When we think of strange verses in the New Testament, the fantastic visions of Revelation immediately leap to mind. But Revelation isn’t the only place. From weird words used by St. Paul to the trance of St. Peter, here are six of the strangest verses in the New Testament.
Acts 10:11-12 – The Ecstasy of St. Peter
‘And he saw the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great linen sheet let down by the four corners from heaven to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts, and creeping things of the earth, and fowls of the air.’— Douay-Rheims translation (Unless otherwise noted, as here, Scripture quotations will be taken from The New American Bible, Revised Edition)
This reads like something lifted right out of Revelation, but there it is in Acts. In this trance, which Peter experiences, a voice tells him to kill and eat the beasts. Peter refuses because they are unclean—but he is urged to do so three more times, then the mysterious vessel vanishes. This vision has traditionally been understood to be a turning point in the history of the early Church—when St. Peter understood that the temporal laws of the Old Testament, like the ones on circumcision or unclean animals, were no longer binding. In other words, the gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. (This interpretation is certainly supported by the next chapter, where St. Peter defends himself against charges of having a meal with uncircumcised men.)
Acts 26:14 – ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goad’
Put simply, this verse doesn’t make much sense and the context only makes it stranger. St. Paul is recalling what Christ said to him on the road to Damascus. Immediately before the above sentence is the famous chastisement we all know: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? The mystery deepens further when we learn that the kicking the goad phrase comes from a secular Greek poet named Pindar. (Click here to read it.) It is in the context of the original poem that the phrase starts to make sense—Pindar writes that it is futile to resist a god. Kicking the goad is an apt metaphor for this, as a goad is a rod used by a herder to guide cattle. (In fact, the Greek word for goad, kentron, has another meaning—the sting of a bee, or other creature, which certainly is another richly provocative metaphor for how Christ wounds our souls with heavenly love!) Now, it may seem scandalous that Paul quotes Christ as using a phrase from a secular poet—one that, moreover, is in the context of ancient Greek pantheism—but this comes hand in hand with the fact that the entire New Testament was originally written in Greek. It should come as no surprise that phrase and sayings from the ancient tongue would make it into the text as well.
Galatians 5:12 – ‘Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!’
Well, this is a bit disturbing. Some translations put it more politely as mutilate. Others speak of a wish that the ones who persecute the faithful readers of this letter would simply cut themselves off. Either way, this verse poses an interpretative dilemma for us: aren’t we supposed to love our enemies, not wish self-harm on them? The Haydock Bible Commentary sees this as figurative language for excommunicating persecutors from the Church. But there’s a deeper meaning here, which St. John Chrysostom peels away for us in his commentary on the epistle. He notes that the chapter begins with a discussion about why circumcision—a requirement of the old law—is no longer necessary because of the Cross. (This makes sense after reading Acts above.) He suggests that there are some Galatians who believe circumcision still necessary, having fallen under the influence of the Manichean heresy, which held the body to be evil. So, according to Chrysostom, Paul is speaking in sarcasm, urging them to not stop at circumcision, but mutilate themselves completely.
Ephesians 6:14 – ‘So stand fast with your loins girded in truth’
This is the famous chapter which describes all the spiritual armor we need in our battle with Satan and sin. We are told righteousness is our breastplate, which seems fitting since that covers our hearts. Faith is our shield, salvation our helmet, and the Spirit our sword—again these all make sense. But why are our ‘loins girded with truth.’ This is not an area of the body we normally associate with truth—perhaps the head, heart, or even the eyes, but not the loins. The first clue, according to Chrysostom, is the verb ‘gird.’ This tells us, he says in a homily, that we sinners have been loose in life and ‘dissolved in … lusts.’ Girding our loins ensures we aren’t tripped up by the ‘garments entangling our legs’ but can move freely in Christ. As for the loins, perhaps we don’t give them as much credit as they are due. Chrysostom explains: “They are, as it were, a foundation, and upon them as the schools of the physicians tell you, the whole frame is built. … the foundation alike of the parts both above and below.” If we are founded in the truth, Chrysostom concludes, we cannot fall spiritually, because truth comes from above, not the earth.
Philippians 3:2 – ‘Beware of the dogs!’
No, St. Paul did not have a traumatic childhood experience with a dog. So what is he talking about here? We can surmise there must be a spiritual meaning to this, since the next phrase in the verse warns against evildoers. So, who are the ‘dogs’? This, according to commentators, is a colloquialism for the Gentiles. The Haydock Bible Commentary explains further: “The Jews called so the Gentiles; and St. Paul now applies it to those among the Jews who spread false doctrine, who privately snarled and publicly barked against the true apostles.”
Philemon 1:7 – ‘The bowels of the saints have been refreshed by thee, brother’ (Douay-Rheims)
Some translations render bowels as hearts, so where did the other translators get ‘bowels’?—a word repeated two other times in this one-chapter epistle. Well, for one thing, it’s a faithful translation of the original Greek word, splangkhnon, which does have the primary meaning of ‘bowels’ or ‘intestines.’ This can include the heart but it just as easily refers to other internal organs, like the kidneys. Here a dictionary helps us sort things out (this is from the lexical resources on GreekBible.com): “[T]he bowels were regarded as the seat of the more violent passions, such as anger and love; but by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, esp. kindness, benevolence, compassion.”
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