Word Study Dangers: Overview

Word Study Dangers: Overview

[This is the first in a short series on word studies, especially the type of study done using an English concordance keyed to the Biblical languages, such as Strong’s Concordance.]

A few years back in the pre-blog days when most online discussions took place on various forums, someone proposed to me a new translation and interpretation of a particular verse. I don’t even recall the verse any more. What I do recall was the process of figuring out what the gentleman had done in order to produce the words he presented to me. That text was totally unlike any English translation of that verse that I knew of, and completely impossible by my reading of the Hebrew. He said he had worked on the translation using Strong’s, so I knew my starting point.

Slowly I worked my way back through Strong’s and discovered that he had simply looked through the possible translations for each word, and then selected one that he wanted to use. He had combined those English words in the fashion of one putting together a difficult jigsaw puzzle, and then had dealt with minor issues such as verb tenses and the syntax according to the sense that he was looking for. As a result, the verse consisted of a series of words, correct in the sense that they came from a Hebrew/English dictionary, but none of which were actually possible translations in that particular context.

He was extremely disappointed when I was not enthusiastic about his creative efforts. Surely I was not dogmatic enough to simply reject his translation out of hand! After all, it came from Strong’s, surely a standard authority on the meaning of the Hebrew text, and one used by many, many Christians! And yet I was just that dogmatic.

Now this is not a series on the inadequacies of Strong’s as a Biblical languages resource, though it does have many such inadequacies. It provides glosses, rather than definitions, and those glosses are taken from out of date sources. Discovering the meaning of precise forms varies from extremely difficult to impossible. Nobody who was actually skilled with the languages would make use of it as a serious resource for knowledge of the source languages. There are other English concordances, keyed to other Bible versions, that are based on more accurate sources, yet they still suffer from the other inadequacies.

The larger problem, however, is the people who try to use these concordances as a resource to study Bible words. There are things you can learn making use of such resources, but finding more accurate definitions of Bible words than those found in standard language resources is not one of those things. A student who does not understand the source languages would do better with one of the many Bible dictionaries or word books that are available.

The problem is in the nature of word studies. Similar issues come up in discussion when one tries to define a word. There are two extremes in discussing English words. On the one hand we have those who believe words mean whatever they want them to, and on the other we have the dictionary addicts. The first group doesn’t care to use standard definitions and creates a great deal of confusion for obvious reasons. The second group looks in the dictionary, and if a word is not being used according to the particular definition (often the first one presented) found in their particular dictionary, they are annoyed. The dictionary rules.

There is a subset of this group who are fascinated by older dictionaries. “I want a dictionary that comes from a time when words had meaning and weren’t subject to the whim of the uneducated masses,” they say. That there never was such a golden age of language doesn’t other them at all. The word should mean what their older dictionary says it means, and anyone who disagrees is just the product of a “dumbed down” educational system.

But dictionaries are merely reporters. The writers of dictionaries do not, for the most part, create meaning, except as any other writer does. People create meaning when they make use of words to communicate. A single word doesn’t have only one meaning; generally it has many. Its meaning doesn’t generally remain unchanged over time. What lexicographers (the writers of dictionaries) do, is survey the usage of words over a wide body of literature and formulate and report appropriate definitions. Multiple definitions per word are required, because words get used in many different ways with different meanings. There are scholarly meanings, technical meanings, popular meanings, regional meanings, and so forth.

For example, when I talk about computers I use “CPU” (central processing unit) to mean the little chip on the motherboard that does the processing. I got used to that usage years ago. Frequently these days someone will call me for service on a computer, and they will ask, “Should I just bring my CPU or do you need the monitor and keyboard as well?” This usage bugs me, even though I truly believe what I said in the last paragraph. They’re not wrong; they’re just using a quite common popular usage. Most of my readers probably find CPU used in that sense to be more appropriate than its use to refer to the chip. In terms of the way meaning develops, CPU is an acronym, yet many who use it would not know what the letters stand for. It has become a “word.” Similarly “car” can mean many things, from the part of the elevator that one actually rides in, to the car on a train, to the automobile that one drives. This is generally true of words. One determines from the context just what definition is appropriate. Our minds are wonderfully adept at figuring this out.

Words in Hebrew and Greek are no different. The reason a concordance like Strong’s has quite a number of glosses (words of phrases provided as possible translations of a particular Greek or Hebrew word) is that those Greek and Hebrew words have many potential meanings in different contexts. You can’t simply take the list of meanings, choose one that you’d like to read in this location, and run with it. There are many factors that go into the particular choice of an English word, factors that the mind of a native speaker would process naturally and quickly.

Some of these factors are:

  • The immediate context
    For example, you can tell what definition I’m using for “car” easily in each of the following sentences. I drove my car to work. and The locomotive was pulling 25 cars..
  • The particular form of the word
    Both Greek and Hebrew are inflected, and sometimes such inflection will result in a completely different meaning for the word. The lexical form (the one you find at the head of the dictionary entry) will be the same, but the meaning will be substantially different. If you don’t know about these different forms, you may well come up with an impossible answer.
  • The type of literature
    Words are used differently in different types of literature, and you have to be conscious of that effect. For example, priestly texts will use words about sacrifices in a much more technical way than general historical texts.
  • Syntax
    The structure of the sentence may indicate a difference in the meaning of the word. In Greek, this is a very important thing to remember about prepositions. One common mistake made by those who do not know Greek is to list the possible definitions of a preposition and then choose the one best suited to their desired translation, without considering the form of the preposition’s object. That doesn’t work in Greek!
  • Time period, particularly in Hebrew
    Meaning can vary based on when a text was written. This is generally important in translating Hebrew, though not so much for New Testament Greek because the New Testament was written over such a short period of time.
  • Peculiarities of usage by the particular author
    Just as modern writers and speakers may use words in unexpected ways, the Bible writers could do likewise.

In my next entry I’m going to go over the process of doing a good word study, and examine the level of knowledge of the Biblical languages required to handle certain information.

4 thoughts on “Word Study Dangers: Overview

  1. Great post and great advice for all of us! In taking the little Hebrew and Greek that I have, I have gained a huge respect for translators and what they go through and (hopefully) learned not to be too caviler about using Strongs and the like. Similarly, one of the things my professor would say is (after a year of study): “You know enough to be dangerous” – meaning that I might think I know what the word or translation is and therefore claim some authority, but really… after a year I know jack squat.

    I also found it pretty funny that in this week’s Christian Carnival, your post is listed right after my post on looking at the Hebrew word Shema. heh. 🙂

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