Language is a subject about which almost everyone feels qualified
to speak or write about; one in which there are many practitioners, but few
experts. This is because we do not consciously think about how we
communicate, only what we communicate.(1) Language is a
gift from God, a gift that sets us apart from the animals. It was through
language that God created the world, Adam named the creatures, and the nations
were scattered over the face of the earth after the flood (Gen. 11:1-9). It is
also through God's Word that redemption came in Jesus, the Living Word,
and to us through the Bible, God's written Word.(2) It
would appear reasonable, therefore, to spend some time in attempting to grasp
how we as Bible students might use language correctly in order to communicate
God's Word to others.
From a historical perspective this has often not happened
effectively. Preachers and popular Christian writers have been - and in many
cases still are - guilty of ignoring the most basic rules of linguistics in
their work of interpreting the Bible. Several reasons might be given for
In charismatic churches in particular scholarship is feared
and distrusted by many pastors and most church members. In the vocabularies of
the majority 'academic' and 'liberal' are synonymous.
Pastors face tremendous work pressures and rarely have time
to keep abreast of the latest biblical research.
- Many pastors have not been to Bible College, and even those who
have may find the complex linguistic terms used in text books difficult to
Tradition dies hard - and most of the incorrect uses of word
studies - especially those propagated by Vines in his Expository Dictionary
of Biblical Words have passed into popular Christian tradition as
established facts. Anyone challenging them would probably receive the reply:
"well Pastor X said it and I believe him!"
The common belief that words themselves carry the meaning of
what they signify, thus by analysing the word for 'sin' (for
example), it is thought that one can learn more about nature of sin itself.
This idea is not only based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of verbal
inspiration, but also upon ignorance of exactly how language itself works.(3)
In an attempt to remedy this I am going to explain as briefly as
possible the most useful insights that linguistics has given us into biblical.
One caution should be mentioned at the outset: attempting to interpret the
Bible using a knowledge of linguistics alone is like asking a plumber to build
you a house. Although he has an essential part to play, he is only part of
team. So in Biblical interpretation the other 'members of the team' -
historical background, archaeology, textual criticism, etc. All of these have a
part to play.
Definition: Language is a code by which the
communication of thoughts takes place.
In this process words (or
idioms) serve as signs or symbols for entities, activities,
characteristics and relations.(4) It is important (as we shall
see later) to understand that words are only signs and that there is no
real reason why any particular word is given as a sign for a given object or
concept. That is why it is said that words are largely arbitrary and why words
for the same object or concept in different languages may sound completely
different, e.g. baby (English); kind (German); criatura
(Spanish), and enfant (French).(5) Even
onomatopoeic words (words that sound like what they refer to, e.g.
twang, smash, plop, etc.) are seldom represented by the same series of sounds.
"Thus Japanese cars go boo-boo, Hungarian roosters go kokoriku,
and French cats purr by saying ronron."(6) Because
words are arbitrary symbols one cannot study the object, person or concept
represented by a word any more than one can learn about the city of London by
an examination of a milestone directing you there. Failure to understand this
basic principle has resulted in the most common mistake made by preachers and
Bible teachers - the root fallacy.
The root fallacy is the mistaken
belief that a word's meaning is the sum of its components. While this is
sometimes true in the majority of cases it is not.(7) In any
case we can only know if a word is derived from the sum of its part if
we know its meaning in the first place. Consider the English word
butterfly. If it is split into its component parts "butter" and "fly"
then one would conclude that a butterfly is an insect that lives exclusively on
diary products!(8) If you didn't know what a greenhouse
was, you might be surprised to learn that very few of these structures are
actually green. Likewise, what kind of nuts do you use when making doughnuts?
Such examples might seem ridiculous, so why are people fooled when the same
mistakes are repeated using Greek? The answer is that there is still a certain
mystíc about the Greek language, perhaps the result of the nineteenth
century belief that Koiné was a divine language given for the
production of the New Testament.(9) Such beliefs were
disproved with the discovery of large amounts of secular manuscripts in
Koiné Greek. Nevertheless the preacher who can quote the
'original Greek' is often listened too in awe by his non-Greek
reading audience - even though he or she might be totally wrong!
Probably the most famous example of the
root fallacy is the explanation attached to the Greek word
huperetes in 1 Cor. 4:1: "So then, men ought to regard us as servants
or Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God."
(NIV). The word for "servants" is split into two parts and translated
"rower" or "under-rower". However, with only one possible exception, the word
is never used in classical Greek literature to mean a rower of any kind, and in
the New Testament it is used interchangeably with another word for a
servantdiakonos. It should therefore be translated as "servant" in this
The popular movie Born Yesterday(11)
provides an excellent example of the results of bad linguistics. In this scene
a Washington reporter, played by William Holden [WH], is attempting to explain
the meaning of an article he has written to a former chorus girl, played by
Judy Hollliday [JH]:
[JH] ...You know it's interesting how many
interesting things a person can learn - if they read.
[WH] I don't suppose you got a chance to read
[JH] What are you talking...? Of course I read it
[WH] What'd you think?
[JH] I think it's the best thing I ever read
- I didn't understand one word.
[WH] What didn't you understand?
[JH] None of it.
[WH] Here, show me what.
didn't you understand.
[JH] Well, like the name of it? "The Yellowing
[JH] To who - whom - who - well anyway, not to
[WH] Well look, you know what yellowing
[JH] Not this time.
[WH] Well, when a piece of paper gets old, what
happens to it.
[JH] It's thrown away?
[WH] No - it turns yellow!
[JH] It does!
[WH] Of course.
[JH] Well, what'd you know!
[WH] Now democratic - you know what that means
[JH] Not Republican.
[WH] Well, not exactly. It just means pertaining
to our form of government which is a democracy.
[JH] What's pertaining?
[WH] ...has to do with.
[JH] Pertaining - nice word!
[WH] Alright - "Manifesto."
[JH] I don't know.
[WH] Why didn't you look it up?
[JH] I did look it up - I still don't
[WH] Well look, when I say "manifesto" I mean a
set of rules and principles and ideals and hopes on which the United States is
based; the ideas of those men who wrote that Constitution up there.
[JH ]And you think it's turning
[WH] Yes, I think a lot of the original
inspiration has been neglected and forgotten.
[JH] And that's bad?
[WH] And that's bad.
[JH] [Continuing to read.] "Even a
[JH] "...examination of contemporary
in terms of the Greek
philosophy which defines the whole as a
representation of its parts send one immediately to a consideration of the
individual as a citizen and a citizen as an individual."
[JH] I looked up every word!
[WH] Listen. Thousands of years ago a Greek
philosopher said that the world could only be as good as the people who lived
[JH] Makes sense.
[WH] So I said, you take one look at America today
and right away you figure that you'd better take a look at the people who
live in it, one by one, sorta.
[JH] That's this?
[JH] Well why didn't you say so?
You might think that this example is rather amusing, but this is
exactly what many people do when read the Bible, especially when learning to
translate the Greek New Testament. One of the mistakes Judy Holliday's
character made was to think that the meaning of a sentence is equal to the sum
of the words in it, such as:
"The" + "Yellowing" + "Democratic" + "Manifesto" = the meaning
of the sentence
In fact this didn't give the meaning of the sentence, as she
stated later on in the excerpt, because the meaning of a sentence is not the
sum of the meanings of the words in it.(12) It could almost
be said that considered apart from their context words have no meaning; they
receive a meaning only when a sentence, paragraph, chapter or even the entire
book or letter is considered as a whole.
Besides being arbitrary symbols, words are also polysemous;
that is they do not represent just one object, person or concept, but many.
Consider the following examples that all use the word 'flag':
After 24 miles the marathon runner was beginning
Everyone stood to attention as the flag was
The old lady broke her leg when she tripped on the
The Queen's visit to Australia was simply to
fly the flag.
John was on the road for hours before he managed
to flag-down as passing motorist.
Now imagine that you were to read all these possible meanings of
'flag' into the last sentence. You could then understand it as
John was on the road for hours and was extremely
tired. Eventually he was able to hit a passing motorist with a piece of
concrete coloured red, white and blue. In doing so he succeeded in making a
political statement about sovereignty.
Does that sound silly? Well what you have just read is an example
of a second word-study fallacy, known as illegitimate totality transfer.
That means the unjustified inclusion of all the possible meanings of a word
regardless of the limitations of the context.(13) The
Amplified Bible is particularly guilty of committing this fallacy. For
example in Galatians 3:8 it translates "gospel" as "the good news about Jesus
Christ" thus implying (according to one teacher I have heard) that Abraham knew
everything about Jesus Christ and His work. In this context the
'good news' being announced in advance was the possibility of
justification apart from obedience to the Law of Moses and specifically that
"all nations will be blessed through you." When attempting to determine the
meaning certain biblical terms, such as sin, righteousness and propitiation
appeal is often made to the words non-biblical usage. This can be extremely
useful, but the danger of committing illegitimate totality transfer is
In all lexical study, it is imperative that the meaning in the
present context be given precedence over all other considerations. The fact
that a word may be used 99 percent of the time it is found in ancient writings
to mean one thing is essentially irrelevant if the context of the biblical
passage under study it is used to mean something else. Any author may choose to
use even a common word in an unusual way. Thus the final question must always
be "How is it used here?" rather than "How does its use elsewhere tell us what
it means here?" The latter question is not always entirely useless; it is,
however, always a secondary question in lexical analysis to the question of
meaning in the immediate context.(14)
A good example of this is the tremendous amount of effort has been
wasted on arguing whether kephale means "head" or "source" according to its
usage in extra-biblical writings rather than its use 1 Cor 11:2b and Eph
5:23-24.(15) The context of a word is the determining factor
in deciding which one of the many possible meanings the word has is to be used.
This context includes not only the function of the word within a sentence or
paragraph, but also the historical and cultural context of the writer and
original audience. Many mistakes have been made by neglecting the wider
context, especially when translating the Bible into another language.(16)
The opposite of illegitimate totality transfer is the
one meaning fallacy, which states that a word always has the same
meaning regardless of the context it is used in. It too ignores the fact that
words are polysemous. The origins of this fallacy are in the false
assumption that words from one language have exact equivalents in another(17) and is reinforced by use of lexicons, such as those
contained in Strong's Concordance. One particularly bad example of
this is provided by Kenneth Hagin, Snr:
The natural man is the man motivated by the flesh; a physical man,
not a spiritual man. (I found out years ago it helped me in my studies of
Romans, every place it says 'flesh' to substitute the word "senses"
or "physical senses" .After all, the only way the flesh has any expression is
through its physical senses. It will clear up a lot of thinking for you if you
will do this.)(18)
The only problem with Hagin's simplification is that it is
simply not true. Sarx which is translated 'flesh' in the KJV,
does not only mean 'senses' or 'physical senses'.
F.F. Bruce gives a more accurate assessment of the variety of meanings for
sarx in Romans:
1) The physical body (Rom. 2:28).
2) Natural human descent or relationship (Rom. 1:3;
9:3, 5; 11:14). This physical descent from Abraham is contrasted with spiritual
descent (4:1, 11-12, 16).
3) Mankind as a whole (3:20; cf. Mark 13:20 - "no
4) Human Nature:
i) Weak human nature (Rom. 6:19; 8:3; cf. Matt.
ii) The human nature of Christ (Rom. 8:3 "likeness of
sinful man" NIV).
iii) The 'old sin nature' in the believer
(Rom. 7:18; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:22, 24; Col. 3:9-10).
iv) Unregenerate human nature (Rom. 7:5;
5) In contrast with the new life in the Spirit (Rom.
6) Sin in general as a work of the sinful nature
(Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:8).(19)
From this it is clear that the meaning of sarx cannot be
determined apart from in a context. Some would even go so far as to say that it
has no meaning apart from in a context, only a possibility of
The meanings of words are not static; language changes and
develops as the people who use it change and develop. Over the centuries the
range of meanings a word has (its semantic range) changes, a process known as
diachronic change. The word martus has gone through he following
a) one who gives evidence in or out of
b) one who gives solemn witness or affirmation
(e.g. of one's faith)
c) one who witnesses to personal faith, even in
the threat of death
d) one who witnesses to personal faith by
acceptance of death
e) one who dies for a cause - a "martyr"(21)
Diachronic change is a further reason why evidence from
classical sources and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old
Testament, started about 250 BC) must be treated with caution. Many of the
words used had changed their meanings by New Testament times. Related to this
is the mistake of reading a later meaning back into a biblical word, known as
semantic anachronism. The most famous being the likening of the power of
the Holy Spirit to dynamite on the grounds that the name 'dynamite'
was derived from the Greek worddunamis. This is anachronistic because
dynamite was not invented until 1867 when Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-96)
succeeded in mixing nitro-glycerine with an organic packing material. Nobel
named it dynamite because dunamij means 'power' .There were no explosives
in the ancient world, and it was not until the 13th century that gunpowder
became widely available, so it would be impossible for Paul or any New
Testament writer to have been thinking of dynamite. This is not he only problem
with this particular word study:
Dynamite blows things up, tears things down,
rips out rock, gouges holes, destroys things. The power of God concerning which
Paul speaks he often identifies with the power that raised Jesus from the dead
(e.g. Eph. 1:18-20); and as it operates in us, its goal is
salvation," Rom. 1:16 KJV), aiming for the wholeness and perfection implicit in
the consummation of our salvation. Quite apart from the semantic anachronism,
therefore, dynamite appears inadequate as a means of raising Jesus from the
dead or as a means of conforming us to the likeness of Christ. Of course, what
preachers are trying to do is to do when they talk about dynamite is to give
some indication of the power involved. Even so, Paul's' measure is
not dynamite, but the empty tomb.(22)
No one sniggers when someone is called a "nice" person because the
fact that it comes from the Latin nescius (ignorant) is no longer
relevant.(23) "In exactly the same way, it is sheer
semantic anachronism to note that in the text "God loves a cheerful
giver" (2 Cor 9:2) the Greek word behind "cheerful" is hilaron and
conclude that what God really loves is a hilarious giver."(24) The point is that you should not try to discover a
word's meaning by studying its history.(25) A words
history is only relevant if it can be clearly demonstrated that the writer was
aware of its original meaning.(26) This does not mean that
diachronic word study is totally useless because it is helpful to know
how a word's meaning has changed over time.(27) It is
the meaning at the time of writing (the synchronic meaning) that is most
important for the correct exegesis of a passage.
As they develop some words take on a technical meaning and its
semantic range becomes narrower. One positive example of this is the use of
naos) for "temple" in 1 Cor. 3:16 "refers to the actual sanctuary, the
place of the deities dwelling, in contrast to the word hieron, which
referred to the temple precincts as well as to the sanctuary."(28) Paul is saying that the Church is the Holy of Holies where
the very presence of God dwells. False assumptions about technical
meaning are also common. Roger Forster and Paul Marston - who are guilty of
producing some one the worse word-studies in print - argue that the Hebrew word
eretz and Greek ge (2 Peter 2:5-7) cannot mean "the whole globe"
when describing the extent of Noah's flood.(29) However,
the context of Genesis 7:17-24 demands that the flood be universal and cover
the whole of the globe.(30) Only Forster & Marston's
determination to prove that the flood was a local event prevents them from
Those who believe that a Christians can be possessed by a demon
often appeal to the supposed technical usage of the phrase "a Daughter of
Abraham" in Luke 13:10-17 and "Children of Abraham" in John 8:31-47. They claim
that this phrase is only used of believers. Paul does use the phrase "Children
of Abraham" in a distinctive and technical sense, referring to Believers
(Romans 4:16-17; Gal. 3:6-7). Other New Testament writers use it in a
non-technical sense, referring to the physical descendants of Abraham (e.g.
Luke 19:9; Acts 13:26). Only by importing the Pauline usage into the Gospels
can a case be made that Jesus only delivered Believers.(31)
It is interesting to note that if he were consistent in doing this then the
Rich man in the story of Lazarus must also have been a Believer (see Luke
16:24,30). Another example is to be found in John 8:31-47 because John refers
to the crowd as those 'who had believed' in Jesus (v.31). This crowd
then refer to themselves as 'Abraham's children' (v.39). But, as
Carson points out, "those who believed in him", refers to those of 'fickle
faith' (cf. John 6:60-69) who do not abide in Jesus (John 15).(32) In these passages therefore 'Children of Abraham'
does not refer to Christian Believers, but to Jews.
Ambiguity and Vagueness
As we saw above the possible range of meanings a word can have is
normally reduced to one by the context in which it occurs. When more than one
meaning is possible then we say that the meaning is ambiguous. In normal
speech and writing ambiguity is something which most people try to avoid
because they want to make their meaning clear, but a certain degree of
vagueness is usual. We hardly ever give the list of all the flowers visible out
of a window; rather we would speak generally and comment: "Isn't the
garden looking nice!" It is therefore misleading to demand from the biblical
writers an exactness that we would not expect from anyone else.(33) There are times when ambiguity is useful, for
example, when attempting to avoid giving a straight answer to a question. Some
biblical texts are ambiguous because we do not understand the language
completely, the meanings of some words in certain contexts being very difficult
to establish (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:13). It may be that on occasions the writer
actually wished his readers to understand more than one meaning from a word.
There are several examples of ambiguity in the New Testament,
katalambano in John 1:5 could be translated either as
'overcome' or 'understood'. Either would fit the context
and it is probable that John intended the reader to understand both meanings.(34)
There is one more element from linguistics that is particularly
useful in studying the Bible. In certain contexts some words can be used
interchangeable, in which case they are known as synonyms. Very few
words are complete synonyms which are interchangeable in every context,
because in normal language development one or other would soon fall out of use.
Those that do exist are usually technical terms. A writer or speaker makes use
of synonyms for stylistic reasons and to avoid repeating the same word
again and again and again. Very often failure to recognise when terms are being
used synonymously leads to a misunderstanding of a biblical text, and even in
some cases to the establishment of a false doctrine. Consider the example of 1
Thess. 5:23: "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and
through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming
of our Lord Jesus Christ." This verse (it is claimed) teaches that human beings
are made up of three distinct parts: body, soul and spirit. However, it is
unwise to attempt to establish such a doctrine on this verse because all three
words are being used synonymously to emphasise the completeness of the
sanctification, not the supposed divisibility of man.(35)
Another example is the alleged difference between a rhema word and a
logos word. A 'logos' is a verse from the Bible, while a
rhema word is a personal message for you, applicable to your life.
Through a process of revelation it is said that the 'logos' becomes a
'rhema' when you realise its relevance to your life. Although there
is a truth underlying this, the word study on which it is based is flawed,
because the words rhema and logos are used interchangeably in the
New Testament for stylistic reasons.(36) On the positive side
by understanding why a particular word was chosen as opposed to the other
synonyms available can be helpful, because sometimes the choice is
Now that we have covered the basics of linguistics and the main
pitfalls to avoid I want to look at a word study that involves combination of a
number of different errors.
One of the most popular word studies found in present day
preaching concerns the words used in the Bible for 'love' .Generally four
words are cited, but only two, agapao and phileo will be covered
here, as most studies centre on them. The normal line of argument is as
follows: Agape is almost absent from Classical Greek literature, and
while the meaning of phileo became debased by sin, the biblical writers
found in agape a 'neutral' word into which the richness and
the depth of God's love expressed through Christ could be poured.
Therefore in the Bible agapao and phileo are never used
interchangeably because both the New Testament writers and their audience
recognised the distinction between the meanings of the two words, and this
accounts for the rapid rise to prominence of agapao.(37) Or, as one book puts it::
...in the case of the noun agape there is no
corresponding negative usage in the NT. It is always used in the sense of
the love of God
or referring to the divine love for other men which the
presence of God evokes
Most modern books on hermeneutics have severely criticised the
validity of these claims, pointing out that agapao and phileo
(while sometimes having distinct meanings) are often used interchangeably in
the New Testament. Figure 1 below shows graphically the relationship between
the two words.
Figure 1: The Semantic
Relationships of Two Greek Words For "Love"
When looking at the meaning of words it is important to know how
and why their meaning has changed over time (diachronic change),
especially when so much weight is put on their meanings in the course of a
sermon. It has now been established that from the fourth century on
agapao became more common in Greek literature because of a change of
usage concerning the word phileo:(39)
...[phileo] had acquired this new and additional meaning
because an older verb for 'to kiss,' kunw, was dropping out;
and the reason for this latter disappearance was the homonymic clash with yet
another verb, [kuno] (which means to impregnate), particularly in the
aorist both kunew (to kiss) and [kuno] (to impregnate) have the same
form [ekusa]. This would encourage various salacious puns and gradually
force [kuneo] into obsolescence.(40)
An example of the same process is occurring in the English
language today. The word 'gay' means "light-hearted, carefree,
sportive; airy, offhand,"(41) but over the last few decades
it has acquired a new and pejorative meaning - "to be a homosexual" .The result
is that the former meanings of 'gay' will no longer be used in
English, and another word (e.g. happy) will take over its part in the language.
This is what happened in Koiné Greek with phileo,
agapao and kuneo.
Biblical examples of the uses of agapao & phileo
are not hard to find. Both words are used of Jacob's preferential love for
Joseph in the Septuagint (or LXX) of Gen. 37:3, 4.(42) When
Amnon rapes his sister Tamar, both are used to refer to his 'love' (1
Sam 13). While there is only one verb for 'love' in the Hebrew text
of Proverbs 8:17, the LXX uses both agapao and phileo."(43)
Perhaps the most famous example (or infamous, depending upon how
you look at it) is the use the Apostle John makes of the two verbs in John
21:15-17. Many sermons have been based on the change in the words John uses in
this passage (see Table 1) most scholars agree that
...the narrator's interest is in the
repetition of the same thought, not in subtle differences in meaning of
particular words. Peter is saddened (v.17) by the persistent repeating of a
question he has already answered, but the purpose of the repetition is to match
his earlier triple denial and to elicit from him a firm commitment to continue
the Shepherd's work during the time of the Shepherd's absence.(44)
Table 1: Love in John
From Carson, Fallacies,
Within the same passage John also used synonyms for
'tend' and 'sheep', a fact that adds weight to the
contention that the difference here is simply stylistic.(45)
The argument is clinched by the following observation:
When we read that Demas forsook Paul because he loved the present
evil world, there is no linguistic reason to be surprised that the verb is
[agapao](2 Tim. 4:10). John 3:35 records that the Father loves the Son
and uses the verb [agapao]; John 5:20 repeats the thought, but uses
filw without any discernible shift in meaning.(46)
These words studies have passed into Christian tradition, and like
all tradition have acquired a certain infallibility. However, there is nothing
inherently special about either the verb agapao or the noun
agape. Agapao is often used interchangeably with filw, and
any doctrine based on some apparent distinction is fatally flawed. It is true
that God's love is special, but there is no unique word to describe it in
Greek, any more than there is in English.
Christians often play with words. How many of us have heard of or
used the following ploy in witnessing?
John: I don't want to become a Christian
because I hate religion.
Christian X: Well I'm a Christian and I hate
John: [confused]. What do you mean? Christianity
is a religion isn't it?
Christian X: No it isn't .A religion is
man's attempt to find God. Christianity is God reaching out and finding
man. So it's not a religion!
"John" may be convinced by this
argument, as many people have been in the past, but "the ends justifies the
means" is not a Christian principle. What we have here is an example of the
Humpty-Dumpty effect, named after a famous speech by the fore-mentioned
character in Alice Through The Looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty declared
that "When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean, nothing more, nothing
less." Alice told him that he was wrong, and she was right to do so, because no
one can play fast and loose with words and get away with it. A series of words
cannot mean anything you wish them to mean.
Returning to our example we have to agree with John that
Christianity is a religion. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines
a religion as a "particular system of faith and worship" and then cites
Christianity as an example. Christianity is called a religion in 1 Tim. 5:4
& James 1:26-27.
A more truthful way of answering John's objection would have
been to explain that while Christianity is a religion it differs from other
religions in that it is the only religion that God Himself accepts (John 14:6;
Acts 4:12). We could also be careful to avoid our own technical "in-house"
language which often excludes and confuses non-Christians: Are you washed in
the blood? In the blessing. True to the faith. Filled with the Spirit. Living
in Victory. The Holy Ghost, etc.
Finally, there is one caution that cannot emphasised enough in
these days when sound doctrine is no longer well received.
The value of studying biblical languages does not reside in its
potential for displaying exegetical razzle-dazzle. In fact, striking
interpretations that lean too heavily, sometimes exclusively, on subtle
grammatical distinctions are seldom worth considering
More often than
not, the fruit of language learning is intangible: it remains in the
background, providing the right perspective for responsible exegesis.(47)
Atomistic examinations of words often leads to a neglecting of the
importance of the context from which the words derive their meanings.(48) Our main effort should be concentrated on learning more
about the concepts that the words signify rather than concentrating on the
words themselves. Someone studying the concept of "hypocrisy" with a
concordance would miss an importance passage (Isa. 1:10-15) simply because it
does not contain the relevant word even though it does add to our understanding
of the concept.(49)
This does not mean that all word studies are wrong or pointless,
rather it means that we need to be more careful in carrying them out and put
more emphasis on the context in which the words occur.
© 1997 Robert I. Bradshaw
(1) Moisés Silva, God,
Language and Scripture. Reading the Bible in the Light of Contemporary
Linguistics. Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, Vol. 4.
(Leicester: Apollos, 1990), 15.
(2) Silva, Language,
(3) Elliott E. Johnson,
Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1990), 10; Anthony C. Thiselton, "Semantics and New Testament Interpretation,"
I.H. Marshall, ed. New Testament Interpretation (Exeter: Paternoster
Press, 1977), 78.
(4) Eugene A Nida & Johannes
P. Louw, Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament (Atlanta: Georgia:
Scholars Press, 1992), 4.
(5) David Alan Black,
Linguistics For Students of New Testament Greek. A Survey of Basic Concepts
and Applications . (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 15-16.
(7) J.P. Louw, Semantics of New
Testament Greek (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1982), 28.
(8) Louw, 29.
(9) Moisés Silva,
Biblical Words & Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 23-24, 65.
(10) Louw, 26-27; D.A. Carson,
Exegetical Fallacies, 1984 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989),
(11) George Cukor, Director,
Born Yesterday, 1950.
(12) R.H. Robins, General
Linguistics: An Introductory Survey. (London, 1964), 22. Cited by
(13) Silva, Biblical
(14) Douglas Stuart, "Exegesis,"
David Noel Freedman (ed. in chief), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2
(New York: Doubleday, 1992), 686.
(15) Osborne, 66.
(16) Louw, 14-15.
(17) Louw, 48.
(18) Kenneth E. Hagin, Growing
Up Spiritually (Tulsa: Faith Library Publications, 1982), 107.
(19) Based upon F.F. Bruce, "The
Letter of Paul to the Romans," Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 1985
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 40-44.
(20) Louw, 39-40.
(21) Carson, Fallacies,
35. Even a recent Church England Report makes this mistake when it notes that:
"We need to remember that 'martyrdom' literally means
'witness'..." The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England,The
Mystery of Salvation: The Story of God's Gift. (London: Church House
Publishing, 1995), 127-128.
(22) Carson, Fallacies,
(23) Silva, Biblical,
(24) Carson, Fallacies,
(25) Thiselton, 80-81: "When
Englishmen say "Good-bye" do they "properly" mean "God with you" ?"Hussy" is
etymologically a doublet of "housewife", but can it be said on this basis that
if I were to call someone a hussy I "properly" meant only "housewife"?
(26) Silva, Biblical
(27) Thiselton, 82.
(28) Gordon D. Fee, "The First
Epistle to the Corinthians," NICNT, 1987 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1989), 146.
(29) Roger Forster & Paul
Marston, Reason & Faith: Do modern science and Christian Faith really
conflict? (Eastbourne: Monarch Publications, 1989), 235-239.
(30) H.C. Leopold, Exposition
of Genesis, 1942, Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), 301-302:
"[In Genesis 7:] 19. A Measure of the waters is now made by comparison with the
only available standard for such waters - the mountains. They are said to have
been "covered" .Not a few merely, but "all the high mountains under all the
heavens." One of these expressions alone would almost necessitate that the
author intends to convey the idea of the absolute universality of the Flood,
e.g. "all the high mountains." Yet since "all" is known to be used is a
relative sense, the writer removes all possible ambiguity by adding the phrase
"under all the heavens." A double "all" (kol) cannot allow for so
relative a sense. It almost constitutes a Hebrew superlative. So we believe
that the text disposes of the question of the universality of the Flood.
By way of objection to this interpretation those
who believe in a limited flood, which extended perhaps as far as mankind may
have penetrated at that time, urge the fact that kol is used in a
relative sense, as is clearly the case in passages such as [Gen.] 41:57; Exod.
9:25; 10:15; Deut, 2:25; 1 Kings 10 :24. However, we still insist that this
fact could overthrow a single kol, never a double kol, as our
verse has it.
(31) See further: Carson,
(32) D.A. Carson, The Gospel
According To John (Leicester: IVP, 1991), 347-348.
(33) Thiselton, 94: "Too often in
biblical interpretation exegetes have looked for exactness where the author
chose vagueness. Must the "horrifying abomination" in Mark 13:14 refer
specifically to the violence of the zealots, or to a statue of Titus, or to
Caligula or Hadrian? Must "Son of man" be robbed of an ambiguity which may have
commended the term to Jesus? Might not the New Testament writers have wished to
keep some ideas open-ended no less often than we do?"
(34) Louw, 41: "Overwhelm"
renders a feeling of joy - the darkness did not overwhelm the light;
"understand" renders plaintive tone - the darkness did not understand the
light. Such a play on words often occurs in John. It is characteristic of his
(35) Leon Morris, "1 and 2
Thessalonians," rev., 1984. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Downers
Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1989): 111: "This is sometimes used as an argument for a
trichotomous view of man
as against a dichotomous view, but this is
probably unjustified (cf. Mark 12:30 for a fourfold division and 1 Cor.
7:34 for a twofold one). Paul is not analysing the nature of man, but uttering
a fervent prayer that the entire man be preserved.
That the unity of man
is being emphasized is indicated by the fact that both the verb and the
adjective whole are singular, though they apply to all
(36) Johannes P. Louw &
Eugene A Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on
Semantic Domains, 2nd edn., Vol. 1 (New York: United Bible Societies,
(37) Wuest, Kenneth S. Word
Studies in the Greek New Testament, Vol. 3 (Plainfield, N.J.: Logos Int.,
(38) Günther, W. & Link,
H.-G. "Love," Colin Brown, ed. NIDNTT, Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
(39) D.A. Carson, Exegetical
Fallacies. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 52-53.
(40) Carson, Fallacies,
53, n. 62. Square brackets contain transliterations of Greek
(41) J.B. Sykes, ed. The
Oxford Concise Dictionary, 6th edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976),
(42) D.A. Carson, The Gospel
According To John. (Leicester: IVP/Eerdmans, 1991), 676.
(43) Carson, John,
(44) Michaels, J. Ramsey, "John,"
NIBC. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989), 360.
(45) Grant R. Osborne, The
Hermeneutical Spiral. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 88. Carson, John, 677:
"In addition to the two words for 'love', John resorts to three other
pairs: bosko and poimaino ('feed' and 'take care
of' the sheep), arnia and probata ('lambs' and
'sheep'), and oida and ginosko (both rendered 'you
know' in v.17). These have not stirred homiletic imaginations; it is
difficult to see why the first pair should."
(46) Carson, Fallacies,
30. Square brackets contain tranliterations of Greek characters in
(47) Moisés Silva, Has
The Church Misread The Bible? (Leicester: Apollos, 1987), 13. Emphasis
(48) Silva, Biblical
(49) Silva, Biblical
Words, 27, 28: "The point is that we learn much more about the doctrine of
sin by John's statement, "Sin is the transgression of the law," than by a
word-study of [harmartia]; similarly, tracing the history of the word
[hagios] is relatively unimportant for the doctrine of sanctification
once we have examined Romans 6-8 and related passages." Squared brackets Greek
characters in original.