Unlocking the Text: Part 3

Though everyone wants to know and believe “what the Bible really says,” the realm of theology is stereotypically one of debate. Debate often occurs, not because we don’t want to know what the Bible says, but because we can’t agree on the meaning of a word. “Popular appeals to ‘what the Bible really says’ are usually comments on word meanings,” says J.P. Louw. “Even Bible commentaries and sermons focus to a large extent on word meanings.” [1. J.P. Louw, "Reading a Text as Discourse," in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation, 17.]

What is the danger of word meanings? The danger is not that we use the Greek to determine word meanings but that we ignore the context in which the word is situated. A word has no specific meaning apart from the context in which it is used. Eugene Nida says, “Without a context, lexical units have only a potentiality to occur in various contexts, but in combination with contexts, words have meaning.” [2. Eugene Nida, "The Role of Contexts in Understanding of Discourse," in Discourse Analysis and the New Testament, 20.]

Studying Greek terms to determine a word’s meaning should be a part of every sermon preparation, but studying words outside their context abuses word studies. This article continues the contextual theme of the first two articles in this series [3. The first two articles in this series dealt with the broad concept of context in sermon preparation. In the first article an apology was given for the name change of this column from "Exegetical Gems" to "Exegetical Insights and Issues." The "gem" approach leads us to ignore the context and commit errors such as establishing a major point of a sermon on the fact that a verb is in the aorist tense. The second article dealt specifically with a passage in its historical context and the context in the book in which the passage is located. One other concept that is crucial to every aspect covered in these articles is the context of having a proper relationship with the Lord and bathing your sermon preparation in prayer. Without the Lord’s guidance, we labor in vain.] by covering the cautions and benefits of word studies.

While a word may have several possible meanings, it has only one correct meaning in a particular sentence. If I write the word “trunk” in this article and then ask you to write down what you think when you hear the word, I would soon have a variety of answers including the trunk of a car, a storage trunk, an elephant’s trunk, a tree trunk, part of the human body, part of the cabin of a boat, and swimming trunks. As soon as context exists, however, we can choose the correct interpretation; for example, parents may say to their child, “Go out to the garage and put the books in the trunk of the car.” The correct meaning is now clear because the context provides the interpretation’s boundaries.

This same hermeneutical approach must be used in the study of God’s Word. Lexicons list only potential meanings of a word, much like the list of meanings for the term “trunk.” Eugene Nida notes, “Lexicons do little more than record types of contexts in which such meanings are likely to occur.” [4. Nida, 21.] Thus, the first key to understanding the meaning of the word is to consider the context in which it is located.

A second key to understanding the meaning of a given word involves a comprehension of the terms diachronic and synchronic. The diachronic approach to word studies (which also involves etymology) attempts to determine a word’s meaning by analyzing the meanings assigned to that word throughout the history of the word. The problem is that Greek, like many other languages, is not a static language. Words often change meaning over time. For example, fifty years ago, parents might have named their child “Gay,” which meant “happy.” Today, however, the term has a much different connotation and is rarely (if ever) chosen as a child’s name.

Be careful, therefore, not to let a diachronic study of words determine your understanding of a biblical text, even though many classic word study materials are based on a diachronic study. D. A. Carson, in his Exegetical Fallacies, critiques a classic example that demonstrates the danger of a diachronic/etymological approach. [5. D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. A full explanation of this example is provided on p. 29 of Carson’s work along with complete bibliographical notes.]

In 1 Corinthians 4:1, Paul uses the term huperetas to describe his ministry. Many preachers have used this term to explain the lowly attitude needed as we serve Christ. R. C. Trench popularized this idea by explaining that the noun huperetas comes from the verb eresso, which means “to row.” This verb had the meaning of “rower” in the eighth century B.C. in the work of Homer. In the New Testament, however, huperetas is used to denote a servant or helper without any connection to “rower.” Other interpreters then added etymology to Trench’s diachronic method and noted that the prefix hupo means “under.” They concluded that the term huperetas means “underrower” or a “subordinate rower.” This information led Leon Morris to conclude that this term for servant means “a servant of a lowly kind,” and William Barclay noted that the term meant a rower on the lower bank of a trireme (an ancient galley having three banks of oars).

Admittedly, this diachronic approach provides plenty of preaching material. A pastor could liken the Christian servant to the underrower on the lowest part of the boat. He could exhort his members to be servants who will get down and dirty and do the menial tasks no one else is willing to do. Yet it is highly unlikely that Paul was thinking of “rower,” which was used by Homer eight hundred years earlier. Even if he read Homer, “rower” is only one possible meaning of the word. To project this meaning into the text of the first century is to abuse the field of word studies because words change meaning over time. To understand the meaning of a word, we must understand what it meant in the time of its given context. Interpreting the New Testament accurately, we must understand what a word meant in the first century.

To determine the correct meaning of a New Testament word, we must employ the synchronic method. In relation to Bible study, a synchronic study seeks to understand the meaning of a word at the time of the biblical writing. How can we know which of the definitions in a lexicon is the correct one? How do we choose the right one for our passage? The following guidelines can help.

First, identify the type of scriptural genre in which the word occurs. A literal meaning is expected in the epistles, whereas we must take into account the possibility of figurative language in apocalyptic literature such as Revelation. Also, a hymn or poetry may be employed in an epistle, such as Philippians 2:5-11. Knowing the scriptural genre guides the interpreter in choosing the correct meaning.

Second, know the broad context in which the word exists. “The major concern of the exegete in determining the meaning of a word is the setting of a word in its verse, paragraph, and book.” [6. Darrell Bock, "New Testament Word Analysis" in Introducing NT Interpretation, 99.]

Third, understand how the author uses this same term in the book, especially if the author is using a term in a similar manner throughout a book. A caution, however, is necessary here as well. An author may use a term in one location with one meaning and use the same term in another context with another meaning. For example, you should be careful of interpreting the term logos in John’s writings as always referring to the incarnate Word (e.g., John 1:1; 4:39; 8:31—logos  is used differently in each case).

Another danger is to understand how Paul used a word and then to transfer that meaning to Peter’s use of the word without considering that Peter may have used the term in a different manner than Paul. While Peter and Paul may have used the term in the same manner, we must not simply assume this to be the case. Context must be the driving factor in determining meaning.

Understanding the meaning of words is a critical step in the exegetical process. By establishing the context as I described in the first two articles in this series, you will lay a strong foundation for understanding the meaning of a given word. that contextually derived meaning adds flavor to a sermon.

Further reading:

  • D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1996).
  • Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning (Zondervan, 1994).

Originally published Winter/Spring 2005