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What is the literal meaning of “scandal”?


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Daniel Esparza - published on 06/02/19

Both the Greek word for “scandal” and the Latin for “sin” are intimately related, and have to do with watching one’s step.

Walking the straight and narrow requires one not to stumble, but human experience, as Paul makes it clear, is also about wanting to do what is good and not being able to do it; that is, that our quotidian moral experience is also (and often) a matter of trying and missing the mark, may it be by defect or by excess, straying away from the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). In fact, virtuous action has been classically described, mainly by Aristotle, as that which avoids extremes, and temperance (the last, but not least, of the Christian cardinal virtues) refers precisely to the much-needed moderation that protects us from ill-advised action.

It should not surprise us, then, that the Hebrew and Greek words that have been translated as “sin” (chatá in Hebrew, hamartia in the Greek) refer precisely to this experience (that is, that of “straying away”). The Greek hamartia stands for a “tragic flaw,” literally meaning “guilt,” “fault,” or “failure,” but the verb itself, hamartanein, means “missing the mark,” as when an archer fails to hit the target. This suggests human action might in fact “aim” at the good but, as Paul puts it, fails to do so, bringing about some undesired consequences instead. In fact, the Hebrew chatá, some scholars have argued, derives from military jargon (archery, to be precise).

What does this have to do, then, with “scandals”?

Again, let’s take a look at the Greek.

In Greek, a skandalon is a trap with a springing device in it. Basically, it refers to the kind of trap you would use to catch anything, be it a mouse (a mousetrap is, for sure, a spring-loaded device), a bear, or even an enemy soldier. In any case, the word points at something that either prevents one from walking, or that makes one stumble as one walks: a trap, a snare, even a stone – the biblical “stumbling block,” to be precise.  That is, a “scandal” is that which might make one detour from one’s path; a stumbling stone, an obstacle one trips over while (let’s say) hunting, making us “miss the mark” when we shoot our prey.

Hunting metaphors aside, it is clear then a scandal is an event that shocks our notions of right and wrong, that might eventually make us stumble and, consequently, sin, “missing the mark” of what we are supposed to do, how we are expected to act, what should we think in a given situation. What biblical languages point at here is to the need to watch one’s step, aiming high while keeping one’s eyes on the ground.

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