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The Meaning of Meta

The books of the New Testament were either written in or translated into Greek. An important word that appears within the New Testament is the word meta. The word meta, according to Strong's Concordance, appears 473 times within the New Testament. In 350 cases it is translated as "with" or "among". In 96 cases the word meta is translated as "after". And in the remaining 27 cases, the word is given various other meanings or is used as part of an idiom.

It is not at all surprising that meta is translated 350 times within the New Testament as "with". The German word mit, after all, means "with", and it is generally accepted that German mit likely derived from Greek meta.

A question however exists as to whether or not the word meta should ever be translated as "after". While in Modern Greek, the word meta is routinely translated as "after", I am convinced that the word did not originally mean "after" and that the modern meaning "after" potentially arose out of the word's use and subsequent accepted meaning within the New Testament rather than the other way around.

Meta in Common English Words

The ancient Greek word meta (or perhaps originally meda) actually exists in English today. It can be seen in English mid, midst, middle, medium, mediate, medial, medieval, immediate, and Mediterranean. In all those words, meta (or its English equivalents medi, med, and mid) means "in the middle of", "central to", "between", "within" or "within the body of". Note that, in the case of immediate, the meaning of the prefix im- is "not", and the idea being expressed is actually "nothing in between" or essentially "without delay".

The English verb meet also appears to potential derive from meta (or vice versa) as it effectively means "to join up with". A related word, committee, actually appears to translate as "meet with" or "join with", although the etymology provided by the online dictionary Wiktionary (and other online dictionaries) suggests that the word, along with the word commit, derived from Latin mittere meaning "to send". One should keep in mind however that the Latin verb mittere, much like the English word emit, actually has the meaning "to send off" or, more generically, "to separate out" and thus would actually appear to be an antonym of "to join with"; so the etymologies provided by Wiktionary appear to be in error, where commit, committee, emit and Latin mittere all derived from Greek meta and not the other way around.

Meta in Technical Nomenclature

There are also a number of technical words in English that are derived directly from Greek meta. Such words include metaphysics, metadata, metacarpus, metabolism, metamorphosis and metaphor. In most such cases, the meta- prefix is said to mean something other than "in the middle of" or "central to". For example, (using the online dictionary Wiktionary as a reference) from the etymologies we are given for metacarpus and metaphysics, we are instructed that meta- translates as "after". From the etymology of metamorphosis, we are instructed that the meta- prefix means "change'. From the etymology given for metaphor, we are instructed that meta- could possibly be seen as meaning either "with", "across" or "after". And in the case of metabolism, we are actually provided no meaning for the meta- prefix but are instructed that the word metabolism itself means "change". In no case is it ever suggested in the etymologies for those words that the meta- prefix could mean "between", "in the middle of", "within" or "within the body of".

Given that the use of Greek meta in common English words appears to be at variance with its use within technical terms, one might be quick to dismiss the common usage as being ignorant of the word's true meaning. After all, we trust that educated scholars would know with a high degree of certainty what the true meaning of a Greek word is. We also naturally suspect that, in common use, the meaning of a word will almost certainly always evolve (or, perhaps more accurately, degenerate) over time away from its original meaning as less educated people employ the word with an ever-increasing degree of imprecision and ignorance.

But such trust (and corresponding distrust) may in fact be misplaced. A closer examination of the meaning of meta as it is used in the technical terms suggests in fact that perhaps it is the understanding of the educated elite, not the less educated masses, that has led to obfuscation of the word's true meaning.

Perhaps the first etymology one should take a second look at is the etymology given for metacarpus, which is seen as deriving from Greek meta karpos. The Greek word karpos is understood to mean "wrist". The metacarpal bones of the hand are in fact located beyond or "after" the wrist. So superficially at least the meaning "after" that is given to the prefix meta- within the traditional etymology appears to result in a plausible meaning: "after the wrist".

However, there is a slight technical problem with the proposed definition. The problem is that the metacarpal bones are not the only bones that are found after or beyond the wrist. The phalanges, or finger bones, also are "after the wrist". So, as a technical definition, the phrase "after the wrist" would actually be imprecise and confusing since it could be seen as being inclusive of the more distal phalanges. (Note that Greek para is translated as "beyond" and that therefore parakarpos would have also meant "beyond the wrist".)

But there is another problem, and the problem lies within the word karpos. The Greek word karpos is related to the Latin word carpe. The Latin word means "to seize" or "to grab hold of", and it derived from the original word that was the origin of both karpos and carpe. We can know with certainty that there had to have been another word that was the common antecedent to both words because one does not take hold of things with ones wrist; one takes hold of things with ones hand. In other words, while the notion of "wrist" and "seize" can reasonably derive from the idea of "hand", the notion "seize" would never logically derive from the notion "wrist".

If we therefore substitute the word "hand" for carpus, we must also conclude that the meta- prefix, as it is used in metacarpus does not mean "after" or "beyond". But what we do discover is that the "within the body of" meaning that is universal to meta's common usage actually makes complete sense. The term metacarpus after all refers to the bones within the flesh of the hand. And that definition is actually far better than the traditional definition since it excludes the phalanges, which lie outside the flesh or body of the hand.

Like the etymology for metacarpus, the etymology provided for metaphor also raises some degree of concern. According to the etymology given by Wiktionary, the Greek root phor or phora is translated as "carry". It is easily recognized as being cognate to Latin ferre, which is also understood to mean "carry" and is considered to be the root of many English words such as ferry and transfer. The prefix meta is then given the meaning "with", resulting in a final translation of "carry with" for the word metaphor.

As in the case of all such generally accepted explanations, the translation "carry with" for the word metaphor appears, at least superficially, to be somewhat reasonable and tolerably sufficient. However, while "carry" is perhaps an acceptable translation for phora, a far better translation would be "convey" or, perhaps even more precisely, "convey via movement". The word convey has meanings related specifically to communication as well as directed or induced movement. Swapping "convey" for "carry", we can much more readily see a connection between phor and words such as Latin forum (a location specifically for communications and related transactions) and English force (something that induces or conveys movement). It also better explains the meanings of confer, refer, and semaphore--all of which primarily involve communication rather than simply physical movement. And, in the case of the word metaphor, we can derive the far more precise meanings "communicated with", "communicated within" or more precisely "conveyed via movements within the body of" rather than the ambiguous and nearly incomprehensible "carry with".

As for the word metamorphosis, the etymology provided by Wiktionary indicates that the word translates, much like the word transform, simply as "change shape", where meta- is alleged to mean "change" and morphosis is said to mean "shape" or "form".

Amazingly, whoever authored that etymology for metamorphosis completely ignored the fact that Greek meta is not a verb. The actual verb from which the name of the process we call metamorphosis is derived appears in fact to be contained, not within the prefix meta-, but rather within the root morphosis, which derives not from the noun morphe (meaning "shape") but rather from the verb morphow, meaning "to shape". If we recognize that meta means "within the body of something", it becomes fairly clear that the shaping process (or more precisely reshaping process) being described by the word is not a superficial resurfacing of the object but rather is occurring in relation to what can best be described as the "essence" of the thing undergoing the change. In more common parlance, one might say that the change taking place to something undergoing metamorphosis would be "to the very core".

Next we need to reconsider the etymology of the word metabolism. The etymologies that are commonly given either do not offer a specific meaning for meta (e.g., as provided by Wiktionary) or suggest that it translates as "over". As for bolism, it is consistently translated as "to throw".

Now it should be noted that metabolism is a scientific term, and a term that effectively means "to throw over" would appear to be nonspecific to the extreme. Given that specificity tends to be an essential quality with regard to scientific nomenclature, there would appear to be good reason to question the etymologies we are given for the word. Clearly metabolism refers specifically to processes within the body, and, as we have noted elsewhere numerous times, meta appears to clearly have the meaning "within the body of something". And what one discovers if one cares to do a little homework on the history of the word metabolism is that it originally referred to that which was in one form or another excreted out from (i.e., "thrown out from") within the body of something. And so we see, once again, that Greek meta can be seen to have the meaning "within the body of".

Finally one should reconsider carefully the etymology for metaphysics. The word metaphysics is said to derive from the phrase ta meta ta physika biblia, which was used by Andronicus of Rhodes in 70 BCE to describe several books written by Aristotle on philosophy. Medieval Latin scholars interpreted the word metaphysics to mean "beyond physics", suggesting that it referred to abstract, nonphysical principles or concepts. Modern scholars however claim instead that the Latin scholars were in error and that the phrase used by Andronicus was actually merely intended to describe the physical placement of the philosophical texts after Aristotle's book on physics. The fact that scholars medieval and modern contradict each other as to the meaning of the word should be a good clue that the meaning may in fact have been misconstrued by both. The words or phrases "accompanying", "with". "within the domain of" or "within the boundaries of" would after all appear to represent reasonable, if not far better, translations for the word meta in this particular case. It also seems a bit far-fetched to believe that someone would actually refer to texts based on their particular placement within some scholar's private library--an ordering that would generally be entirely unknown to others and which would have no inherent meaning or significance.

So it should be observed then that meta, in virtually all the words we have examined, can be seen to refer to "within the body of". And in most cases, the word meta is clearly used to refer to a physical body.

Temporal Connotations of Meta

Now, the word meta is frequently also used in describing temporal relationships as well as spatial relationships. And in those cases, it most assuredly originally had a similar meaning: e.g., "during", "within the span of" or "before the end of". And it is from the latter idea that I think the more crude meaning "after" eventually developed.

The use of meta to mean "before the end of" or "within the span of" is actually made evident in Mark 27:63 where Jesus is said to say "After three days, I shall rise again." Critics have long pointed out that Jesus, according to the gospel accounts, died on a Friday afternoon and was resurrected the following Sunday morning. They conclude therefore that Jesus would have been dead for less than two full days and that, as a consequence, Jesus' prediction that he would rise again after three days time was not fulfilled.

Some apologists have tried to explain the apparent discrepancy by employing a counting strategy. They point out--correctly I might add--that the last few hours of that Friday were technically part of one Hebrew "day", that the night of that Friday and the following Saturday morning and afternoon constituted the second Hebrew "day", and that the night of that Saturday and the following Sunday morning constituted the third Hebrew "day".

Unfortunately, that explanation still leaves us with a problem. The problem with that explanation lies with the word meta. If the word meta, as the translators of the Bible claim, means "after", then technically, to fulfill the prediction of "after three days", Jesus would have had to have arisen in the late evening of that Sunday at the earliest.

That is, of course, if the word meta truly meant "after" as all the alleged experts claim. But as I have hopefully made clear, the word meta appears to have actually had the meaning "within the span of". And if that meaning is accepted to be the correct meaning of meta with respect to temporal relationships during the time the gospel accounts were written, then Jesus' prediction, according to the gospel accounts, came true exactly as he stated.

Conclusion

While many Christians may feel some sense of relief given that the aforementioned challenge to their faith is demonstrably unfounded and can be quietly put to rest, the knowledge that meta did not mean "after" should actually be a cause for great concern. As I stated at the beginning of this article, the word meta has been translated in at least 96 places within the New Testament as "after". While, in most cases, substituting "within the span of" or "before the end of" for "after" may have little consequence, some long-held assumptions, such as when John the Baptist was conceived, will undoubtedly come into question.

But if one is sincere in ones desire to fully understand what the authors of the gospel accounts were trying to communicate, if one truly wants to know the truth about the events the gospel writers described, then one will not casually ignore such potential mistranslations simply on the basis of tradition or convenience.