Word Study Dangers: Your Dependence on Scholars

A young man in one of my classes once told me that he didn’t want to depend on scholars. His aim in attending my class on Bible study was to know for himself.

Now this young man has an admirable goal, provided that you use “goal” in the same sense as one uses “north star” in navigating toward the north. One will never reach Polaris, but one will continue traveling something close to north while using that star as a guide.

The problem for the average student of the Bible is that you can’t know everything related to your study, so you will always be dependent, in some way, on the scholarship of others. For those who think that taking Greek and Hebrew removes that problem, let me tell you that it does not. After learning Biblical languages, I am still constantly depending on the work of others, and I’m much more aware of it now than I used to be. Once you get to reading the text in the original languages, for example, you then have to ask which text to read. This introduces textual criticism. While I have studied textual criticism to some extent, I am not nearly at the point where I would edit the text of a New Testament book for public use.

The same thing is true of word studies and finding the definitions of words. If you will first accept the fact that you are going to be basing some of what you do on the work of others, it will help you more intelligently choose where to depend on someone else and where to try to do original research. You will want to consider just how objective the scholarship involved is, and how qualified you are to check the work.

Let’s consider an example. My knowledge of textual criticism allows me to read an edition of the New Testament and understand the textual footnotes. I’m acquainted with the major manuscripts, so that when I look at a footnote I can quickly see the range of dates involved in the manuscripts, and I often know something about the specific manuscripts involved–not a massive amount, but enough to follow the note and understand in general why the editors chose the variant they did for the text. I could ask to reduce my dependence on other scholars by getting a look at a high quality photograph of each manuscript for myself, or even by trying to visit the library or museum in which the manuscript itself is kept, so I can check a reading for myself.

But this would be a foolish thing for me to do. First, the process of transcribing a manuscript and collating it (cataloging its variants) is a substantially objective process. In a small number of cases in which letters are partial, or correctors have gotten involved, there may be a dispute, but in that case you will generally have an indication in the edition itself or in the literature. Thus I can put a good deal of trust into the data provided to me in my edition of the New Testament in Greek. Second, my qualifications for deciphering the ancient manuscripts directly are definitely not first rate. I can read such manuscripts, but I have no exprience trying to fill in gaps, or judge disputed letters based on the copyists hand, and so forth. It is therefore not a good use of my resources to go check individual manuscripts for myself.

If you take a step back from that, and consider someone who does not know Greek or Hebrew, then you may see the need to ask, “Is it a good use of my time to do a word study?” To answer that question, let me look at some of your alternatives.

  1. Using footnotes in your translation
    Most translations provide alternate renderings of passages in footnotes when a passage is controversial. For many people, a whole new world will open up if they will simply pay attention to the footnotes. Many times users of various Bible versions complain bitterly about a particular rendering and the damage done to “the truth” (as understood by the complainer) by a lousy rendering, and how the translators should at least give the reader the option of this alternate rendering. Frequently when I check such a complaint, I find the desired rendering given in a footnote.
  2. Comparing multiple translations
    As often as I find that footnotes resolve the problem, not all translation issues are noted in every translation–far from it. Try using multiple translations. Reading your passage in several translations will take you much less time than doing a thorough word study, and may provide you with all the information you need.
  3. Use various theological wordbooks in English.
    In this case you will be dependent on scholars for providing you with the options, but commonly such wordbooks provide a variety of potential definitions. Take each option offered and try it in the context of the passage you are studying.
  4. Commentaries and/or study notes
    These often provide alternate translations and discussions of why. It is important to realize that the discussion of the reasons behind a particular option is more important than simply listing the option. Those reasons allow you to check the work that has gone before you. Does it make sense? Does the resulting translation work in the context of your passage?
  5. Learn the script of the language in question and use lexicons
    Here you will often find the specific verse you are studying with the suggested gloss or definition for your word. You can get a strong head start by listing the available definitions and some key passages from the lexicon entry, and looking those up to check and see how well they work. You will probably be amazed at how often the lexicon is right on target.
  6. Always study a passage in context
    Most errors in interpretation come from focusing too narrowly on a single verse or even phrase. If you come up with an understanding of the meaning of a particular word that contradicts the teaching of that author in the rest of his writings, you might want to reconsider. Who is more likely to have made a mistake?

Each of these options will provide you with a substantial amount of information about a particular word or passage, and will give you many options to choose from in your study. In this way you can depend on scholars, but do so intelligently.

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  1. Martin LaBar says:

    Good post (I subscribe to your other blog, but not this one.) I found this through the Christian Carnival.

  2. I separated my blog into three some time back, and I’m not sure it was a good idea. What I tried to do was leave Threads as a place for general commentary, according to the subtitle “thoughts on religion in the world.” This one was to have been a place for Biblical exegesis and detailed study of Bible passages that would not be of interest to a general audience.

    The third one, the Jevlir Caravansary was for my relatively frequent notes on fiction that I read, or even the occasional poem or short story that I write, which I thought would be of even less general interest.

    As it turns out, I pretty much never have a problem deciding what belongs on Jevlir, but between this one and Threads there’s a considerable overlap, and people have complained that they’re never sure where I will comment on some particular topic.

    I’ve started working on a combined RSS feed so those who like either two or all three can sign up just once. I’ll make a post on it–on all three blogs, of course!–once it’s finished.

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