Live metaphors – walking in the Light

Gary Simmons said in his comment on the previous post: this use of μωραίνω could be an example of blurring between what is literally stated (salt) and what is metaphorically referenced (wisdom). Is this what is meant by the phrase “live metaphor?”

Yes, I would say so. A live metaphor is the use of a word or a phrase in an unusual and striking way. If the expression catches on and is thereafter used frequently with the same meaning it eventually dies and becomes an idiom.

Gary also mentioned the example of “circumcision of the heart” which was a live metaphor. I doubt if anyone had ever said that before. It catches the crucial idea that initiation into the people of God is not an outward, visible reality but an inward transformation. Of course, it involves an idiomatic usage of “heart” which does not work in all languages, but it happens to work in English.

Jesus spoke many new parables and live metaphors. The tradition of speaking in parables was not new with Jesus, but the way he spoke and what he said was radically new. He did not speak like other Jewish rabbis. His disciples often did not understand him, at least the first time round. Jesus often chose words that would straddle or provide a bridge between the literal plane and the metaphorical plane. Translators talk about three things in relation to metaphors:

1. The illustration

2. The topic

3. The point(s) of similarity, the bridge between 1 and 2.

Some words or phrases in a parable or an extended metaphor belong to the illustration, others belong to the topic while others straddle between the two. It is difficult to handle this kind of straddling in translation.

I wrote an article on this topic entitled: Walking in the light. It can be read on-line here:

Let me briefly summarize the main points. In John 11:9 Jesus asked his disciples: “Are there not twelve hours of the day?” It is a rhetorical question and the impact is to say: “We still have time to do a work of God (raising Lazarus from the dead). I am still around, am I not?” The word “day” straddles the literal and metaphorical. Of course, there are 12 hours in the literal day (if you are not too far from the equator). But that is the illustration, not the topic. In John 9:4-5 Jesus introduced the metaphorical sense of “day” and “night”: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Immediately after that, Jesus did a miracle, making a blind man see.  So the metaphorical sense of “day” is “opportunity to do the works of God.”

Jesus continued in John 11:9-10: “If anyone walks around in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks around in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

Almost all these words are “straddling” words:

1. Walk around can be literal, but it often refers to how you live your life and what decisions you make, as it does here.

2. Day can mean literally the hours of daylight, but it can also be a situation where you look at things in the spiritual light from Jesus or God and walk around (make decisions) in the light of that light.

3. Stumble can mean literally to stumble over a stone, but often it refers to making the wrong choice and because of that you have a spiritual fall.

4. The light of this/the world could refer to the Sun that provides daylight, but it also refers to Jesus who provides spiritual light.

5. The night could refer to literal darkness, but also to spiritual darkness, the absence of light/guidance from Jesus.

6. The light is not in him can only be understood in the metaphorical sense. It could be translated: “he does not have (access to) the light.” It means that he is not following the spiritual light and guidance that Jesus provides.

Now, how do you translate this kind of speech?  RSV is quite literal, and in this case RSV is better than any and all of the so-called meaning-based versions. Even the NIV didn’t see the light clearly and the translation has “become foolish”. It has lost the power, “salt”,  and “taste” (inspired wisdom) of the original saying.  I am normally in favour of meaning-based versions, but not when the translators have failed to understand the meaning of the original text and its impact. However, IF the translators have understood the text, it is possible to produce a meaning-based version that is clearer and more understandable than the RSV. I assume all English translators have read the RSV, and still they did not seem to understand the text.

29 thoughts on “Live metaphors – walking in the Light

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Now, how do you translate this kind of speech?

    Iver, How did Matthew translate Jesus’s speech (in Matthew 5:13)?

    Was he (the translator) being quite literal when writing in Greek, ἐὰν τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ? (The cop out answer is that we cannot really know. The only thing that English translators now have is the mismatched noun ἃλας and verb μωραίνω. No one know what Jesus really said in Hebrew Aramaic; all we have today is the Greek text; so that has to be all that really matters here.) In other words, did Jesus use a verb with no ambiguity? Was he literally saying, “Should salt become moronic”?

    In your previous post, you speculate that “the word spoken by Jesus was probably tapel תָּפֵל because this word has two senses which fits perfectly with the salt metaphor.”

    If this was the case, then aren’t you suggesting the translator was being literal in not bringing across the ambiguity? You said: “It [the word tapel תָּפֵל] can mean either to be tasteless or to be foolish. The Greek translator chose to render the sense of losing wisdom in order to give a clue to the topic of the metaphor, not just describe the illustration of salt.

    Since the Greek verb μωραίνω clearly only means foolish (and not tasteless as you presume Jesus’s original speech must also have meant), then isn’t the translator ironically doing what you accuse the NIV translators of doing? Or was he doing what you say the RSV translators were doing? In other words, in changing the language and in fitting the new language into a less ambiguous new context, was the Greek translator being literal or being “meaning-based”?

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Jesus – “probably tapel תָּפֵל because this word has two senses which fits perfectly with the salt metaphor”??
    Matthew – μωρανθῇ (one sense, “moronic,” “foolish,” “not wise”)
    NIV – loses its saltiness (a new sense not in the Greek, an English one)
    NLT – has lost its flavor
    RSV – lost its taste
    Philips – become tasteless
    NASB – has become tasteless
    Lattimore – loses its power
    Amplified – has lost its taste (its strength, its quality)
    KJV – have lost his savour

  3. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, Kurk,

    Some interesting questions.

    One deals with the fact that we only have the Greek text of Matthew. If the text was originally spoken in Greek that would be the only text that matters. However, when we are dealing with a translated text, it is often very helpful to go behind the translation and see what the original is likely to have been. I do that all the time when I read a Danish translation of an English book and the translation sounds strange or makes no sense. Once I translate back into English, I get the meaning.

    It is true that we can only assume what might have been the word actually spoken by Jesus. A literal translation cannot handle ambiguity well, since it is very rare to find the same ambiguity in another language. So, if a word has two senses, and the speaker is making a pun on those two senses, what does the translator do? He could choose what seems to fit the illustration of salt, that is, the tasteless sense. But then, how would the reader know that another sense was also possible? That is the problem I have with the NIV. It operates only on the illustration plane and talks about salt. RSV did the same in Matt 5:13, so I am not saying that RSV is better than NIV here. I was referring to RSV in the John passage. The translation of Jesus’ word that we find in Matthew 5:13 is on the topic plane, and that helps the reader to catch a glimpse of both planes. Salt cannot become foolish, so it jars you and makes you think of people rather than salt. Luther was literal in terms of the Greek word and translated it as “foolish”. The translations we find in the Gospels are basically literal. Another option is to find a word that can straddle both planes. That is what the German Gute Nachricht did by saying “seine Kraft verliert” (lost its power). But still, we have the option of footnotes today and this is an obvious case calling for a footnote.

  4. iverlarsen says:


    While I was writing my comment you posted some more English versions. Thank you. I don’t have Lattimore, but he agrees with me in using “power”. And the Amplified Bible is using what is similar to footnotes, which is helpful.

  5. iverlarsen says:

    Why did the KJV say “if the salt has lost his savour” rather than “lost its savour”. Would this make you think of a person rather than salt?

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    And thanks, Iver, for reminding us of Luther’s “dumm wird.” It’s great to see what has been your own decisionmaking too:

    “The tradition in Danish versions is to say ‘loses its power.’ I don’t normally follow tradition, but this happens to be so good that we used the same in our own Danish translation (with a substantial footnote about the double meaning of the presumed underlying Hebrew/Aramaic.)”

    Matthew’s original Greek readers, I believe, would not have needed the footnote on the “presumed underlying Hebrew/Aramaic.” Greek readers in Jerusalem and in the Jewish diaspora would have had a “cultural literacy” that included knowledge of the Hebrew/Aramaic sayings of rabbis. To read that Jesus is referring to salt as moronic in Greek would have invoked tapel תָּפֵל in their Hebraic ears.

    Yes, thanks for asking about the KJV! It’s very personified here, which gets us English readers acknowledging that Jesus (through Matthew’s Greek) is stretching language, is playing with it. Saltless salt just might be a stupid, unwise person… What then?!

  7. John Hobbins says:

    The translation “if salt becomes insipid” is open to explication in the sense of “if a person becomes insipid” – i.e., intellectually flat, since a person whose speech is insipid can be called an insipid person.

    I notice that NAB is excellent in the parallel passage in Mark. Protestants need to be less provincial in their choice of translations to consult. In English, NAB and NJB are always worth comparing.

    I want to emphasize that metaphors are often multidimensional. In fact, I would regard multidimensional metaphors to be a characteristic trait of the sword of Jesus’ mouth. For example, Mark 9:12:

    “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”

    Jesus plays the range of possible metaphorical senses of salt like a jazz musician plays the piano.

  8. iverlarsen says:


    I noticed that both NAB and NJB say “loses its taste” in Mat 5:13 for the Greek word meaning “become foolish”, while they use “insipid” in Mrk 9:50 for another Greek word ἄναλος, meaning something like “unsalty, without salt.”

    My main interest is in the exegesis, actually understanding the meaning of the words. Neither NAB or NJB helps me with that. But it is also interesting to see how Matthew and Mark have two different Greek renderings of the presumedly same Hebrew word. Matthew went for the sense that fits the topic (become foolish), while Mark went for the sense that fits the illustration (become saltless, lose its salt content).

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    Your choice of “insipid” for Jesus’s possible tapel תָּפֵל works very well, because of the Latinate English word’s similar ambiguity. It’s actually the Darby translation choice: “Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have become insipid” for Matthew 5:13. But for the Greek μωρανθῇ, doesn’t insipid lean much more toward the Old English sense of “intellectually tasteless” rather than a constrast to wisdom?

    (And to be clear, I think your Mark reference in the NAB is actually Mark 9:49-50. And the NAB there for ἅλας ἄναλον is really somewhat of an insipid translation, since the Greek there doesn’t mean “insipid” at all but rather something more like “saltless salt” or “unsalty salt”; yes, we could argue that I’m being literal with my English, but I’m trying to stress the diffence in Greek between Mark and Matthew. Moreover, likely it’s not exactly “the parallel passage in Mark” but rather “Matthew’s parallel to Mark”; in other word’s, probably Matthew is writing / translating from Mark as a Greek source, and it’s Matthew whose change, then, is a very striking one. Or are Mark and Matthew recording, transposing in to writing, and translating emically-different spoken Aramaic? “Insipid” may work for one but not the other; and I don’t think it works well for Matthew’s Greek verbal adjective.)

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Iver, I was typing as you were commenting. John and Iver, Sorry for the redundancies in responding to you, John.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    Lattimore has (for Mark 9:50), “Salt is good; but if the salt is salt no more, with what will you season it?”

    KJV has that personified: “Salt [is] good: but if the salt have lost his saltness.”

  12. John Hobbins says:

    I agree with Mike Aubrey about the ubiquity of metaphors and, to reference Harshav again, metaphorical frames of reference. They are hard to kill; they return from the dead when we least expect them to.

    I continue to like NAB’s rendering in the Mark passage (sorry about any verse misidentification). It’s not a literal translation but literal translations do not always work. “Insipid” fits both illustration and the topic – “saltless” in Greek does, too, because it works on both levels equally – the denotative and connotative (or rather, metaphorical).

    “Insipid” also works as a translation in Matthew as Kurk points out. “Tasteless” would be closer still if it were as multivalent as “insipid” in context, but I don’t think it is.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    They are hard to kill; they return from the dead when we least expect them to.

    Here’s something I wrote a while ago. It seems appropriate to the topic. I hope you like it.

    The metaphor.
      It is birthed by an author’s labor.
        And pleated in the culture.
          But do they not forever decay?
            In disuse die,
              or through much use
            die a death still?
          And, yet, they attain eternal life.
        For braided within language
      is the ever resurrection of
    the metaphor.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Gary also mentioned the example of “circumcision of the heart” which was a live metaphor. I doubt if anyone had ever said that before.

    This expression appears a few times in the Hebrew Bible along with “uncircumcised heart.” It is common enough in Hebrew to read about circumcised and uncircumcised hearts, tongue, lips and so on. This may seem counter intuitive but the etymology is a little different in Hebrew than in Greek and in English. In fact, I did a study a while back, finding out that in the LXX, these phrases were usually translated literally, except for those referring to “lips.” I have wondered if this was because female circumcision, practised by the Egyptians was repudiated by the Hebrews.

    In any case, I don’t think this expression sounded unusual in Hebrew. I realize this may seem off topic, but I don’t think there is as much live metaphor, as one might think. I don’t think that those who heard Jesus talk about circumcision of the heart, would have thought about how to interpret that expression. It would sound like the usual way of expressing that thought.

  15. Iver Larsen says:


    Thank you. I had forgotten that, but you are quite right. Circumcision is used in the extended and metaphorical sense with heart in the OT (For example: Deut 10:16; 30:6; Lev 26:41; Jer 4:4; 9:26, Ez 44:7,9.) I could only find one example with lips, that of Moses in Exo 6:12,30. The NET has a nice note here: “The term “uncircumcised” makes a comparison between his speech and that which Israel perceived as unacceptable, unprepared, foreign, and of no use to God…”
    I did not find any examples of a circumcised tongue, but one of ear in Jer 6:10.

    The heart circumcision is still a live metaphor, but I agree that it would not be a foreign idea to a Hebrew who would put lots of meaning into circumcision. From the human standpoint, I suppose it showed commitment to God, and from God’s standpoint, it showed that they were acceptable to him. Stephen repeats that accusation in Acts 7:51. I am not aware that Jesus used the metaphor, but his use of “hypocrite” would be similar in meaning.

    Paul takes it a step further in Rom 2:29 saying that what really matters is not the outward ritual commitment to God, but the inward commitment of the heart.

    And that nicely illustrates one of the main problems we have with the translation of metaphors into other cultures. We may transfer the literal meaning of circumcision in a literal translation, but lose the associations, because we don’t have those same associations connected to that illustration.

  16. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    Circumcision of the tongue occurs in the Sefer yetzirah – the Book of Formation, several centuries AD.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that this metaphor is not original to Jesus, it is a recognized use of the word.

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    Suzanne notes that “this metaphor is not original to Jesus.” Iver notes that Paul takes it a step further. Willis Barnstone (in a comment on page 86 of his NT translation), nonetheless, strongly suggests that the same metaphor is not original to Paul:

    If we go back to Paul, the early epistler gave us the notion of a new “covenant.” His [Greek] word διαθήκη (diatheke) comes from Hebrew ברית (berit, “a cutting”) [pronounced in Yiddish and in English sometimes as “bris”], meaning “circumcision” as well as “covenant” or “pact,” going back to Abraham’s covenant with God, who tells Abram to be circumcised. The rite of the ברית, the circumcision, became metonymically the abstract word for “covenant.”… Paul… evoking the etymological root meaning of ברית, sharply declares that our new “circumcision” – περιτομή (peritome) – must be a spiritual one of the heart, not of the flesh. He cites as his authority Deuteronomy 30.6, where Torah calls for a circumcision – למוּ (umal, an alternative form of the Hebrew word for circumcision) – of the heart, not of the flesh.

    There’s wordplay here, and there’s the suggested use of translation for it.

    One of Suzanne’s posts on this topic is here.

  18. Tony Pope says:

    Why did the KJV say “if the salt has lost his savour” rather than “lost its savour”. Would this make you think of a person rather than salt?
    KJV has that personified: “Salt [is] good: but if the salt have lost his saltness.”

    In the language of the KJV there is generally no word “its”, and “his” does duty for it. An online edition of the KJV returned only one hit for “its”, in Lev 25.5. A check of that verse in the 300th anniversary facsimile at shows it reads:

    That which groweth of it owne accord of thy haruest, thou shalt not reape, neither gather the grapes of thy Uine undressed : for it is a yeere of rest unto the land.

    “It” may be a misprint here, but even so “his” is certainly the usual possessive pronoun for inanimate as well as animate nouns. There must be hundreds of examples. (For examples of “his own” referring to inanimates, see e.g. 1 Sam 5.11 or Luke 6.44.)

  19. jkgayle says:


    You’re on to something. Maybe “its” is newer English.

    Tyndale – of which the KJV is largely an updated version – does not use “its.”

    Mk 9.50:

    Salt is good. But yf ye salt be vnsavery: what shall ye salte therwith? Se yt ye have salt in youre selves: and have peace amonge youre selves one with another.

    Mt 5.13:

    ye are ye salt of the erthe: but and yf ye salt have lost hir saltnes what can be salted ther with? It is thence forthe good for nothynge but to be cast oute and to be troade vnder fote of men

    Nonetheless, the “ye” makes English readers new and old feel like it means us. There’s a personification here, no?

  20. John Radcliffe says:

    Inver asked:

    ‘Nonetheless, the “ye” makes English readers new and old feel like it means us. There’s a personification here, no?’

    I don’t think so: “ye salt” should be “the salt”. I’m guessing the printed original used the old letter “thorn” for “th”, which looks a bit like a “y” and is often mistaken for one.

    Here’s an extract from Wikipedia:

    Thorn in the form of a Y survives to this day in pseudo-archaic usages, particularly the stock prefix Ye olde. The definite article spelled with Y for thorn is often jocularly or mistakenly pronounced /ji:/ or mistaken for the archaic nominative case of you, written ye. It is used infrequently in some modern English word games to replace the th with a single letter.

    A handwritten form of thorn that was similar to the letter ‘y’ in appearance with a small ‘e’ written above it as an abbreviation for ‘the’ was common in early Modern English. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact. Note that the article was never pronounced with a y sound, even when so written.

  21. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks John. You and Tony point out certain early orthographic ambiguities (surely unintended).

    Ye pointe of hir jocularity is the worde game of ye poffible perfonifications by ye translators:

    ye are ye salt of the erthe:
    but and yf ye salt have lost hir saltnes
    what can be salted ther with?”

    Ye are ye light of the worlde.”

    Ye haue hearde howe it was sayde to the of olde tyme:
    Thou shalt not comitt advoutrie.
    But I say vnto you
    that whosoeuer looketh on a wyfe lustynge after her
    hathe comitted advoutrie with hir
    alredy in his hert.”

  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    Just to be clear, the above is an attempt to reproduce William Tyndale’s translation with its original (mis)spelling(s). The bold font on some words is an attempt to show the contrasts and ambiguities. But I should’ve bolded her to show it as an emic variant of hir in the same sentence; note how the two hirs are also in emic contrast, perhaps, so that the first hir can be read as either “its” or “her” and the second is more obviously to be read only as “her.”

    Here is the spelling of the 1611 KJV, a first revision of the Tyndale:

    Yee are the falt of the earth : But if the falt haue lost his fauour, wherewith fhall it bee falted :

    Yee are the light of the world.

    Yee haue heard that it was faid by them of old time, Thou fhalt not commit adulterie. But I fay unto you, That who=foeuer looketh on a woman to luft after her, hath committed adulterie with her already in his heart.

    Notice the changes:
    Ye =\ Yee
    ye =\ the
    the = the
    ye = the

    hir =\ his

    the =\ them
    Thou = Thou
    her = her
    hir =\ her

  23. John Radcliffe says:

    Even further off-topic …

    It’s interesting that English used to have two forms for lowercase “s”, just as Greek does for sigma (one used at the end of a word and the other elsewhere). The final version (“s”) is the one that survived; the non-final version looked very like an “f” except that the crossbar wasn’t complete.

    Is that just coincidence?

  24. J. K. Gayle says:

    just as Greek does for sigma…. Is that just coincidence?

    Andrew West poses an answer at his blog:

    “Like most readers of this blog I realised that long s was used initially and medially, whereas short s was used finally (mirroring Greek practice with regards to final lowercase sigma ς and non-final lowercase sigma σ), although there were, I thought, some exceptions.”

    He also uses the new, public Google Books Ngram Viewer to show the shift! See his posts “Addendum [2010-12-17]” and before that “The Demise of the Long S,” etc.

    (I suppose this is some off topic. But the discuss is also on language and metaphor mirroring and shifting. Orthography and literal and transliteral translating is related in some good ways.)

  25. Iver Larsen says:

    Yes, we have moved somewhat off topic, so let me add that we used to write Danish with what we call “Gothic” script into the beginning of the 20th century. I have a NT from 1902 that I am looking at. The capital S is ornamental like a G. The small s is like an f with a very small bar. It is quite difficult to distinguish it from an f. The final s is similar to the current s. Why the s’s were different I don’t know. But the similarity between non-final s and f would encourage the s to change.

  26. Sue says:

    As long as we are off topic, Andrew is a long time blogging buddy of mine and his Babelmap is great for differentiating precomposed and nonprecomposed unicode polytonic Greek.

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