Hermeneutics - Lesson 13

Word Meanings and Word Studies

In this lesson on Hermeneutics, you will gain an understanding of the importance of word meanings and word studies in biblical interpretation. Dr. Todd Miles emphasizes that words have multiple meanings within their semantic range and that their context determines their correct interpretation. He cautions against common mistakes, such as assuming that a word's dictionary definition universally applies or projecting modern meanings onto ancient texts. Dr. Miles also highlights the significance of studying words in their original language and using etymology to decipher their original meanings. Throughout the lesson, you'll learn to approach word studies with care, relying on context, and avoiding pitfalls like the root fallacy and reverse etymology. This knowledge will enable you to interpret biblical texts more accurately and effectively.

Todd Miles
Lesson 13
Watching Now
Word Meanings and Word Studies

I. Words Have Meanings

II. Translation Fallacies

A. Root Fallacy

B. Etymology

C. Translation fallacies

D. Authors using a word differently

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  • In this lesson, Dr. Todd Miles discusses various types of psalms found in the Psalter and delves into their unique characteristics and theological significance. He begins by providing a list of different kinds of psalms, emphasizing that this list is not exhaustive but illustrative, highlighting the diversity of poetry within the Psalms.
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  • In this lesson, Dr. Todd Miles discusses the interpretation of parables. Parables are a specific literary genre with their own rules of interpretation. Parables are designed to teach a single point, although there might be exceptions. Historical context remains essential in understanding parables, as they are shaped by the situations of the day. 
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  • In this lesson, you'll grasp the Holy Spirit's vital role in biblical interpretation, going beyond changing hearts to enabling comprehension and acceptance of the text. Dr. Todd Miles stresses the Spirit's role in illuminating the Bible, making it relevant to believers, challenging the idea that unbelievers interpret it as effectively, and emphasizing the importance of understanding the text's intent. The ultimate aim is not mastery but being mastered by the text, with the Holy Spirit as a key player.
Hermeneutics is the science and art of the interpretation of the Bible. It's a science because it is an orderly process based on rules you can apply. It is an art because of the nuances in communication and translation.



Dr. Todd Miles


Word Meanings and Word Studies

Lesson Transcript


The next section here, we're going to drill down to the smallest. Particle of meaning, and that would be the word. I do believe that the sentence is the smallest unit of meeting, but the building blocks of the sentence, of course, are words. And it's. How do we use words? How do we use words? Studies? How do we determine the meaning of a word? Well, in Axiom 12, the most important thing I want you to realize about words is that words have meanings, plural, not meaning. But they have meaning in context. Now, this range of meanings that a word can have is called the semantic range. And the sentence will give the context. And that allows us to interpret the words We any time we hear a word in a specific context, we sort through the possible meanings and apply if we're thinking rightly, the correct meaning depending on what the context is. So, for example, think think of the word trunk. What what could I be referring to when I say trunk? Well, there's there's a semantic range here and there. It could be a tree trunk. It could be a bodily trunk. It could be a trunk in the attic that you put all clothes in. It could be the trunk of a car. There's there's a it could be the nose of an elephant. There's a variety of things that that could be. Think of the word green. Green has an enormous semantic range. A green is just a color. Green can refer to money. Green can refer to marijuana. Green can refer to that being, I think I said environmentally friendly. A putting surface green can refer to being like a newbie or an inexperienced in something green can mean that you're sick. Green can mean that you're jealous. There's a host of different meanings for these. Now imagine, imagine if if someone were if you were talking to someone and you said and you said to them, Yeah, I hit the ball up on the green and and then was able to to putt from there. And they took your meaning to think you you hit the ball up on to a bunch of marijuana. What do you do with all that marijuana or, you know, something like that. And you go, No, no, no, that's not what I meant. And they said, Well, it could mean that could mean that. And that's what I chose to make it mean. And you would you would talk to this person, you would think. I am not sure. I want to keep talking to you because you're doing absurd things with my speech. What I meant is what I meant. The sentence meant. What I meant it to mean. Not whatever you want to make of it. Just because you know you have a dictionary, you can look up different meanings for the words. Because words have meaning in context. Now, I just described things, though, that takes place all too often in Bible studies where a person will come to the text. And I've sat in these studies where people have done this, and at first I was kind of jealous where they would say something like, you know, I read this verse and then I looked at this verse up and I and I discovered there's a bunch of different possible meanings to that word. And then when I applied the different meanings to that word into this sentence, it's just like God was just blowing things up for me. It was just awesome. And my first thought there, I must confess, was like, Man, they did like real research that I didn't do that. I just read the verse. And then but then, like on second thought, it's like. I think you did something with the Bible that you would never do with anybody else. That's ridiculous, what you just did. Words have meanings, not meaning. But a word will have meaning. Singular in context. Now, the exception to this would be where an individual uses a word intentionally. With two different meanings that can be called like double entendre, I suppose, but more commonly that would be a pun. A pun. Now, how many how many of you like puns? So I get a variety of responses there. Yeah, I find people who think they're clever with pens to be very annoying. But even the people, even the people who speak in puns a lot very rarely do it right. It's clever on the occasion that they do. That just shows that normally 99% of the time, even with the annoying people who really like to use puns, 99% of the time they have one meaning in context for the words that they're using, and it's probably more like 99.99% of of the time. Okay. So the problem with finding the meaning of words, though, is that we're not as interested in what a word means in our translation. We want to know what the word meant as it was used in the original language. And so if the seems to me that if the Bible is what we profess it to be, we should make every effort to read it in the original language or use tools wisely to help us with these studies. Now etymology is the study of the original meaning of a word, and it is an important tool in deciphering unknown words and correcting wrong ideas. Something that I'll say now and I'll say it at the end, is that the word study? The word study is probably the most valuable Bible study tool that you have at your disposal. And oftentimes you can do a decent word study with the concordance that you have in the back of your Bible. The concordance that you have is probably the most valuable Bible study tool that you have at your disposal. So. You'll have to pick a Bible based on how heavy do I want it to be versus how how big a concordance do I want to have in it? So let's let's think about how etymology at times can help with this. The here's a few words in First Timothy chapter three, verse one. Paul is talking about qualifications for Elder and in some translations might say bishop or or overseer. And the Greek word there is episkopos. And episkopos is a compound word where there's a preposition which means upon or over and in scope as is is sight or seeing. So you put those two things together and you get overseer. And that's that's kind of helpful. Kind of helpful. It's not entirely helpful because when Paul uses the term overseer or episkopos, he has something very technical in mind, which is more than just someone who looks over. But but sometimes not always, but sometimes we can take the parts of a compound word, put them together, and it gives some insight into what the word means. I'll give you some exceptions to that here in a moment. Apostle is the Greek word apostolos, and it's basically to send out. So an apostle is a sent out one. Stelo to send apo from. So a sent out one and that's, that's what an apostle was and a sent out one. But of course again when apostle is used in the Bible, it's more than just someone, usually more than just someone who is sent out. There's a technical meaning with it, especially when Paul is talking about his apostolic authority. Now there's there's exceptions to that. We ought not to think that in every instance the meaning of a word is the sum of its parts. In English. We have compound words and sometimes the meaning is bound up in the sum of its parts. So a rubber band would be a band made from rubber. That's. That's helpful. But a pineapple is not an apple that's made from wood. Doesn't really work that way. Or a butterfly is not an insect made of dairy products. And so a Greek is no exception to that sometimes. Sometimes the meaning of the word. Yeah. It's helpful to look at the sum of the parts. Other times, not so much. Not so much. We should be careful to look at two words. Origin. How was it used and what did it mean when it was actually used? And we want to keep in mind and you're well aware of this in English, that words change in meaning over time. And one example of this that I'll give later is is the word martinus or witness. And I'll walk you through the development of of what martus has meant in Greek and then how we use it in English. That's where we get our word martyr. But it's usually translated witness in in our New Testaments. Words have multiple meanings. As I've said, there's a semantic range to them. The 500 most commonly used English words, for example, have an average of 23 meanings. So the 500 most common English words have a semantic range of 23 possible meanings. That should give us pause when we are careless, I suppose with with word meaning. There are books and tools at your disposal for synonyms and in the biblical languages there there are plenty of synonyms that the English word receive. Vines, which is a a lexicon of sorts for for laypeople, gives 19 verbs in Greek that translate the English to receive. Now, I'm going to give you a caution about Vines here in a moment, but at any rate, that it's a helpful illustration there. For example, there's the word lambino, which means to take without feeling. But but para lambano is used in Romans 14 one. It's an idea of embracing, perhaps without doubting the harmony in first Corinthians 214. It's also translated receive, and that means to take something eagerly. So there's there's lots of Greek words that can translate into this one English word. We need to be cognizant of that when we're doing word studies, because if we just go to the back of our Bible, the concordance, and we look up all the instances of an English word, we might not be looking up all the instances of that particular Greek word that was used by the biblical author. So we need to be careful with that. Another example here, the word no in English, there's there's a couple of different Greek words that translate into the English word. No order, for example, is usually used to reflect according to innate knowledge. It's more more cognitive, versus ginosko is is more experiential, more experiential. And now those are two different Greek words, but we usually translate it just with one English word to know. And another place where this comes into comes into application is is is the English word life translates a number of Greek words. And sometimes we see multiple Greek words for the translated life in the same passage. John Chapter ten versus ten and 11, for example, the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I claim that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Well, what's what's going on there? In there's there's a number of Greek words that translate into the one English word life, like zoe, for example. This is oftentimes depending on the context, but oftentimes life in God, it's it's qualitative, it's intensive. This would be, you know, like to have eternal life. But psukos or soul is oftentimes translated as life as well. And this is the word that we find in John 1011. So the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I claim that they may have life that is zoe this this qualitative life. But again, it's just translated life in our English translation. Have it abundantly. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his quality of life in God. No, He lays down his soul, but we translate it life. The same English words, two very different meanings. But there's two different Greek words there that so it can get a bit confusing at time. That's why word studies can be helpful. And another word, another biblical word that's translated life is is because we find that say in First John, chapter three, verse 17, all three of those Greek words are commonly translated by one English word life. So if you're doing a word study and you just go to the back of your Bible, look up the word life in your concordance, you might not be getting a study of one Greek word. You might be getting a study of a variety of Greek words with different meanings. And you're thinking you're just doing a word study on one word. So be careful. Be careful that here are some principles. And so I've already said I'll say it one more time. The word study is probably the most powerful Bible study tool that you have, but with great power comes great responsibility. You can make all sorts of mistakes. There's a great book by D.A. Carson called Exegetical Fallacies. I would highly recommend that. I'm going to walk you through a few of the fallacies that I learned from him as he wrote about them, not as he actually did them in his in his study. One of those is Beware of the root fallacy. Beware of the root fallacy. This is the assumption, again, that the true meaning of a word is bound up with its roots or maybe even the sum of its parts. I already explained to you that in English our compound words, sometimes the meaning is the sum of the parts. Other times it's not. Other languages are not any different in that regard. So that language communicates thoughts and ideas, not just words. And certainly anything that we can say in one language, we can say in another, but we can't always say it in the same way or in the same number of words. I mentioned vines earlier and I have it with with all due respect, I think when people say I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, what they really mean is I have a vines and I'm not afraid to use it because unless you know Greek, I'm not sure that you should be using a vines because you can make all sorts of mistakes, including many of the different fallacies that we're going to talk about here. Here is an example of that. The the Greek word for love. What's the Greek word for love that pretty much every Christian knows. It's a gap. A gap. And what does a gap mean? What do we know that a gap means something like unconditional love or godly love, self-sacrificing love, something like that. Right. Well, what happens when we get to the second Timothy chapter four verse ten, where we read for Demas in love with this present world has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. If we just take a technical meaning, disregard context and plug that meaning into the sentence, we would think. For Demas, who has a godly, self-sacrificing, unconditional love for the world, has deserted me and gone to Flint. And we might think that Demas had done something really good, but I don't think that's what Paul means here. I think it means that Demas loves the world and so chose chose the world and its ungodly system over and against ministry with Paul. And Paul was heartbroken over that. But the word that's used there, agape. Even worse, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Second. Second. Samuel 13. That's creepy story of Amnon and Tamar where Amnon incestuous rapes Tamar. The Septuagint uses both phileo and agapao to translate the words for love. The Septuagint translators use the word agape, the verb form agapao to describe the love that Amnon had for Tamar. Would anyone suggest that Amnon's love for Tamar was godly, unconditional, self-sacrificing? Be very careful about assigning a technical meaning and having that override the context. The best indicator of what words mean is the context, not a dictionary definition. Dictionary definitions will help you in terms of range of possible meanings, but be very careful. And again, it would be ridiculous to to read this passage for Demas in love with the present world or read about Amnon loving Tamar and then look up the word in the dictionary and say, Wow, this word means unconditional love or godly love, and just plug that in without any regard to the context. The context moves us towards the best meaning of the word. Another another caution. Etymology can give insight when the word is rare and not often used. Sometimes the etymology will line up with the meaning and it can provide help. But. But not always. Not always. You cannot assume that the meaning of the word is just tied up in its roots or the sum of its parts. Again, what's the best indicator of what a word means? Context. Context. Remember, three most important things in context. Look are the three most important things in biblical interpretation. Context. Context. Context. Question. What's etymology? Etymology is is is the study of the origin of a word, and it's its original meaning. And then oftentimes looking at the sum of the parts and how they contribute to the meaning. Yeah. Good. Avoid this. I got this from David Carson to avoid reverse etymology. And this is so true. And Christians do this all the time. This is where we take a word that has changed over the years in English. And we read that meaning back into the Greek. And here's what it looks like. Again, you have a Vines. You're not afraid to use it. You're reading Romans chapter one, verse 16. I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is a power of God. And you look up power and you discover that it is the Greek word. Do not miss, which when we transliterated into English, we we changed the upsilon or the u sound into a y and it's d y in a m i s and that looks like the word dynamite. Dynamite. And that's where we get our dynamite from that Greek word. And so, wow, I look this word up in the Greek, and it's dunamis, the dynamite of God. It blows things up. Of course, that's not what Romans 1:16 is saying at all. The gospel doesn't blow things up. The gospel is the power of God to reconcile people to God or Second Corinthians 9:47. God loves a cheerful giver. Oh, I looked up the word cheerful, and it's the Greek word hilasmos. That's where we get our English word hilarious. God wants me laughing all the way to the offering box. Probably not. Probably not. God does not want God does not want a hilarious giver. God wants a cheerful intentional giver. So avoid reverse etymology. Don't. Don't look a word up in Greek. See how we use it in English and assume that's what it meant in Greek. Your Bible translators do a better job of taking you from Greek to English than going from. Then we might, by going from Greek to to an and an English word that has that Greek root. Trust your Bible translators that point. They usually do pretty good work. By usually I mean they always do really good work. Be aware of how words change their meaning with time. I mentioned this earlier. I said I would give you the example of martus. Martus is a word that commonly means a witness. But but in in the Greco-Roman world, this Greek word changed in meaning over time as it was used for. At first it meant one who gives witness and evidence in a court. So amateurs would give thought would give testimony in a legal proceeding of sorts. Then it meant one who gave just a solemn affirmation. But it didn't have to be in court. It just you're making a vow. You're you're you're solemnly affirming something. Well, then by the time you get to the second century, it became a word that meant one who witnesses even under threat of death. And so there's going to be some Christian context, is there, as you're as you're witnessing to Jesus, under threat of death. Then by the time we get into the third and fourth centuries more, the patristic usage of it, you'll find that a martyr who's in Greek was someone who witnessed or testified, even under acceptance of death. Oftentimes their death was their witness. Then later on it meant someone who died for a belief, regardless of belief. So it did. I mean, they might have been wrong, but they were still a martinus a witness in you. And eventually, especially in the English, as we use the word martyr, it's just someone who feels sorry for himself. What? What did the word mean at the time that the Bible was written, though? More of that. Someone who gives solemn affirmation of something outside of of court. When Jesus in Acts one eight said, You will be my witnesses. The word he used as martyrs. Yes. That's where we get our English word martyr. But he's not saying, you will be my martyrs. He's saying you will be my witnesses. There's a reason why the biblical translators in English use the word witness and not martyr. Because it didn't mean necessarily martyr. You might end up certainly dying for your testimony. But what Jesus was interested in was not primarily what happened to you after your testimony. He was interested in your testimony. Now, of course, Jesus cares about what happens after your testimony, too. But in that command, go to Jerusalem. You about you will be my witnesses when the Holy Spirit comes. He is talking about their testimony. So we need to understand what a word meant meant at that time. And there are lots of Bible study tools that that are helpful there for that. Avoid verbal parallelomania. This is another one I got from Carson. It's a kind of mania that seeks parallels to every single thing. If I can find a parallel, that means what I want and you can basically do anything with it. This would be like poor use of cross references where you find a verse in one passage and then you look up in your concordance where that same word is used somewhere else. And then you, you, you take the meaning of that other verse and you plug it into this present verse that you're using that again, let the Bible speak. Let the biblical authors mean what they say. And the best clue to what a word means in a sentence is the context of the sentence itself. Be careful with cross-references. They're very, very useful. But again, with great power comes great responsibility. Use them wisely and use them intuitively. I don't do with the Bible something that you would never do with your friend. Sometimes the appeals to parallels can be useful, though they provide a broader picture of how a word was was often used. Did it it a going to a parallel passage or a a another verse for that same word is used. It can be insightful at at times. Be careful about linking language with mentality. I oftentimes I hear things like the Hebrew mind was just incapable of distinguishing between first and second causes. Or or between primary and secondary causes. So, for example, who who was responsible for the for the suffering that that job underwent? Was it. Was it God? Or was it Satan? And I've heard people say, well, the Hebrew mind was just incapable of distinguishing between primary and secondary causes. Like, well, that's kind of culturally snobbish. I think they weren't morons. I think they could distinguish between those things. Now, it's true that some languages have words for concepts that other languages do not. That's certainly the case. Language does shape the way we think for sure. But. But be careful about making assumptions there and then recognize that different authors will use words differently. And here's where finding, you know, using your concordance might get you into trouble. The word righteousness, for example, the Greek word dikaiosune. For Paul, oftentimes that Greek word meant justification. You have to look at the context because Paul doesn't always use it that way in Matthew. Most of the time when he uses it, it doesn't necessarily mean justification. It probably means something like righteousness. And so just be recognize that different authors might use words differently. The same words learn to recognize the diversity of metaphors as well. Is, is there a difference between a literal meaning and a metaphorical meaning? Yes, of course there is. And we will discuss how to interpret figures of speech more later. But Jesus was fond of using metaphors. He did often. He said, I am the door. I think that would be ridiculous to take that literally. Jesus is said to be the Lion of Judah. Satan is also described as a lion, a prowling lion. Well, I suspect when Jesus is the Lion of Judah, that's a little bit different than Satan being a prowling lion. And so we need to recognize that even this, even the same words used metaphorically can have very different meanings. So again, be very careful about assigning a technical meaning to any one word and just plugging that in to your study. I've given you a lot of warnings about about how to use word studies. The reason I'm giving you warnings is, again, I'll repeat it. The word study is a very valuable, very valuable Bible study tool. But with great power comes great responsibility, just as it can be a powerful tool, it can be used in very negative ways. And so be very careful about that. So, so do our studies. Use your use your concordance use cross-references. Look at how different biblical authors use the same words. Oftentimes there's insight, but but use them sensibly. And and I don't have technical guidance to give you other than just Jesus. Jesus's golden rule don't do to the biblical authors what you would not want done to yourself.