I already understand and so ask not about this idiom's meaning. Though some idioms fail the Principle of Compositionality, this idiom seems to derive from imagery and so its semantic shift can be explained.

I am conjecturing that the 'beam' refers to a light beam, but is an outward beam biasing the hypocrite, or does the beam emanate from the hypocrite?

  • The biggest beams of lumber/wood are commonly used in constructing a heavy ceiling in, say, a church building or a cathedral (in the absence of stone), or a mansion with so-called cathedral ceilings. A beam is typically massive in size and weight. A mote, on the other hand, is small and virtually weightless. In the context of Christ's words in Matthew chapter 7, a judgmental person is quick to find fault in another person (that's the mote) but is very slow to detect the fault in himself (that's the beam). Forget "compositionality" and focus instead on irony, a common trope. Don – rhetorician Dec 18 '15 at 7:05

No, this is from Matthew 7:3-5, in the King James version

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

The word in koine is δοκός (dokos), meaning a wooden beam to contrast with κάρφος (karphos), a splinter or something light and dry. More modern translations use "speck of sawdust" for "mote" to make the contrast with two irritants that are made of the same material.

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    Of course, it goes back much further than the KJV; Wycliffe's 14th century Bible had "seest not a beem in thin owne iye." – Nathaniel is protesting Dec 18 '15 at 12:55

I am conjecturing that the 'beam' refers to a light beam ...

No, the idiom refers to a beam made of timber, and is used figuratively to compare it with a tiny speck (or mote). So there is no direction implied at all, either towards or away from the hypocrite.

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