Word Study Dangers: The Process

Word Study Dangers: The Process

Several years ago I was in an online chat on religion, and one of the other members discovered that I read Hebrew. I actually forget how he accomplished it; that wasn’t the topic and I didn’t tell him. In any case, he said, “Wow! You read Hebrew!” I acknowledged that I do. “I’ve been wanting to talk to someone who reads Hebrew,” he continued. “Tell me what Genesis 1 really says.” To his great disappointment I suggested that he read Genesis 1 in one of several English Bible versions.

This does not mean that I believe I get no benefit from being able to read Genesis 1 in Hebrew. There is a great benefit in essentially seeing many of the possible nuances as I read, and working with the semantic ranges of the Hebrew words and particular forms. I am reminded of this benefit every time I switch from reading Hebrew to translating Hebrew into English. I may understand a passage after I have read it in Hebrew, in that I could respond quickly and accurately to questions about what it says, the particular forms involved, and so forth. But when I turn around to express that understanding in English I have to struggle. I can produce one translation, but then I read my own translation, comparing it back to the source, I will revise . . . and revise and revise, not necessarily getting better.

In fact, I was teaching a class a couple of years ago on the book of Hebrews (note the switch to something written in Greek despite its title!). Now I have written a study guide that includes a translation, which I was using, and I commented that while “mature” was a possible reading for the Greek “teleiotes” in Hebrews 6:1, that it was a bit weak, and perhaps “perfection” would be better, though I had some concerns with the connotations of that word as well. As I was driving home, I got this tickling in my brain, so I pulled out my own study guide and checked Hebrews 6:1. Sure enough, the verse read “mature” in my own translation. I’m in the process of revising that translation for a new edition, and I know there will be many changes as I try to express the meaning more effectively.

In general, the translation you use when you read the Bible in English will have seen much more review and revision, by a large number of scholars more qualified than I am. Each of those scholars will likely have struggled with presenting the meaning that he or she sees in the passage clearly and accurately. There’s a certain arrogance in making the assumption that one can quickly get to “what the Greek (or Hebrew) really says” in a moment off the top of one’s head, and do so more accurately than a picked committee of translators who spend months working on a single passage. This does not mean that we should not question or come to our own conclusions. It does mean, in my view, that we should question carefully and searching carefully for evidence and judging it rigorously. In addition, we should view the results with appropriate humility, expecting, accepting, and evaluting the questions or challenges of others.

Similarly, lexicographers of ancient languages pursue evidence from many sources and work diligently to catalog, summarize, and present that information to the modern student of the language. A quick word study doesn’t produce a similar result. The word “quick” is very dangerous. But more importantly, whatever one believes one has discovered needs to be held with some humility. I cringe when a pastor or teacher, after reading an English translation says, “But what the Greek really says is . . . ” As a general rule, the meaning then provided is not what the Greek really says, but rather the meaning that best fits with the subject of the sermon.

So with those warnings, let me look at the major steps in the process of producing a set of definitions for a word. First, let me distinguish between a “gloss” and a “definition.” A “gloss” is a word or phrase proposed as a translation for a word in the source language. When a Greek student is taught that “pistis” means “faith” what he is learning is a “gloss.” Contrast that with the following from the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains: “that which is completely believable—‘what can be fully believed, that which is worthy of belief, believable evidence, proof” [Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996, c1989). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament : Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (Vol. 1, Page 370). New York: United Bible societies)]. While I could complain just a bit, the latter is a definition, rather than a mere gloss.

The object of a word study is not primarily a better gloss, but a working definition. You will end up with more potential glosses than definitions, because the range of definitions of words in two different languages do not coincide precisely.

Logically, the process is as follows:

  • Survey the appropriate literature for uses of the word
  • Categorize those usages, dividing them according to the various factors that influence meaning in a specific context, such as literary genre, historical period, syntax, language register, geographical location, and so forth.
  • Propose definitions. This will result in a different division, as some definitions are broader in range over time, geography, genre, etc. than others.
  • Group your examples under your definitions. Throughout the process be prepared to change your mind.
  • Look at external resources, such as cognate languages, ancient lexicons, translations into other languages that are more contemporary with the literature.
  • Revise, revise, revise.
  • Organize a lexical entry

Now this process is generalized, and also sanitized. Unless you’re one of the few fortunate scholars who have an opportunity to start from scratch on a new language, such as those who work on the Ebla tablets, you will always interact with existing lexicography. This is one error that folks with limited training in a Biblical language–often between a semester and two years–regularly commit. They believe that somehow their translation or the definition that results from their word study will be better if they start with a blank slate. It is good exercise to work from scratch. As an occasional Greek teacher I not only recommend it, but require it of new Greek students. But it is part of a process of learning, and not good for the final result. When you’re going to use that definition on unsuspecting students or parishioners, check it against existing sources. That means Greek-English/Hebrew-English lexicons, theological wordbooks, and modern translations at the least, and preferably commentaries and even journal articles on the specific word. If you are going to disagree with those sources, first understand why they translated the word as they did, and be certain that you can challenge that translation successfully.

This entry has discussed a process that is truly only accessible to someone who actually reads the source languages. As I continue I’m going to look at some specific processes involved and some of the pitfalls, and then I’m going to proceed to ways in which the wonderful resources available can be used to enhance your understanding of the Bible even if you do not read the source languages. I do not believe it is necessary to know the Biblical languages in order to do serious Bible study. It’s a big help, but much can be accomplished without it. But pretending to do something for which you do not have the skill is a very dangerous thing, and I believe that frequently happens in Bible study.

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