Lecture 29: Hermeneutics for Epistles (Part 1) | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 29: Hermeneutics for Epistles (Part 1)

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Hermeneutics for Epistles (Part 1)


The setting of the Pauline letters and the other letters of the New Testament is one in which, finely worded arguments are to be found.  And above all in this kind of genre, we need to know how to progress from the norms of language to the norms of the utterance.

Now with regards to the norms of language, we have a pretty good idea of what they are already. We use the dictionary of some sort and when we are working in the Old Testament, if we are working in the Hebrew, there are Hebrew lexicons that are available for us which would tell you the possibilities of what a word may mean.

Now we always want to know the specific meaning of the word but that is not the job of the dictionary. The job of a dictionary is to give us the range of the possible meanings, the norms of language, not the norms of the utterance.

And of course we have in the New Testament, Greek lexicons and then for the various English translations if that is what we are using for the NIV, we have a modern day American dictionary in English for English – Revised English Bible – it might be good to have a British dictionary.  And then of course if you have the King James Version that you are using, you need a dictionary that deals with the English language in the 17th century.

Now – once we know what the norms of the possibilities are – the norms of language – then we want to narrow the possibilities to know what the specific norms of the utterance is for a particular word.  And we are going to talk about going to understand the specific meaning of a word, see how those words are used in statements, those statements used in arguments and so forth.

So we want to now, having learned the possibilities of a term, we want to go to the specific meaning of a term and here is where a concordance is most helpful.  Now you can’t look up every word in the Bible and do a large study on it.  When I was a seminary student, I remember having an assignment of a word study. I really didn’t understand what I was doing then and now I realize why.  No one knew what they were doing then.

Word studies don’t make a lot of sense to me simply because words don’t mean thoughts.  They are simply individual words. And words don’t always have the same definition. The very fact that in a dictionary, you have a list of possibilities indicates that a word study tells you this is the list of possibilities. 

And we should never think that any term really in the Bible is a technical term, that it is always used exactly the same way everywhere it is found in the Bible.  The only time you might start doing something like that is if you get a name of some sort, but even then you had people who had the same name.

You say “Well. I will look up Jesus in the New Testament.” Are you sure it is not Joshua that is being referred to in the Old Testament.  See even a name can have a variety of meanings.  So now when we get to looking at “Well I really want to know what this word means, because it is crucial.”  Well, what words do you choose?

I have given up spending a lot of time looking up the word, the in the Bible and in dictionaries.  And house doesn’t excite me either.  So how do you know which words are the important ones that you want to look up.?

Well for one – frequency.  If in a passage a term occurs time and time again, then you have to know what that word means. For instance in the 4th chapter in the book of Romans, the verb, logidzomai – to reckon, is found 11 times.  You haven’t seen it in the first 3 chapters. All of a sudden now in chapter 4, the word logidzomai, to reckon occurs, some 11 times.  Now, that is an important word.

I think you would have to say, if I wanted to understand what Paul is saying in Romans 4, I have to know what this word, logidzomai means, because of the frequency in which it is found.  Another issue is… sometimes a word plays a very important part in the sentence. “By grace you were saved through faith.”  But you have to know what grace means.  It is crucial.  Everything in the rest of the sentence is dependent on by grace.  And so here is a word that you really need to know in the sentence to make sense out of it.

Sometimes the author emphasizes a particular word or argument, and therefore if it is crucial, these are the kind of terms that we have to really wrestle with and say, “I really need to know specifically what this word means.”

An author sometimes can define the exact meaning of the term, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, when Paul says, “For I delivered to you the Gospel which you believed, in which you were saved.” Well. It is kind of important to know what the Gospel is.  Then he finds that “for I delivered to you as of first importance how Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He rose on the 3rd day” and so and he defines what that word means.

So sometimes you have definitions given as to a particular word.  Now going from the norms of language to the norms of an utterance. Sometimes people are enamored  with what we call etymology. Or the root meaning.

We are trying to find out what the root meaning is … many many sermons in which you hear somebody say, “Now the root meaning of this term is…” Very interesting. This root meaning is being described to you.  But let me ask you a question.

Today did you at anytime - today when you spoke, take into consideration what the root meaning of the word is you spoke?  No.  You didn’t take into consideration.  You are not interested in what the root meaning of the word is, you are interested in what people understand the word to mean today.  There is only one time I think in life that you may take seriously a root meaning. That is when you are going to have children and you are going to give them a name. And you want to make sure that the word you use for your daughter doesn’t mean dirty, rotten infidel or something like that, right? So you look up root meanings to see what they are. And in names, many times we look up the root meanings of terms. Like in the Bible, many characters are named and the root meaning of that term is very important as to understanding how that name is going to fit and describe what is going on.

But generally, root meanings are irrelevant for us. We are not interested in them.  I get some examples in the text for instance like the word, let, l-e-t, well, the root meaning for that comes from the Latin, “to hinder, to obstruct”.  I don’t think any of you ever used the word let, last year, meaning to hinder or to obstruct.  That’s the root meaning of the term.  But that’s not the way you use it because the way people understand that word today means to permit, so the root meaning is quite irrelevant. 

The word nice, meaning pleasant for us comes from the Latin neccius meaning ignorant.  I don’t think anyone here has used the word nice recently to describe someone as being ignorant.  You have words that change over a period of time and the etymology of the word is essentially something like this.  It talks about the meaning from the beginning to the history of how the term has been used.  That’s etymology. 

And that kind of an understanding is what we call a diachronic – a diachronic understanding of the word – across a long period of time.  But the fact is, we are at this point in history and we want to know what the word means at this point and that would be a synchronic understanding of the word.

How is the term being used at this time?

That is all we are interested in.

~ What it mean back here – that is interesting but it is not relevant.  We are not interested in here. We are not interested in how it is used thereafter.  When we try to understand the text, we look at the word and say “What were the norms of language at that time for this word?”

Words change drastically. King James Version could be very free and translate James 1 about a man coming into the congregation in gay clothing. You can’t do that today because what gay meant back here in 1611 is not what it means here in 2002.

So what we have to do in modern day translations is use a different kind of terminology.  The idea of a person being a square guy in my Dad’s understanding was that he was a really fine person you could count on, a man of character.  Now that would be a complement back then.  Not a compliment today. So… we are not interested in a diachronic understanding of what the various possibilities of words. We are interested in when that word was written or spoken, what did it mean?  What were the norms of language back at that time?

Now you say “Well then, why do we have all this concern about etymologies and things of that nature? Why do people for instance emphasize the etymology of words? Especially in the Old Testament. Why do we read so much in Old Testament studies about etymologies and so forth – the root meaning of a word?”

The answer is we are desperate. We haven’t the faintest idea of what it means.  We have nothing to go on.  And sometimes if you have no idea of what a word means, the only thing you could do is somehow say, “Well what would the root meaning of a word like this be?” 

For example, in the Lord’s prayer in Matthew, we have the petition, “Give us this day, our epiousion bread.” Epiousios artos. Daily bread – what does the word epiousios mean? Well that is simple. We will look it up and see how its used in other references and we find that in the first century and shortly thereafter, there are several other times when that word is used and found.  And if we go to the Gospel of Luke, for instance we find it there. And it is found in the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our epiousios artos.  Our daily bread.

And there is one other reference sometime written around 75 to 125 AD and it is in the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. And its is found in the Lord’s Prayer.  Give us this day our epiousios artos. Those are the three times we find it.  Now somebody said they found it somewhere else [hard to hear???] But they can find it anymore and so forth and so on, but that’s not very helpful.

What do we have to do on?

Well there are some other things we could do.  You might say, maybe somebody back then who translated the Greek Latin or into Coptic or something, maybe they knew what it meant. And we look at how translations deal with it. And what we have then is the root word and when you put the parts of the root together, what can that mean? But notice how desperate we are? And the root meaning is a grabbing in the dark.

And as much as the New Testament has problems this way, the Old Testament has even more. We have words that we don’t even know exactly what they mean. There is no real close parallel with other ancient Near Eastern languages and we are desperate so we go to root meaning, but whenever you get to root meaning, you are stabbing out in the dark.  Root meanings are not that valuable. It is our last gasp at trying to understand the meaning of a word.

Alright let me stop there and see if you… before we go and leave etymology and go how to narrow down from the norms of language to the norms of an utterance.  Any comments and question about etymology and so forth?

Student: I have a question.  It is a practical question [hard to hear ???] TNIV debate got down there and of course at that time a lot of the King James [hard to hear…???... ] because of the fact that language changes.

Dr. Stein:  Well I think that what you could do … the way I would approach it would be to deal with Old Testament and New Testament passages in which the meaning is very, very clearly something different. For instance, I might talk about Romans 1:13, where Paul says … You know one of the problems I had as a young Christian, was that when I read Romans for the first time, Paul said to the Romans, “I would have come to see you sooner, but I was let hither to”

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why if he was he let, why he couldn’t go.  ??? I would have come, but I was let.  Well if he were let go.  And then I would say, but you see the problem that I had was that, this word was being used, back in the sense that it had in 1611 and we don’t use the word that way anymore.  Back then it meant to hinder. 

Use an example of the Latin [ hard to hear ???] words don’t always have the same meaning. I wouldn’t push it too far.  And what we have to do is say, what it meant back then, how would we translate that today. And don’t push it that far. And give some other examples and the like and then as time goes on you might be able to talk to people and say, “Well. You have to realize that King James is a wonderful translation but it was written to people who understood English back in 1611.”  Have any of you ever read Shakespeare? Troubles you had […hard to hear ???]

Yeah. Well. Ok. See language has changed since… in almost 500 years now. Shakespeare or 400 in King James and therefore you have to realize that you need to always change words and give some examples like, “Do you remember when the word, square meant something positive?” “Remember when the word queer had something to do with a strange kind of person. It had nothing to do with a person’s sexual behavior in any way?” You see words change.

Last thing we want to do is to be using words in a way, back then which was perfectly legitimate but not today.  And see how that would work I would have think.  Remember our job it not to show how brilliant we are, but to help lay people to understand the Bible more.  To have them know we love them and want to help them in that regard. We are shepherds, not herders. Well.

Let’s go on. How do we go then to narrow the possibilities from the norms of language to the norms of utterance?  Well. I am going to go the long way around and then I will tell you after we have done this which theoretically makes more sense to do it this way, that we will reverse the order because of the shortage of time in doing these things.

For instance one of the things that caught my interest very early in my teaching career, was an article I read about the drinking of wine in Biblical times.  And what surprised me so much was that the word wine, oinos in the New Testament is the same word that was used in classical Greek, and my understanding of the word was quite clearly different than the understanding of the people in Greek times and in New Testament times, for instance, wine as I know it and as we know it in America today is, a beverage that contains about 11 to 12% alcohol. It is fermented and at a certain stage after it reaches about 11% alcohol, the alcohol content is such that it can’t … the yeast dies off and it cannot go any stronger.

But that also allows the fruit of the grape to remain for a long period of time and not get rotten.  So how do you preserve grapes, when you have a big grape harvest? Well. You can sit down and eat a lot of grapes, but there comes a time, you just can’t eat anymore.  But if you make it into a beverage, well ok, grape juice. Well without refrigeration it doesn’t stay very long, even with refrigeration it doesn’t stay very long.

But, the fruit of the vine that would be made into wine would preserve for a long period of time. But they referred to the final product of that wine. They always referred to wine as that product mixed.

I remember once going into the archaeological museum in the city of Athens and when we were there, we saw these big bowls, which were called kraters.  And, what fascinated me was that these were mixing bowls and wine would be brought from where it was stored in what were called amphori – these kind of big jugs that had kind of a pointed bottom, and then they would mix water with it so they could drink it.

And there was discussion as to what is the ratio that you usually use when you mix this water and what we would call wine.  I remember a man by the name of Athenais wrote a book called The Learned Banquet.  He was the Martha Stewart of the day and tell you how to give a good banquet. 

And he quotes for instance from Aristophanes “Here drink this also, mingle 3 and 2, Demas.  But it is sweet and bears the 3 parts well.”  The poet Unius around the 5th Century B.C. writes, “The best measure of wine is neither much nor very little, for tis the cause of either grief or madness. It pleases the wine to be the fourth mixed with three nyms.”  In other words, one part wine and three parts water.  So you have a mixture of water and wine.

There are other ratios mentioned.  Hesiod  3:1, Alexius  4:1, Diocles  2:1, Eon 3:1, Nicochorus 5:2, Anaquion 2:1.  Sometimes the ratio goes down to 1 part water and 1 part wine.  And yet that mixture is specifically referred to as strong drink. Not regular wine but strong drink.

And drinking wine unmixed was looked down on as a Scythian or barbarian custom.  Athenias quotes another man, Nessius of Athens, “The gods has revealed wine to mortals to be the greatest blessings for those who use it aright, but for those who use without measure, the reverse.  For it gives food to them that taketh and strength and mind and body.  As medicine it is most beneficial.  It can be mixed with liquid and drugs and brings aid to the wounded.  In daily intercourse to those who mix it, then  drink it moderately, it gives good cheer.  But if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence.  Mix it half and half and you get madness. Unmixed, bodily collapse.  So what you have here is an understanding of wine as being a mixture of water and wine.”

Plutarch: “We call a mixture wine although the larger of its component parts is water.” 

In the Old Testament there is a distinction between wine and strong drink. And the Jewish encyclopedia suggests that strong drink is unmixed wine.  In the Lord’s Supper we have Jesus passing a cup which is called wine and this is during the celebration of the Passover.  Now in what we call the Talmud, there are various books or tractates dealing with various subjects.  One like Sanhedrin talking about the rules of the Sanhedrin, but there is also a tractate called the Pessahim, which deals with the Passover celebration and it talks about the mixing of water and wine and the normal mixture is said to be two parts water to one part wine. 

So that if this is the normal drink of “wine” in the Passover, that was probably the kind of drink that Jesus and His disciples shared.

The book of 2 Maccabees, “to drink wine alone or again to drink water alone is looked down upon. Drinking wine mixed with water makes it both sweet and delicious.”

Then you go to the early Church Fathers and they refer to the Lords Supper and how the drinking of wine in the Lord’s Supper involves this mixture. 

Justin Martyr, “Bread is brought and wine and water.”

Hippolytus says “We bless first the bread into the presentation of the flesh of Christ and the cup mixed with wine for the antitype of the blood which was shed for all those who believe in Him.”  So you have a number of references.

Now from this large understanding of Greek literature, where wine is always referred to as a mixture, it is debated as to the exact percentage of the mixture, but it is always a mixture. It seems quite clear that unless otherwise designated, the term oinos would have been understood by the Romans, by the Galatians, by the Ephesians and those who read the letters of the New Testament as a mixture of water and wine.

In fact, in Biblical times if you wanted to refer to our wine, you had to describe it as unmixed wine, because wine by itself was assumed to be mixed.  We have an example of that in the book of Revelation, where in Revelation 14:10, the writer speaks of “the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of His anger.” In other words, this wrath of God that is coming at the end time is not the normal kind of wrath. It is unmixed wrath.  It is not diluted. It is the unmixed wine of God’s wrath.

So what we then have is by looking through all the Greek literature, we come to some understanding that wine was a mixture of water and wine.

Student: Just out of curiosity what proof of ??? alcohol is safe ??? 

Dr. Stein: When I wrote this article by the way, it was interesting, I got criticism from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and I got criticism from the Liberated Evangelical.  The one thought I was liberal. The other said I was too conservative.  And I thought, that must be right then.  If everybody from both sides hated me, I must be somewhere in the middle.

What I am trying to say is … not about anything with regard to implications of this yet, maybe we can deal with it shortly.  But what I want us to do, is when we look at this word, wine in the New Testament, it is a mistake to simply assume that what we call wine and what they call wine is the same this.

And here we have a mixture. A mixture which by the way could be diluted 2:1, sometimes 3:1.  I made a comment at the end of the article that, if you were drinking in a situation like that, long before your mind was affected by this beverage, your kidneys would have been. 

There is a lot more water here and the result is that if somebody really wanted to become intoxicated this way, it would be so apparent that something is wrong here.  It is one thing to drink three glasses of wine, it is another to drink 12. It becomes part of a meal mentality, not a bar and how do we get out of our minds here. It is a food and it is understood as a food.

A lot of people who come from Europe, drinking alcohol is part of a meal, or drinking a glass of beer. A lot of … when they come to America, don’t teach their children anymore to do that, because in Europe a lot of people drink at a meal to “enjoy” the wine.

Americans, especially younger Americans drink to get drunk. It is supposed to be a great experience. I remember when I was in college, a guy was coming in at midnight, throwing up, drunk as can be, saying, “I will never do this again.” What is the enjoyment in that? Fun? Is there something about vomiting that brings out a real delightful experience, so in America I would never want to encourage my children to drink. It is just such a bad context in America, I think.

And none of my children do drink and I am very happy about that.  I recommend total abstinence as a lifestyle. I do it without any embarrassment. I don’t try to say, that this is the only way Christians can live.  But I bet, when we appear before God’s day of judgment, there will probably be a few more people who have chosen to drink, who will repent of that lifestyle, than those who said, “I never did drink, and I am really repentant over that.” Think for a minute. How many people are going to feel sorry for that.

Well anyhow. Now, when we taught our children, we taught by way of example. We never said, you will burn in hell if you drink a glass of beer.” We never said that.

And one time we were really in a very embarrassing situation.  My wife and I went to my father’s hometown in Germany and his niece and her husband entertained us.  Now Germany was in really terrible condition after World War II and my father and mother sent 20 pound food parcels to them regularly, with food, clothing, medicines - all sorts of things.  And when I came in 1975, they remembered that.  They honored the son and his wife because they wanted to honor my father.  And they treated me royally, because I was Willy Stein’s son. They always remembered what Willy Stein had done.

So I went to a distant cousin, Hansen Gertrude’s home, and we had this glorious meal, and afterwards, Hans comes and brings a bottle of wine in.  I say, “Oh. It’s the wrong year.” And he goes back and brings a different bottle of wine.  And he said, “Uh. Bob and Joan, this is the best bottle of wine we have in Germany since World War II. I saved this bottle, knowing that you were coming.”  Now this is all in German. And my German is not that great. I can get along, but not great.  And my children are looking, with eyes about ready to pop out.

And so he poured Joan and Me a glass of wine and we drank it.  And he said, “Wie schmeckt es?”, “How does it taste?” I said “Hans. It’s the best wine I have ever had.” It really was. It was the only glass of wine I ever drunk.

So. He was happy by it. And that night I went to bed and just before we did Julie who was probably about 11 at the time, said, “Mom and Dad. You drank wine tonight.”  And I said, “That. That’s is right. We thought it would be the kindest thing for us to do for Hansen Gertrude. They wanted to do something very special for us, and I don’t think they would have understood my broken German that we don’t drink wine and so forth. So we just, Mom and I just thought we would drink it and not say anything.”  And she looked at me and she said, “Ok.” That was it. That satisfied her.  And I think that kind of an understanding approach carried over. And now they are teaching their children to abstain from alcoholic beverages.

I think it’s a wise policy. I recommend it to you.  I make no embarrassment of being a teetotaler in that regard.

But in the text, when the text talks about wine, the one thing we should realize is that it does not refer to our wine. It refers to a mixture of water and wine. And there may be something to the fact, that the ancient Greeks, not the believing community, but the ancient Greeks who drank wine all the time in their meals, said that drinking half water and half wine could bring absolute bodily collapse.

And to drink wine straight is a barbarian custom. Now just think about the practices we have. We don’t merely drink wine straight, we distill it, so instead of being 11, 12 % alcohol, now you have 50% alcohol. Well would you think the Platos and the Aristophanes of the ancient world would think of that practice?  So it is not just a religious matter, but it is a common sense approach they had back then.

Ok. We want to go on to some other words and some other approaches. Let me just stop. Comments? Questions? In that regard?

Student: ???

Dr. Stein: Excuse me. The article can be found in revised form in Difficult Passages in the New Testament. It also found in 1975 in Christianity Today.

Student: When you spoke of it, it sounded like almost impossible to get drunk…

Dr. Stein: No. No no no. It is certainly not. 

Student: How do you bring in Ephesians 5:18? [hard to hear???]

Dr. Stein: When it says “Be not drunk with wine”, it is evident that you can get drunk. On the other hand, he doesn’t forbid it. He forbids drunkenness. And if you say that its grape juice, how much grape juice do you have to drink to get drunk? It must be something alcoholic about it. So I think, my understanding is that it is a diluted wine that surely you can get drunk on, and that is forbidden.

But let me ask a question. Do you think that was a problem in the Early church?  We shouldn’t so romanticize the early church that there is this impossible to ever be like them group out there. That were so noble, never sinned, all died as martyrs, all were personal evangelist and lead 432 people a day to Christ and so forth.

These were human beings who had frailties and even though someone might drunk at Communion and even though some of them didn’t get along with one another and had arguments with each other, they are still God’s people and God’s love for them despite their sin is the same love He has for us.

So we are not perfect. We are on the way to perfection. It is a long way to go.  We are going to fall but probably more important than ever thinking we are not going to fall is to remember to get up again and continue on our pilgrimage and so forth.

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