Putting a Coat of Wax on False Bible Teaching

[From the archives.]

False Etymologies

Sometimes people can use a word’s origin to help us understand spiritual matters. Like you’ll be hearing a sermon and they tell you, “In Isaiah 7:14, the original Hebrew word ‘Immanuel’ means ‘God with us.'” Of course it doesn’t take a PhD in linguistics to figure that one out since Matthew already did the heavy lifting for us, but you get what I mean.

Folks can get carried away with this, though. I once heard a sermon where the concept of sincerity came up, probably from a passage like 2 Timothy 1:5 (“I am reminded of your sincere faith”) or something similar.

A black-figured amphora: Herakles and Eurystheus. (British Museum)

A black-figured amphora: Herakles and Eurystheus. (British Museum)

The speaker said that sincere came from the Latin sin meaning “without” and cere meaning “wax”. Those connections line right up with my knowledge of Spanish and I figured the relation back to Latin must be easy to trace. The speaker then went on to explain that people used the Latin back in New Testament times to refer to clay pots: if a pot was cracked it could be patched up with wax and sold in the market with no one the wiser until they took it home and found it leaked and wouldn’t hold water.

Supposedly, shoppers wised up and started asking if the pots on sale were without wax, that is, were they sincere. The point, the speaker said, was that our faith should be sincere, our faith should hold water.

I loved it. I bought it. I was just waiting for the chance to use it in a lesson of my own as soon as possible.

I shouldn’t have bought it.

I should have asked myself “Who cares about the origin of the English word sincere when getting at the meaning of the Bible’s original text? The Bible wasn’t written in English!” But I didn’t bother to think of that then. Happily I did take time to look it up before using it.

Here’s what I found: Sincere is from Latin, that’s true. But the Latin sin in this case is from an earlier Latin prefix sem which means “one”. Cere is the root of the Latin crescere which means “to grow”.

Sincere doesn’t mean “without wax”; it means “from a single growth”, i.e., not duplicitous or mixed up.

It pays to look things up sometimes, because the speaker’s false etymology didn’t hold water.

True Words

It’s clear that I love words, and getting them right is important to me.

One thing I really love about words is that they are a gift from God. God the Son is the Word himself and all real expression – expression that reflects the eternal significance of reality – comes through him. (John 1.)

And I also love words because that’s how God delivers his message to us today, the message of good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Timothy 1:8-10.)

And I love the fact that truth is the very essence of God’s word:

For the word of the Lord is right and true. (Psalm 33:4.)

That’s why I love words.


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24 Responses to Putting a Coat of Wax on False Bible Teaching

  1. Yes, I’ve come across things related to the dictionary meaning or root of the English word, but unless it also lines up in the original Hebrew or Greek then it’s not just misleading but actively deceitful. I have also come across people claiming such and such a bible verse says so-and-so and I, wanting to know more, looked it up and found it was a complete lie! We have to be ‘sincere’ in our research and in all aspects of our faith.

  2. This reminds me of your post from not too long ago about checking teachings for error. This one may have been on the more harmless side (similar end result), but such things are important to get right. It makes me wonder how much I’ve heard that has sounded right, but wasn’t quite right.

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    = Latin sincērus pure, clean, untainted
    — (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sincere?s=t)
    This is closer to your “newer” definition.
    But, here: Middle French, from Latin sincerus whole, pure, genuine, probably from sem- one + -cerus (akin to Latin crescere to grow)
    === (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sincere) , note ‘probably’ interesting.

    Do you have a word game or two on your cell phone?

  4. Mary Anne says:

    Sounds like a case of “Wax on–wax off!” ;-D

  5. Jeannie says:

    This may not be totally on topic, but last night in our “Daniel” study by Beth Moore, she was talking about the king Antiochus IV Epiphanes — how he called himself “God Manifest” and “The Illustrious One,” yet many people called him Epimanes (“Madman”) instead. I thought that was a neat fact and piece of wordplay, as well as a pretty sad commentary on his character…

  6. Sharon Gerdes says:

    My sculpture teacher gave us the ‘without wax’ definition when we were working on carving plaster projects. Interesting how incorrect meanings can get spread around so widely.

  7. EricW says:

    Why was the preacher explaining the Latin for the English word “sincere”? 2 Timothy was written in Greek, not Latin, and the word used is ἀνυπόκριτος (anypokritos), ον (on): adj. and comes from the alpha privative (i.e., negation) + hypokrinomai = pretend, make believe, dissemble.

    A recent speaker at church made reference to what the Latin word for the passage meant, and I thought the same thing – i.e., the NT wasn’t written in Latin, so what the Latin word meant was irrelevant to the point he was trying to make about what the word “really meant,” etc. smh

    • Tim says:

      If the word study’s etymology goes into something other than the original language, I tend to wonder why.

    • Marg says:

      I was wondering the same thing, Eric.

      A slightly related story: I once heard a whole message on love being “the most excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31 NIV). Most of the message was about the Greek virtue of aretē. Aretē occurs five times in the NT where it is usually translated into “excellence” or “virtue”, but it does not appear at all in 1 Cor 12 or 13, and it has practically nothing in common with hyperbolē, the word translated as “most excellent” in the NIV.

  8. The “operational definition” of sincerity* Bill Gothard came up with is derived from this exact false etymology. I remember a whole Wisdom Booklet section devoted it. Thanks for clearing up the actual root of the word!

    * “Sincerity vs. Hypocrisy: Eagerness to do what is right with transparent motives”

    • Fall Timothy says:

      I hadn’t known of that connection to Gothard’s teachings. Interesting.


  9. Grover C Carico says:

    Until a couple of years ago, one of the highlights of my week was reading Michael Quinion’s newsletter from worldwidewords.org. A search of the site for “folk etymology” might engage your interest.

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