Symbols in the Bible are not always easy to decipher. Over the past two thousand years there have been numerous writings and re-writings of the Holy Scriptures. In order to keep the Word alive and comprehensible, scholars have continually strived to perfect the Bible’s language to align with their respective cultures and language.
There have been many debates, clashes, and arguments amongst Christians as to how the Word of God should be interpreted. Given how many developments there have been over the past two thousand years I like to keep an open mind. Therefore, to come across an evangelist, or to be precise, a Christian cult leader (FYI, the term cult leader is not used lightly), who believes that they have the capacity to interpret the Bible in a superior manner to all others intrigues me.
I do not want to unduly direct people to this man’s cult so I won’t mention them by name, however, I will give a little description of one their YouTube propaganda videos in which they discuss the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. They suggest the White Horse represents Jesus – which I dispute on the grounds that it is more probable that the ‘lamb’ in Revelations 6:1 who opens the seals and witnesses the horses is Christ. Therefore, how can Jesus be both the opener and the contents of the first seal? My greater curiosity, however, is in their point regarding how the word ‘bow’ should be interpreted.
In the video produced by the cult leader, they reference the White Horseman as depicted in Revelations 6:2:
And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.King James Version – BibleHub, 2020
Initially, the commentator, known as “the Voice”, considers ‘bow’ may be a reference to a weapon, which is a common inference.
Archer holding a ‘bow’ and arrow. Picture: ClipartMax
However, he isn’t too sure about associating Jesus with a weapon, so it’s suggested ‘bow’ is better interpreted as a ribbon. The video clip then flashes to a piece of fabric and the Voice says that Jesus’ has the miraculous capacity to save the world with a flimsy piece of cloth.
Floating piece of ribbon as a ‘bow’. Picture: PNGWING
A point overlooked with the bow as fabric interpretation is that it could be a ‘bow’ that represents status, like soldiers who receive ribbons of honour.
Ribbon of honour. Picture: Wikipedia Commons
The Greek word for ‘bow’ in Revelations 6:2 is τόξον [toxon] and there is some legitimacy to the interpretation of it being a ribbon of some sort. There are a number of Christian’s who share the opinion that the White Horseman’s bow is a simple piece of fabric. Justification for this view includes there being no mention of arrows in the Bible verse which is a point I appreciate, but I’m still not convinced about ribbon hypothesis. To investigate further I looked at a few other versions:
And I saw: and behold, a white horse, and he that sat upon it having a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering and that he might conquer.Darby Bible Translation – BibleHub, 2020
And I looked and a white horse appeared, and its rider carried a bow; and a victor’s wreath was given to him; and he went out conquering and in order to conquer.Weymouth New Testament – BibleHub, 2020
I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.New International Version – BibleHub, 2020
- King James Version (1611) – Rider of white horse had a bow …
- Darby Bible Translation (1890) – Rider of white horse having a bow …
- Weymouth New Testament (1903) – Rider of white horse carried a bow …
- New International Version (1973) – Rider of white horse held a bow …
It is interesting to note that between 1611 to 1973 the proposition of ‘had’ evolves into ‘held’. It’s only a little detail, but the semantics of the phrasing drastically alters the potential meaning of the overall symbolism.
In each of the interpretations I can see how the propositions ‘had’, ‘having’, ‘carried’ and ‘held’ can lead to the interpretation of ‘bow’ being a noun that refers to a physical object like a bow and arrow or piece of ribbon. But what if ‘bow’ was actually a verb? Could it be that the rider of the White Horse bowed their head to receive the crown?
‘Bow’ as a verb describing the act of bowing down to someone. Picture: PNGWING
In accordance with the King James Version, it makes sense: “He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him … “. I do not believe the King James Version of the Bible is perfect (future blog about the terms Hell and Hades will highlight why), however, it is a very concise Old English version. Crudely, it can be perceived as being written closer to the primary source by roughly four hundred years, and the reference material of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew versions of the Bible were also in an earlier form. Hence, I give credence the proposition of ‘had’ over ‘having’, ‘carried’ or ‘held’.
Admittedly, I am partial to the interpretation that the bow in Revelations 6:2 is a reference to someone taking a bow, as in bending over to show honour. However, I’m also aware that someone participating in a bow does not linguistically flow in the phrase “had a bow”. Rather, it’s more likely that they ‘gave’ a bow than ‘had’ one.
Perhaps the term “had a bow” would suit better if whomever was giving the White Horseman the crown (i.e. the Christ-like figure) was the one who bowed? In order to read this interpretation, it needs to be understood that the Old Greek script did not have punctuation. Likewise, Old Hebrew was also written in a continuous script. All full stops, commas, paragraphs, and other punctuations have been added over the years. Hence, if the King James Version is read without the semi-colon: “He who sat on it had a bow and a crown was given to him and he went out conquering and to conquer“, the interpretation that a bowing gesture was given to the White Horseman before he received is crown becomes plausible.
Complicating the matter is that the word ‘bow’ appears in English versions of the bible about 248 times, however, Revelations 6:2 is the only time τόξον [toxon] is used (other Greek words used in reference to ‘bow’ include υποκλίνομαι [ypoklinomai], υπόκλιση [ypoklisi], τόξο [toxo], δοξάρι [doxari]). Like the English word bow, τόξον [toxon] can be a reference to a weapon, a ribbon, a bending gesture, and more.
Interestingly, the word τόξον [toxon] in ancient Greek also refers to a rainbow. It’s plausible this is an another option for how the Bible verse should be read. The symbolic image of a rainbow doesn’t fit the overall vibe of terror presented in Revelations, although it does have connotations of peace that nicely juxtaposes with the idea of the White Horseman representing goodness. Personally, I quite like the idea of a rainbow conquering the world … that is so long as I don’t think too deeply about the other reference in the Bible where a rainbow was used as symbol of God’s harsh judgment of the earth’s inhabitants … then again, perhaps there is a symbolic link between the of rainbow in the Old Testament and Revelations?
Rainbow. Picture: Kiss Clipart
If τόξον [toxon] has been used to portray a rainbow, then the next question is whether the rainbow is an object or an allegory? While pondering those possibilities, there are additional options of what ‘bow’ might mean.
In Hebrew word for bow is קשת. In the context of Revelations 6:2 it means much the same as is English and Greek in that is it has multiple meanings of reference which include a weapon, ribbon, bending gesture, and rainbow. Further, קשת has the additional meaning of oxbow which refers to curved wood that goes around the neck of an ox. Perhaps the White Horseman was wearing an oxbow?
Oxbow. Picture: Wikipedia
To seek clarity around what ‘bow’ in Revelations 6:2 is all about, I decided to look for clues in the propositions of ‘had’, ‘having’, ‘held’, and ‘carry’. The Greek word of interest in this instance is ἔχον [echon]. I compared its usage throughout other Bible verses (see below) but again this didn’t help because it appears the interpretation of ἔχον [echon] can have different connotations depending on the context, therefore, ‘had’ and ‘having’ are both technically correct.
ἔχον [echon] can refer to the verb of possessing or getting possession of something; therefore, the term ‘held’ in the New International Version and ‘carrying’ in Weymouth New Testament are interpretations that can’t be definitely perceived as correct. Subsequently, they create subtle alterations to the mental imagery of the scene that may not be appropriate if bow is a verb or adjective, opposed to a noun.
|Verses from KJV Bible that illustrate different usages of the Greek term ἔχον [echon] in contextual situations:|
Matthew 12:10 And, behold, there was a man which had [ἔχων – echōn] hand withered.
Mark 1:22 And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had [ἔχων – echōn] authority, and not as the scribes.
Luke: 33 And in the synagogue there was a man, which had [ἔχων – echōn] a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice,
Luke 7:2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was [ἔχων – echōn] sick, and ready to die.
Luke 7:8 For I also am a man set under authority, having [ἔχων – echōn] under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth;
John 5:5 And a certain man was there, which had [ἔχων – echōn] an infirmity thirty and eight years.
John 18:10 Then Simon Peter having [ἔχων – echōn] a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear.
Revelations 14:18 And another angel came out from the altar, which had [ἔχων – echōn] power over fire;
Revelations 17:7 And here the mind which hath [ἔχων – echōn] wisdom.
To add a final layer of complexity to what ‘bow’ might mean, it’s possible that the colloquialisms of the Greek τόξον [toxon] have been lost to time. For example the word “sick” literally refers to something that is unwell, however, it can also be used colloquially (particularly among younger people) to mean something which is great. Language constantly evolves and the meanings of words can also change, especially if they are tied to cultural influences. Therefore, does the term ‘bow’, or rather the Greek τόξον [toxon], have a colloquial meaning that is no longer known?
Overall, the most popular interpretation of ‘bow’ for centuries has been the idea that it is a reference to a weapon, as notable in Dürer’s woodcut from the fifteenth century. I have great admiration for Dürer. Still, with my recent experience of the flat earth myth, I wonder how valid it is to rely upon popular opinions.
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut. (White Horseman is depicted in the background, right side of composition) Picture: Smart History
It is worthy to note, that Dürer’s woodcut is not a literal representation of the book of Revelations. He applied creative licensing in an imaginative manner that combines various elements of the narrative into a single scene, plus he has added details like the Fourth Horseman holding a pitchfork which is not mentioned in the Bible. A lot can be learned from appreciating Dürer’s work, however, ultimately, it is an expression of his personal opinions. Pictures can be very persuasive but they are not always truthful.
So what does this all matter? Symbolically, it matters a lot. The mental representation of a rider on a White Horse armed for war, compared to one fashioning a ribbon, bending in reverence to receive a crown, or having the glow of a rainbow, all carry very different meanings.
Holistically, examining how the interpretation of a single word can drastically alter the meaning of text is a prudent reminder that making inferences from the Bible are not easy.
Whether or not the Bible is the true word of God remains a matter of faith. As for translations and interpretations, they appear to be a matter of human choice. Further, cult leaders who assert they are authorities on interpreting words and symbols need to brush up on their history of linguistics.
For an in extended analysis see Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context
P.S. ‘Bow’ is an extremely interesting word, in addition to all the meanings explored in this blog, it also can be used to refer to a curved piece of wood with horse hair used to play a musical instrument, the fore-end of ship, or anything with a curved shape.
BibleHub. (2020a). Revelation 6:2 So I looked and saw a white horse, and its rider had a bow. And he was given a crown, and he rode out to overcome and conquer. Biblehub.com. https://biblehub.com/revelation/6-2.htm
BibleHub. (n.d.). Bow (248 Occurrences). Bibleapps.com. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://bibleapps.com/b/bow.htm
BOW. (n.d.). Definitions.net. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.definitions.net/definition/BOW.
Kiss Clipart. (n.d.). Download Rainbow Line. KissClipart. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.kissclipart.com/rainbow-png-clipart-clip-art-qzfxip/
Messie2vie. (n.d.). echo – Strong’s number G2192 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G2192-echo-page-4.html#concordance
Parsing and Strongs Definition. (n.d.). http://Www.Misselbrook.org.Uk. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from http://www.misselbrook.org.uk/Parsing.aspx?PNum=1078
Smart History. (2015). Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Smarthistory. Smarthistory.org. https://smarthistory.org/albrecht-durer-four-horsemen/
toxon – Strong’s number G5115 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. (n.d.). Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G5115-toxon.html
What does קשת mean in Hebrew? (n.d.). WordHippo. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.wordhippo.com/what-is/the-meaning-of/hebrew-word-88b07c9532c6189b876c72b39e2f635c8f2ad642.html
Wikipedia Contributors. (2018, November 28). King James Version. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version