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Purloin, Pilfer or Steal

Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things, Titus 2:10.

Word selection is important. I doubt that I have many readers who doubt the words actually penned by the Apostle Paul. What is often doubted is the word that the King James translators chose to use to convey what they read in either Greek or Hebrew. If a saved, born-again scholar was to read Titus 2:10 in the original Greek, what would he think had been admonished after he read Titus 2:10?

I'm not talking about the silly little school boys who parade their PhDs and Greek credentials pretending that they are as conversant in Greek as a 17th or 18th century scholar would have been. I'm thinking of the level of Greek that was attained by men who already had to be conversant in Greek just to enter college. For example, the 6th president of the United States, John Quincy Adams was denied entry into Harvard in the 18th century because his level of Greek did not measure up when he conversed with the college president. It was felt that he was not ready for admission or serious study. (He was admitted later after brushing up on Greek.)

John Wesley who had received a typical classical education in the 18th century would regularly read a Greek New Testament as casually as he read English. Men of this level of attainment in classical languages simply do not exist today, or are so rare as to make it quite unlikely that any of my readers will ever run into one. Instead we have pretenders who after having taken Greek starting in college, are able to look up words in lexicons, have some idea of the structure of the language, but would starve to death if they were transported back in time to Ancient Greece. They are part of the modern religious industry of men who make people think that they are proficient in Greek. They are fundamentalism's equivalent to faith healers.

The second question that often comes up when reading a passage in a King James Bible is; What were the King James translators thinking when they used that particular word? How many times has someone said to you, "A penny for your thoughts"? The only way to convey your thoughts to an English speaking person is either a gesture or to use English words. The more accurate your words, the more accurately you can convey your thoughts. That is easy if both of you speak English, but what if one of you doesn't? Then you must translate what you were thinking.

One of the dumbest things said today in relation to bible translating is that certain things can't be said in English that can be said in Greek or Hebrew, There is no thought that you can think in one language that cannot be thought in another. It may take more or maybe less words to do so, but human thought can be expressed in any language. I was once in a room filled with Swedes. We were crowding around a table to look at something when one of them told a joke in Swedish. Seeing that I had missed the joke, a kind man turned around and told it to me in English. It translated quite well.

He told me of a time when Napoleon was in a crowded map room and a young lieutenant stood in front of him and blocked Napoleon's view. "Excuse me" said the lieutenant as he stepped out of the way, "I'm bigger than you". "You are not bigger than me" said Napoleon. "You are taller." In that case the Swedish and English words were interchangeable enough that a simple translation was possible. I have no doubt though that the same joke could be told in any language. It just may take a little more imagination to do so.

When the King James translators said, "Not purloining", what were they thinking? Other English translations wherein the translators had nowhere near as much skill in reading and understanding Greek said it differently. The NIV says; and not to steal from them. The ESV says, not pilfering. In each case the idea is expressed that a servant should not take things that do not belong to him. Is that what the King James translators were trying to say, but being so far back in time used an antiquated word? We will see that as usual, the King James translators used a word that fitly spoke for the occasion and perfectly expressed a thought that is missed in the newer translations.

What does it mean to Purloin? Gail Riplinger gave this some serious thought and used the word as an example of how a King James Bible can make clear its own explanations. In her book, In Awe of thy Word she explores the word "purloining". (See pages 65-67.) She teaches her readers to regard the entire passage to understand why a particular word is used. The first clue in this passage that purloining is not as simple as stealing is that the translators did not use the word "stealing" whose root word is used often in the rest of the bible. There is more to the word. The entire passage has to do with how various Christians should honestly use their time. It explains how to live incorruptly and to serve masters well. She sees the word as meaning, not running away or stealing the master's time or property.

I am indebted to Ms. Riplinger for many things and one of them is telling the bible believing world about the LEME or Lexicon of Early Middle English kept at the University of Toronto ( In her usual thoroughness, Dr. Riplinger encourages her readers who want to do more research to expand their ability to look up words. She has lauded the LEME as a tool even more accurate than the Oxford English Dictionary. I use both. I am going to agree with Ms. Riplinger to the extent that the context begs the reader to see purloining as being more than just pilfering or stealing. It is a specialized stealing.

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) gives two uses of the word prior to 1611. In each case it deals with craftsmen stealing away the servant or apprentice of a like craftsmen before he has completed his term. From 1417: Item, that nan sadeller..perloune na hald wyth hym na wyth drawe na servant nor man of the girdelercrafte. (No man who is a saddler should purloin a servant of someone of girdle craft, nor hold with someone who does.) From 1348, we have: Also that none of the crafte, grete ne smale, purloine othirs alowes ayenst thassente & wille of his first mastir afore he haue fulli serued his terme. (Don't purloin a craftsman who has not completed his tenure with the master to whom he is apprenticed.)

From the LEME we have this intriguing sentence from a French-English dictionary published in 1611; Cunningly to steale, purloin conuey away a thing that was hid, couered, kept close, or warily looked vnto. In 1648 a passage about brigands when speaking about times past said this; In old time when those kind of Souldiers marched, they held all to be good prize, that they could purloin from the people.

One common element to the word "purloin" both in the context of Titus 2:10 and in its use prior to 1611 is the aspect of attitude and aforethought. "Cunning" is one word used. From my pulpit I teach that to purloin is to misappropriate something whether it be time or goods, and to do so having justified it in your own mind. A common application of that would be the man who thinks that since he worked a half hour extra without punching in on the time clock, he is justified in taking home a ream of paper from work. He doesn't think of it as stealing because he sees the value of his time as equal to the value of the paper he purloined. Yet he is not certain enough of his justification to do it openly in front of his boss. The soldiers who purloined in our 1648 example convinced themselves that when they took things from the people, they were justified in doing so. Servants or employees do this commonly with their use of time. For an employee to clandestinely watch a basketball game when he is not being observed, or to drive six blocks out of the way in the company vehicle to deposit his pay check is justified in his own mind by one clever rationalization or another. It is purloining because he has been cunning in his own mind. His employer would not agree with his thinking therefore he doesn't do it openly. He purloins. Context alone should have told the reader that purloining was more than theft. I have known far too many christians who would never steal openly, but have constructed contrivances in their own minds that have justified the unauthorized misappropriation of their employer's, the government's or their family's time or materials.

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