“The silly Bible even errs in counting the number of legs on a grasshopper!”

“The Bible even errs in counting the number of legs on a grasshopper!”

“Is it horribly impolite to point out that insects actually have six rather than four legs?”

Not impolite. Just a little naive.

It is a viewpoint based upon cultural myopia. We are all guilty of this at one time or another. When we don’t understand another culture–but think we do–we often assume that they are terribly “wrong”. Imagine an anthropologist of another culture of the distant future unearthing one of our newspapers and saying, “What a primitive and unscientific people! When they heard heavy rains pounding on their roofs at night, they actually claimed that it was raining cats and dogs! They actually thought that common domesticated animals could be found in clouds.”

Many don’t realize that people from other cultures might laugh and point at someone for actually thinking that “an insect has six legs” when “Everybody knows that insects have 2 striders, 2 walkers, and TWO legs!”

This is just one of many types of linguistic confusions which I’ve had to cover quite routinely, both in articles and in the classroom. Does it really seem likely that an ancient people dependent upon agricultural sustenance and ever fearful of the next plague of locusts wiping out their food supply would never have noticed how many legs/appendages/limbs/etc. such insects have? They were capable, after all, of counting to six.

How many legs does a grasshopper have? It depends on the culture and the language involved. Some may count 2 “jumpers” and 4 “walkers”. Some refer to six appendages. Indeed, some languages have had no word for bodily appendage, at all. A culture may not even have a word for leg. Instead, it might have a word for foot and the “scope” of that word ends just above the knee.

Yet, we face similar confusion in our own culture. We distinguish between fingers and toes. Yet in our medical literature, phalanges refer to both fingers and toes. So, in isolation, the word phalanges may strike some as too ambiguous. Yet, all descriptions in a text may fall short of the expectations of a reader. (Which phalange is the author talking about? The index finger? The big toe? The thumb on the right hand?)

In the classroom I usually explained such “mapping phenomena” in terms of Venn diagrams on some display medium. In doing so, the Hebrew word commonly translated as fish would be shown as a Venn circle larger than the English word fish per se because the Hebrew word includes many other aquatic creatures.

Semantic domains differ between languages, especially those of different language families. Nomenclature often differs because classifications of common things differ between cultures. That is why semantic mappings between the lexemes of different languages are often not one-to-one.

This complaint about ancient texts–and making fun of their imagined ignorance of an obvious “fact”—is seen in the popular complain “The Bible [actually, just the KJV] says that a whale is a fish” when ignoring the fact that ancient Hebrew was not English. To render the “exact” meaning of the closest ancient Hebrew word for fish would require clumsy, overly wordy English translations that required lots of burdensome phrases in place of single words, such as “fin-equipped, aquatic creature”, a description which entails not just piscatorians but cetaceans as well.

And to make matters even more complicated one may find that the semantic domains of a particular Hebrew word may have “broadened” by the time of the post-exilic literature of the Old Testament, so that the “fin-equipped” aspect was no longer required. So even some renowned Biblical scholars err when treating particular Hebrew words as having rigid, unchanging definitions despite the fact that the Old Testament texts span many many centuries. A word like awful has a very different meaning today [opposite meaning, actually] than at the time of the Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Yet, that is a mere four centuries of time span.

When I was still teaching undergrads, I would even give classes of non-majors some of the popular and traditional “Bible errors” compilations where the two aforementioned examples are always cited. Students were often surprised and nearly always entertained to learn just how ignorant were many of the traditional complaints. By the end of the course even the poorest students began to understand why the “Bible contradictions” academics write about at such length are usually quite a different list than so many of the best known but entirely lame entries on websites like the Skeptics Annotated Bible.
(c) 2015. Professor Tertius & the Bible.and.Science.Forum at Gmail.com.
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