βδέλυγμα (bdelugma)

From last Saturday’s (November 6) Gospel reading (from the Parable of the Dishonest Steward):

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him. But he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

Luke 16: 14–15

“Abomination” is a strong word. Coming into English via French from Latin, it means first “a feeling or state of mind of disgust and hatred; detestation, loathing, abhorrence” (OED)—formerly referring even to “physical revulsion” or “nausea”—but can also describe “abhorrent behavior”: “a loathsome or wicked act or practice.” It can thus refer to either the feeling of disgust by the person who abominates a loathsome, disgusting, or wicked thing; or to the abominable object itself.

“Abomination”—or the Latin version, abominatio, in the Vulgate Bible—produces a forceful rendering of the original Greek. But even “abomination” falls short of the vividness of the Greek word bdelugma.

Ἤκουον δὲ ταῦτα πάντα οἱ Φαρισαῖοι φιλάργυροι ὑπάρχοντες, καὶ ἐξεμυκτήριζον αὐτόν. καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Ὑμεῖς ἐστε οἱ δικαιοῦντες ἑαυτοὺς ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὁ δὲ θεὸς γινώσκει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν· ὅτι τὸ ἐν ἀνθρώποις ὑψηλὸν βδέλυγμα ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ.

The phrase “what is of human esteem” translates τὸ ἐν ἀνθρώποις ὑψηλὸν (to en anthrōpois hypsēlon). The last word of that phrase literally means “high” or “lofty” or even “sublime”—i.e., that which is held in “high esteem.” It calls to mind supreme achievements—those exploits for which a person is most highly regarded according to the world’s standards of success. It is just such achievements, Jesus teaches, that are in fact an abomination in the eyes of God—or a bdelugma: “something disgusting that arouses wrath, loathsome thing” or “something that is totally defiling, abomination, pollutant” (BDAG).

Bdelugma is an example of what is called a nomen acti—a noun, formed from a verb, that indicates a particular occurrence of, or the result of, that verb. The verb, in this case, is bdelussomai—which originally meant to “be sick” of the food one is eating, but later developed the sense of causing such sickness.

The jarring awkwardness of the word—which seems to mimic the very sound of retching—indicates the vile and revolting character of the things to which it was applied, and gives us a clearer sense of the shocking forcefulness of Jesus’s teaching. Even so, we can follow the etymology back one step further. For bdelussomai itself is formed from another verb: bdeō—which has an even more vivid, and vividly disgusting, sense, namely: “to break wind“—or to use the more vivid English, “to fart.” Such are the high achievements of man in the eyes of God. So many bdelugmata.

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