Course: Bible Study Methods
Lecture: Word Studies
Alright, in this session we are going to zero in on one of our ten steps of exegesis which was analyzing key terms and themes. We focus on this topic both because it can provide helpful insight into God’s word, but also because it has been an area of particular abuse in the past and we want to caution against the misuse of doing word studies. This topic is under step seven; analyze key terms and themes of our ten steps of exegesis. The topic itself we call Lexical Semantics. Lexical refers to words, semantics refers to meaning, so this topic is about words and their meaning.
Biblical Authority and the Original Text
I would like to start with a caution related to biblical authority and the original text of scripture. Pastors sometimes use their knowledge of Hebrew and Greek as a way of asserting their authority and there is a danger of this; I would encourage you not to use the power of “the Greek says” or the power of “the Hebrew says” to gain authority over your congregation. Authority lies in the meaning of the text not in mysteries of Greek or Hebrew words.
I would encourage pastors to only refer to the original Greek or Hebrew when it explains or provides insights that cannot be seen clearly or cannot be recognized from a translation. So only when it provides insights that cannot be recognized from reading the English translation. So my overall point is be cautious in using the original languages.
Basic Principles for Biblical Word Studies
A. Words generally have a semantic range, not one all-encompassing “meaning”
When using them, then, let’s talk about some basic principles for word studies, some basic principles of lexical semantics. Here is our first principle. Words generally have a semantic range, not one all-encompassing meaning. Let’s take the English word “field,” what does the English word “field” mean? Well it does not have a literal meaning; it has a range of possible meanings.
Field could mean a cultivated piece of land. Field could refer to a background area as in a flag with a field of blue. It could refer to a topic or subject of academic interest like the field of mathematics. It could be an area where a sport takes place, like the players took to the field. So words do not generally have a literal meaning or an all-encompassing meaning, they have what we call a semantic range.
And it is the same with Greek or Hebrew words, that is words that are in the Bible. Take the word charis, for example. A beginning Greek student might say, “Charis, oh that word means “grace” as in Ephesians 2:9, for it is by grace you have been saved through faith.” But, in fact, the word charis can mean much more than grace, it can mean favor, for example. “Do not be afraid Mary, you have found favor with God” in Luke 1:30. It can mean not undeserved favor sometimes we think of grace but credit earned. Luke 6:32 says, “If you love those who love you what charis, what credit, is that to you?” It can mean good will earned. Acts 7:10, “He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the good will of Pharaoh King of Egypt.” It can mean thanksgiving. Luke 17:9, “Would he thank, or give grace, to the servant because he did what he was told.” So the word has a semantic range, not one all-encompassing meaning.
B. Context determines which particular “referent” or “sense” within this semantic range the author intended.
So what determines which meaning is correct? The answer, of course, is a word we have used a lot in this class, this course, and that word is context; context determines which sense is intended. I know that the word charis means undeserved favor or grace in Ephesians 2:8-9, because it says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of ourselves,” it is nothing you have done. I know that it means credit earned or good will in Luke 6:32, because of the context “what credit is that to you,” or “what have you earned” in that case. So it is the context, the words around it, the literary context that determines which sense, which meaning within the semantic range that the author intended.
C. Words normally have only one “sense” in any particular literary context.
So two principles, words generally have a semantic range, not one all-encompassing meaning. Secondly, context determines which sense the author intended and third words normally have only one sense in any particular context. If I say, “he planted corn in his field,” I mean by “field” a cultivated piece of land. If I say, “he is an expert in the field of mathematics,” then I mean a field of study. I do not mean both meanings when I say the word, I only mean one. So our third point again, words normally have only one sense in any particular context.
D. The meaning of words often changes over time.
A fourth principle, the meaning of words often changes over time. In English this becomes very obvious when we read the King James Version, first published in 1611. Sometimes we read a word whose meaning has significantly changed. For example, James 5:11 in the King James Version says, “The Lord is very pitiful.” Well, “pitiful” in contemporary English means weak. Pitiful means to be pitied, but in fact when the King James Version was translated pitiful meant full of pity or compassionate, so modern translations say the Lord is compassionate in James 5:11.
James 2:3 in the King James Version says, “You have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing.” Now in contemporary English the word “gay” has come to mean homosexual, but that it not what it meant in the King James Version, it meant fancy or expensive in that context. And so our fourth principle, once again, is the meaning of words changes over time and we see that very clearly throughout the King James Version as the Elizabethan English meaning of words is very different than the contemporary English meaning of words.
E. Etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning.
Here is a fifth principle of lexical semantics and that fifth principle is that etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning. Now etymology refers to a word’s component parts or to its history, its historical derivation. Let me explain to you what those mean. Etymology refers to component parts.
Take the word “pineapple.” Well that word has two parts, pine and apple, yet a pineapple is neither a pine tree, nor it is a kind of apple. So our point again is etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning. The component parts of pine and apple do not tell us what the word means.
Take the word “understand.” Understand does not mean to stand under, understand means in English to comprehend. Or take the word undertake, undertake does not mean to take under, it means to begin a task or an undertaker is someone who prepares bodies for burial. So we can see that the component parts of a word do not determine its meaning.
In American football we have the word quarterback. Quarterback is the leader on the offensive side in a football team who receives the snap and throws the passes and makes the handoffs, but we do not know what that word means based on its component parts quarter and back. So etymology can refer to component parts.
Etymology can also refer to historical derivation, where a word actually comes from or what its meaning originally was. Take the English word “Monday.” Where does the word Monday come from? Well Monday originally referred to the moon day, the day of the moon, the day dedicated or named after the moon, yet few English readers even know that, we would never say that Monday is moon day, we would say Monday is a day of the week, the second day of the week, the first day of the work week.
Sunday originally referred to the day of the sun, but when we mention Sunday we mean the first day of the week, the day we worship in church. We do not mean the day we worship the sun. So historical derivation of the word has nothing to do, or can have nothing to do with its meaning.
Here is another example, take the word sophomore. The word sophomore refers to a student in their second year of high school or their second year of college. A second-year student is a sophomore. Well, the word sophomore comes from two Greek words, sophos and moros and it means a wise fool. A sophomore is a wise fool because a freshman knows nothing and recognizes they know nothing. A sophomore thinks they know everything, but in fact they are just a wise fool. That is where the word originally came from, but the word does not mean that in contemporary English. The meaning of a word is not derived from its historical origin.
Here is one final example, take the months of the year, this is very interesting. The months of year in English – September, October, November, December, what does September mean? Well sept means seven and so we would expect September to be the seventh month, but it is the ninth month. October, oct means eight, we would expect October to the eighth month, but in fact it is the tenth month. November, nov means nine, November is the eleventh month. December, dec means ten, December is the twelfth month. So you can see the names of the months are misnamed with reference to which month they actually are.
Now how did that happen? It happened historically because the Romans moved from a ten-month calendar to a twelve-month calendar. They added two months, July and August, named for Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus and therefore all the months moved down one, but etymology had nothing to do with the meaning of those months because they kept the names – September, seventh month, even though they were referring to the ninth month. So our point, once again, is etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning. That will become very significant when we talk about avoiding word study fallacies.
F. Two Steps for Word Studies
Here is our conclusion to this initial section and that is that the meaning of a word is determined by two things, its contemporary semantic range, that is, what the word can mean. How would you determine a contemporary semantic range? Of a word in English you would look it up in a dictionary, that is how you would find out. You would look it up in a dictionary, because dictionaries tell us basically what a word can mean.
Its contemporary semantic range and secondly a meaning of a word is determined by the literary context in which it is used. What the context determines that it does mean in this particular context. So there are two basic steps to doing a word study. The first is to determine what the word can mean by looking it up in a dictionary or by looking it up in a lexicon. A lexicon is another word for a dictionary referring to the use of the biblical languages in English, a Greek lexicon, a Hebrew lexicon, and then examining the context. The second step is to examine the context to determine which of its possible senses the word means.
Avoiding Word Study Fallacies
Alright, finally I want to talk about avoiding some word study fallacies, some common mistakes that are made when studying Greek and Hebrew words. And I will just use some examples from the Greek here and identify the kind of fallacy.
A. The “root meaning” fallacy
The first fallacy is known as a root meaning fallacy. A root meaning fallacy is the fallacy that every word in Greek has a single core meaning and we can apply that meaning to every passage.
One of the errors that is sometimes made is claiming that there are three distinct words for love in Greek and they each have a very distinct meaning. You may have heard this before. It is sometimes said that agape means God’s kind of unselfish love, self-sacrificial love. Philia means human love and eros means lust or self-centered love. Three different kinds of love that Greek explains – agape, God’s love; philia, human love; eros, self-centered love.
Well, that is really not the whole story because, in fact, the Greek word agape, or the verb form agapaõ, can mean a variety of kinds of love. It does not always mean God’s kind of love and philia can refer to God’s kind of love, not just to human love.
Here is an example, 2 Timothy 4:10 says, “For Demas, because he loved this world has deserted me.” Paul says that Demas loved, agapaõ, loved this world, but that was not a self-sacrificial, God-like love, that was a desire for the things of the world, that was a selfish love. So whereas agapaõ can mean God’s kind of love, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” it can also mean human love, or it can also mean selfish love. In other words agapaõ can mean some of the same things that the English word love means. So it is simply not correct to assume that agape or agapaõ have one root meaning.
Another example for agapaõ is 1 John 2:15. John says, “Do not love the world.” John 3:16 says, “God loved the world.” 1 John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Well, we are talking about two different kinds of love. God loved the world in a self-sacrificial, giving manner, but we are not to love the world to desire selfishly the things of the world, same Greek word. It is a root meaning fallacy to assume that every Greek word has only one meaning.
B. The “etymology” fallacy
Alright, here is another kind of fallacy; we call it an etymology or etymological fallacy. We mentioned the danger of etymology, that etymology is not a reliable guide. Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church.” The Greek word for church is ekklesia. Ekklesia is built from two Greek words, ek, which means out of, and klesia, which means called. And so sometimes it is said that the church means the called out ones.
But that is actually an etymological fallacy. Ekklesia means an assembly or a gathered group of people. It came to be used as a technical term for the New Covenant people of God, that is the church. But nowhere in the literature of the first century do we find ekklesia meaning the called out ones. That may be part of its etymology but by the first century it had lost that meaning. It meant an assembly or a congregation or a church. Those are the correct translations of the word; congregation, gathering, assembly, or church, but called out ones is an illegitimate translation because the word is never used that way in the first century.
Let me give you another example of an etymological fallacy. John 14:16 refers to the paraclete, the parakletos. John 14:16 says, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another counselor” or parakletos. Well, parakletos is built off two Greek words; para, alongside; kletos, meaning called. So some have said that the Holy Spirit is the one called alongside to help.
Well, that may be true that the Holy Spirit is the one called alongside to help but that is not what the word parakletos means. Parakletos means a counselor or a mediator or an advocate or an encourager, that is its semantic range. It does not mean a called alongside one in that sense. If you looked that word up in a lexicon you will not find called alongside as one meaning. By the first century that etymology had been lost and the word simply meant a counselor, an advisor, a mediator, an advocate or even a lawyer. Those are the possible senses and then we determine from the context which of those senses it means.
C. The “anachronistic meaning” fallacy
A third kind of fallacy is what we call an anachronistic fallacy. An anachronism means something taken out of time, something placed in the wrong time or placed backwards or forwards in time. This is the fallacy where a Greek or Hebrew word comes to mean or is used in a different or later sense and it is imposing that sense back on its first-century usage.
Let me explain what I mean. Romans 1:16 says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation.” The Greek word for power there is dynamis. We get our word dynamite from dynamis and so sometimes it is said that the gospel is the dynamite of God for salvation. In other words, it is taking a later meaning of dynamis, dynamite, and applying it back to the first century.
Well, obviously there is a problem there. When Paul wrote Romans 1:16 he did not mean dynamite, dynamite had not yet been invented, would not be invented for a very long time, so he could not have been thinking about dynamite. That is a later meaning of a word, that is a later word actually that is derived from an earlier Greek word, but the later meaning does not impose itself back on the earlier usage.
There is, of course, another problem that the power of God for salvation is not explosive destructive power. But that is beside the point because we simply should not impose back a later meaning onto an earlier one. Dynamis in this context clearly means power, it does not mean dynamite, it does not mean explosion.
Here is another anachronistic fallacy that is quite common. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “For God loves a cheerful giver.” The word cheerful is the Greek word hilaros. Well, we get our word hilarious from hilaros, so some have suggested that God loves a hilarious giver, someone who laughs, who greatly enjoys laughing while giving. Well, that is another anachronistic fallacy, because the Greek word hilaros did not mean hilarious in the first century, it meant cheerful.
Now later that word, the English word hilarious, was derived from that word, but that is a later meaning, you cannot impose that later meaning on the earlier use. So that is an anachronistic fallacy. So these word study fallacies are very common among preachers and teachers who know some Greek words, but are misapplying the meaning of those words in order to make a point, to illustrate a point.
Principles to Avoid Word Study Fallacies
Alright, let me give you some final principles to avoid word study fallacies, principles based on these points that we have made in relation to lexical semantics.
A. Meaning is determined by context not word roots.
Here is our first principle. Meaning is determined by context not word roots. We have seen the etymology, the component parts of a word or some core meaning of a word does not determine its meaning. What determines its meaning is its context.
B. Study sentences, not Greek words.
Here is a second principle to avoid word study fallacy. As a rule study sentences not Greek words. Study English sentences if you are reading the Bible in English, not Greek words. In other words read larger sections of the text, they will give you a better idea of the meaning of these words then will minute study of individual vocabulary.
C. Read for the big idea, not the hidden meaning.
Here is a third principle. Read for the big idea not the hidden meaning. It is more important to identify the central message of a larger text or paragraph than it is to unpack the secret meaning of a particular Greek or Hebrew word, because that secret meaning probably is not there. Good English translations are trying to find the closest English equivalent. It is unlikely by discovering some secret message or meaning in the Greek you are going to determine the meaning more fully than reading the entire sentence or paragraph.
D. Compare various English versions.
Here is a fourth principle, compare various English versions. In addition to a good translation your second best tool for Bible study is another good translation, because comparing various English versions will give you some of the possible senses that a word can have.
E. Check the better commentaries.
And finally, check the better commentaries. Commentaries in many ways will be better tools than lexicons or word study books. Why is that? Well, it is because they study the word in its context, they are looking at the meaning of the passage as a whole and will talk about the meaning of that word within that passage.
The Best Tools for Word Studies
What are the best tools for word studies? Well, if you are able to use Greek tools, the standard Greek lexicons are your best tools. For the New Testament that is the Bauer Lexicon – Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. If you cannot use lexicons, the commentaries always provide good help; they provide good help, because they study the Bible in context.
In general, avoid the older the word study books. Word study books like Vine’s Expository Dictionary or Vincent’s Word Studies. These books were produced before linguists and Bible translators were really discussing some of these significant word study problems, and so Vine’s Expository Dictionary or Vincent’s Word Studies are not terribly accurate word study books.
The only reliable, truly reliable, English language word study book is Mounce’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. Mounce’s Complete Expository of Biblical Words will provide a good summary overview of the meaning of biblical words in their context. That work also has an excellent chapter at the beginning similar to this lecture summarizing basic principles of lexical semantics and how to avoid word study fallacies. So that, once again, is Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. There are other good resources that talk about how to avoid word study fallacies, D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. Moises Silva Biblical Words and Their Meanings is also a good guide to learning how to read and interpret the words of Scripture.