Words And Things: There Is A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Do Biblical Word Studies (Part 1)

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.

You can find the whole series here.


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  1. It’s interesting how different interpretations of word meanings and sentence structures, though often small, can have significant impact on what is being conveyed. Some scholars have said that the “great commission,” for example, containing the command to “go therefore and make disciples,” may be more accurately interpreted as, “as you go along” or simply “as you go.” Seems like a minor difference, but many evangelicals have taken it literally with the implication that one required to go on a short term mission trip at some point in their young life versus the Reformation emphasis on vocation (i.e., be salt and light to the world in your daily walk).

    • I sympathize with the sentiment.

      At the same time, as a native Greek speaker, I cannot avoid noting that:

      polemos means war.
      River in Greek is potamos,
      as in Mesopotamia

      Also, concerning Πορευθέντες (Poreuthentes), I see this as a good example why people who are not fluent in Greek should stick with the standard English translations and ignore novelty seeking scholars. It really means go therefore and make disciples.

      Still if you are feeling adventurous, then I suggest a Greek concordance.
      In this case, the following link really clarifies things concerning the term used in the great commission


      • Theo,

        Yes, there Greek loan words in English and English cognates to Greek but American evangelicals are fond of reading back English senses of words, e.g., “agonize” into NT Greek and creating false equivalencies.

        Most of the time it is context (broader and narrower) and usage that will determine the sene of word in a given passage. As to being a native speaker, I am a native English speaker but I still must use caution and skill when interpreting 16th and 17th-century English texts. Usage has changed much in 500 years and it’s changed even more in 2,000 years. A lot of linguistic and historic water has poured over the Greek dam since the 1st century.

        I can’t recommend non-Greek readers to trying to work with Greek. It leads to nothing but mischief and confusion. If people want to work with Greek they should learn Greek. It can be done. If they can’t go to seminary to study with people like Steve Baugh then they should see David Noe.

    • Dr. Clark, my Greek is so rusty, and was never very good to start with, that I hesitate to speak to seminary professors regarding Greek.

      However, I wonder if Theo K. was referring to this sentence in the article by SM Baugh: “To use the Greek word for “river” here (polemos) as the “literal” meaning of the English would make no sense…”

      Perhaps Theo was saying that “polemos” should be “potamos” and that Baugh made a “typo” in transliterating from the Greek alphabet to the English/Roman alphabet.

      But if in Attic or Koine Greek, the word for “river” was “polemos” (as Baugh says) rather than “potamos” (as Theo K says) I’ll gladly defer to the wisdom and education of those who teach in seminaries rather than trust my searching with Google and my crosschecking with Greek dictionaries. As you correctly point out, Dr. Clark, many words have radically changed their meaning in English over the last five centuries, and presumably that is even more true for changes in Greek over the last twenty centuries.

      If not, and if the word should have been “potamos” — well, I need to point fingers at myself. I managed to embarrass myself decades ago in print in Christian Renewal when I wrongly translated a Dutch phrase and none of the native Dutch speakers working in the office caught it, but many readers did. I know from direct firsthand experience the risks inherent in putting things into print from a foreign language of which I am neither a native speaker nor professionally trained to a fluent level.

  2. Dr Clark,

    I agree with your points.
    Caution is always required.
    Interestingly, the Greek of the LXX is much more difficult to understand than the NT.

    David Noe seems like a very good suggestion. With the advance of the web very good resources are readily available. Do you have a similar resource to recommend on Hebrew?

  3. “However, I wonder if Theo K. was referring to this sentence in the article by SM Baugh: “To use the Greek word for “river” here (polemos) as the “literal” meaning of the English would make no sense…”

    Perhaps Theo was saying that “polemos” should be “potamos” and that Baugh made a “typo” in transliterating from the Greek alphabet to the English/Roman alphabet.”

    Yes Darrell,

    That’s what I was getting at. There is a typo in S. M. Baugh’s article. Indeed “polemos” should be “potamos”.

    I see now that my initial comment wasn’t clear enough. Perhaps I should have split it in two.
    I was typing on a mobile phone and thought I was making a new comment instead of replying to George’s.

    • Thank you, Theo K. and Dr. Clark. Glad to know it’s an editor’s typo and not the responsibility of Dr. S.M. Baugh.

      I know a bit about the problems that happen in editing, and the consequences — literally four-digit financial consequences that could have become six- or seven-digit consequences — of ordering a last-minute “stop the presses” because of a page one typo in a headline that could have led to a lawsuit if we hadn’t thrown out all the copies before I saw the screwup, fixed it, and sent new plates to the press. Without getting into details (I’m deliberately combining some of them over a multi-week process to avoid identifying people), an editor lost her job over the screwup, and I got promoted to be the last editor to see the paper each night as it came off the printing press, because I’m notorious for throwing nothing away and could prove with printed drafts that I didn’t create the error. But it could have gone the other way. A few minutes of inattention on my part, or throwing away papers on my desk at the end of the night, could have meant I was fired along with her.

      Let’s just say the editor-in-chief and publisher stopped complaining about my “messy desk” after that incident. And that’s a word to the wise for pastors, professors, and anyone else doing sensitive research or involved in theological polemics (pun intended) — keep copies of EVERYTHING. Never trust memories. And never trust that other people will remember things the way you do. Paper and screenshots are not perfect, but they’re preferable to memories if you get hauled into a church court or a secular court to answer for what you said or wrote or did.

      That was almost two decades ago and I’m very glad similar screwups today require fixing electrons, not throwing massive amount of paper into recycling bins.

      My point is that mistakes happen in the editing and printing process. Charity and patience are prudent when they happen — at least if lawsuits aren’t in the offing, which they were in the case I mention.

      “Polemos/potamos” isn’t in that category.

      Some things are, but very few of them involve editing of theological texts.

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