I have run across several definitions as it relates to "anachronism" in Biblical Hermeneutics and I am confused:

An anachronism in word studies takes place when we read a definition of a word that was given at a later point in history back into a text that was written before the word took on that meaning(Taken from here)

Another definition:

The opposite is to go the other direction in what is often called “the anachronism” that is reading a Greek or Hebrew word in light of a later meaning.(Taken from here)

But in reply to several discussions, an "anachronism" was refered to when the OP sought to use a 'later' reference to discuss the meaning of an earlier passage.

Both definitions, which I cited, refer to the interpretation of a word later than the text quoted from, and then translating that text based on the later interpretation.

The other 'construed' meaning suggests that any further "reference' to understanding a source which comes later than the source itself is "anachronistic".

Which is it: the definition of the word, or the fact that any attempt to interpret an earlier source?


2 Answers 2


Contextualizing a text is fraught with all kinds of pitfalls. Distancing ourselves (the act of distanciation) from our preconceived ideas of what words mean to us today whenever interpreting a text from ancient history is at times difficult, but it pays rich rewards in the hermeneutical process. Think what happens, however, when we fail to do so.

Think of the preacher, for example, who in reading his text during Sunday sermon says the following:

"Allow me to paraphrase Paul's words in Romans chapter 1: 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek'" (1:16).

The preacher obviously looked up the Greek word for the English word power, dynamus, in his Greek to English index-lexicon and anachronistically substituted Paul's word for power from that root word from which--since its invention millennia later--we get our English word dynamite.

In another sermon, the same preacher did pretty much the same thing with the following verse:

And as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:7,

"For God loves a hilarious giver"!

Now the Greek word for cheerful is hilaros, from which we get our English word hilarious, but the Greek root word translated into a fairly modern word is an anachronism, since hilarious came into being much, much later than Paul's hilaros.

The same could be said for the word suffer, which in the KJV version of Jesus' words,

"Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16).

Today, the word suffer means to experience mental and/or physical anguish and pain. In King James's day, it mean to encourage (positively) or not to hinder (negatively). When I was a kid, I couldn't figure out what Jesus was saying in this important verse (it's in all three synoptics) because the word suffer seemed out of place to me. "Why," I would ask myself, "would Jesus want children to suffer? I thought 'Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight . . .." I was confused anachronistically.

The same anachronistic thinking can happen in reverse in the English language, when for example we interpret the let in Jesus' "Let the little children" according to the meaning of the word to Shakespeare; namely, to hinder. I guess this is what you would call "the anachronism."

Forwards or backwards, an anachronism falls into the category of "fallacious hermeneutics" or "fallacious exegesis," since interpreting a text, especially an old text from a different context, culturally and linguistically requires the question,

"Now what did this word, as Paul used it here, mean to him in the context of A.D. 65?"

As for the "reverse" anachronism I illustrated above in the example of an earlier-English to a later-English example, contributor David, above, is on the right track regarding the domestication of camels in the ANE.

The point is, anachronistically equating Abrahams' wife Sarah's "alighting from her camel" to firing up a Camel cigarette today, is risible, but in less obvious ways we need to be careful not to fall into the nether world of fallacious exegesis when interpreting a scriptural passage.

A couple of my illustrations, by the way, came from D.A. Carson's book Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, ©1984).

  • 1
    @GoneQuiet: As promised: "Caveat: The following material will likely be of interest only to Christians, and is based on the doctrine of the 'Analogy of Scripture,' according to which the Tanakh and the New Testament comprise 1 book." An anachronism of the sort you mention is not possible, since the one who said, "Before Abraham was, I AM," and "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me," transcends time. He has inhabited, He does inhabit, and He will inhabit eternity. Now if only I could think of His name . . .. Oh, I know: Yeshua! Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 15:46
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    @GoneQuiet: As usual, I did not make myself clear. A person who transcends time cannot be guilty of an anachronism. If God exists in the eternal present, and if Jesus is God incarnate, then Jesus in "looking back" in time is not really looking back; rather, He is ADAPTING His speech pattern, if you will, to His audience, which comprises only creatures of time. (Again, my caveat applies to what I just said.) Accordingly, I'm not assuming something to be true which I need to prove to be true; rather, I am simply basing my answer on an a priori presupposition. This we all do; you, me, everyone. Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 15:55
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    Can't help but add my own £0.02! A Christian claim that Jesus (as man) existed before his birth makes nonsense of the incarnation, and is to speak anachronistically. The Christian claim is that the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son) is co-eternal with the Father. But Jesus was born at a certain place, time, into a certain family, etc. It took the Christian Church ~400 years to come to terms with how to describe the relationship between the Second Person and Jesus -- and there's a reason why it took so long! This aspect of things is a matter for Christianity.SE, though, not BH.SE!
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 16:00
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    @David: Respectfully, I have to disagree. True enough, the Man, Christ Jesus, became a human being in time and space, and He willingly subjected Himself to many of the limitations which all critters of time have. While Jesus' body of flesh and blood was "new" to Him, in every sense of the word, His personhood was not. That's why, in the instance I quote above, He said, "Before Abraham was, I AM" (in other words, I was, am, and always will be God, and co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit). To be sure, we're treading on some sacred ground here: the "kenosis" of Philippians 2:7. Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 16:10
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    @rhetorician I appreciate we're doing our best to speak respectfully and carefully & this is a good thing. :) So just a quick comment on one phrase, then I'll bow out. When you say "While Jesus' body of flesh and blood was 'new' to Him ... His personhood was not" -- that is not the historic claim of the central creeds and confessions of the Church. See on Nicea and Chalcedon to start with, and even Q. 21 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which speaks of "the Lord Jesus Christ ... God and man in two distinct natures" but => Christianity.SE!
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 16:39

"Anachronism" is not a distinctive technical term in biblical hermeneutics, nor does it have a nuance which would distinguish it from its meaning in English more broadly. The Wikipedia article catches it nicely: "anachronism" is

...a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different periods of time. Often the item misplaced in time is an object, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain.

(Do see the (long) article for elaboration and examples.) I see that it has come up a few times on BH.SE (e.g., Jeremiah's "yule tree, or Jesus' "pants"/trousers, etc.: a search will turn up many more).

One example in an answer of my own nicely illustrates the dangers: if one thinks that the meaning of "rabbi" as used in the rabbinical schools that gave rise to the Mishnah was already operative pre-70 AD/CE, then one will misunderstand the use of the the title in the New Testament gospels. If one did so, then it would be an example of the first kind of anachronism cited in OP's quotes.

So, OP was interested in:

[which it is]: the definition of the word, or the fact that any attempt to interpret an earlier source?

I'm not sure I understand the alternative (and I think the answer is "yes!"), as the second option is a bit opaque to me. However, "anachronism" refers to anything that is chronologically out of place. So there can be anachronisms of many different kinds (see Wikipedia article!).1

Sometimes, however, "anachronisms" need to be tested. One example that you will find in textbooks on the history of the Bible is Abraham's camels. It has long been claimed that camels were still wild during the period in which Abraham's narratives are set in the book of Genesis. Implication: the biblical narrator is set in a time much later than Abraham's at a time when the camel was domesticated, and Abraham must have been a donkey caravaneer, etc. That link is from an academic treatment published in 2009. However, in 2010/11, Martin Heide published an article which discusses evidence pointing to domestication of the camel as early as the 3rd millennium in the ancient Near East. What had for a long time appeared to be "anachronism" in the Abraham narrative could, then, be regarded as chronologically appropriate.2

Another factor to bear in mind: when an alleged anachronism is identified, it needs both to be established (which later evidence might overturn, as in the case of Abraham's camels), and accounted for. The better discussions of Shakespeare's "striking clock" in Julius Casear will not simply point and laugh, but ask why the Bard wrote it this way.

In the cases of "anachronism" in BH.SE, it has tended to be quite obvious, but it can sometimes be quite subtle. I read somewhere, a long time ago3, that two things were needed in every historian: (1) a critical attitude to sources; and (2) a healthy sense of anachronism. Not bad advice, I think.

1 The vast majority of medieval and early modern biblical "art" is anachronistic, portraying its subjects in dress and setting familiar to and contemporary with the artist, rather than the historical realia of the biblical story itself. (One nice example: Bruegel's Tower of Babel : see detail of lower left corner!)
2 Update: See now [2014.02.12] the article in New York Times arguing that the camel is anachronistic for the patriarchal narratives! | [2014.02.18] There is now a reply from Martin Heide responding to the research discussed in the NYT piece. | [2014.02.28] And now a nice assessment/discussion from George Athas. | [2016.05.14] This keeps rumbling. Latest article: "The domestication of the dromedary likely happened in the late second millennium BCE as deduced from..." see full article for details; article title: "Ancient and modern DNA reveal dynamics of domestication and cross-continental dispersal of the dromedary", PNAS 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1519508113.
3 Source lost in the mists of time. Sorry. But if the concept was at all interesting, see this PhD thesis on Academia.edu.

  • @David-Thank you for your response! I'm finding that their is a narrower interpretation of "anachronism" which is a word translated differently(consequently, the meaning is changed) at a later date. That definition I find myself ready to accept. What I have found is "post-modernists) have used the term to describe anything that lends clarity to a particular passage(ie: the Nicene Creed is anachronistic). That I have a hard time choking down.
    – Tau
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 11:05
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    @user2479 : thanks for the comment. It's not that the interpretation/definition of "anachronism" has changed in those cases: "anachronism" is always "a chronological disjunction". Something can be obviously "anachronistic"; but sometimes it's a judgment call -- that's one problem. Another is the language used to talk about something. For example, it would be one thing to say "the Nicene Creed is a faithful development and exposition of apostolic Christianity" (= not anachronistic), but quite different to claim "Paul held to the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed" (= anachronism). ...
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 13:57
  • ... That last example is slightly adapted from a discussion by Carl Trueman about anachronism, and my hunch is that the book it comes from would be a useful resource for your further thinking about this. Hope that helps!
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 14:02
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    @Davïd I'd still go with Heide's date. The scholars in the column only checked a few sites to make their determination. Heide used many sources and sites.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 21:00

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