Biblical Weaponry

[This is an old draft I want to push out, warts and all, so that I can riff off of it with another post coming up.  It’s verrry imperfect but hopefully amusing.  This investigation is what inspired me to write my post on the Septuagint and the Masoretic text two years ago.]

You know who likes ancient weapons?  This guy.

Trying to get a handle on the use of framea for spear in the Vulgate sent me down a rabbit hole of Biblical word studies for naming all the different tools you can use to kill people.  There’s quite a tangled web of words and strange choices by biblical authors.

I’m no closer to being an archaeo-armorer, but I can share the fruit of my paltry labors.  Think of it as another “how to say ‘tree‘” post, but with gore this time.

There’s really no way to address why translators chose what they did without knowing which manuscripts they were using.  Not only do I not have access to that knowledge due to my own limitations, it’s really one of those unknowables (or mostly unknowable).  The compositional history of the Septuagint is complicated.  The compositional history of the Vulgate is complicated.  Heck, we don’t even know the compositional history of the Masoretic, much less the original Hebrew.  Still, we’ll play pretend with the received texts and look at the patterns across the three languages.  First up: spears.


Let’s start with the Hebrew and work our way out.  Hebrew has four different ways to say spear, but the Old Testament has a heavy favorite: chaniyth.  There’s also romach, which comes from the word for throw, and kiydown, which comes from the word for strike.  There’s a fourth usage but it only ever shows up once in the entire OT: qayin.

It would be really nice if the Septuagint were consistent in translating those four terms, but it is not.  It would be nice if the Vulgate were consistent, and it kinda is…but not all the time.  And then there’s the really messy cases, where one or more languages involved can’t agree on what sort of instrument we are talking about at all.

Want to know what Phineas used to execute God’s vengeance on the illicit coupling in Numbers 25?  Whatever you do, do not query a panel of an Israelite, a Greek, and a Roman.  Trust me.  Even the great Classicist Ronald Knox basically gave up and called it a “weapon.”

So back to our Hebrew friends, chaniyth, romach, and kiydown.  Chaniyth is the overwhelming favorite of the historical books of Samuel and Chronicles.  Saul and Jonathan use the chaniyth.  Goliath has a really big chaniyth, big as a weaver’s beam!  David, once he grows up a little, also uses the chaniyth.  It shows up here and there in other books–three psalms, a few prophets–but mostly it tells the tales of war that help make the Old Testament so interesting.

The chaniyth is not a throwing spear.  What a waste that would be!  It’s a long, striking weapon that you want to jab into bad guys until they leave you alone.  It gives you some hope against a mounted opponent.  It (hopefully) gives you a range advantage over your silly opponent using a sword.  Man, when you are with a group of like-minded friends, a chaniyth for each man makes for a pretty safe crew!

The Septuagint translators know exactly what to do when they see chaniyth, because the Greeks have exactly such a weapon in their storied history: the doru.  You know who liked the doru?  Achilles.  Also, everyone else in the Iliad.  Also, Spartans.  Ever heard of a phalanx?  Of course you have!  The doru is (half of) what made the Greeks more than a match for those silly Persians and their silly wicker shields.

And as it turns out, St. Jerome also knows what to do when he sees chaniyth on his left and doru on his right.  Latin has two words that will serve here, and he mixes-and-matches a little: the Latin will always be either lancea (whence the English lance) or hasta (whence the shrubbery–no, just kidding).  I half-intend to track down if there is rhyme or reason to his decision between the two words here–something based on use or phase of battle, perhaps–but that’s another game for another day.

The happy stability on this point is, sadly, not 100% uniform.  Occasionally the Septuagint loses its mind–but again, we don’t know what manuscript they were working from, and so perhaps they were not translating chaniyth.  It’s quite funny to see what St. Jerome does when faced with conflicting Hebrew and Greek.  Sometimes he picks one, sometimes another, and sometimes he punts.  I feel you, my old friend.  I feel you.  These oddities will show up with the other spear words, romach and kiydown, so let’s move on to those.

While chaniyth is the stabby-spear, romach is the throwing spear.  This one does not show up as often as chaniyth, and sadly it is not consistently translated (but, to repeat, I don’t know what manuscript those LXX guys were using).  Sometimes the throwing spear makes it into Greek as lonche, like in Judges or Ezekiel.  That’s pretty good, since the first meaning of lonche is a throwing spear or javelin.

Sadly, we’re just as likely to see doru here, which leads me to wonder what St. Jerome must have thought.  Why the heck would you throw a perfectly good doru?  But that’s nothing.  Things get really weird when the non-spear word shows up: seiromaste.

Seiromaste doesn’t show up in your standard lexicons that I have close at hand, and Google just takes me to the text of the Septuagint.  But the word comes from chain and seems to be either a knotted scourge or…something.  A chain-spear?  I’m not alone in being confused, because St. Jerome has three different ways to render that into Latin–pugio (dagger), lanceolis (little lance), lancea (sigh).

Interestingly, St. Jerome never follows the Hebrew when dealing with the romach family.  There are two nice, simple words in Latin for a spear you might throw: first the pilum, later the spiculum.  Guess which two words never, ever show up for any of these spear words in the Vulgate OT?  When the Septuagint uses doru, he faithfully produces hasta or lancea.  But then again, he doesn’t always respect the Greek either.

I imagine him talking to some antiquarian in Jerusalem who tried to help him get a handle on these words, and Jerome suggesting pilum, and the old man waving his hand dismissively and saying, “Nah, bigger.”  And Jerome, not understanding how to throw a doru, nevertheless shrugged and wrote down the bigger spear.  And of course sometimes he just shrugs, like with pugio.  Whatever, man!

Ok well what about kiydown?  Since this word is rooted in the Hebrew verb for striking, this one is the messiest of the three.  It can be what you strike with or what you strike upon, and so sometimes it’s actually rendered as a shield.  A few uses are rendered as doru, which at least makes some sense here–we’re not throwing things.  On the other hand, there are odd-balls.  Sometimes it’s a gaisos (javelin), sometimes a sibune (hunting spear), and sometimes it’s my favorite head-scratcher, machaira (sword).  More on this below.

But what does St. Jerome think of these odd-balls?  Sometimes he corrects the Greek away from spear-types and back to shields by giving scutum or clypeus (two very different kinds of shields).  Other times he lets doru retain its sense and gives hasta.

We did skip some oddballs back in the chaniyth family.  Twice the Septuagint gives hoplon (tool, weapon, or especially shield–think hoplites).  For one of those St. Jerome plays it straight and gives arma (cue the Aeneid); for the other he just corrects to the Hebrew and gives hasta.  There’s also an appearance by the out-of-place machaira, but St. Jerome is unfazed and gives lancea.

But then, at last, there is an oddity at the heart of my original search: rhomphaia, the word that brings me to the next installment of killing devices.  Why is this odd and what does St. Jerome do to handle it?  Read on…


Oh man, now we have to talk about swords.  And it would be cool if this family of words lived on its own apart from the spear family…but, uh, that’s kind of why I went so deep down this rabbit hole in the first place.

First, the good news: Hebrew has one, only one, exactly one way to say sword throughout the Old Testament: chereb.  Chereb shows up something like 400 times in the Old Testament, so that literary hegemony is pretty admirable.

You know who else is admirably consistent?  St. Jerome.  Also, all Romans.  Romans know how to say sword, my friend, and it is gladius (think gladiator).  The consistency is highly notable across the many uses of chereb, which makes the rare anomalies all the more interesting.  More on that below.

It’s worth noting that, historically, the Roman arsenal had replaced the gladius with the spatha by the time St. Jerome was doing his work.  This suggests that St. Jerome was not intending to use military jargon in his translations, which might shed some light on how he handles all the spear business aforementioned.  Think “pistol” vs. “Colt .45” or “rifle” vs. “AK-47.”

But do you know who is not consistent?  Greeks (insert Classics joke here).  It’s here that the story about sword gets mighty interesting…if you’re into that sort of thing.  First, a classical digression.

Greek has two classical ways to say sword, corresponding with two variations on the weapon.  On the one hand you have the trusty xiphos, which is basically the Greek version of the gladius: a short, straight, double-edged blade capable of both stabbing and slashing.  In a rational world, xiphos would show up all over the Septuagint just like gladius does in the Vulgate (you can guess where this is going by now, right?).

The other Greek sword is the machaira, which is more like a cavalry saber: a single-edged slashing weapon with a curved blade.  I still remember laughing the first time I saw the word, since it basically just means “battle-thingy.”  I’m a bit disappointed that it’s got a more specific meaning, to be honest.

So, surely the Old Testament is awash in xiphos with some uses of machaira as the oddities, right?  Uh…no.

Xiphos only ever shows up in one place in the Old Testament: a two-chapter block of Joshua, where it is the sword-word of choice approximately 20 times.  Remember, that’s out of over 400 uses of chereb!  It’s almost like the LXX guys decided to consciously avoid the classical word for sword except for Scholar Bob who thought it would be funny to mix things up in just two chapters of Joshua.

Machaira then sees unanimous work across the rest of the Old Testament?  Uh, not exactly.  It is an extremely common choice for chereb, but it only accounts for about 1/4 of all the sword words.  For much of the Septuagint, the LXX guys put in play the very non-Greek word rhomphaia.

In my translation notes for Psalm 9, I mentioned that rhomphaia is originally a Thracian swordy-polearm thingy.  Think, if you are so inclined, of a glaive or a naginata.  If comparative arsenal isn’t your thing, then just imagine a sword blade on the end of a long pole to give it some reach.

Somehow between the emergence of the Thracian weapon in the Greek arsenal and the writing of the Septuagint just about a century later, the word had come to mean, at least for the Greek-speakers translating the Old Testament, something more like a sword than a spear.  Did it have connotations of exotic foreign weapon?  I am out of my historical depth here and all the low-hanging fruit (in terms of scholarship) only talks about the rhomphaia of the later Roman (eastern) empire.  So…I have no idea.  Does anyone?  I’d be curious to find out.  Maybe for another day.

At any rate, the LXX guys often choose rhomphaia for their use of sword throughout the Old Testament.  Tantalizingly, there appears to be a semi-pattern to the choice.  Sadly, it is a muddy pattern and I would have to do serious text critical work to prove anything about it.

At the basic level, there does seem to be a book-specific preference for machaira or rhomphaia. [these guys like one, these guys like the other].  But then there is that tantalizing thread that I really, really would like to prove.

When you look at the LXX word choices in sequence–the way they show up in a Strong’s search, say–something surprising jumps out in the first several books.  Although the Hebrew authors always use chereb, the LXX guys choose rhomphaia in one specific context: when the sword in question is God’s.  If the sword is just the way humans solve their problems in the ancient world, then it is machaira.

Sadly there are just enough deviations from this pattern that I can’t claim it rock-solid.  The Israelites use the rhomphaia against the Midianites…although I could try to argue that they are in fact wielding God’s sword of divine justice as his heavenly agents there.  Then again, Balaam’s angel wields a rhomphaia…until suddenly the author calls it a machaira in a later verse, spoiling the pattern.

It’s suggestive enough that I would really like to query the text critics.  If I could swap just a few word choices across several books, I’d have a pristine pattern.

Later books seem to deviate from this interpretive use of rhomphaia, unless there’s a deep connection I am missing.  On a surface reading, there’s a lot of different cooks in the kitchen on the translation of the Septuagint and they are all working on different books.

But then, of a sudden, my theory gets a massive boost in Ezekiel 30:20-26.  There the prophet employs first machaira, then rhomphaia, in an absolutely unmistakable contrast between the human sword and the divine sword.  I remain convinced that there is something to all this, even if it’s not consistent throughout the entire Septuagint.

Ok, enough about rhomphaia for a moment.  What about the oddballs?  Surely there are anomalies with sword-words just like there were with the spears?

Well, duh!  I overplayed my hand slightly when I claimed that Latin had just one way to say sword.  There’s a super-archaic, later revived and poetic, form for the hand-held stabby-slashy thing you use to put your enemies in the ground: ensis.

I’m no great shakes as a classicist, but there are times when you see a word in Latin and you just laugh.  What the heck am I looking at?  Ensis is one of those.  St. Jerome doesn’t think much of it either, which makes it really interesting when he finally dusts it off and puts it in play a mere TWO TIMES in the entire Vulgate.  Reason?

Again, I’m no great shakes as a classicist, but there are other times when you see a word in a Latin text and you laugh out loud and say, “That ain’t no Latin word!  What the heck is that?”  And that brings us to a second rare anomaly for sword in St. Jerome’s Vulgate: mucro.


Back to framea, by a looooong path.  What the heck is going on with this word?

According to Tacitus, framea is what the Germani call their spear, the equivalent of the Roman hasta.  You can consult Germanorum 6, 11, 14, 18, and 24 for a variety of references, but his introduction and explanation are in Germanorum 6.  It’s not a Roman word and it never appears to catch on in later Latin to describe any part of the arsenal.  When Vegetius in epitoma rei militaris/de re militari writes his propaganda-history of the Roman military in the 4th century, he shows no awareness of the framea despite describing the Roman arsenal as far back as the Republican era.

So it’s a pretty boring German word for spear that the Romans knew about for at least part of their history, but the term never became part of their military jargon.  So, uh, why is it in the Vulgate just a generation after the death of Vegetius?  Perhaps more importantly, why is it always used to mean sword?  St. Jerome uses framea five times–four in the Gallican psalter and once in Zechariah.  Every time he does, he is translating rhomphaia.

I can’t swear to what St. Jerome was thinking but I did eventually find a link between framea and rhomphaia.  Aulus Gellius 10.25//410 makes a long list of spear-words in different languages.  He explicitly describes the “rumpia” of the Thracian people (rhomphaia) as a spear and puts it in a list with the Germanic framea.  That gives us a second-century author with a text linking the two words together, although somewhat strangely since rhomphaia appears to have been more sword than spear at that point.

[The notation on Gellius is annoying.  Perseus has one document which is nothing but the capitals, through which you can link to the actual text.  First number (10.25) is the summary book; second is the actual text of Gellius.]

That second-century detail turns out to matter quite a bit as well, because St. Jerome only uses framea in his Gallican psalter, the first translation of the psalms that he made.  Signifiance?  In that earlier work St. Jerome largely preserved the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint; his later translation of the psalms famously drawn directly from the Hebrew no longer uses framea.  Instead we get the very orthodox gladius in place of the Hebrew chereb, and linguistic sanity prevails.

[Mostly.  In Psalm 34 the Hebrew as we have it now is chaniyth, not chereb, so a spear word would make more sense.  Given everything else, that seems to be good evidence that Jerome is not working from our Masoretic text.]

[It is worth mentioning for completeness that St. Jerome’s translation of Zechariah is pretty clearly working from the Old Latin since he uses framea again when his later efforts from the Hebrew would have produced gladius.]

And so my word-game comes to an end.  The odd-ball framea that started all this turns out to be evidence of the manuscript tradition that St. Jerome is working from: Old Latin manuscripts which relied on something like Aulus Gellius’s classification of both rhomphaia and framea as kinds of spears.  Presumably those translators wanted a foreign word for spear to render the Greek word for spear they saw in front of them, even though that Greek word for spear had come to mean something more like a sword by then.

Funny world, words.


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