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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Profaning, Profanity

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1. The terms.—The word ‘profane’ occurs only once in Authorized and Revised Versions of the Gospels, and then in the verbal form (Gr. βεβηλόω), viz. in Matthew 12:5, where Jesus says, in defending His disciples and Himself from the charge of Sabbath-breaking, ‘Have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?’ Elsewhere in NT the vb. (Gr. and Eng.) is found only in Acts 24:6, where the Jews accuse St Paul of profaning the Temple. The meaning of βεβηλόω must be considered in connexion with the adj. βέβηλος from which it comes, and which is found 5 times in NT (1 Timothy 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:7; 1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 12:16), ‘profane’ being in each case the rendering of Authorized and Revised Versions . βέβηλος is the almost exact equivalent of Lat. profanus, whence English ‘profane.’ Profanus (fr. pro = ‘before,’ and fanum= ‘temple’) means ‘without the temple,’ and so ‘unconsecrated,’ as opposed to sacer. βέβηλος (fr. βαίνω = ‘to go,’ whence βηλός = ‘threshold’) denotes that which is ‘trodden,’ ‘open to access,’ and so again ‘unconsecrated,’ in contrast to ἰερός. Originally βέβηλος (like its opposites, ἰερός, ἅγιος, etc.) had a purely ritual meaning, but out of this there gradually arose ethical and spiritual connotations. The LXX Septuagint affords plentiful illustration of these various uses of the word. In Leviticus 10:10, e.g., βέβηλος means no more than ἀκάθαρτος, as the context shows, i.e. ritually unclean. In Leviticus 19:29 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘Profane [Authorized Version ‘Prostitute’] not thy daughter,’ the ethical meaning is apparent. In Ezekiel 22:26, with its clear distinction between βέβηλος and ἅγιος, together with its conception of a profaning of God Himself, we pass from the moral into the still higher realm of spiritual religion. Similarly, in the Gospels we find a lower and a higher conception of what is meant by profanation. There is a profaneness of the law and the letter, eagerly pounced upon by scribes and Pharisees. There is a profaneness of the soul and the spirit, which stands revealed to the eyes of Jesus.

2. The sin.—The sin of profaning consists in treating sacred things with irreverence or contempt, and in the Bible the charge of profanation is found especially in connexion with the desecration or violation of the Sabbath, of the Temple, or of the name of God Himself. In a study of Christ’s life and teaching the sin of profaning comes up for consideration under each of these heads.

(1) Profaning the Sabbath.—It is significant that the only occasion of the use of the word ‘profane’ (βεβηλόω) in the Gospels is in relation to a charge of Sabbath-breaking brought against Jesus (Matthew 12:5). For, though it is Our Lord Himself who employs the word, and employs it of the action of the priests under the Mosaic Law, He evidently does so with reference to an accusation of which He was the object.* [Note: It is an interesting coincidence that in the LXX account of the incident at Nob (1 Samuel 21:4), to which Jesus alludes in the preceding verse, βίβηλοι ἅρτοι is Ahimelech’s expression for ‘common bread,’ as distinguished from ἄγιοι ἄρτοι or ‘shew-bread.’] And this, we must remember, was no solitary case. There was nothing that more frequently brought Jesus into hot collision with the ecclesiastical authorities than the question of Sabbath observance (with Matthew 12:1 ff. cf. Matthew 12:10 ff., Mark 1:21 ff; Mark 2:23 ff; Mark 3:2 ff., Luke 6:1 ff., Luke 6:6 ff., Luke 13:14 ff., Luke 14:3 ff., John 5:9 ff., John 5:16; John 5:18; John 7:22 f., Luke 9:14 ff.; note esp. the Johannine passages). In their eyes He was repeatedly guilty of a profanation of the holy day. And, though on this occasion He defends Himself by appealing to Jewish law and history, thus meeting His accusers on their own ground, He immediately passes from this argumentum ad hominem to state the great principles on which He really stood in His free, though reverent (cf. Luke 4:16), use of the day—that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice (Matthew 12:7), and that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath’ (Matthew 12:8). In other words, He shows that the charge of Sabbath profanation, as brought against Him, rested on a wrong conception of Sabbath sanctity; and the charge of breaking a Divine law, on an entirely false idea of God’s meaning and purpose in giving the Law (cf. Mark 2:27 ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’). There is a profanation according to the letter that is not a profanation according to the spirit; and there is a seeming transgression of the commandment that is in reality a revelation of the benignity of the Law itself and the ‘philanthropy’ of Him who gave it. See, further, Sabbath.

(2) Profaning the Temple.—Jealous as the Jewish authorities were, after their slavish fashion, in the guardianship of the Sabbath, they were not less jealous in defending the sanctity of the Temple against the least taint of what they regarded as profanation. The Temple police were ever on the alert. For any foot of Gentile or Samaritan to pass beyond the Court of the Gentiles meant death to the transgressor. And Josephus tells us how at one period the Samaritans were altogether excluded from the Temple enclosure because of an act of profanation committed by some of their people (Ant. xviii. ii. 2). The indignation shown by the chief priests and scribes at the hosannas of the children in the Temple was apparently due not merely to the hailing of Jesus as the Son of David, but to the raising of those joyful shouts within the consecrated building (Matthew 21:16). But, as Jesus in meeting the charge of Sabbath-breaking showed how misplaced the Rabbinic and Pharisaic ideas of sanctity were, so in connexion with the Cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12 f. = Mark 11:15 ff. = Luke 19:45 f., John 2:13 ff.), He showed how low and poor were their views on the subject of profanation.

The presence of the stall-keepers and cattle-drovers and money-changers was strictly within the letter of the Law, since it was in the Court of the Gentiles that this market was held, i.e. outside of the sacred area proper. For the Temple authorities this was quite enough; they had no compunctions about a traffic that was technically legal—least of all as the rents paid by the traders for the privilege of using the Temple court as a bazaar passed into their own pockets. To Jesus this was an illustration of the readiness of the Jewish leaders ‘to blend religious rigorism and utter worldliness,’ or, in His own words on another occasion, to ‘strain out the gnat and swallow the camel’ (Matthew 23:24). Thus they had made His Father’s house ‘an house of merchandise’ (John 2:16); nay, a very ‘den of robbers’ (Matthew 21:13 ||)—an allusion either to the greed and extortion of the high-priestly family as landlords of the enclosure, or to the shameful and notorious cheating practised by the privileged traders on the ignorant country people who came up to the Feasts. Moreover, this was ‘the house of prayer’ (Matthew 21:13 ||)—the place to which pious folk came up for purposes of detachment and recollection and communion with God. And by reason of these abuses, such worshippers had first to make their way through the distracting scenes of this profane bazaar; and even as they Knelt at prayer on the other side of the boundary, to have their ears filled with the noisy cries of the merchants, the bleating of innumerable sheep, and the lowing of excited cattle.

In the eyes of Jesus all this, however it might be defended by ecclesiastical lawyers, was a desecration of His Father’s house, inasmuch as it was a hindrance to true spiritual worship. And the principles He lays down here on the subject of worship and its profanation are far-reaching and penetrating. The Temple at Jerusalem has long since vanished from the world, but the acts and words of Jesus in driving out the profane traffickers still find abundant application. Our Lord condemns everything that brings the spirit of the world into the atmosphere of the sanctuary, and turns the house of prayer into a house of merchandise. Much more does He condemn anything that associates His Church with methods and practices that are not even those of honest merchandise, but have the savour of dishonest gain. See, further, Temple, § ‘Cleansing of’.

(3) Profaning God’s name.—For this form of the sin of profanation the word ‘profanity’ is usually reserved, a word that is to be distinguished from blasphemy (wh. see)—though the distinction is not always observed, nor, indeed, possible. Blasphemy (βλασφημία = ‘evil-speaking’) is an insult offered to God’s majesty, and, in particular, a deliberate reviling of God and of Divine things. Profanity, on the other hand, is a taking of God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7)—understanding ‘name’ in the scriptural sense of ‘anything whereby God maketh Himself known’ (Shorter Catech., Qu. 55). Profanity may, and often does, run into blasphemy, but the word finds its proper application in an irreverent treatment of holy things without the motive of the scoffer. When Peter began ‘to curse and to swear (καταθεματίζειν καὶ ὀμνύειν), I know not the man’ (Matthew 26:74, cf. Mark 14:71), he was not guilty of intentional blasphemy; he was in reality employing the most solemn forms of Jewish asseveration (cf. Numbers 5:21 ‘an oath of cursing,’ and see EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , art. ‘Oath’). But he was guilty of profanity, for he was invoking the Divine name in support of a lie.

There was no kind of profanation against which the Jewish Rabbis were more anxious to guard than the sin of profane language. The hedge they made around the Law was particularly high at this point. Through a mistaken interpretation of Leviticus 24:16 they forbade the very utterance of the name Jahweh, and so, in the reading of the OT, Adonai or Elohim was invariably substituted. Partly, no doubt, for similar reasons, there had grown up in the time of Christ a custom of swearing not by the Divine name, but by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or the Temple (Matthew 5:33-37; Matthew 23:16-22)—though there emerges here, alongside of the desire to avoid the use of God’s name, the consideration that such oaths were less binding than those in which God was directly invoked (contrast the high priest’s adjuration ‘by the living God’ at the trial of Jesus, Matthew 26:63). And here again, as in His cleansing of the Temple, our Lord showed how poor and mean the thoughts of the Rabbis were on the subject of profanation. That system of diluted oaths was a miserable piece of casuistry at the best. For an oath has no meaning if it is not an invocation of the Divine Being Himself as a witness; and, besides, heaven is God’s throne and the earth His footstool, Jerusalem is the city of the Great King, and the Temple the place of His indwelling (Matthew 5:34 f., Matthew 23:16 ff.). Moreover, those legal refinements lent themselves to all sorts of falsehood and deceit in the intercourse of men, and thus became a prostitution of the holiest realities to wicked ends. And so Jesus lays down the general principle, ‘Swear not at all’ (Matthew 5:34). Make no distinctions among your statements by the use of a graduated scale of oaths, as if, while you are bound to be truthful in regard to some of the things you say, you are otherwise free to shade off your language into the veriest falsehood by diminishing grades of protestation. ‘But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay’ (Matthew 5:37, cf. James 5:12). See, further, Oaths.

Literature.—The Lexx. 8.vv. βεβηλόω, βέβηλος, βλασφημέα; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , artt. ‘Oath,’ ‘Temple’; EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , art. ‘Oath’; PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , art. ‘Eid bei den Hebräern’; Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] ; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 90–125; R. W. Dale, Ten Commandments, p. 61 ff.; J. O. Dykcs, Manifesto of the King, p. 265 ff.; F. J. Coffin, ‘The Third Commandment’ in JBL [Note: BL Journal of Biblical Literature.] xix. (1900) 166.

J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Profaning, Profanity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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