Mistakes we might make in our word studies.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 March

You saw what I did there, right?

Last month I wrote about how to do a word study, and in that piece I largely emphasize how not to go to the dictionary first. ’Cause that’s how you do a word study wrong. Instead of drawing from the bible how its authors define a word, y’wind up overlaying the dictionary definition on top of the bible—whether it fits or not. (Or to use scholars’ words for it, y’wind up doing eisegesis instead of exegesis.)

When people are overlay a definition upon the bible, they’re rarely looking at the context of the passage. (Yep, I’m gonna harp about context again. It’s important here too.) The few who do bother to look at context, often try to bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate it so it fits their new definition.

Fr’instance a fellow teacher of mine was trying to tell his kids about making plans for the future, for “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Pr 29.18 KJV Except he couldn’t find that verse in his NIV, because they translate khazón as “revelation.” See, khazón means revelatory vision, i.e. something from God. Not our hopes and wishes for the future, but his. That’s why the second part of the verse, the part everybody forgets to quote, is “But he that keepeth the Law, happy is he.” Pr 29.18 KJV Context explains what “vision” means. But my fellow didn’t give a sloppy crap about what “vision” properly means; he wanted to correct his kids who had no goals, and wanted to use the bible to help him smack ’em on the head. Context shmontext.

The same thing happens when Christians fixate on the dictionary in our word studies. We start with a word we like; one which we already sorta know the definition of. We find a dictionary which gives us the definition we like. We dig out a bunch of verses and paste that definition over them, then try to interpret the scriptures by them, then marvel at all the new “revelation” we’re getting.

If Christians take the bible out of context in their regular, day-to-day bible reading, better than average chance they’re gonna take it out of context in their word studies. They’re just trying to cruise through their word study; they don’t think context is important, and don’t care. But if we’re planning to live our lives based on these bible verses, context is always important. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor,” he proceeded to spell out in detail just who our neighbors are, lest there’s any mistake in our minds. Lk 10.25-37 But when we skip context there’ll be plenty of mistakes in our minds. How many people presume “neighbor” only means the people in our immediate neighborhoods? Is that how Jesus defined it? Not even close.

Treating languages like codes.

Here’s a regular mistake I find among Americans: This belief that a foreign language is just like a code. So, translation is just like decoding. Find out the English equivalent to every word, and there y’are.

Anyone who’s ever studied a foreign language, be it Spanish, French, German, Portuguese—or, if your first language isn’t English, English—knows better. A word is a label for an idea. Some words are the labels for many or multiple ideas. “Love” means eight different things in English. Not all these eight ideas line up precisely with the ideas behind the Hebrew or Greek words for love. So we gotta figure out which idea is in each verse, on a verse by verse basis. We can’t merely assume it’ll always be the same idea—even if it’s the same word!

Fr’instance the Greek verb érhomai Sometimes it means “come.” Sometimes it means “go.” How can it mean both come and go? ’Cause technically it means to move from one place to another—and we gotta deduce from the context whether the people in the verse are moving to, or fro. (Yep, context again. Hey, it’s gonna come up a lot.)

Most of the people who make this mistake tend to be monolingual: They speak only one language. (Usually English. Not necessarily well.) So of course they don’t understand how translation works. This is why they keep demanding “literal” translations of the bible: They believe the “literal” translations decode the bible best. In reality, many times they translate the bible worst, because people read those wooden interpretations and don’t understand them. And guess at what they mean. And guess wrong.

The trouble with treating a language like a code is people are gonna assume a word has the very same meaning, every time. So they assume when Jesus used the verb aghapáo, and when Paul used aghapáo, they meant the very same thing as one another. That both of ’em were thinking of the Old Testament word for it, the KJV’s “lovingkindness,” khecéd/“love.”

Problem is, no they weren’t necessarily. Note the verses Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, like “Love your neighbor.” Mk 12.31, Lv 19.18 In the OT, the Hebrew word was aháv/“love.” That word is about as loose in meaning as our English word: It can likewise mean affection, favoritism, friendship, infatuation, romance, and so forth. It can mean a lot more than khecéd or aghapáo. And the ancient Greeks meant just as many things by aghapáo (and its related noun, aghápi). This is why Paul had to correct the Greeks, and spell out how proper love is khecéd. 1Co 13.4-8

Now. Lots of preachers like to make a big fuss about Jesus’s conversation with Simon Peter after his resurrection, where he asked Simon, “Do you aghapás/‘love’ me?” and Simon kept responding, “Yes, I filó/‘love’ you.” Jn 21.15-17 They love to point out how Jesus and Simon were using two whole different words for love—and you’d never notice it, ’cause bible translators keep translating both words “love,” as if they’re interchangeable. Ha-ha, those silly translators!

But here’s the thing: In ancient Greek culture, both aghapáo and filéo frequently were interchangeable. Simon might’ve earnestly meant he cared more about Jesus than anything, but just couldn’t bring himself to use aghapáo—much like any immature adult who describes their romances with “like” because they can’t bring themselves to say “love.” Same idea, different word. Because translation isn’t merely decoding. We gotta study context, motives, character, all sorts of additional stuff. Every translator of every language does.

If it helps, bear in mind the bible isn’t simply one book with one author. It’s many books, many authors, each of whom reserved the right to use words in their own way. Much like English-language authors, they had their own quirks, own favorite turns of phrase, own odd little way of meaning something slightly out of the ordinary with their particular vocabularies. Paul sometimes redefined words to suit his discussions. So did John. Luke did not. So it’s not wise to assume Paul, John, and Luke meant the very same thing with the same words. They might—but never just assume they do.

Having too few examples.

The more instances of a word in the bible, the more accurate your word study is gonna be. But sometimes you’re gonna study a word which only appears five times. Or four, or three, or two… or once. (The technical term for a word which only appears once is a hapax legomena, Greek for “[something] said once.”)

When you have too few examples, it’s really hard to do a word study. Not impossible, but not easy. Because the dictionary still comes last… but now you only have two or three verses to read (or even just one), and the last step is the dictionary, and you get to that last step mighty fast. Sometimes you really have to look it up: It’s near impossible to deduce the meaning of your word from certain individual verses.

Give you an example:

Isaiah 50.3 KWL
“I make the skies wear dark clothes. I use sackcloth to cover them.”

This is the only time the word qadrút/“dark clothes” appears in the bible. The KJV went with “blackness,” the NIV and many others with “darkness.” Where’d I get “dark clothes”? Dictionary.

See, the word is similar, probably related, to the verb qadár/“be dark.” Since qadrút ends in -t, it sounds like a plural; since God used the verb albíš/“I make it wear,” it seems the whatever things “qadrút” represents must be clothes. And of course, there’s line 2—“I use sackcloth to cover them”—which is the same idea as making the skies wear dark clothes. So, basic deduction—with a little help from the dictionary.

But do I know “qadrút” means dark clothes? Not for certain. After all, I’m not a Hebrew-speaker from the 700s BC Jerusalem. I made a basic deduction from the facts I have at hand. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

And that’s my point: I wouldn’t bet my life on it. When we’re studying bible, and unearth hard facts, we should be able to bet our lives on them. After all, we’re trying to follow Jesus, and trying to get the scriptures to help us in the task. Following Jesus can be risky though. Worthwhile, but still risky. So we want lots of evidence before we take risks: Our word study had better include loads of verses so we can know what the scriptures teach. I can hang my hat on this interpretation… but will I trust it to suspend me from a helicopter, without snapping off and dropping me into jagged rocks? Nah. I’d need more verses.

In the same way, sometimes we need more verses in our word study. Two will make us more certain of the word’s meaning. Three is better. Ten is way better. And so forth.