeschylus]
disguised as a priestess begging alms for the life-giving sons of
Inachos, The Argive river. We don't want these and
many other such lies. And the mothers, again, shall not be deluded by
them and terrify their children by telling them nasty fables, how some
gods prowl about by night--just imagine it!--in the likeness of a lot of
people from the ends of the earth [these are the well-known bogies,
Lamia, Mormo, Empusa, who could take any shape]; we won't have them
blaspheming the gods and adding to their children's fears at the same
"We will not!" said he.
"Well then, next," said I, "the gods themselves cannot change, but do
they deceive us and bewitch us and make us think we see them in all these
"Perhaps," he said.
"What!" said I. "Would a god wish to lie or deceive in word or deed, or
by putting a pretense before us?"
"I don't know," said he.
"Don't you know," said I, "that what is truly a lie, if that could be
said, all gods and men hate?"
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"This," I said; "that to be false in the most vital part of one's being
and about the most vital things is what no one willingly chooses, but one
fears more than anything to have falsehood there."
"I don't understand even yet," said he.
"Because you think," I replied; "that I am saying something pretentious.
I only mean that in the soul, to be false and to be deceived and ignorant
about what is real, and to have and keep the falsehood in the soul--no
one would ever accept such a thing; all have the greatest hatred for it
in such a place"
"Exactly," he said.
"But surely this could most rightly be called the true lie, as I called
it just now, this ignorance of the soul, the ignorance of one deceived,
since the lie in words is an imitation of the state of the soul, and came
later, an image, not the pure lie. Is that not so?"
"Then the real lie is hated both by gods and by men."
"So I think...." [End of citation.]
In short, then, Plato/Socrates considers blasphemy to obtain in either of
1) The individual deliberately says what is known to be false about
the God, or,
2) An individual mindlessly repeats a lie which that person has
heard from other people (e.g., supposedly common
knowledge) without thinking through whether or not the
statement is true. In either case, the "great lie" is to have falsehood
about one's own self (understood, in relationship to deity) at the center
of one's being. (One of several strong parallels to this view can be
found in the strongly Plato-influenced First Letter of John: cf 1:5-10.)
(Compare also, e.g., as one example of the way this notion has held at
the center of Western culture, the well-known lines which Shakespeare
gives to a fathead named Polonius [addressed to Laertes, Hamlet, I:iii]:
"This above all: to thine own self be true, /And it must follow, as the
night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.")
The derivation of this term is somewhat uncertain. The unabridged
edition of Lidell & Scott gives no derivation; while the abridged edition
(with a different editor) gives a derivation from blax (lazy, inactive,
sluggish--compare our slang term 'the blahs') and phaemae (to speak), as
does also Thayer's Lexicon. However, the use of this term in Plato and
elsewhere (as well as an implication in the unabridged L&S) may well
point to a derivation or at least a shading of meaning derived from
blapto, a verb having to do with hindering or making lame, which, as
used with respect to reasoning powers, has to do with misleading or
damaging or maltreating. In Hebrew/Aramaic: It is of more
than passing interest that there is no word corresponding to the Greek
term blasphemy in Hebrew or in its descendent tongue, Aramaic. The King
James Translators have done us a disservice at this point. They made
use of a concept which did not exist, per se, while Scripture was being
written down in these cognate languages. In other words, they 'read back
into' Biblical Hebrew/Aramaic a concept which could not have been used by
the several Jewish writers, since the writers had no word for such a
concept. (It also is of more than passing interest to note that, in
order to bring a charge of blasphemy against Jesus, the Jews at the power
center in Jerusalem would have had to speak Greek. The charge simply
could not have been brought in Aramaic.) The actual words which the KJV
translators mishandled in this way are few in number. The more
significant among them have to do with stabbing, cutting into, piercing,
or stinging. Thus: naquab - means to bore a hole, to pierce; hence, to
pierce with words. The word can be found in a most interesting
conjunction with another common and ordinary word, qalal, in a very old
story embedded in the levitical code at Leviticus 24:10-16. The verb
qalal means (in the Piel form) to esteem lightly, to make light of,
hence, to revile. In the story an Israelite woman's (half Egyptian) son
gets into a fight with an Israelite man. The Israelite woman's son
pronounces both naquab and qalal upon the unpronounceable name of God
(Jahweh, presumably), and ends up being stoned for what he had said. The
story forms the framework for the Levitical law dealing with these two
actions. The one who does qalal is to bear (nasa, to lift up and bear,
as on one's shoulders) that person's failure (chet, as in a total
failure, religious or otherwise). The one who does naquab, however, is
to be put to death (stoned). This is not a judicial process, since the
same rules apply to non-Jews as to Jews. Rather, as numerous
commentators have noted, the action is purgative: it is not a matter of
the punishment fitting the crime, rather, it is the excision of a point
of infection from within the community. Cognate forms of naquab are to
be found at 2Sa12:14; Ps 74:10,18; Isa 37:3 & 52:5; Eze 35:12; 2Ki 19:3.
Some other common words the KJV translated as blasphemy, etc., are:
gadaph, to cut into: 2Ki 19:6,22; Ps 44:16; Isa 37:6,23; Eze 20:27.
charaph, to cut into soebrew thought:
The core of Hebrew thought on these matters is to be found in the
so-called Decalogue (Ten Commandments). In this case the wording of the
mandate is identical in both accounts, although the other mandates have
not fared as clearly over their centuries of transmission. Exodus 20:7
and Deuteronomy 5:12 have an identical wording. The most useful
translation of this mandate seems to go like this: "Don't lift up the
name of Yahweh your God unto no effect (i.e., emptily, as in oaths not
kept and in empty blessings and imprecations). Parallels to this
understanding can be found in Psalm(s) 26:4; 60:11; 89:47; 108:12;
127:1,2; 139:20; Isa 1:13; Jer 2:30; 4:30; 6:29; 46:11; Lam 2:14; Eze
12:24; 13:7; Mal 3:14.
A note on Mt 12:31-32: The teaching of Jesus on blasphemy recorded in
Matthew's account has been a source of much heartache among all
generations of Christians. It is a barrier to some who might otherwise
have joined the visible Christian church, as well as a weapon used by a
variety of unscrupulous religionists who have wielded it like a writ of
blackmail for a variety of nefarious purposes. Yet, in light of the
above discussion, a correct reading does not seem all that difficult to
derive. The context. Jesus has been carrying out a number
of healings and exorcisms, making use of linguistic and cultural
understandings common to his time. A blind and mute demoniac is brought
to him, and is made to see and to speak. The crowds raise the question
as to whether this is the Messiah ("David's son" ). The Pharisees
attribute the healing(s) to Beelzebul ("Baal the Prince", the name of an
ancient rival to Jahweh in those parts). Jesus raises the logical
question as to how it might be that this adversary ("Satan", the name for
the adversary of Jahweh) is able to exorcise Satan making use of the name
of Satan. By contrast, Jesus points out, if he is exorcising through the
agency of the active power of Yahweh (i.e., "Spirit", always the active
agency of Yahweh from the creation onward), it is not to be doubted that
the reign of God is upon them. This then sets up the troubling teaching,
best translated as follows:
30. "The one who is not with me opposes me, and the one who
does not integrate disintegrates. That's why I declare to you that all
forms of pointlessness and of blasphemy which are directed toward human
beings shall be acquitted, but blasphemy toward the Spirit shall not be
acquitted. Even so, if anyone utters a logos directed against the son of
humanity, it shall be acquitted. But if anyone utters that logos against
the Spirit of the Holy One, it shall not be acquitted, either in this eon
or in the next time around.
33. "Grow either a morally sound tree with sound fruiting, or
grow a rotten tree with rotten fruit! For a tree is known by its fruit.
You brood of vipers, since your essential condition is villainous, how
would you be able to speak the truly beautiful good? The mouth speaks
that which is teeming in the heart. sum: The upshot of all this seems quite
clear. Jesus had
the same view of a blasphemy directed toward deity that Plato had put
forward nearly 400 years earlier. Blasphemy directed toward deity (i.e.,
saying that the good work done through the power of the Spirit of the
Holy One was done by an adversary power) can't be pronounced 'Not
Guilty'! It is impossible to pronounce a 'not guilty' in such a case
because the individual who uttered the blasphemy has a mindset which
makes such a finding meaningless. Even as forgiveness is not really
complete until it is taken up, a mindset which holds that whatever the
judge of jury pronounces is irrelevant to the case, since the individual
already knows the mind of God, renders a 'not guilty' verdict irrelevant.
The outcome of a mindset such as this is this: to be as they are.
--Copyright -- Kenneth Warren Hamstra, 1994