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16 March 2017

Preaching the dictionary.

How to keep from misusing the original languages in your bible study.

Six years ago I was visiting a family member’s church, and the pastor had just started a series about home-based small groups. His proof-text came from Acts 2, where Luke described the actions of all the brand-new Christians in Jerusalem:

Acts 2.42-47 KWL
42 They were hewing close to the apostles’ teaching,
to community, to breaking bread, and to prayers.
43 Reverence came to every soul,
and many wonders and signs happened through the apostles.
44 Every believer looked out for one another, and put everything in common use:
45 They sold possessions and property, and divided proceeds among all,
just because some were needy.
46 Those who hewed close unanimously were in temple daily,
breaking bread at home, happily, generously, wholeheartedly sharing food,
47 praising God, showing grace to all people.
The Master added saved people to them daily.

He was using the NLT, I believe. Its verse 46 goes like so:

Acts 2.46 NLT
They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

“They met in homes,” he pointed out. “The Greek word for ‘home’ is oíkos.” (Yep, just like Dannon’s brand of Greek yogurt. See?—knowing Greek comes in handy.) “And according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, that means ‘a dwelling; by implication, a family.’ So what that verse really means is that they met as families.”

Um… no. It means what the NLT rendered it as: “They met in homes.” If “They met as families” would’ve been a better translation, that’s how they would’ve translated it. It’s how I would’ve translated it. It’s how any translation would’ve translated it, but check out all the different English translations on Bible Gateway, and you’ll find not one of these translations decided, “Y’know, oíkos really means ‘family,’ so we’re going with that.”

But the pastor had a point he wanted to make: That the Christians of his church oughta meet together in one another’s homes, and be family together. Which isn’t a bad idea. In fact it’s precisely what church oughta be. It’s just he was trying to prove it from Acts 2.46, the misuse of a Greek dictionary… and the wow factor of a secret, cryptic meaning which you never really knew before, didja? “Home” really means “family.” Wow!

Okay yes, in certain contexts, oíkos can mean family. As when Paul told the Corinthian guard that he and his whole house/family would be saved. Ac 16.31 But all translation depends on context. If it doesn’t—if every instance of oíkos means family—then explain to me Jesus’s story about a wise man who built his house on rock and a foolish man who built his house on stand, Mt 7.24-27 and do try not to sound ridiculous.

Translators—more so than your preacher—know what they’re doing.

Whenever you get a preacher who claims the translators of the bible got it wrong, and the words really mean something significantly different, this should raise a warning sign. A bright, flashing, waving, hollering warning sign. With a siren.

I’m not defending any particular translation. I mean any bible. Really every bible. If there’s no translation of the bible in existence which picked the interpretation your preacher’s going with, what’re we supposed to think? That every English-language bible translator, from John Wycliffe on down, managed to miss something which only your preacher noticed? That your preacher is right, and everyone else is wrong? You do realize this is how cults start. A cult’s a worst-case scenario, but still: Best to never start dabbling in their behavior.

Nor am I saying bible translators are infallible. If you’ve read TXAB long enough, you know I’ve taken issue with lots of translations. I translate the scriptures myself, y’know. It’s part of my research. In so doing I compare them with other translations so I can catch my mistakes. Sometimes I instead catch their mistakes. I’ve found mistakes in reference books too.

But I can always point to other translations which don’t make these mistakes. The rule of thumb is the general consensus of bible translations have got the right idea. The majority, I find, gets it right, and cancels out the few who don’t. That is, when we bother to look at the general consensus, instead of clinging to our one favorite translation. (Including me, clinging to my translation.)

So, by and large bible translators know what they’re doing.

But there are two kinds of Christians who dabble in biblical languages. There are those, like me, who wanna see the nuts and bolts of the process, who wanna see all the nuance in the original text which English translations, sadly, take a little bit away from. (Not so much the translations become invalid; definitely not. That’s how Muslims think, but Christianity has always been multilingual. Well, except for some churches in the Bible Belt.) We wanna contribute to the process of bible interpretation, and help fellow scholars double-check one another. Iron sharpening iron, y’know.

Then there are those who don’t trust anyone. Don’t trust the translators. Don’t trust the translations. Suspect there’s some sort of deep, hidden knowledge being denied them. They don’t take language classes to contribute, but to gain. They don’t care to surrender to the consensus, but to go their own way. They wanna be right, and can’t accept the fact we’re wrong.

So many Christians have been burned by this second group, I can understand why they’re leery of anyone who tackles translating the bible. They hassle me about it because they don’t realize my motives, and worry I’m another one of those guys who’s trying to slip his own corrupt ideas into his bible translation. My defense is really simple: Go ahead and compare my translations with any other bible. Hopefully it stands up. If not, okay; I must’ve made a mistake. It happens. I’m fallible. Sorry.

When done right, the dictionary’s a good thing.

There is a valid form of preaching the dictionary. When Paul and Sosthenes described love by saying it has patience, behaves kindly, doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion, doesn’t draw attention to how great it is, doesn’t exaggerate, and so forth, 1Co 13.4 there’s nothing wrong with cracking that Greek dictionary and looking up what these verbs mean. (Especially since too many English translations turn ’em into adjectives, which they’re not. The apostles were describing what love does, less so what love is. Big difference.)

So sometimes you’re gonna hear a sermon where someone does a rundown of the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians, and what each of those words mean. There’ll be a whole lot of Greek dictionary in there. That’s fine. Well, assuming they’re reading the whole of the Greek dictionary’s article, and not leaping to the definition which suits them best.

See, that’s when they go awry. They’re not looking up the definitions so they can better understand the scriptures. They’re looking for the definitions they like best. That pastor I mentioned in the beginning: He went to the Strong’s Dictionary, skipped the usual definition of oíkos—the “house” or “home” that you’re gonna find 99 times out of a hundred in any bible, ’cause it’s the proper interpretation—and picked the least-likely definition which proved his point best.

They’re not defining the words; they’re redefining them.

Most of the time they do this to be different. It’s to make the listeners say wow. “I never heard that before. This preacher is so smart!” It’s to make ’em sound like a wise, insightful biblical scholar. It’s to make it sound like the bible has all kinds of deep, mysterious, secret wisdom that nobody but those scholars can unlock. Well, scholars with a Strong’s Dictionary, anyway; anyone can find that on the internet. It’s all about getting the preacher authority and honor—undeserved, of course.

In some cases—no foolin’—they’re not above inventing a definition. I own several fairly popular and widely respected biblical language dictionaries. Strongs of course; plus the Brown/Driver/Briggs Hebrew lexicon, the Liddell/Scott Greek lexicon, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament—to name a few. I have them in the computer so I can access them fast. And from time to time I find none of their definitions match the definition some preacher claims for a word. The dictionaries are really good at matching one another. But when they don’t match the preacher, it means either the preacher’s using some obscure dictionary, or we have a case of straight-up fabrication. Or, to be less polite, lies.

I experienced a lot of dictionary-preaching growing up. My preachers “corrected” the bible so often that I came to believe you couldn’t trust any translation; I’d have to learn Hebrew and Greek in order find out what a bible really said. And after three years of ancient languages, what I eventually discovered is this: Bible translators aren’t anywhere near that sloppy. Preachers, however, are.

Preaching the English dictionary.

In churches who worship prefer the King James Version, you won’t find a lot of ’em using the Greek or Hebrew dictionaries. That’s because their teachers (assuming they had any) told them not to. I delved into their fears of Greek in my article on Jack T. Chick’s KJV-only beliefs.

They’re afraid this is gonna happen. Jack T. Chick, The Attack 19

So instead of “In the original language, that word means…” they won’t even touch the original language, but get out a dictionary.

“The bible says in Psalm 4.4 to ‘stand in awe and sin not.’ And according to Webster’s, ‘awe’ means ‘a mixed feeling of reverence, fear, and wonder, caused by something sublime.’ So today I’m going to preach on the three attitudes we ought to have towards the sublime God: Reverence, fear, and wonder.” Thank you Webster’s; you’ve provided that preacher the three points he wanted for his sermon. Never mind the fact rigzú, which the KJV renders “stand in awe,” really means “tremble,” and refers to any strong emotion which might lead us to lose our cool and sin, and that maybe a proper sermon on this verse would be about keeping one’s head. But I digress.

Part of the problem is the fact the KJV was translated 500 years ago. The words of the English language have evolved just a tad since. Particularly after we Americans got ahold of them. So, some of the words mean the very same thing they did 500 years ago. But some don’t at all.

Back then, “awe” meant terror. It doesn’t now. Christians who believe in a loving God occasionally have a hard time teaching we should be terrified of God. So they reinterpreted “awe” to mean terror-due-to-reverence. It didn’t take 500 years for that to happen, either; it took less than a century. In Samuel Johnson’s dictionary—the first English dictionary which was any good, published 144 years after the KJV—he defined awe as “reverential fear; reverence.” Johnson’s proof-quotes didn’t come from the bible, either. They were all from then-contemporary books.

So to define the KJV’s words, we need a 500-year-old dictionary. Or an Oxford English Dictionary, which in the full multi-volume unabridged version will tell us what words used to mean. But your average dictionary-preacher doesn’t use the Oxford dictionary. He uses Webster’s. (Not sure which Webster’s, ’cause the name isn’t copyrighted, so any publisher can use it. But still.)

When someone preaches the English dictionary, they assume people aren’t gonna double-check with a different bible translation. But other translations are our best defense against such people. In the NKJV and ESV, “Stand and awe and sin not” has become, in the NKJV and ESV, “Be angry and do not sin.” It’s likely the verse Paul had in mind when he quoted it. Ep 4.26 Others go with the more literal “Tremble and do not sin,” (NET, NASB, NIV) because they’re not gonna assume what David meant by rigzú, but leave it up to the reader. Could mean trembling in anger, like Paul suggested. But you’re not gonna deduce that from the KJV and a modern English dictionary.

Now, KJV fans aren’t the only people who do this. I’ve seen preachers quote Webster’s with the NIV. Never even occurred to them to use Strong’s. And they’ll do just as a misbegotten Strong’s-quoter will: They’ll pick the most unique definition and try to preach it. “Tremble” can refer to an unsteady or hesitant voice, so their sermon becomes about how we should always be hesitant to commit sin. True, but it’s still not at all what David meant.

Best case, you’re just gonna get a sermon full of nice-sounding, true-enough, but useless platitudes. Worst case, you’re gonna get heresy. Which people won’t notice, ’cause they like the false message. It resonates so much with their flesh, they’ll even respond, “I can feel in my spirit it’s true!” That ain’t your spirit, chum.

So let’s pay close attention when people try to preach from the dictionary. Double-check them on your phone; find out if Strong’s really does say what they claim it does. Don’t fall for the whole secret-knowledge vibe they’re trying to evoke. God’s revealed his secrets. We’ve got them. Let no one, including me, tell you different.