Problems With Greek Word Studies: Word Origin

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”

Reference Works

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.

Problems With Greek Word Studies: “Real Meaning”

“Original” Meaning

Commentators can create meaning from word studies.  Luow cites the example of the Greek word HUPEERETEES, used in 1 Corinthians 4:1 (Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.) in a chapter titled “Etymology.  Barclay explained that the meaning was basically, a rower, from its etymology.  R.C. Trench also cited this usage though, in the classical Greek, it was never used in this sense, it always mean a servant.  However, J. B. Hoffman combined servant and rower to mean that the person was an “under rower,” and Trench said that it was the rower on the bottom deck of a Roman trireme.  Other commentators took this to mean a servant of the lowest position.  Yet, linguistic scholars note that there is little difference from this word, translated servant, and the word DIAKONOS, another word for servant.  A little error can go a long way.  (I do remember hearing a lesson on this very thing one time!)

 Root Fallacy

An additional problem comes when one tries to find the original meaning of a compound word by breaking down its parts and considering the meaning of each.  If you were to break down the compound words horsefly (horse + fly) and butterfly (butter + fly) and research those words you would not end up with what we understand a horsefly and butterfly to be.  This error, called a root fallacy, assumes that by looking at the origin of the word roots, we can better understand the meaning.  This does not work with English—a pineapple is neither and apple nor does it grow on a pine tree—and it will not work with the Greek.

Some will commit a root fallacy with 2 Corinthians 9:7:  “God loves a cheerful giver.”  They note that the Greek for cheerful is HILARON.  From HILARON we get the English word hilarious.  Therefore, “God loves a hilarious giver.”  This was not Paul’s intention and we read our modern word hilarious into the first century word translated cheerful.  Another popular root fallacy is to take Romans 1:16:  “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” and deduce that since the Greek word translated  power is DUNAMIS, from which we can get dynamite, that “the gospel is the dynamite of God.”  Here, again, we read a modern word into an ancient context, erroneously I must add.  (Note:  D. A. Carson called this type of error semantic anachronism—putting words in the wrong time period)

Form and Meaning

Some problems come from trying to find meaning by the form of the Greek word.  A prime example of this, cited by Luow, is APOSTOLOS.  Commentators will sometimes break down the word into the components send + out and conclude that an apostle is one who is “sent out.”  While Jesus did send the apostles out to teach the word, the word is semantically closer to AGGELOS, a messenger.  The apostle is a messenger for Christ but, more than that, is his special messenger; an ambassador or representative (2 Corinthians 5:20).  Though “sent out” may relate to the word apostle, it is not the dominant meaning.  When you understand something, is there a sense in which you stand under the problem?  There is nothing in the words under and stand that would convey this thought; yet we will break Greek words down this way.

Ancient Meaning

Sometimes commentators will find an ancient use of a word and then explain a later use of that word from that perspective.  A common use is HARMARTIA, which is translated sin.  How many times have we heard (and I have preached!) that this literally means “to miss the mark?”  The poet Homer, who lived 800 years before Christ, regularly uses this word to describe one who missed a target when firing a missile weapon.  However, this ancient meaning is not the real meaning of sin.  If we consider all the passages where sin is used, we can come up with a better understanding of sin.  In addition, one should study all of the words and phrases used for sin.  This study will emphasize the disobedience to God’s law and the guilt incurred as a result.  “A very important fact, always neglected when [sin] is explained…as ‘to miss the target,’ is that among the oldest usages…it not only meant ‘to miss a target,’ but also ‘to make a mistake, to be deprived of, to lose, to neglect.’  Why is ‘to miss a target’ taken as the ‘hidden meaning’ but not one of the others?”

Is The Greek A Perfect Language?

Some have suggested that the Koine Greek (the Greek dialect used in the Bible) is extremely precise and so was a perfect language for the Bible.  I believe this has become part of church folklore.  I have a paper in my files by an unknown author who, in his comments about the Koine becoming a dead (unused) language, “This was a protective device for translators of the New Testament.  With the language static, it is easy to determine exactly what words in that period meant.”  This is oversimplifying the case.  Koine Greek was in use from about 300 B.C. to 500 A.D.—about 800 years—and was not limited to Biblical use.  Every language has change even within the generation of the speakers of that language.  Linguists are quick to point out that the Koine Greek is not an extremely precise language—no language is extremely precise.

Why Study This?

Some people might ask why we would spend time on this subject.  We must be careful in our Bible study not to make the Bible say what it does not really say.  We can do this by misusing Biblical language resources.  Some will try to build a case on the meaning of a Greek word but, if that person is not intimately familiar with the language, its nuances, symbolism, idioms, and other characteristics of the language, the chance for error increases greatly.

We are blessed to have many wonderful translations of the Bible in our own language.  If you read the section in a respectable Bible translation, you will often find that a large number of Hebrew and Greek scholars worked to translate it.  They are experts in these languages and they check one another’s work.  The English Bibles we have reflect the message of the original language.  We will not discover anything in the Greek or Hebrew that is not revealed in the English.

Related Article: Problems With Greek Word Studies: Word Origin

Reference Works

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.