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Q: #280. What does "gave up the ghost" mean in the Bible?

    A: This phrase (or a form of it) is used 19 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words are used for the word “ghost” in this phrase: “gava” and “nephesh.” In the New Testament, two Greek words are used: “ekpneo” and “ekpsucho.” The literal meaning is basically “to breathe out” or “to expire.” In short, to “give up the ghost” is a euphemism for dying.

     As far as I know, this phrase is only used in the KJV version of the Bible. Other versions like the NKJV, NASB, and NIV generally use the term “breathed His last” instead. (In Mt 27:50 and Jn 19:30 it is said that Jesus “gave up or yielded His spirit” [different Greek word] instead of “breathed His last” likely to put emphasis on the fact that Jesus did this of His own free will.) However, when the KJV Bible was written in the 1600’s, to “give up the ghost” was a common term for dying (I read that Shakespeare used the term in one of his plays, written at about the same time.). This phrase has now pretty much faded away just like other interesting KJV phrases such as “ouches of gold” (Ex 28:11), “collops of fat” (Job 15:27), and “old cast clouts” (Jer 38:11-12).

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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