Sunday, August 9, 2015

Adding Cubits to your Lifespan

In my Bible-reading this morning I ran across Matthew 6:27 where Jesus says “And who of you by worrying can add a single πῆχυν to his ἡλικίαν?” This is an interesting verse to translate, because ἡλικίαν (pronounced heylikian, with the i's sounding like the i in machine) is usually translated as something like ‘lifespan,’ but πῆχυν (pronounced peychoon, where the ‘ch’ sounds like it does in German ‘Bach’ or Scottish ‘loch’) is a very straightforward word meaning ‘cubit.’

On the face of it, this doesn't make grammatical sense; how do you add a cubit to your lifespan? This has lead to two divergent translations I've seen: one involves translating πῆχυν as ‘hour’ (despite there being another definite word for hour, ὥρα [hora]), while the other translates ἡλικίαν as ‘height.’

Neither of these translations sound really good to my ear, so I when I came to the passage this morning I decided to go back to the literal meaning of both words and incorporate insights from relativity theory. Relativity tells us that time is simply another dimension like the three dimensions of space (which are inextricably linked in a four-dimensional spacetime), and that by using the speed of light as a conversion factor we can use units of measurement for space to measure time, and vice versa. What does a ‘second of distance’ mean? It's the distance light travels in one seconds, approximately 186,000 miles or 300,000 kilometers. And similarly, one ‘meter of time’ is the amount of time it takes light to travel one meter, approximately three nanoseconds.

A cubit, by the way, is very close to half a meter, so what Jesus is basically saying here is that you can't add even a nanosecond and a half to your life by worrying—so don't worry, because your Heavenly Father is in control. A hui hou!


  1. Knowing Greek certainly helps in understanding the Bible. It never occurred to me that physics could add so much clarity! What an elegant interpretation.

  2. I wonder, though, what the original Aramaic statement was. Tangentially related: worrying may not help your lifespan, but apparently coffee does: Won't help your stature though.


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