by Justin Dillehay
Bible students love to talk about ‘the original Greek.’ Preachers, too. Some preachers seem to want to work Greek into their sermons as often as they can.
And of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know something about the language that God gave us the New Testament in. But there are also dangers involved, since most Christians either don’t know Greek at all, or (which is almost the same thing) know only enough to look up individual Greek words. Just imagine how badly a foreign speaker could butcher English if all he could do was look up individual English words.
The path is littered with what D.A. Carson has called “exegetical fallacies” (a book I was forced to read three times while in school). This brief article is my effort to condense a couple of Carson’s lessons, in order to help us learn how not to use Greek in Bible study.
1. Usage Trumps Etymology: Avoiding the Root Fallacy
When I was a homeschooling high schooler, I took a course called ‘Etymology.’ Etymology deals with the ‘roots’ of words–where a word originally came from way back in the foggy mists of time. It’s a valuable area to study, and nothing I’m about to say in this article is meant to suggest otherwise.
Nevertheless, a problem arises when people mistakenly think that a word’s etymology tells them “what it really means.”
We can see the fallacy of this notion clearly in our native English language. For example, the word “nice” comes from the Latin root ‘nescius,’ meaning ‘ignorant.’ But no one but a fool would respond to your calling them ‘nice’ by saying ‘Oh, I see what you really mean! You’re saying I’m ignorant! You and your veiled Latin insults!’
No one does this in their native language, but many Christians do this very thing when studying the Bible. They look up Greek words in their Strong’s Concordance, find the original Greek root, and conclude that they have found the word’s ‘real’ meaning. This is what Carson calls the ‘root fallacy.’
Now don’t get me wrong. Roots and etymology are good. They can sometimes give you an interesting back story on why a particular word came to be used to describe a particular thing. They can even help you win the national spelling bee. But they don’t tell you the ‘real meaning’ of a word, because a word’s meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage. The question is not ‘Where did this word originate?’ but ‘What did the writer/speaker mean by it?’
If you proposed to your girlfriend and she said “No,” but you could somehow prove that “No” came from a Greek word meaning “Yes,” it still wouldn’t do you any good. “No” means what your girlfriend (and everyone else) means by it, not what it might have meant 1,000 years ago in an ancestor language. The reason no one today would take ‘nice’ to mean ‘ignorant’ is that no one today uses ‘nice’ to mean ‘ignorant.’ If you want to know what a word means today, you must find out how it’s used today. That’s what an up-to-date dictionary will tell you.
For Bible students, it’s also what a good lexicon will tell you. One of the best tools for the Bible student to have right now is William Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. This volume also contains a helpful piece called “How to Do Word Studies,” which will warn you against some of the same pitfalls that I am telling you about.
2. Scholars are Necessary: Avoiding the Cult of the Amateur
When it comes to Bible study, many Christians seem to think that knowing Greek is like a magic bullet that will unlock all the secrets of biblical meaning. I once thought this, and then I began taking Greek. The main thing I learned in the first couple of weeks of class was that most of what I thought I knew about Greek was malarky. Turns out that ‘agape’ and ‘philos’ weren’t really different kinds of love after all, and the gospel wasn’t really the ‘dynamite’ of God. In many ways, Greek was much more mundane than I had thought. It resolved some questions, but also created others.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from studying Greek. In fact, I would encourage as many Christians to learn it as can. But the reality is that most believers don’t have the time or the ability. The good news, however, is that God never intended all (or even most) of his people to have to learn Greek in order to understand his word. There is a happy division of labor here. God is merciful–some people become experts in Greek and Hebrew so the rest of us don’t have to.
As Robert Plummer recently observed,
Never before in the history of Christianity has there been less need for word studies than today. With the multiplicity of many excellent English Bible translations, readers of the Bible have the fruit of scholars’ painstaking research.
And as 19th century Baptist theologian John Dagg put it:
Translations, though made with uninspired human skill, are sufficient for those who have not access to the inspired original. Unlearned men will not be held accountable for a degree of light beyond what is granted to them; and the benevolence of God in making revelation has not endowed all with the gift of interpreting tongues…God has seen it wiser and better to leave the members of Christ to feel the necessity of mutual sympathy and dependence, than to bestow every gift on every individual. He has bestowed the knowledge necessary for the translation of his word on a sufficient number of faithful men to answer the purpose of his benevolence. And the least accurate of the translations with which the common people are favored is full of divine truth and able to make wise to salvation.
If Dagg is right, and I think he is, then the impulse that says “I don’t want to be dependent on scholars” may be a latent form of pride. It may be the hand saying to the foot ‘I have no need of you.’ I’m not trying to turn translators into an infallible high priestly class. I’m simply saying that unless God expects us all to become language scholars, then he must have willed for there to be a division of labor in this area. It won’t do to replace the cult of the expert with the cult of the amateur. We’re dependent on scholars whether we like it or not.
Pride will chafe at this, and paranoia will invent conspiracy theories. But until we become omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-competent, nothing will change it.
3. Context is King: Avoiding the Overload Fallacy
But humility will see this as welcome news, and will be relieved at God’s way of dividing the labor. The sad truth is that many Christians spend too much time looking up Greek words and coming to misguided conclusions because they don’t really understand how the language works (they often know just enough to be dangerous). But for those who think they can’t understand the Bible at all unless they can read Greek, the good news is that 9 times out of 10 you will gain a better understanding of what a word means simply by reading it in its context.
Here’s what I mean by ‘reading it in its context:’ don’t just zero in on one word, read the entire sentence. Then read the entire paragraph. As a teacher once noted in a Sunday school class at my church, “Words shouldn’t be read with blinders on.” The reason for this is obvious when you think about it. Most words don’t have a “literal meaning” at all–rather, they have a range of possible meanings (the technical term is ‘semantic range’). That’s why a dictionary usually lists several possible options. It’s only when a word is used in a context that the precise meaning becomes clear.
The better you know a language, the less time you will spend zeroing in on individual words. Consider the sentence: “Cinderella danced at the ball.” The average American can read this sentence and understand it immediately. No fluent English speaker who knows the story of Cinderella is going to see the word “ball” and think, “Hmm. I wonder what ‘ball’ means. I better look it up.” But imagine if a misguided non-English speaker were studying this sentence the way many people study the Bible. He might look up the word ‘ball’ and think, “Ah! Look at this! This word ‘ball’ is rich in meaning! It can mean all sorts of things! A round object; a non-strike in baseball; a dance. Boy, this sentence is so much richer when you can read it in the original English!”
But of course, as native speakers, we can immediately see the folly of such a method. Yes, the word ‘ball’ can mean all those things, but in this sentence it only means one of them. Which means that the other possible meanings are irrelevant at this point. Reading every possible meaning into a particular use of a word is sometimes called the “overload fallacy.”
Context usually narrows the possible meanings to one (an exception would be those wonderful things called “puns”). So for example, if you want to know what John means by the word “sin” in 1 John 3:4, instead of zeroing in on the word “sin” and doing a word study of ‘hamartia’ and trying to find out what ‘hamarita’ ‘really’ means based on its root, read the entire sentence: “Sin is lawlessness.” Then read the surrounding context: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.”
I’m not saying that Greek word studies are bad, or totally unnecessary (after all, we are not native Greek speakers). But unless you do them properly, they’ll simply give you the illusion of knowing something when you really don’t. Most of the time you’ll do better to simply compare a number of solid translations like the NASB, ESV, NIV, and NLT. After all, the people who translated these Bible versions understand Greek far better than you or I ever will. So don’t throw away their expertise. And as you read, pay attention to the context. An ounce of good contextual analysis is worth a pound of poorly done Greek word studies.
So take your English Bibles and read carefully. When you do word studies, avoid the root fallacy, take advantage of scholars’ expertise, and remember that context is king. In short, read, reread, and reread again. It’s not as flashy a study method, and it probably won’t make you feel (or look) as smart, but it’ll give you much more accurate results.