by Scott Kellum
Word studies have been the preacher’s shiny coin for many years. The preacher will on occasion pull the coin out and dazzle his hearers with secret and esoteric knowledge.
Unfortunately, many of the word studies that I have heard from pulpits have been poorly done and even more poorly applied. I could pull example after example of my own abuses of Greek and Hebrew words but space will not permit. Let’s just say, I’m familiar with the topic.
The following post hopes to polish it up for us and to encourage us to use our tools well. What follows is just a few guidelines gleaned from my experience so we can all communicate more clearly. We’ll begin with some errors to avoid.
First, avoid thinking in terms of a “technical sense” to certain words. In our own lexical supply cabinet, we rarely have such words. So, why are we so quick to place Greek and Hebrew words in such a constraint? There are a few words in the Greek New Testament that do appear to have a “technical sense,” but even these may not always have this technical sense. Take, for example, πίστις (belief) and its cognates. Yes, it is used in “a technical sense” at certain places for saving trust in Christ—but not in every place. In John 2:23-25 (and other places) there are those who believe (πιστεύω) but don’t really believe. It is also unlikely that at Titus 1:6 τέκνα . . . πιστά refers to “children who believe” (NASB), but rather to “faithful children” (HCSB). So, avoid a strict one-size-fits-all approach.
Second, avoid anachronisms in defining the word studied. Many of theses occur when we break down the component parts of a word (etymology). Don’t think that the etymology exposes its meaning. To be blunt, the etymology of the word is next to useless in determining a word’s meaning because word usage changes over time. Because of this, classical usage or modern usage of a word is also irrelevant for a study. English is littered with such examples; Greek and Hebrew is too. So look for the meaning of the word in its context (for Koinē Greek, roughly between 100 BC to AD 100).
Third, avoid dumping the entire semantic range of a word in a single instance in your text. This is James Barr’s “illegitimate totality transfer.” You should instead choose the range that fits your context. Occasionally a writer will express double entendre that is playing on multiple semantic ranges of a word, but it is rarer than usually preached.
Fourth, avoid English cognates. For example, the Greek word δύναμις (“power”) does NOT mean “dynamite,” ποίημα (“that which is made”) does NOT mean “poem,” and οὐρανὸς (“heaven”) does NOT mean “uranium.” Again, being blunt, this practice does not get us one step closer to a correct interpretation. Instead, only use a cognate if
1) it communicates the content of the Greek word and
2) it is relevant to the use of the word in its context.
These and several other commonly made errors in word studies are listed in a table at the end of the post.
In this light, should we abandon word studies altogether? Absolutely not! (As Paul would say, “μὴ γένοιτο”). The teacher of God’s Word should make every effort to represent it well to his/her audience. Lexicography is a valuable tool in your communication tool-box.
So, let’s explore a better procedure. First, pick an important word(s) to study. I look at things like words in a list, rare words, theologically important words (especially verbs), and words about which commentaries differ.
Second, look at lexical entries for those words. Quite a number of online resources make use of public domain lexicons like Thayer’s and Strong’s. Unfortunately, these are not the best available because of either obsolescence or target audience. Avoid these and use more up-to-date sources. The best NT lexicons are not available with free online services, but are often bundled in software programs.
Third, pick the right semantic domain of the word in your context and make a list of every occurrence of this domain in the Bible using a good concordance. At this point, you should be seeing some interesting things!
Fourth, if you can, look at extrabiblical uses of the word (The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae [TLG] and some Lexicons like BDAG or Liddell & Scott list some examples). As stated above, limit yourself to examples between 100 BC and AD 100.
Finally, consult theological dictionaries to see what others have said about your word(s). TDNT (Kittel), NIDNTT (by Moisés Silva, recently updated) are the industry standards on the matter. Notice, I put these last. Once you have done your own homework, you can both understand the dictionaries better and evaluate how good the entry is.
This same procedure can be used with Bible software in conjunction with a number of internet resources. The software can speed up the concordance process by quickly looking up every occurrence of a word in your corpus. It also, depending on the resource, can provide quality lexicons (some also provide not-so-great lexicons, so caveat emptor!).
Some software programs can also provide quite a number of resources for extrabiblical examples. In conjunction with a number of online databases and resources (see links below), Bible software can really speed up the process. So if you are spending money, spend it here. Bibleworks, Logos, Accordance, Olive Tree, and WordSearch are all excellent software platforms. The caveat regarding software, however, is that it can only generate results based on the user’s ability to use it. Spend time learning how it works (and, yes, some are more difficult to use than others).
I’ll conclude with a word about libraries. Libraries are no longer repositories for books and journals in print. They are more of a central hub for research. Quite a number of university and seminary libraries have enormous online databases that often include e-books like the Loeb classical library. For example, students and alumni of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary have online access to the EBSCO databases among other elite research capabilities. Check with your local seminary’s library to see if they offer free services to alumni or pastors. Many do.
In summary, lexicography is neither the apex of the study of the Greek New Testament nor the poor handmaiden. It is, however, a powerful communication tool as we teach and preach the Word of God. Effort here pays off rich dividends for your understanding of the Scriptures. So, dive in!
Links to Sites Helpful for Lexicography
The following is a list of links to free resources and databases useful to NT lexicography.
Non-biblical and Classical Usage of Words
Includes a free database to registered users to search ancient non-biblical examples of words. Also has a series of lexicons, among other resources.
Includes an open-source resource for a variety of Greek documents including a word-study tool. The Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) lexicon is also located here.
Sometimes it is helpful to consult the early church fathers. Early Christian Writings has them mainly in English (it’s often good to compare). Those beyond the 2nd century would not be particularly helpful, though, for NT Philology.
Greek Concordance Tools
In addition to the software platforms mentioned above, the following are online resources for doing lexicography in both the Greek NT and Hebrew OT.
Laparola is a multifunctional free Greek New Testament tool that has a lot of bells and whistles. Under “find words” you can find the occurrence of your word in the New Testament.
Biola University’s “unbound Bible” features a search tool that includes Greek searches in both the Greek NT and the LXX.
|10 Basic Word-Study Errors|
|Semantic Domain Conflation Error||Reading the various meanings that a word has in all its contexts in the Bible into a single passage.|
|Sense vs. Referent Error||Confusing the meaning of a term with the immediate reference of the term.|
|The “Basic Meaning” Error||Translating every occurrence of a word with the same English gloss.|
|Etymology Error||Reducing the meaning of a word to its component parts.|
|Semantic Domain Error||imposing the wrong semantic domain on a single occurrence of a word.|
|Contextual Meaning vs. Lexical Meaning Error||Confusing a word’s usage with its base meaning. A word may be used in a single context that carries a meaning not used elsewhere (e.g., “abide” in John 15:5-7).|
|Anachronistic Error||Imposing late meanings on NT occurrences.|
|Obsolescence Error||Imposing ancient meanings onto NT usage. Classical usage sections in TDNT and NIDNTT can aggravate this problem.|
|The “Technical Meaning” Error||Assuming an overly strict meaning to every instance of a word.|
|Semantic Overlap vs. Semantic Equivalence Error||Confusing words with an overlapping meaning for complete synonyms and vice-versa.|
Scott Kellum is professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. He is the author of several books including Preaching the Farewell Discourse: An Expository Walk-through of John 13:31 – 17:26 (B&H Academic, 2014); The Unity of the Farewell Discourse: The Literary Integrity of John 13:31 – 16:33 (T&T Clark, 2004); and coauthor of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H Academic, 2009), among other works. You can follow Dr. Kellum on Twitter @kellum_s.
This post is adapted from Scott Kellum’s book Preaching the Farewell Discourse: An Expository Walk-Through of John 13:31– 17:26 (B&H Academic, 2014).
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