Misadventures with the dictionary.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 August 2020

When I wrote about how to do a word study, I pointed out gotta use the dictionary last, for confirmation. Not first, as people tend to do.

’Cause several mistakes in interpretation are precisely the result of reading the dictionary first. When we were kids, most of us were taught if you wanna know what a word means, look it up in the dictionary! So we came to think of the dictionary as a primary source of information. But when we’re doing word study, the dictionary’s not primary. The bible is.

And for that matter, when a dictionary’s editors put it together, they did word studies. They don’t look up their words in a different dictionary. (The first guys to make dictionaries didn’t have dictionaries to go to.) They looked at literature. How’d previous writers use these words? How did John Milton, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, or John Wycliffe use the words? For an American English dictionary, they particularly look at how American writers use these words, ’cause we’re gonna use ’em differently than a British, Indian, Australian, Canadian, or Irish writer would. They look at the general consensus of the population, then put that into their dictionary.

So… what if they deduced the consensus wrong? Or what if you, as the reader, misunderstand what they did, or are trying to do, with their dictionary? Either way, you get errors.

When we go to the dictionary first, we wind up with the following problems. Instead of studying our word, we study…

The translation of the word.

This’d be those folks whose word studies never involve an original-language dictionary. When they look up peace, they never look up the Hebrew שָׁלֹם/šalóm or Greek εἰρήνη/eiríni; they’re using a Webster’s Dictionary, which has no foreign-language words in it. They look at what our culture means by peace. Not what the writers of the bible meant by it.

If your word study never involves the original languages, you’re doing it wrong. Period.

A variation of this is when people do look up the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek words… then read our current English words into them. I wrote on when people find out the Greek word for “power” is δύναμις/dýnamis, then claim God’s power is an explosive power, ’cause they connected the dots between dýnamis and dynamite. But if you’ve ever truly experienced God’s power, you know it’s not a flash in the pan; it’s a continual source of unending strength. But that “dynamite” interpretation still gets around. ’Cause it’s a flash in the pan.

The word’s history.

Words evolve. The English and French word table comes from the Saxon word tabule, which in turn from the Latin word tabula. Historians, especially word historians, find it interesting to see how words moved from one language to another, and this is why dictionaries frequently include these word histories. But here’s the problem: Our English word table, same as in French, means a piece of furniture with a flat work surface. The Latin word tabula properly means a tablet: It’s a flat board which you write on. (Yep, we got tablet from it.) A table and a tabula aren’t the same thing. They’re similar; they’re both flat work surfaces. Still.

Now we understand this, ’cause we speak English and know what a table is. But when we don’t know ancient Hebrew or first-century Greek—and most of us don’t—when people come across the word-histories in our Hebrew or Greek dictionaries, they think these are insights.

Homer, who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, wrote in ancient Greek. So did the playwright Aristophanes and the philosopher Aristotle. Sometimes dictionaries will tell us what Homer meant when he used the word ἄγγελος/ángelos, ’cause it’s interesting. But what dictionaries won’t always remind us, is Homer wrote his poems 800 years before the New Testament. He wrote ’em before Isaiah was born.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales about 630 years ago. Ever tried to read Chaucer in the original middle English? You’ll immediately notice English has changed a lot in the past six centuries. Many of the words no longer mean what they did in Chaucer’s day. So… is ancient Greek any different? Nope.

Aristophanes wrote 400 years before the New Testament. (So, closer to Nehemiah’s time.) Aristotle wrote 350 years before. Both these guys wrote in a form of ancient Greek we call Ἀττικός/Attikós, or “Attic” (it really means “Athenian, ’cause these guys are of course from Athens). In contrast the New Testament was written in κοινός/kinós, or “common” ancient Greek—changed by three centuries of interaction with Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Asians, and Romans. Loanwords were added. Other words changed meaning and form. What it meant to Homer isn’t necessarily what it meant to John, Luke, Matthew, Paul, or Jesus.

Scholars are pretty sure Paul invented a few words. ’Cause we can’t find these words anywhere else in first-century Greek writings before Paul used ’em. Likewise Paul felt free to come up with his own definitions of certain common words: When he wrote on ἀγάπη/aghápi and defined love for the Corinthians, 1Co 13.4-8 he actually went against the popular Corinthian definition of love. For ancient Greeks, aghápi isn’t patient, kind, and selfless: It’s relentless, and stops at nothing till it gets what it pursues. Paul flipped its meaning over entirely—because he was thinking of the Old Testament concept of love, as defined by God’s faithful, merciful, kind חֶסֶד/khecéd.

Paul used aghápi different from everybody else in his culture. Bluntly, he used it wrong. And yet, for us Christians, it’s entirely right. Among us, his “wrong” definition became the right one. After Paul redefined aghápi, you’re never gonna hear a preacher talk about what it originally meant.

Not so true of other Greek words. Fr’instance the word ἁμαρτία/amartía, “sin.” It comes from ἁμαρτάνω/amartáno, “not hit [one’s target],” like when you’re throwing a spear and hit the charioteer instead of the archer. Homer used it to also describe moral failures, so over time it evolved into our concept of sin… but Christians keep insisting “sin” really means missing the mark. You likely know from personal experience: Many sinners aren’t even trying to hit the mark. Some trespassers stumble into the wrong space accidentally, but more of them deliberately ignore those boundaries ’cause they don’t care about ’em at all, and that’s more the nature of sin than trying and failing and “missing the mark.”

The word-roots.

Since I’ve already stumbled upon the issue of word-roots…

The Greek word for patience is μακροθυμία/makrothymía It’s a compound word (made up of two words, like “windbag” or “forklift”) from μακρός/makrós “long” and θυμός/thymós “anger.” But it doesn’t mean “long anger,” any more than blackmail refers to black chainmail or black envelopes. Splitting it apart doesn’t give you a better idea of what it means; it gives you the wrong idea. You’ll assume it means bitterness, not patience.

A more common mistake is the Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία/ekklisía, which literally means a council or congress. But it’s a compound of ἐκ/ek “from” and καλέω/kaléo “call.” Hence many a Christian claims the church consists of “a called-out people.” After all, Jesus calls his followers away from the evil and sin in the world, and calls us unto himself. It still doesn’t make this a proper definition of ekklisía: The ancient Greeks used it to describe groups. Politicians, philosophers, students, convicts, soldiers—any and every group. And the church is Jesus’s group.

Plenty of folks nonetheless go ga-ga for root words, and whenever you hear a preacher start talking about the root words, watch out. More than likely, they did a sloppy job of word study, and you’re about to hear “the real meaning of the word”—which really isn’t.

The other definitions.

You’ll notice dictionaries have multiple definitions of many words. Fr’instance the English word “house”:

  1. A building people live in.
  2. A family. (Usually a noble family.)
  3. A building where people gather for other activities, like a house of prayer or a steakhouse.
  4. A legislature.
  5. A style of dance music.

But it’s fair to say when people usually say “house,” they mean a building people live in. Definition #1.

And too often a preacher tries to discover something “profound” by using anything but definition #1. Definition #1 is the proper one, but it doesn’t make the lesson unique; doesn’t make people sit up and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anyone say that before; it really speaks to me.” So they go with definition #2, or #3, or whatever wows the listeners most.

I’ve heard many, many preachers do this. Whenever preachers try to translate the bible themselves, and their translations go way off the beaten path, watch out. It’s the wrong path, with the potential to lead us astray.

Years ago I heard a sermon where the preacher’s entire point hinged on whether οὶκος/íkos means “sphere of influence.” It actually means “house.” (Although you might be more familiar with it as Dannon/Danone’s brand of Greek-style yogurt.) The preacher pointed out how the first Christians met in one another’s houses, Ac 2.46 and since he interpreted íkos as “sphere of influence,” he was trying to get his listeners to consider how we affect our respective spheres of influence. Now, let’s be honest: Christians should think about how we affect the people around us. It’s not a bad idea. It is, however, a bad interpretation. It’s not what Luke meant in Acts 2. If you really wanna preach that idea, I’ll bet you can find better verses in the bible to back it up. You don’t have to twist Acts 2, and force it into the text.

For whenever we find ourselves shoehorning our meaning into the text, no matter how good our idea may be, we’re still dishonestly warping the scriptures. We’re trying to disguise our message as bible, in order to swipe a bit of the bible’s authority. We’re false teachers.

To be fair, preachers don’t always go with definition #2 or #3 or #4 because they’re trying to deceive. Most of the time, it’s because they’ve fallen into the temptation of novelty: They wanna preach something new! They know their audience will appreciate something they’ve never heard before. It’s boring to say the same thing all the time. They’re out of idea on how to say it in new ways. They wanna preach something truly new; our culture loves new things. And what better way to appease other people, and our own bored selves, than to come up with a novel interpretation of the bible?

But we’re not allowed to preach anything new. The gospel hasn’t changed since Jesus first proclaimed it. It’s not gonna change—and that’s kinda awesome, ’cause it’s such good news! There might be nuances about it we’ve missed, or never noticed. We might introduce it, or reintroduce it, in multiple ways, same as Jesus did with his parables. But we have no right to change it simply to shake things up. That’s how people stumble away from Jesus. That’s how cults get started. Don’t try to invent new teachings and new interpretations! Rediscover the right ones.

All the definitions.

Just as often, preachers try to make something profound out of the scriptures by going through every alternate definition in their dictionary.

Fr’instance the Hebrew word יָד/yad. It literally means “hand.” But Hebrew uses idioms, just like English, so a hand might instead refer to something strong and helpful. Like God’s hands. “The hand of God” is mighty and powerful. Being in his hands doesn’t mean he literally picked us up; either he’s helping us out… or he’s gonna give us a spanking. Context should tell you whether it’s good news or bad. Likewise Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, Ep 1.20 which means he wields God’s power, not that he’s literally next to God’s literal right hand; he is God y’know.

And yad also means five or six other things. Like one’s possession. One’s presence. One’s personal access. A sign. A support. A portion. A side. And yes, Isaiah actually used it as a euphemism for a penis. Is 57.8 (The KJV left it untranslated; the ESV went with “nakedness.”) How do we know which definition to use? Context. If “hand” best fits the verse, yad means hand. If “power” is better, go with that instead. If “portion” then portion. And so on.

Yet some folks will take, fr’instance, “Neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand,” Dt 32.39 KJV and claim, “So today I’m gonna speak about how

  1. Nobody can take God’s power away from us.
  2. Nobody can take God’s support away from us.
  3. Nobody can take God’s portion away from us.
  4. Nobody can take God’s presence away from us.
  5. Nobody can take God’s access away from us.”

And so on. I’d better stop before he gets to God’s penis.

But y’see what he did, and both Christians and Jews have done this sort of thing throughout history. If you need to preach a three-point sermon, look up a word with three possible definitions, and preach the dictionary. Some Christian writers are notorious for it. They compare it to a jeweler looking at a cut gem, and looking at every facet of the gem, and seeing something new in it every time. So that’s what they claim they were doing with the scriptures.

A much better comparison would be a kid looking at anything through a kaleidoscope. A kaleidoscope isn’t a tool; it’s a bit of harmless fun. It shows a bit of something, then reflects it a whole bunch of times and makes it look grander—and pretty, in a way. Does it reveal anything new, or truthful, or hidden? Nah. It’s a fun way to kill time.

That’s what rifling through every definition will do for a word study. You won’t learn anything new or deep. You’ll just feel like you have, because you spent time on it. In the end, only one of these definitions is valid, and matters. And I hope to goodness you remember which one that is, because it’s the only one you can count on. The rest is useless wordplay.