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From Word to Study

From Word to Study

(Continuing my series on word studies.)

From time to time in conversation with my wife I’ll jump topics. My brain does that to me, as one thing suggests another thing, often related only in the most distant way. Suddenly she’ll stop me and say, “I need a context for that.” I’ve said something that she can’t understand clearly because she doesn’t know what it relates to. It might be “What are we going to do about that meeting?” If she doesn’t know what meeting I’m talking about, when it is, or why we need to do something about it, she has no basis on which to react.

Similarly in Bible study, we always have to have a context. I know that I hammer this point repeatedly, but I do so because it is so often neglected. Much too much use of Bible texts in Christian teaching, preaching, and conversation results from looking for a set of words that fits whatever the person wanted to say. There are a lot of phrases in the Bible, a lot of clauses, a lot of sentences. If you ignore context, you can find one that is useful for you.

We’ve already discussed one of the primary dangers of word studies, that a person looks for a series of definitions, and then plugs in the one that suits his theology without regard for the immediate context. Now I’m going to talk about some practical ideas for studies you can do with words that can improve your understanding.

All of these are based on a single principle: A word study should start from a usage in context, and end with a usage in context.

If that is a bit unclear, think of it this way: The word study doesn’t provide you with a meaning that can be dropped into place like a puzzle piece. Rather, it provides you with options. In order to get at those options, you have to understand each usage of a word in its particular context, and then compare carefully. Differences in the context may imply differences in meaning. Someone who knows the source languages is protected to some extent by use of lexicons, knowledge of various forms of the word that provide natural categories of usage, and the fact that he has just the source language word’s semantic range to deal with. When working in English, or any other non-source language for the Bible, you need to be doubly careful to understand each particular context.

I’m going to do a brief application of this idea using the word “propitiation” because it has become a key word in the ESV Bible debates. I’m going to use my Logos Bible Software solely to look up words in the ESV, and display ESV text, but I’m going to use Goodrick and Kohlenberger’s NIV concordance (hereafter GK), keyed to the Greek and Hebrew words to track ideas further. This means I’m working today with two English versions, the NIV and the ESV.

Let’s say my study starts from Hebrews 2:17:

17 Therefore he had nto be made like his brothers in every respect, oso that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest pin the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. [1] — Hebrews 2:17 (ESV)

What I want to discover in this study is what it might mean to “make propitiation.” One thing I’m not going to do here to save space, but that I would recommend doing normally, is to compare this text in many English translations. This will help give you a better idea of what the semantic range of the Greek word behind this is. Another critical step is to find out just what the book of Hebrews says Jesus did about the sins of the people. I’m going to leave that aside for the moment. Right now we want to get a better idea of this one word. But remember, if you are studying through Hebrews, that before you settle on a definition for “propitiation” in this verse, you need to understand how this verse relates to the rest of the book.

In order to work with GK I need to find the text in the NIV. There I find that my key phrase is “make atonement for.” Now depending on my theological background, I may already be more comfortable than I am with propitiation, but if I look in an English dictionary I will generally find that “propitiation” is a narrower and more precise word than “atonement.” (Your results may differ, depending on your dictionary. For example Merriam-Webster says “reconciliation” is obsolete, but that meaning is still used in theological writing, I believe.) Another approach in GK is to simply look up “propitiation” and find the reference at that point to “atonement.”

Again in order to keep this study limited, I’m going to stick with the New Testament. First, that keeps all my source words in one language. There is value in comparing words as used in the Old Testament with those in the New Testament, especially when studying a book that quotes the OT as much as Hebrews does, but it is more complicated. I find that “atonement” is listed in GK only 3 times in the New Testament, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and Hebrews 9:5. Add to this 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 which use “atoning.” So we have a rather manageable list there.

The source language words are numbers 2661, 2662, and 2663. Now here’s where you can get into serious trouble, and if you don’t know Greek well, you should be very tentative with your conclusions and spend even more time on context. (Did I say that before?) In this case, however, the proximity of the three words indicates that they are cognates in Greek, etymologically related. Words that are etymologically related generally developed from similar roots. It’s easy, however, to make what’s called the “etymological fallacy” here, and assume that their meanings must be either the same or very similar. Words can be closely related etymologically, but very differet semantically.

Nonetheless, since the NIV translators have provided us with similar English translations, let’s hope we can find at least some relationship. Word 2661 is hilaskomai, and occurs twice (all according to GK) translated once as “make atonement for” and once as “mercy on.” Word 2662, hilasmos (see the similarity?) occurs twice and is translated as “atoning sacrifice” both times. Word 2663 is hilasterion and occurs twice translated once as “atonement cover” and once as “sacrifice of atonement.”

Where are these? Well, you can find them in GK because the lexicon doesn’t provide definitions, but rather lists of how each word is translated in the NIV. Thus you can look up the words in translation in turn, and find out where and how they are used. Of course, all those definitions using “atonement” or “atoning” should already be on our list. Using this method, let me list the uses of these words:

  • 2661
    Hebrews 2:17 (our primary text) and Luke 18:13 (Aha! Fresh meat!). Note that I located the second verse by looking up the word “mercy” and scanning for the number 2661.
  • 2662
    1 John 2:2 and 4:10. We know these are all the cases, because it lists two occurences, both with the same translation.
  • 2663
    Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5, which we already had located.

Now let’s go back and use our ESV for a moment. Since I’ve already looked at Hebrews 2:17 (that’s my starting point), let’s look at the only use of precisely the same word in the New Testament. Luke 18:13 reads:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” [1] (ESV)

Knowing Greek, I can say that there is a difference of form, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion. We have here two possible meanings: “make an atoning sacrifice for” and “have mercy on.” Use of an English dictionary will expand the list, but I’ll leave that to you, especially as you consider what “atoning” means in connection with “sacrifice. You can try dropping these two defnitions into Hebrews 2:17 and see what the results are in context. When you do that, however, I suggest you look very clearly at what the author of Hebrews believes is involved in atonement. Does he believe God simply “has mercy on” or does he believe there must be a sacrifice?

Similarly try dropping these definitions into 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. Consider both verses before you make your selection, and realize that this is a different Greek word, even though it is related to the word used in Hebrews 2:17.

Finally, word 2663, hilasterion also occurs twice. In Romans 3:25 the ESV uses “propitiation” saying that God put Jesus forward as a “propitiation” (atoning sacrifice?) for our sins. The NIV goes right to my parenthetical suggestion and uses “sacrifice of atonement.” But Hebrews 9:5 is a bit different. Here we read “mercy seat” in the ESV and “atonement cover” in the NIV. The covering of the ark, which is the item in consideration, is often called the mercy seat, and was the place where God manifested his presence in the tabernacle. Interesting that Merriam-Webster (Tenth Edition) suggests that “reconciliation” is an obsolete meaning of “atonement” because it appears that Bible translators may still be using that meaning partially.

Given these various options, it would now be time to go back and study your text in context, and keep your mind open to the possibilities. Is it possible that when the author of Hebrews uses related words in 2:17 and 9:5 he may intend to connect the sacrifice of atonement and the place of atonement and God’s presence? Those are possibilities for further study.

Let me make one more comment on the etymological fallacy. This is terribly pervasive. I even found just such a fallacy in my devotional reading as an author used the Greek “dunamis” to connect to cognate “dynamite” and from there to read “explosive” back into a text. At the same time, I think the quite proper emphasis on fighting that fallacy can result in a sort of “anti-etymological fallacy,” the notion that etymology doesn’t contribute to discovering meaning. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it’s all we have. With the three related Greek words involved in our study today, we have so few instances in the New Testament that we may be required to use etymology as seed for ideas. The key is to start from a word in context and end with a word in context.

An excellent route for those who have access to the appropriate tools is to carry this study beyond the New Testament. How was the word used in the Septuagint, for example, and what Hebrew words/concepts did it translate. Again, particularly in Hebrews, we have an author who quotes extensively from the Old Testament, and many of his quotations are taken from the Septuagint. Thus that provides an interesting background. We can also look into the broader Greek world and literature to get additional ideas. But all of that is beyond the scope of this post.


[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Word Study Dangers: Your Dependence on Scholars

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.

Word Study Dangers: Glosses and Definitions

Word Study Dangers: Glosses and Definitions

In my previous entry in this series I noted the difference between a gloss and a definition. To review:

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.

Two pitfalls that are related must be avoided. The first is trying to create a single definition for a word that covers the whole range of meaning of a word. Most words actually have clusters of meaning and sometimes these don’t even overlap. Native speakers naturally apply the precise definition of a word for the particular circumstances. In American English, for example, we have the word trunk, which may reference the trunk of an elephant, a trunk in which one packs clothes, the rear compartment of one’s car, the main torso of a person’s body, or the main shaft of a tree. In British English you have a boot that you put on your foot, or the boot of a car, which is the same as the American trunk. These definitions are related, but are better defined separately.

Now imagine how silly it would sound if someone reads me a passage about a tree, and then asks what the word trunk means in that passage, and I respond by reading the full list of definitions. Obviously the person asking wants the definition of trunk as it applies to trees, and that is the only definition to provide. Yet preachers regularly read a list of definitions from Webster’s (a favorite with American prechers), and proceed as though the congregation now understands the English word.

Let’s think about the process here. First there is a word in the source language. Translators carefully choose an English word whose meaning adequately expresses a similar meaning. The semantic range of the two words will not be equivalent, but they overlap adequately to provide a meaningul sense in the translation. Now an English speaking preacher or teaching comes along and reads the full list of definitions of the English word, each of which represents a range of meaning for that word. The result is not clarity, but rather a fog. Because the listeners have seen the dictionary consulted, they feel that they have a meaning, but were you to ask them precisely what that was, they wouldn’t know, or even worse, they might know something that was just not so.

The second is a kind of reverse of the above. In this case the preacher or teacher announces that the Greek word that we here have translated ____ actually means . . .” and then reads a list of glosses from the concordance or from a standard Greek lexicon. Again, only one of those meanings will be the center of the range of meaning.

I’m going to keep this entry short. Let me just conclude by restating the key factor in word studies: The result should be finding a working definition that fits precisely in the specific context.

Next: Word Study Dangers: Your Dependence on Scholars

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.

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.