by Jan Magiera
All language is ruled by laws, but to convey special emphasis of a word or group of words, these general laws of language are purposefully departed from, and other laws of language are invoked, giving the single word or group of words a new form. The Greeks called these departures from normal language use, schemata, meaning “change of forms”, from which the term “figure of speech” originated. A figure of speech is the term used to describe these changes. When a word or words fail to be true to fact, they are figures of speech and bring an added emphasis to the basic truth of a sentence.
The study of figures of speech has been difficult for the general reader, especially in relation to figures of speech in the Bible. There are three reasons: 1) the nomenclature uses Greek and Latin names, 2) the number and variety is extensive (Bullinger catalogued over 200, with many having 30-40 varieties), and 3) the classification system is not straightforward and clear, with many overlapping sections.
One of the most important insights that E. W. Bullinger had from Figures of Speech in the Bible is stated in the beginning note:
…whenever and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed truth; or seems to be a variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed. And as it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized.
The phrased that should be noted is “specially designed emphasis.” Another statement that Bullinger made in How to Enjoy the Bible is that “the Figures, when used in connection with the ‘words which the Holy Ghost teacheth,’ give us the Holy Spirit’s own marking, so to speak, of our Bible…calling our attention to what He desires us to notice for our learning, as being emphatic, and conveying His own special teaching.” Every author has used figures for emphasis on what is important, but it is CRUCIAL to our understanding of the Bible to know what God intended to be emphasized in any particular passage. Thus, the search in this field should be to find out what each type of figure emphasizes and how it is used in the Scripture.
This new translation of the Aramaic Peshitta is filled with footnotes and markings in the text itself of the common figures of speech. It is not pretending to have marked every single figure of speech possible, but to mark the ones which contribute to an added understanding of the text. We have devised a simple classification system which is employed in the footnotes. It classifies the figures into five main headings:
A figure is always used to add force to the truth presented, emphasis to the word or words and depth of meaning to the entire context. The type of figure determines the emphasis in the following general ways:
- Illustration – The word that is compared is highlighted by the extent of the comparison. Always seek for the points of comparison.
- Repetition – The word that is repeated is emphasized. The closer the repetition, or the more frequently it is used, the greater is the degree of emphasis.
- Meaning – Although this category is broad, the underlying meaning is always what is emphasized.
- Grammar – Each type of figure has its individual emphasis, but is always employed with accuracy.
- Rhetorical – Specific figures also work in specific ways, but the general rule is that the word or phrase used with the figure is what is emphasized.
Now that we have looked at the general categories, please study the Figures of Speech chart and pay particular attention to the column about emphasis. We have listed both the Greek/Latin name and also the English name in order to help with this study.
Several figures require further explanation. These are:
Normally, the definition of metaphor is similar to the following from "Silva Rhetoricae" (rhetoric.byu.edu): “A sustained metaphor continued through whole sentences or even through a whole discourse.” I believe that in terms of study of the Aramaic New Testament, this definition is too narrow. Especially in the Gospels, Jesus used examples which were not a whole story where every element was compared to something else. They were pithy short illustrations, usually from everyday life, that communicated a spiritual principle. There are several examples in the Sermon on the Mount:
You should not place for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break in and steal.
But place for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves do not break in and do not steal.
For where your treasure is, there is also your heart.
This is a comparison of having a “treasure room” in a house, which was a glorified closet and would be subject to be corrupted by insects, weather, such as rain leaking through the roof, or thieves breaking a hole in the mud walls. It was a common picture of a storage room in a home. The entire passage teaches the lesson that spiritual treasures are much more important than earthly wealth.
The emphasis in an allegory is on the comparative elements, but also on the moral of the illustration. In these verses, the concluding sentence has the emphasis: “for where your treasure is, there is also your heart.” In every allegory, the student should seek for this concluding remark or the lesson behind the illustration.
There are a large number of different kinds of ellipsis. We use it in ordinary speech every day in greeting one another, saying “Evening!” instead of “Good evening”. An ellipsis can be an omission of any word or phrase in the sentence. The most important point to remember is that the omitted words are what are emphasized. This becomes important in specific passages, because it is often not totally clear what the words are that are to be supplied.
John 8:37: I know that you [are] the seed of Abraham, but you are seeking to kill me, because you do not empty yourselves [to make room] for my word.
Note that the emphasis is not on “seeking to kill me” but on making room for Jesus’ word. The Pharisees were so full of their own doctrine and teaching, that they had no room for anything different.
The student should seek to find the appropriate words that are missing from the context of the passage and not only the immediate sentence.
An erotesis is a question that is not immediately answered. There are two kinds of questions:
- A question that is used with the introductory words, “what”, “why”, “how” and the response generates thoughtful thinking. In the footnotes this is marked as a “question to ponder.” It may cause awe, wonder, shame, fear, contemplation of some kind. The student should consider his or her own answer to the question. The emphasis is designed to make the reader stop and think and consider the subject closely.
- The second question is a LMA question, introduced by the interrogative particle The particle is not necessarily able to be translated. In the interlinear, it is often represented as <?> to introduce the question. This type of question always has an obvious answer, sometimes with exclamatory emphasis, either No! or Yes! The answer could also be as we would say, “of course!”
Mark 2:19 has a simple example of this type of question: Jesus said to them, “Are the guests of the wedding feast able to fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? No!”