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I am curious as to how much "believe on" has been preferred in over "believe in," and how much it has appeared in writing and manuscripts. I know the King James Bible uses it in only two books of its 66, but are there any other places where this queer verb phrase is used? I am thinking there may be a difference but may not. I noticed that in the context of the one work, it seems to be that when "believe on" is used, it is always used purely by someone saying something happened and people believing just because it is said, without seeing it. This would be rather useful in speech. I myself haven't thought much of it and actually do use these two distinctly and probably still will -- one for faith, one for having seen, but I am curious as to if this was common; why I bring it up is a person mentioned that the two mean the same and are not different. I am thinking it may be a dialectical thing or perhaps a conceptual -- it's not a literal translation of the Greek (which says "into" in every case,) so to me it must be a thing unique to Early Modern English.

I am thinking that it may be just a left over quirk from before "in" and "on" switched usage frequency in english, from the Anglo Saxon roots.

  • It would be useful to see some usage examples. Besides the Bible. I have never seen it or don't remember seeing "believe on". – Lambie Jul 26 '17 at 19:30
  • I don't know of any, but I didn't want to make this about religion, you know? – Matthew T. Scarbrough Jul 27 '17 at 20:42
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    Well, then I'd say it's regional or dialectal. I've never heard it or seen it myself. – Lambie Jul 27 '17 at 21:25
  • The cognate verb in German, glauben, still uses the preposition an to say one believes in something. – KarlG Feb 26 '18 at 17:21
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OED says this about bibles specifically:

No difference can be detected between the use of ‘believe in’ and ‘believe on’ in the 16th-cent. versions of the Bible, except that the latter was more frequent; it is now archaic.

While some people may believe that there is a difference, there doesn't appear to be one. "Believe on" isn't something I've ever seen or heard, and it appears to be only used because it appears in some translations of the Bible.


As for usage through history, it wasn't just translations of the Bible, it wasn't just Early Modern English, and it wasn't just those two prepositions.

Old English is very different than Modern English; it used the preposition on, with a very different word order:

Þis hé spræc on Iudea-lande: ðær wæs án eowd of ðam mannum þe on God belyfdon on ðam leodscipe.

This he spake in the land of Juda: there was a fold of men who believed in God in that nation.
The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church by Ælfric, translated by Benjamin Thorpe

Middle English had a lot more variety. I suggest checking out the (free) Middle English Dictionary entry. ME still had some of the weird word order (this word order was only used with on, as far as I can see):

Laban and all his men, That on Mahounde byleved.
Sowdon of Babylon

Some sources, like this one (from ~1225) even mix in and on:

  • [...] to bileuen in god.

  • Ich bileue on þe holie gost.

And, like I said, there were other prepositions that were used, depending on which meaning. From OED (dagger means obsolete):

  • intr. To have confidence or faith in, and consequently to rely on or trust to, a person or (Theol.) a god or the name of a god.

    • With in, on, †into, †unto (rare), †of (rare), †upon.
    • intr. With in, †of (rare), †on, †to (rare). To have confidence in the truth or accuracy of (a statement, doctrine, etc.). In later use also: to have confidence in the genuineness, virtue, value, or efficacy of (a principle, institution, practice, etc.).

There are plenty of examples of these prepositions being used in ME (again, see Middle English Dictionary), but you'll also see a few examples after that. These are from OED's first definition:

  • They were al content to leue theyr law and to byleue of Iesu chryst.
    The boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, c1515

  • I byleue vpon god & vpon his feyth.
    Werke for Housholders, 1530

  • All that should beleeve on him unto eternall life.
    Israels prayer, 1649

  • Our Adversaries will not believe of our Holy Apostle, because they think it Idolatrous to pray to a Creature in the very same manner as to the Creator God.
    A confutation of popery, 1701

  • To persuade a savage that it is to his advantage to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
    Missionary & Anthropology, 1945

And these are from the other definition:

  • They do not well beleeve of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.
    Christianographie, 1630

  • Beleeve lesse to your courage then judgement.
    The history of Polexander in five bookes, 1647

  • We must be able to believe on the Churches word, before we have read the holy Scripture.
    J. B. Bossuet's Conf. with Mr. Claude, 1687

  • Wow that response is beautiful. – Matthew T. Scarbrough Jul 27 '17 at 20:10
  • Your "weird" word order is Germanic, still strictly observed in modern German, a bit less strict in Dutch. It doesn't depend on prepositions but the position of the finite verb and whether a clause is dependent. 1066 basically blew that out of the water. – KarlG Feb 26 '18 at 17:23
  • @KarlG Thanks for catching that; I've changed the wording to be neutral. (Unfortunately—and probably also obviously—I only speak English so I don't know anything about German/Dutch word order, but I may look into it later.) – Laurel Feb 26 '18 at 17:55
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This Google Ngram shows that "believe in" is far more common than "believe on," even before the latter fell out of use. Many of the "hits" for "believe on" (except for the quotation of Biblical verses) are false positives, e.g., This I Believe: On Motherhood, or "[if you] believe, on the other hand . . ."

Google NGram believe in, believe on

  • Interesting. Believe on was at it's peak from about 1526 to about 1530. Thanks, I forgot about NGram viewer. – Matthew T. Scarbrough Jul 26 '17 at 15:16
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I think use of 'in' preposition after believe or belief is more appropriate to write or read but few people use 'on'.

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