Monday, June 26, 2006


We know the Bible was composed of Hebrew words. But is the word Bible itself of Hebrew (or related) origin?

In his Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, Klein writes:

The Bible [L. biblia, from Gk. biblia (= collection of writings), pl. of biblion (= paper, scroll, book), which is the dimin. of biblos, byblos ( = the inner bark of papyrus; book), from Byblos, Gr. name of the famous Phoen. transit port, whence the Greeks received the Egyptian papyrus. Gk. Byblos has been assimilated from גבל, the Heb.-Phoen. name of the city (=lit.: 'frontier-town') cp. Heb. גבול (= frontier, boundary), Arab. jabal (=mountain). cp. jubayl, the actual Arab. name of ancient Gebhal (jubayl properly is a dimin. formed from the original name of the city).

And the Online Etymology Dictionary (which often borrows from Klein's Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language), writes in the entry for Bible:

early 14c., from Anglo-L. biblia, from M.L./L.L. biblia (neuter plural interpreted as fem. sing.), in phrase biblia sacra "holy books," from Gk. ta biblia to hagia "the holy books," from biblion "paper, scroll," the ordinary word for "book," originally a dim. of byblos "Egyptian papyrus," possibly so called from the name of the Phoenician port from which Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece. The port's name is a Gk. corruption of Phoenician Gebhal, lit. "frontier town" (cf. Heb. gebhul "frontier, boundary," Ar. jabal "mountain").

So I'm a little confused. There doesn't seem to be much disagreement that "bible" comes from Byblos. But did Byblos come from papyrus, or was it a corruption/assimilation of Gevul? As this site writes:

Byblos was the port for papyrus export to the Aegean countries, and their name for papyrus was byblos. Yet, it is not certain whether 'byblos' is derived from the town or if the town was named after the product exported.

Klein writes that papyrus (the source of the English "paper") is "of unknown etymology; said to be of Egyptian origin". Stahl provides two theories as to the source of papyrus - either from the Caananite/Hebrew pif-yeor פיפ-יאור - meaning "fringe of the Yeor (the Nile)", or the more likely Egyptian pa-p-yeor "this is of the Yeor" (or pa means "a plant".) Interestingly, the Hebrew word for paper, niyar נייר, according to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, has a similar etymology: it is an abbreviation of ni-yeor ני-יאור - a sheet from the Yeor.

So while Byblos may come from papyrus (which might have a Semitic origin), let's look at the other possibility - the town of Gevul. This is a very ancient port town, between Beirut and Tripoli. It is mentioned in Yechezkel 27:9, and its inhabitants may be referred to in Malachim I 5:32.

The Hebrew word gvul גבול can mean either territory or boundary, and has cognates in Phoenician, Punic and Arabic. It originally meant "mound" - often used to mark borders, and this is related to the Arabic jubal or jabal, meaning mountain. Horowitz points out that the two letters גב provide many words that mean prominent, high, upper. Here are a number of them:

  • גבוה - high
  • גבעה - hill
  • גבור - strong man
  • גבב - heap up, pile up, the source of גב - back
  • גבן - hunchback - the back rises high
  • גבוש - pile of stones, גיבוש - crystallization
  • גבח - high, tall, as well as גבחת - high forehead, baldness in front
  • גבל - knead, give the shape of a mound

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