Word studies dominate the resources available for Christians. Some are good and some, well, not so good. With all the word pictures, Strong’s numbers, footnotes in translations, study Bibles and more, you would think that there’s nothing more that can be said about word studies in the Bible. I’m going to put a little oar in this massive lake anyway. The lake will be reduced in size a bit by only considering New Testament (NT) and Greek examples since this is my field.
As introduction to the project, let me qualify that “word” studies is shorthand for the study of the meanings of both individual words and phrases. A “phrase” in this context refers to a series of two or more words that do not have independent meaning but mean something as a whole. Let me illustrate with these English examples. The highlighted phrases in these sentences, have composite meanings that are more than the sum of their parts: “Don’t believe him, he’s out to lunch,” “She gave up the ghost,” “They were sent up the river for their crimes.” Substitution of synonyms in these phrases turns them into nonsense: “out to dinner,” “gave up the ghoul,” or “sent up the waterway.” Now they sound like the Israeli Ziva’s constant battle with English idioms in the popular TV series NCIS. So. when I refer to “word studies,” this is shorthand for “word or phrase studies.”
I must also start with a word of caution here concerning the use of the word “literal” wrongly used in word studies. You often read about the “literal” meaning of certain Greek words as if this somehow puts one into closer contact with their meaning(s). In fact, this simply gives a wooden or misleading access to other meanings of the words.
Consider, for example, when Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this: that one lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13; emphasis added). The highlighted phrase is an idiom in Greek with a verb which usually means “to put” or “place” and a noun that is usually rendered “soul.” But if I were to tell you that the phrase is “literally,” “places his soul” it does not communicate the meaning of the Greek. ‘Lay down one’s life’ is an English idiomatic phrase that perfectly communicates the meaning of the Greek phrase.
Not to belabor the point, but to talk about this kind of “literal” meaning is like translating English, “They were sent up the river” into Greek. You would want to render it as: “They were imprisoned” (Greek, ephylakisthesan—as Acts 22:19). To use the Greek word for “river” here (potamos) as the “literal” meaning of the English would make no sense, since imprisonment has nothing to do with rivers “literally.”
As I hope you can see, I will try to give you some helpful ideas on proper word study method in this series. But the project is mainly about meanings of words and phrases in the Greek NT that may not be evident in today’s popular translations.
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved. Reprinted on the Heidelblog by permission.
This article was first published on the WSC Blog in 2011.
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