Does The Word "Perfect" Really Mean "Perfect”?
Nailing down accurate definitions to words remains one of the major problems in communicating any message to another person. It has been said that, in an argument, the person or party who defines the terms always wins. When it comes to the Bible, and claims of its alleged errancy, skeptics often employ the tactic of assigning certain meanings to the biblical language that the original words do not necessarily have. In many instances, the skeptic will take words, and impose upon them a twenty-first-century meaning that was not intended in the original text. Then they will demand an answer to this “obvious contradiction.”
To illustrate, consider Dan Barker’s book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. He claims that a biblical contradiction exists between Romans 3:23 and Job 1:1 (1992, p. 171). He argues that Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (NKJV). But in Job 1:1, the man from Uz named Job was described as a man who “was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and turned away from evil.” Forcing the word “perfect” in Job 1:1 to mean what most twenty-first-century Americans take it to mean, Barker insists that a person cannot be “perfect” (defining the word as sinless, morally without error) and at the same time be sinful.
Granted, if the word translated “perfect” in Job 1:1 means “absolute sinlessness,” then Barker has a solid point. But a brief study of the original word quickly shows that the Hebrew and Greek words that frequently are translated “perfect” in our English Bibles do not always mean sinlessness. In their monumental work, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Harris, Archer, and Waltke addressed specifically the word used in Job 1:1. The Hebrew word tōm, translated in Job 1:1 as perfect, has a number of different usages. The word, or one of its derivatives, is used in Genesis 17:1 where God told Abraham to “be perfect.” And all Israel was instructed to “be perfect” in verses such as Deuteronomy 18:13, 2 Samuel 22:33, and Psalm 101:2,6. After listing these uses in their wordbook, the authors quote the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible as saying, “the words which are rendered in English by ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection’ denoted originally something other and less than ideal perfection” (1980, p. 974, emp. added). In another authoritative Hebrew word study, Gesenius observed that the word translated as “perfect” can mean “integrity of mind” or “innocence.” He further commented that the word is used of “simplicity of mind, which is opposed to mischief and ill design” (1979, p. 866). Obviously, then, the Hebrew word in Job 1:1 that is translated “perfect” did not mean “sinlessness,” but was used instead to describe a person who was attempting to follow God’s commandments to the best of his or her ability.
It is inexcusable for any person to demand that a contradiction exists between two Bible passages, when he or she will not even take a few minutes to look up the actual meanings of the words in question. Such poor “scholarship” is lazy at best, and dishonest at worst. Whenever a word in the Bible seems to contradict another thought listed therein, one of the most common ways to reconcile the two is to look up the definitions of the original word. If Dan Barker had done that, he would have known that we are not instructed to be “perfect”—in the sense of sinless in 2 Corinthians 13:11. Nor are we to “hate” our family in the twenty-first-century American sense of despising, loathing, and abhorring (see Butt, 2003).
Furthermore, the fact that language changes, and the meanings of words must be studied, can be seen by observing different translations. For instance, when Paul explained to the Thessalonians what is going to happen when Jesus returns, he stated that the Christians who “are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, KJV, emp. added). If we do not examine the meaning of this word, it seems to suggest that the Christians who are alive when Christ returns will not stop those that “are asleep.” That, however, is not what the Greek word phthano means. Other translations show that the this word, translated “prevent” in the King James Version, simply means, “precede” or “go before.”
Before any person presumes to point out an alleged discrepancy in the Bible, the very least that person could do is to study the meaning (in the original language) of the words in question. If such a study were carried out in an honest and forthright fashion, countless pages would be removed from the skeptics’ Web sites and books. Let us all, therefore, strive to be “perfect” in this area.
Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith In Faith—From Preacher to Atheist (Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation).
Butt, Kyle (2003), “Hate Your Parents—Or Love Them?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/601
Gesenius, William (1847), Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1979 reprint.
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer Jr., and Bruce Waltke, eds. (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).