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Interpretation: Word Studies pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by TJ Friend in Interpretaion, OICA.
Tags: , , , ,

Hello again. In case you missed it here is the  link to Word Studies part one. Today I will be continuing on with my series on OICA. We just finished the “O” section (Observation) and are moving on with Interpretation. Last week we talked a little bit about word studies and how to do them. Today, I want to go over some of the dangers associated with word studies. My goal is not to scare you away from word studies, but to save you from misusing them. Word studies are an integral part of the exegetical process for without understanding the words of the text you can’t understand the text. Because the Bible was not originally written in English there is some work that needs to be done to understand the words the way the original hearers would have understood them. Because we are so far removed from the original cultures of the Bible we need to be careful not to come at word studies too lightly. To even get a general idea of a word its original language takes a lot of work and patience. Also, we are studying words in a limited context. If we truly wanted to understand the words of the Bible we would have to learn the languages and immerse ourselves not only in the text of the Bible, but all the writings in that language. And even if we did this, we would still have a limited understanding of the language, because it would be entirely literature based. In addition to all this, we are not familiar enough with the culture of the Biblical world to be able to put these words into a social context. Doing a word study is like standing in the fog at night and trying to make out a figure a long way off. And that is only when we do them correctly. Do it wrong and its like trying to make out that same figure only being blindfolded.

1. Don’t do word studies in English

I regret even having to put this here, because it seems so obvious, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are people out there, maybe even pastors, who don’t worry about the Greek or Hebrew at all and do word studies simply by looking them up in a regular dictionary (like Webster’s). The whole point of doing a word study is to understand what the word meant to the original hearers. It is a way to bridge the gap between what a word meant in their language and how we have translated in ours. Just looking at the English words and their definitions tells you nothing about the nuances of meanings in the Greek or Hebrew. And, many times one word in English is used to translate many different words in Greek or Hebrew.

2. Don’t add extra meanings into a text

A lot of words in Greek and Hebrew are versatile in their functions. One word can mean many different things depending on the context. Sometimes these meanings overlap, but often they do not. When studying a word, you will come across different definitions. You can’t simply cram all these definitions into one context and make some sort of super word. Pick out the best definition for your context and leave the rest for their contexts. Sometimes people will see a Greek word and assume it must have all sorts of hidden deeper meanings. Whatever definition you get for a word must be limited by the context. Take the word “anxious” for instance. In the Greek this word can have either a negative or positive connotation. Usually, it is negative and warned against, (as in stressing out about something) but not always. This word can also be translated as concerned for, or caring about. If you tried to put both of those definitions together into one text it would be confusing at best and heresy at worst.

3. Don’t use etymology for your definition

Etymology is the study of words and where they came from. This is a two-part caution: 1. Don’t try and break a word into its parts and derive your defintion from that and 2. Don’t look at what words come from your word as part of your definition.

First #1 – A lot of words come from other words. There is a root word and then with the addition of prefixes or suffixes you can get other words. We see this even in English. A place where you dorm is called a “dormitory”. A place where you labor is a “laboratory”. And a place where you burst forth like lava from a volcano is a lavatory. (Actually this word comes from the root “lavar” – to wash) The important thing to see is that even if words are related you can not mix and match their definitions. Each word needs to be analyzed uniquely.

Second #2 – If your word is the root of other words, don’t input their definitions back into the definition of your word. The classic example of this is the word dunamis. This is the word for power. It is translated basically as “ability”. Our word dynamite comes from this Greek word. Because of this, some people will say that dunamis is “explosive power”. Was the Biblical author thinking about dynamite when he used this word? Probably not, since dynamite is a relatively new invention.

4. Do the work yourself

if you want to know what a word means, research it yourself. In case you missed it you can check out how to do this in my previous blog. First off, you can only get better at word studies by practice and so you should try to do as many as possible. Part of the joy of doing word studies is the stuff you learn as you are doing it. Getting there is half the fun. But, more importantly, we are dealing with the Bible, and we need to take it seriously. It is unwise to base your theology or beliefs on someone else’s work. This can lead to some serious errors. This is especially relevant if you are planning on teaching or preaching. It is fine to verify your findings with others to make sure you are on the right track, but you are doing yourself and others a disservice if you do not put in the work for yourself, but simply try and find someone else’s definition for your word.

A note of hope

Word studies can actually be fun and enlightening. You can learn things about a text that you would not be able to learn without doing a word study. Although, there are some things to watch out for, if you are truly seeking to understand a text and willing to put in the work, you will most likely be fine. It is important to remember that word studies are just a small part of the process and should ultimately lead you toward a better understanding of your passage.


Think of a time when you were  in a service where a ptreacher brought out the nuances of a word in Greek or Hebrew? How did this help your understanding of the passage?



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