Updated: Jun 3
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope, Romans 15:4.
because he smote his neighbour unwittingly, and hated him not beforetime, Joshua 20:5.
These two words were brought to my attention by a young man who has recently begun taking his bible reading seriously. Do they mean the same thing? I have spent a little time looking at their various occurrences (11 beforetime and 7 occurrences of aforetime) and have given them some thought. The difference is subtle.
Like many words, they can sometimes be interchanged. In the two verses listed above if you were to read them in church and you were to switch the words, very few people would notice. In former posts I have had people contact me to say that since the differences are so slight and since in a few cases the words can be interchanged, they felt justified in giving the same definition to both and didn't really care if bibles changed them up.
I think that we lose something with that attitude. Our King James Translators were craftsmen with language. In a couple of books of the bible both words were used which indicates that the team involved in doing the translating saw the two words as different. Writing in Early Modern English is like fine cooking. In a general sense a meal might not change much with a little substitution in a spice or two, but to the discerning diner something changed. Good chefs know that. King James Bible aficionados know that little changes hurt the product. Our bible is a finely crafted work of art.
I have only recently been made aware of Dr. Douglass Stauffer and his book, One Book One Authority. I was delighted to see him quote Actor Charlton Heston after the actor had taken time to familiarize himself the King James Bible; "The only great work of art ever created by a committee". If we look at our text as a great work of art, understanding subtle shifts in word meanings is important.
Let me take a stab at defining those two words. Both of them are adverbs that speak of a prior time. Of the two of them, aforetime appears to be used in some cases where beforetime could well have worked, but not vice versa. Aforetime is a general waving of the hands and indicating a past unspecified as to duration or ending. Beforetime is always used when there is a specific turning point in time.
But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one, Acts 8:9. Before what time? Before the Apostle Peter exposed him for being a devilish man and not of God. After his encounter with the apostles, he was discredited. There is a definite point in time which divides the two times. Every time beforetime is used, there is a point in time indicated. A definite line can be drawn between then and now.
There are times when aforetime can be either general or have a specific time in which things changed. They brought to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind, John 9:13. Clearly there was a specific time in which that man's eyes were opened. Perhaps they chose that word because the Pharisees did not know the specific time that the man was made to see, and perhaps the translators relied on the bible principle that time and direction are to be determined by the context in which they are used. For example, the times given for the imprisonment, trials and crucifixion of Jesus Christ are different in various gospel accounts depending on whether the action is taking place in a Roman or Jewish setting. (There are many other examples.) It could be that the Pharisees' uncertainty was the reason for using aforetime, or it could be because aforetime is flexible.
Nevertheless, the word aforetime is used showing that aforetime can be substituted for beforetime. It is like the words example and ensample. Example has been used in your bible to describe people and in other places things, but ensample is never used to describe anything but people. Beforetime will always be used when there is a distinct pivot in time. Aforetime is generally, but not always used when the past is not so clearly defined.