In the “Bowels” of Jesus Christ?

“For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”
[Philippians 1:8]

Here I will share some of my observations regarding this strange terminology found in the Greek and later English translations of the New Testament text.

The Semitic Root for “Mercy”

The triliteral Semitic root of resh/chet/mîm (רחם) refers to that which is deep within. A lucid display of this is Genesis 49:25 which states:

מֵאֵל אָבִיךָ וְיַעְזְרֶךָּ, וְאֵת שַׁדַּי וִיבָרְכֶךָּ, בִּרְכֹת שָׁמַיִם מֵעָל, בִּרְכֹת תְּהוֹם רבֶצֶת תָּחַת; בִּרְכֹת שָׁדַיִם, וָרָחַם
“Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb.”

[Side note: the word “robetset” (רבֶצֶת) in the verse above comes from the root “rebets” (רבצ) from which the Arabic word “Ramadân” (رمضان) is derived. Further analysis is forthcoming at a later date.]

Thus, as the intimate feelings of love and compassion come from deep within figuratively, the root etymologically has evolved to signify mercy. Since the heart and womb are intimate things deep within the body and the source of love and compassion, the root has extended to encompass this meaning as well.

However, the source of this word extended to mean the testicles, genitive organs, womb, bowels, et cetera is from later Syriac prose, but never in the Bible. It must be noted that most Syriac prose from after the 4th century CE was heavily influenced by Greek. Even the Peshitta could not avoid Greek influence to a small degree (which is found in the Syriac transliteration of Greek words).

Regarding the Bible in Hebrew one will find:

וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם
“..and I will show mercy to those who I will show mercy.”
[Exodus 33:19]

וַיְמַהֵר יוֹסֵף, כִּי-נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמָיו אֶל-אָחִיו
“And Joseph made haste for his heart longed for his brother…”
[Genesis 43:30]

This is likewise mistranslated into “And Joseph made haste for his bowels longed for his brother” in many, if not most, English translations of the Bible (such as the infamous King James Version).

The word in Hebrew for bowels is me`ah (מעא) and is found throughout the Bible where it intends to say “bowels” such as in the Book of Numbers 5:22:

וּבָאוּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרְרִים הָאֵלֶּה, בְּמֵעַיִךְ, לַצְבּוֹת בֶּטֶן, וְלַנְפִּל יָרֵךְ; וְאָמְרָה הָאִשָּׁה, אָמֵן אָמֵן
“And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.”

One can see above that the reference to “bowels” here is specifically human viscera and correctly uses the Hebrew word me`ah (מעא) for bowels.

Greek Incongruity

Regarding the Gospel literature in Syriac, we have a consistent usage of this word to mean “mercy” where the Greek text is contradicting itself left, right and center. A classic example of this is the following:

“For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”
[Philippians 1:8]

How did they get “..in the bowels of Jesus Christ”?! Here the word in Greek is splagxnois (σπλαγχνοις) and we find this same word in Luke 1:78 as splagxna (σπλαγχνα) which uses it as “Through the tender mercy of our God” and not the “tender bowels”. There is something simply not right going on here.
So why is this same word Christ’s intestines in Philippians, but it is God’s mercy in Luke?

Regarding the definition of the word splagxnois (σπλαγχνοις) it has meant the entrails of an animal or human since time immemorial.

An example of this usage is the graphic description of Judas’s death in which his abdomen burst open to spill his entrails:

ουτος μεν ουν εκτησατο χωριον εκ μισθου της αδικιας και πρηνης γενομενος εγακησεν μεσος και εζεχυθη παντα τα σπλαγχνα αυτου
“Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out.”
[Acts 1:18]

This word is also in reference to eating the intestines of a sacrificed animal. The Lidell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon states:

σπλαγχνον, τό, mostly in pl. σπλαγχνα (σπλαγχανα SIG1002 ), inward parts, esp. the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, which in sacrifices were reserved to be eaten by the sacrificers at the beginning of their feast..”

This definition is echoed in the Septuagint version of 2 Maccabees 6:7, “But they were led by bitter constraint on the king’s birthday to the sacrifices..” The word used here is splagxnismon (σπλαγχνισμον) in reference to the entrails of the ritual sacrifice.

In Greek there is the usage of splagxnizomai (σπλαγχνίζομαι) or splagxnizw (σπλαγχνίζω) used as “to feel compassion”. However, this usage is not anywhere to be found outside the Greek New Testament other than Papiri Fiorentini: Papiri Greco-Egizii 296, none of which dates earlier than the 2nd century CE at best. Thus, it is evident that this word for guts and entrails in the Greek language came to mean “mercy” hundreds of years after the advent of Christianity due to adherence to the mistaken Greek translations of the lost Biblical Semitic autographs of which hardly even fragments remain.

Congruity Between Semitic Languages

This word is very common in the Hebrew Old Testament and its usage adheres to “mercy”, allegorical “heart” (never literal), and “womb” both allegorical and literalز

וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ
“That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee..”
[Deuteronomy 30:3]

As mentioned previously, Genesis 49:25 refers to the womb as being in the depths of the body as it also occurs throughout the Bible including Proverbs 30:16.

שְׁאוֹל, וְעצֶר-רָחַם: אֶרֶץ, לֹא-שָׂבְעָה מַּיִם; וְאֵשׁ, לֹא-אָמְרָה הוֹן
“The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not satisfied with water; and the fire that saith not: ‘Enough.’”

Since women were seen as no more than walking wombs (רחמא) in a Biblical context, a derivative of this word is also applied to young women who are distributed as spoils amongst conquering soldiers in Judges 5:30:

הֲלא יִמְצְאוּ יְחַלְּקוּ שָׁלָל, רַחַם רַחֲמָתַיִם לְראשׁ גֶּבֶר– שְׁלַל צְבָעִים לְסִיסְרָא, שְׁלַל צְבָעִים רִקְמָה: צֶבַע רִקְמָתַיִם, לְצַוְּארֵי שָׁלָל
“Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A damsel, two damsels to every man; to Sisera a spoil of dyed garments, a spoil of dyed garments of embroidery, two dyed garments of broidery for the neck of every spoiler?”

However, it is also inflected to mean women filled with pity (רחמני) in Lamentations 4:10:

יְדֵי, נָשִׁים רַחֲמָנִיּוֹת–בִּשְּׁלוּ, יַלְדֵיהֶן; הָיוּ לְבָרוֹת לָמוֹ, בְּשֶׁבֶר בַּת-עַמִּי
“The hands of women full of compassion have sodden their own children; they were their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.”

In the Syriac Peshitta’s version of Philippians 1:8 it says “..b-rachmawhî d-Eishûa` Mashîcha” (ܕܪܚܡܘܗܝ ܕܝܫܘܥ ܡܫܝܚܐ) meaning “the mercy of Jesus Christ”, and Luke 1:78 says “bi-rachmîa d-achnanâ d-Allahan..” (ܒܪܚܡܐ ܕܚܢܢܐ ܕܐܠܗܢ) meaning, “favor from the mercy of God”. There should be no surprise that the Peshitta is consistent where the Greek is not. One will not find a single instance where this translation into “bowels” is anything other than a mistreatment of the text.

This root is never found to mean bowels in later Semitic languages such as Arabic, wherein, it only means love, mercy, womb, and sometimes figuratively for the “womb of the earth” meaning the interior of the earth. The Qur’ân is rife with this roots usage in its various inflections since clemency is a central attribute of God in Islam. In the the Qur’ân is the oft-repeated prefix to each chapter “bismi-Allâhi-rahmâni-rahîm” (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم) meaning “In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful”.

as well as “hûw-allathî yusawwirukum fi-l arhâmî kayfa yashâ’” (هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَوِّرُكُمْ فِي الأَرْحَامِ كَيْفَ يَشَاءُ) meaning “It is He who created you in the wombs as He willed”.

It is interesting to note that one finds the Qur’ân more linguistically harmonious with the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible than even the Greek New Testament.

Conclusion

In the Semitic linguistic tradition from the earliest Hebrew and Aramaic to Christian Syro-Aramaic and on to Qur’ânic Arabic, this word has meant love and mercy. Any of its derivatives have only stemmed from this understanding. After careful analysis and textual criticism of the New Testament text in all its applicable languages, this rendition into “bowels” must be acknowledged as an anomaly in a less than perfect European translation.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. WOW – would you believe I was literally just reading that verse 2 nights ago, asking the Lord what on earth Paul meant by “bowels” but figured perhaps it was a translation problem with the Hebrew and so nice to know I was on the right track at least. I think sometimes as you said, we do have to remember that there are many words with a similar problem when translating from one language into another, esp from a complex one like Hebrew into a yet more complex one as ours. So appreciate you spending the time on putting that lot together and such a timely post for me too :)).

  2. Tikkiro, there are linguistic difficulties such as this found throughout the Bible. The text has not only undergone numerous translations, but also some major redactions. The entirety of the text was redacted by the late 2nd century CE church father and exegete, Origenes Adamantios (commonly known as Origen). Considering his resources, he did a phenomenally remarkable job. Yet, he was human, nonetheless, and did make errors. Most scholars will acknowledge that many of his revisions were purely abitrary based on his personal understanding of the text.

    The irony is that the Jewish Bible as it is known today is the work of a Christian. It’s grammar, diacritics and vowelization are entirely borrowed from the Muslim Arabs who based everything upon the language of the Qur’ân. The common charge is that the Qur’ân was based upon material borrowed from the Bible, yet the facts state the exact reverse of that.

    I’ll be writing more articles like this on possible shadows remaining of an assumed Hebraic and/or Aramaic Semitic autographs of the Biblical texts.

  3. JazakAllahu khayrun. I am really enjoying and learning from the material on this website.

    -MT

  4. Dear Friend,

    I like what Lynn Squire of “Faith, Fiction, Fun and Fanciful” (http://faithfictionfunandfanciful.blogspot.com/2009/03/yearning.html) writes,

    “In the Hebrew language, the bowels were the seat of deep affection and strong emotions especially of love and compassion. What does our character value more than life? What does he want to have that he would give his all in order to attain or obtain? We need to find what affects our character “to his bowels,” the strongest part of his emotions.”

    Makes sense to me. What do you think?


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