Will Jesus come ‘soon’ like a taxi?


I recently had a very interesting debate with Ben Witherington about whether the English word ‘taxi’ is derived from the Greek word tachus meaning ‘quickly’. (Depending on where you live, you might be wondering what the connection is.) Witherington is a leading biblical scholar amongst evangelicals in the States, and has written commentaries on every book of the New Testament. I have particularly valued his volumes on Acts, Ephesians and Revelation.

Witherington comments that ‘many Christians know that the English word ‘taxi’ comes from the Greek word for ‘quick’’, but I think those who do are following a misapprehension. Grammarphobia offers the needed corrective:

“Taxi” is a shortened form of “taxicab,” and both first appeared in print in 1907. The two words are derived from the expression “taximeter cab,” meaning a cab with an automatic meter (or taximeter) for recording the distance traveled and the fare. The meter itself (the word “taximeter” dates from 1898) took its name from the French taximètre (earlier spelled taxamètre), which came in turn from the German word taxameter, a meter used in horse-drawn cabs.

The “taxa” portion of the original word comes from Medieval Latin and means, literally, a “tax” (from the verb taxare, to tax or assess or evaluate). The Greek taxis means arrangement or division, and is unrelated. It’s the source of our words “taxonomy” and “taxidermy.” The Greek takhos (speed) is the root of “tachometer” but not, it would appear, of “taximeter.”

Greek-taxi-drivers-unions-005So there you have it. When I pointed this out, Witherington countered that modern Greek taxis appear to claim otherwise. I am not sure this is the case (see picture), but even if it were, it would be a good example of the back-formation of folk etymologies, some of which are quite entertaining. (Did you know that ‘to buttonhole’ someone was coined from ‘to buttonhold’ when people stopped having buttonholds, but continued to have buttonholes? Or that ‘island’ was a respelling of ‘iland’ on the incorrect supposition that it was short for isle-land, which it isn’t?)

But what is the point? Witherington raises this because it has a bearing on one important aspect of NT eschatology. There are two small but important words in NT Greek here. The first is the aforementioned adverb tachus, which comes 13 times in the NT, and consistently means ‘quickly’, in the sense of something happening without delay. (See Matt 5.25, 28.7–8, Mark 9.39, Luke 15.22, John 11.29, James 1.19 for examples.) But there is also the phrase en tachei, which makes use of the noun tachos ‘quickness’ or ‘suddenness’. This is less frequent, only coming 8 times (Luke 18.8, Acts 12.7, 22.18 and 25.4, Romans 16.20, 1 Tim 3.14, and Rev 1.1 and 22.6). Witherington points out that, whilst this phrase can mean something similar to the adverb tachus in describing the timing of an event (‘quickly’, ‘immediately’), as in the examples in Acts, on other occasions it refers to the manner of the action—suddenly and unexpectedly, rather than without any temporal delay.

In Luke 18.8, for example, the point of the story of the unjust judge is precisely that there will be a delay before prayer is answered—but when the answer comes, it will be swift and decisive. Similarly, in Romans 16.20, Paul’s point is most likely not that Satan’s defeat will come in a short while, but that it will be sudden and decisive. This meaning is also confirmed by examples of the phrase in the LXX (Septuagint), the Greek translation/paraphrase of the OT, in Josh 8.18–19, Psalm 2.12 and Ezek. 29.5, as well as Sirach 27.3.

This has a significant bearing on how we read the two occurrences in Rev 1.1 and 22.6. As Witherington highlights:

Let us first note, that if the phrase in these two passages meant ‘soon’ or ‘shortly’ as the KJV had it, then John was simply wrong. He had misunderstood the revelation he received. Instead, the whole tenor of the Book of Revelation makes clear he is :1) addressing his own immediate audience in the seven churches, and reassuring them about God’s divine judgment; 2) he in fact tells them that that judgment transpires over a long period of time, and is entirely in the hands of the Lamb. So Christians shouldn’t ever try to take judgment into their own hands, even the saints under the altar in heaven who cry out how long are told to be patient and leave it to God. Christians are called to be prepared to be martyred, not to be prepared to get ready to rumble or be raptured; 3) and that final judgment is coming after a series of preliminary and disciplinary judgments described in Rev. 6ff. John is simply affirming that Jesus will come with dispatch and take care of things in God’s good timing. He is not affirming ‘Jesus is coming back soon’!

Rev.13.Dragon.Beast.Blake.p.58This whole notion of judgement being sudden in nature, rather than soon in timing, chimes in with other biblical language of judgement. In Isaiah 40.7, humanity is like grass—not simply in that it does not endure, but that its end is sudden. Similarly, the downfall of the wicked in Ps 37.36 is sudden, even though they have endured for a long time ‘like a luxuriant tree.’ This last example is pertinent to our reading of Revelation, as the expulsion of Satan from heaven in Rev 12.8 uses exactly the same  phrase ‘no longer was a place found for them’ that occurs in Ps 37.36. (I made this new discovery [ta-da!] when doing my doctoral research; it chimes with the eschatological reading of Ps 37 from Qumran, where ‘the wicked person’ of Ps 37.1 has become the eschatological Wicked Priest opposed to the Teacher of Righteousness.)

This also ties in NT ideas of both delay and suddenness of judgement. Jesus coming ‘like a thief in the night’ (1 Thess 5.2, 2 Peter 3.10, Rev 16.15) emphasises suddenness, not immediacy, and John is clear that discipleship involves ‘patient endurance’ while we wait (Rev 1.9).

On the other hand, reading en tachei as ‘suddenness‘  rather than ‘soon-ness’ does give us two problems in relation to our interpretation of Revelation. The first is something I have explored previously: the end of Rev 22.10 ‘do not seal up the words of this book’ is a direct contrast to the end of Daniel 12.4 ‘close and seal the words of the scroll’. Whereas, in its literary setting (of the sixth century BC) Daniel is about a distant future time (the second century BC), Revelation is not. This is an important counter-argument to modern dispensationalist readings of Revelation, which assume it has relevance only to our day.

Secondly, even if the phrase en tachei does not mean Jesus is coming ‘soon’, the phrase ‘I am coming soon’ (using tachus) does occur four times, at Rev 3.11, 22.7, 22.12, and 22.20. There is an interpretive question about what this phrase means for at least three reasons. It is clear that Jesus is coming in judgement to his people, possibly within history rather than at the end of history (Rev 2.16). Revelation uses the language of erchomenos (the participle) rather than the more technical parousia (a noun, meaning royal presence in visitation). (The distinction here is vital in making sense of Jesus’ eschatological discourses in Matthew 24 and Mark 13.) And the phrase ‘I am coming quickly/soon’ is unique to Revelation in the NT, and has in fact been stolen from Graeco-Roman magical cults, in particular the cult of Hekate. So it is being used polemically to assert Jesus’ own authority in judgement and power over life and death.

So reading en tachei as ‘sudden’ rather than ‘soon’ doesn’t ‘solve’ all the issues of apparently imminent expectation of Jesus’ return in the NT—but it gives it texture and nuance. It simply isn’t the case that the first generation of Jesus-followers were just sitting around, waiting for Jesus to return within their lifetimes.

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6 thoughts on “Will Jesus come ‘soon’ like a taxi?”

  1. Excellent piece to digest here, thank you. I’m reminded of a cartoon in Private Eye years ago of a man at a bus stop complaining at the sight before his eyes: ‘Typical. You wait all day for one horseman of the Apocalypse, then four arrive at once.’

  2. If ‘taxi’ is derived from ‘tachus’, would not Greek taxicabs display a sign using a Chi (which looks like an X) rather than a Xi, which the picture shows? Surely, the picture is evidence against ‘taxi’ coming from ‘tachus’?
    Actually, it is evidence of how English usage has been transliterated into other scripts. Stop signs in Russia have the Cyrillic letters phonologically equivalent to ‘S’ ‘T’ ‘O’ ‘P’.

    • Yes, indeed—which is why I posted the picture, and am not convinced by Ben Witherington’s comment!

      Fascinating example about the stop sign…I am sure there must be others.


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