Mistakes we might make in our word studies.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 September 2022

Yesterday I posted a piece about how to do a word study, and in it 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 overlay a definition upon the bible, they 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 the context as well till it fits their new definition.

Fr’instance. Years ago a fellow teacher was trying to teach his kids about planning 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 חָזוֹן/khazón as “revelation.” See, khazón means revelatory vision, i.e. not just any vision, but something we get 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 teacher didn’t give a sloppy crap about what “vision” actually means. He just wanted to correct his kids who had no goals, and wanted to use the bible to help him smack ’em on the head. So he taught what he pleased. Context shmontext.

The same thing happens whenever Christians fixate on the dictionary in our word studies. We start with a word or concept 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.

Hey, if Christians take the bible out of context in our regular, day-to-day bible reading, better than average chance we’re gonna take it out of context in our word studies. Such people 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 we found a Webster’s Dictionary which suggests a neighbor is only someone we like. Lk 10.25-37 Such dictionaries aren’t all that hard to find. There are already plenty of mistakes in our minds; how many more will come out when we skip context?

Treating languages like codes.

Here’s a mistake I regularly 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 ἔρχομαι/érhomë Sometimes it’s translated “I come,” and sometimes “I 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 context whether the people in the verse are coming or going. 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 bible best. In reality, they often translate bible worst: People read these wooden interpretations and struggle to understand them. Gotta guess at what they mean. Sometimes 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 ἀγαπάω/ayapáo, and when Paul used ayapáo, 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,” חֶסֶד/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 is אָהַב/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 ayapáo. And the ancient Greeks meant just as many things by aghapáo (and its related noun, ἀγάπη/ayápi). This is why Paul had to correct the Greeks, and spell out how proper godly 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 ἀγαπᾷς/ayapás [love] me?” and Simon kept responding, “Yes, I φιλῶ/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, ayapáo 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 “really, really 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 קַדְרוּת/qadrút, which I translate “dark clothes,” appears in the bible. The KJV went with “blackness,” and the NIV and many others with “darkness.” Where’d I get “dark clothes”?

Dictionary. See, the word is similar, probably related, to the verb קָדַר/qadár, “be dark.” Since qadrút ends in -t, it sounds like a plural; since God used the verb לָבַשׁ/laváš, “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.