If you are a Christian theologian or teacher, or just a serious student of Scripture, you will engage in word studies.  This can be a very fruitful enterprise in exegesis, and yet there are so many ways it can go badly.  In his book, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, Moises Silva addresses the subject of lexical semantics.  He discusses the proper study of words, and common fallacies to avoid.  This book is a must read for exegetes.  Here are just some of the gems I have gleaned from Silva:

  • Language and concepts are not necessarily correlated.  For example, just because Hebrew lacks a future tense does not mean Hebrew-speakers lack a concept of the future.  All talk of the “Hebrew mind” versus the “Greek mind,” based on linguistic differences, is simply fallacious.  Linguistics cannot tell us about  a person’s worldview and mental categories.
  • Etymological studies and cognate languages are of limited value to exegesis.  The history of a word’s meaning may be of interest if you are a historian, but it is of little value if you want to know what that word means in the Biblical text you are studying.  To determine the meaning of a word used in the Biblical text, we must determine what it meant in the author’s day (synchronic meaning), not its origin and evolution (diachronic meaning).Just as most English speakers today are oblivious as to the etymology of the words we use (and even if we had such knowledge it would not affect our use of language), the same was true of the Biblical authors.  They were experts in what words meant in their time, not in days gone by.  For example, while the etymology of ekklesia is “called out ones,” to those in Paul’s day it simply meant “church.”  We should not expect, then, for a word’s etymology to have any bearing on the way a Biblical author used a particular word.

    Sometimes the etymology of a word is completely unrelated to its present meaning.  For example, the etymology of the English word “nice” comes from the Latin adjective nescius (noun, nescire[1]), which meant “ignorant.”  Over time, however, this negative word came to express something positive.  The present meaning has no semantic connection to its etymology.

    Etymology is necessary for exegesis only when we have no other way of knowing what a particular word means.  This is often the case for Hebrew.  Out of the ~8000 different words used in the Old Testament, 1300 are hapax legomena (meaning they only appear once) and 500 words occur only twice.  For many of these words there is not enough context to sufficiently determine the meaning, and thus we look to the words etymology and its cousins in cognate languages to determine its likely meaning.

  • Meaning is always determined by context, not by words.  The context informs the meaning.  A word that is utterly meaningless on its own can take on meaning in a context.  E.g. “Djeet.”  This is meaningless, unless I tell you that this word was spoken from one colleague to another around lunch time.Words have no inherent meaning.  They are given meaning by the way they are used.  For example, what is the meaning of “strike”?  The answer depends on what is being discussed: baseball, bowling, labor unions, lighting a match, or engaging in physical altercations.  Apart from a context, we don’t even know if the word is a noun or a verb.  The same is true of Biblical words.  Most words have a range of meaning, and that meaning is defined by the context and grammatical structures.

    Dictionaries merely report the way words are being used at present.  We can usually learn more about the meaning of a word by looking at its context than by looking at a dictionary.  Consider the meaning of hamartia.  We learn much more about the meaning of hamartia by John’s statement that “hamartia is the transgression of the law” than by an examination of the word itself, or tracing its etymology.

    Proskuneo can refer to worship, homage paid to political leaders, or an entreaty accompanied by kneeling or prostration.  It would be a mistake, then, to translate every occurrence of proskuneo as “worship.”  It is exegetically fallacious to assume that just because the word is used of Jesus that it means people were worshipping Him as God (Mt 2:11; 20:20; Jn 12:20).  Only the context can determine the type of proskuneo being offered.

    Or consider Biblical words for time and eternity.  Because the Bible says so little about the nature of time and eternity, some theologians try to derive a philosophical view of time and eternity from specific Hebrew and Greek words themselves.

  • We should not confuse words for reality. Some languages use the same word to refer to several different realities.  For example, the Spanish word llave is used to refer to keys, wrenches, and faucets, but clearly these are three different realities.  Similarly, sometimes a single entity or concept is expressed by different words.  It would be a mistake to think that because two different words are used, they must be referring to two different entities.The denotative theory of language claims that all words are symbols/names for extra-linguistic realities.  While this is true of some words, the vast majority of words do not point to objects in the real world (e.g. beautiful, for, anxiety, true, etc.).  There is no direct link between words and things.  Symbols do not necessarily have any referent in reality.  “Having meaning” is different than “standing for.”  Words have meaning because they are used to convey meaning, but words do not always denote an object in the real world.  It’s not so much that words means this and that, but that they are used in this way and that way.
  • While there is some value in determining the meaning of Hebrew or Greek words based on their use in the LXX, this approach has limited value for the following reasons:
    1. The LXX is not always a good translation.
    2. The meaning of a word may have changed since the time the LXX was translated.  We cannot assume that a Greek word that was used to translate a particular Hebrew word in 200 BC, still has that same meaning in AD 60.Just because the NT writers were intimately familiar with the way the LXX used Greek words does not mean they used the same Greek words in the same way.  This is true even in our own day among KJV-only advocates.  While they are fiercely dedicated to the KJV and intimately familiar with its language, they do not use the word “quick” to refer to being “alive” unless they are employing old English idioms such as “the quick and the dead.”
    3. Consider the different English words used in a single translation to translate the Hebrew nephesh: soul, life, appetite, person, creature.  These words are not synonymous with each other.  And sometimes we translate nephesh as “soul” when the clear meaning of nephesh in the context is “life.”
    4. The NT authors may not have been using a Greek word the same way the LXX used it because the meaning of the Greek word had chanc.  We cannot assume that the writers of the NT were using Greek words in the same way the LXX did, even though they were intimately familiar with the LXX.  This is so even in our own day among KJV-only advocates.  While they are fiercely dedicated to the KJV, they do not use the word “quick” to refer to being “alive,” unless they are using it in a standard, old idiom such as “the quick and the dead.”It would be a mistake, then, to think that because a particular Greek word in the LXX is used to translate a particular Hebrew word, that the Greek word tells us about the true meaning of the Hebrew, or that the Hebrew word being translated tells us about the meaning of the Greek.
  • “Semantic conservatism” is the phenomenon by which a word’s range becomes narrower over time, such that it comes to have one primary meaning.  E.g. arguriov referred to a “silver coin,” but it came to refer specifically to a shekel.  Sunagoge referred to a “place of meeting,” but it came to refer specifically to a synagogue.  Ekklesia referred to an “assembly,” but came to refer to the church.  Euangellion meant “good news,” but came to refer specifically to the good news of Jesus.  It would be a mistake to see a word as referring to the broader concept at a time when its meaning had become much more specific.
  • Synonyms overlap in their semantic domain (meaning), and yet each word has a distinct meaning.  It would be a mistake, however, to always assume that if a Biblical author uses synonym X rather than synonym Y, that he does so because he wants to emphasize the nuances of X over Y.  Sometimes the norms of language will dictate which synonym will be used regardless of a words nuances (contextual restrictions), making an author’s use of X over Y arbitrary in that instance.  Consider the synonyms “strong” and “powerful.”  Either adjective could be juxtaposed with “argument” (strong argument, powerful argument), but the same cannot be said in all contexts.  For example, we would never say, “This coffee is too powerful” or “He drives a strong car.”  Convention dictates which adjective is appropriate to use.  It would be a mistake for someone 2000 years from now, reading these statements, to think that there is significance in our choice of “powerful” over “strong” in describing our coffee.  The same can be said of the Greek New Testament.  Sometimes an author chose one word over another simply because that’s the word native speakers always used in that context, and no special emphasis or nuanced meaning was intended.  It’s simply a convention.
  • Translating some words may require different English words in different contexts – not because the author’s meaning was different in context Q than it was in context P, but because the English word used to translate the Hebrew or Greek in context P makes for bad English in context Q.To illustrate, consider the Spanish words for eat (comer) and drink (tomar).  English speakers use the word “eat” to refer to the ingesting of both a taco and a bowl of soup, whereas Spanish speakers would speak of eating (comer) a taco and drinking (tomar) a bowl of soup.  Why?  It’s because “eating” and “drinking” are defined with reference to how the food is taken to the mouth in the English language, whereas in Spanish these words are defined in reference to the constitution of the food.  It would be a mistake for a Spanish speaker to assume that, in English, “to eat” means both comer and tomar since both words are used to translate the English “eat.”  Clearly the English word “eat” does not mean both eating and drinking.

    Biblical exegetes make this exact mistake, however.  Consider the Greek word soma.  In Greek it means “body,” but that doesn’t always make for good English in certain contexts.  Instead, it might be translated as “human being” or “person.”  We would be mistaken, however, to conclude that soma can either refer to the human body or the whole human person (body and soul) on the basis of the meaning of the English words used to translate soma.


[1]Nescire is the antonym of scire, which means “knowledge.”

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