How Do You Pronounce Hard Bible Words?

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Confidently. That’s the answer. If you’re going to get it wrong, along with Luther I say, Sin boldly.

But that’s just it: when it comes to Bible words, there are fewer pronunciation sins than you think.

Now… there are some. I was just listening to a New King James Version audio Bible, and I got to the scene in Daniel 5 where a disembodied divine hand writes on the wall in front of a shocked and drunk King Belteshazzar. The voice actor pronounced the famous words (MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN) like this: “Meany meany teekle you-farsen.”

Like many Americans, I am something of a child of the television, so I happen to know that there was a famous children’s show in 1962 called “Beany and Cecil,” which was lampooned in 1993—my own era of sprawling before the boob tube after school—by the fantastic recurring Animaniacs short, Pinky and the Brain (“What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” “Same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!”).

That was a particularly good episode, one which I’ve actually often thought of over the years because it seemed to predict the triumph of the therapeutic, or at least of therapists. (You’ll just have to watch it on Hulu: season 2, episode 5.)

Anyway, in this little satire “Beany and Cecil” became “Meany and Treacle.” And it took my brain about one second to go down this inevitable thought path when, while listening to an NKJV audio Bible, the hapless actor said, “Meany meany teekle you-farsen.”

So, yes, here’s a pronunciation sin: inducing giggles by making an ominous biblical phrase remind your Gen-X hearers of a silly old cartoon. (Sort of like turning Caesar’s famous “I came, I saw, I conquered” into “Weeny, weedy, weechie.”) Don’t do that.

But think with me here: “MENE” and “TEKEL” simply are not English words. There is no “rule” for how to pronounce words from other languages “correctly.” Probably don’t be distracting or silly; don’t fumble or stutter. Definitely draw a believable connection between the letters on the Bible page (B-E-N-A-I-A-H) and the sounds you utter (buh-NAY-uh), but leave it there.

Do not feel that you have to reconstruct the way these words were originally pronounced. That pronunciation will often be impossible for you to mimic, anyway, using sounds you physically cannot make. And who’s to say that all ancient Israelites pronounced “Israel” the same way? Even in English today, how is the word B-A-G pronounced? Around here in Washington the checkout clerks at grocery stores ask me if I need a “beg.” Where I come from it’s “bag.” Surely ancient Hebrews had regional dialects and accents, too.

In New Testament times, the disciples were noted as Galileans, probably indeed because of their accents. What was the “right” way back then to pronounce Kiriath Jearim? And was it FIL-uh-steen or fuh-LISS-teen—or something else entirely? Who can know? I’m not saying we can’t know anything about ancient pronunciation of Hebrew and Greek words; I’m saying it cannot serve as the standard for how you pronounce names in the Bible today. Take that impossible pressure off of you.

Plenty of names in the OT have come into English or are used often enough in churches that they have standard pronunciations. They are now English words in their own right. “Job” could absolutely be pronounced with a “short” o (rhymes with “lob”) if things were different, for example, but the long o pronunciation is well established. Stick with it.

Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus himself—all of the names of these important Bible characters have been Anglicized. We don’t say any of them like their mothers would have when they called them in for supper. And that’s okay. Brits say “aye-ZI-uh” while Americans say “aye-ZAY-uh.” Fine. Continue. Really: just act like you know what you’re doing and other people will assume you do.

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This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is Senior Editor for Digital Content at Word by Word, the official Logos blog. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also a host for Logos Live and is an active YouTuber.

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