A problem that contributes to our misunderstanding of the Bible and disagreements with one another is misuse of the ancient languages in which the Bible was written: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Usually, Greek is the most misused since most students can grasp basic Greek much easier than Hebrew or Aramaic. Additionally, there are many Greek language resources—lexicons, dictionaries, and word studies—available to the average student.
However, the availability of Greek resources may be the source of the problem. Those who know little Greek may often boast that they can still do a word study. As Phil Roberts said in a lecture at Florida College, linguists would argue that only someone with intimate knowledge of the Greek should do a word study. A true word study considers the use of the word in both the Bible and extra-biblical literature as well as its varied uses. Yet the origin of the word is of little use in determining what a word means in a specific context.
Words have meaning. However, Bible students are often accustomed to thinking that Bible words have a real or true meaning that is somehow missing in the English text. Often a study of a Bible passage involves much time looking for the true meaning of the words in the text. This approach fails to recognize that words only have meaning within the larger structure of the sentence, paragraph, or entire text.
Consider the word hot. What does it mean? Many probably thought of a temperature but others may have considered other meanings. What does the phrase it is hot mean? Again, we may have an idea that comes to mind but consider these sentences:
1. Do not touch that pot, it is hot.
2. I love that new song; it is hot.
3. I do not like that Mexican spice; it is hot.
4. Do not buy the television from that burglar; it is hot.
We do not know what it is hot means without a broader context. This should emphasize the folly of studying words in isolation. Words do not have meaning without context.
Etymology (Word Origin)
Etymology, the study of word history, became popular in the late 1800’s and in recent years, the focus of the real meaning of words is very popular. A far back as the Greeks, Stoic philosophers believed that if they went back in time far enough, the real meaning of a word would become evident. As J.P. Louw says, “If this method were correct, then everyone would need to know Greek in order to understand the true meaning of words.” I’ll go further and say that it means that we must know Greek in order to know what the Bible really says. I believe this conclusion would be wrong.
Do you know the origins of every word that you use? We probably do not know the origin of hardly any of the words that we use in everyday conversation. Yet we expect that when the Greeks talked and wrote they knew the historical development of each word they used. In fact, language—any language—is dynamic and changing; we can instantly give a familiar word new meaning if we put it in a new context. Of course, we cannot do this haphazardly for we would confuse our audience. However, as we mature, we can adapt our language to a variety of circumstances.
One problem we face with etymology is the failure to take into account this adaptation within language. For example, If I say I ran out of milk so I ran to the store to buy some more, does anyone think that in an act of running my milk was emptied? It is doubtful that anyone would think that I ran to the store, they would know that I drove to the store. Yet the basic meaning of run is to move your legs faster than when you walk. We recognize this with the English language, but often do not see its use in the Greek. We forget that “etymology is concerned with the history of a word, not its meaning in a specific context.” (Luow, 26. Emphasis mine-rfd)
Related Article: Problems with Greek Word Studies: “Real Meaning”
Studies in the Greek New Testament. Stanley E. Porter. Peter Lang: New York, 1996.
Semantics of New Testament Greek. J. P. Louw. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1982.