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Can You Put a Ring on Your Hand? (Monday with Mounce 99)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with Mounce At the end of the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father signals his acceptance of his younger son with the bestowal of a ring, which is placed on his χεῖρα (Luke 15:22).

Many translations translate this as “finger” (NRSV, NIV, HCSB, NET, NLT, NJB), while some go with "hand" (ESV, RSV, NASB, KJV); after all, where else does on put a ring? (Notice the change from RSV to NRSV.)

If you look at the entry in BDAG, it gets a little interesting. It gives three basic meanings:
1. hand
2. “an acting agent” in the sense of the authority or power to do something
3. “distinctive prepositional combinations”

Wait a minute? Where is “finger”? No specific entry? O, there it is, buried at the end of #1. “Whole for the part: finger Lk 15:22.” But notice something very important. There are no other references. No acknowledged use of χείρ to mean “finger.” How does BDAG know that the part is used for whole? NIDNTT doesn’t list “finger” as a possible meaning of χείρ.

To make it even stranger, there is a specific Greek word for finger: δάκλυλος. If Jesus had meant “finger,” he could have said so. But why use a metaphor that is not in evidence elsewhere in Greek literature, in a passage where a metaphor makes no sense?

I don’t know if there is another example in the Bible of BDAG giving a meaning to a word without any evidence, but it should raise some eyebrows.

So what does it mean? I am extremely hesitant to ascribe a meaning to a word, especially a common word, that can not be supported from the literature. But lacking any archaeological evidence of a hand ring, the only guess is finger, but it is truly strange.

Maybe one day we will find an engraving of a ring (bracelet?) on a hand. After all, today he have studs in lips and rings in eyebrows.

Mouncew William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at  Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.

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