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The Use and Abuse of Word Studies

The Use and Abuse of Word Studies

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Published by Randy Neal
Summary of various approaches to the use and abuse of word studies in Biblical Studies.
Summary of various approaches to the use and abuse of word studies in Biblical Studies.

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Published by: Randy Neal on Jun 27, 2012
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“The Use and Abuse of Word Studies In Theology,” in Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, By Peter Cotterell & Max Turner Etymology

& Exegesis Project – John R. Neal I. Word Study from Cremer to Kittel. A. The last one hundred years could be termed the “Era of Theological Word Studies. The author‟s trace the “birth” of theological word studies to the work of Cremer who published his Biblico-Theological Lexicon on New Testament Greek all the way back in 1867.1 1. This does not mean that no word studies were produced prior to 1867. 2. From 1510-1568 some 27 were published. 3. B. The twentieth century saw Kittle‟s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. By 1961, James Barr declared that words studies was like a “patiently severely ill, and gave it but a short time to live.”2 1. Cremer‟s work sought (with his 600 Greek NT words) where the LXX and NT Greek differed from classical Greek. 2. Adolf Deissmann disagreed with Cremer, who described the NT language as being a sort of Holy Ghost Greek, a special type of Greek used to “express the new concepts.” Deissmann showed from his research in the Greek papyri (every day “books, wills, bills, private letters, magical texts, and horoscopes”) that the language of the New Testament was that of the “common” every day man (thus the term koine). In spite of such criticism, Cremer‟s work went through nine editions and Julius Kogel edited a tenth in 1915.3 C. The work of Kittle sought to elucidate “what was believed to be the distinctive theological significances of New Testament words-even, that is, of words that were commonplace in the classical literature.”4 1. The era of word studies has gone from simple lexical entries to encyclopedic entries. 2. Kittle‟s is even arranged “alphabetically” based upon “its lexical stock.”5
Peter Cotterell & Max Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 106. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid, 107. 4 Ibid, 108. 5 Ibid.


3. On pages 108-109, the authors show the difference between a simple lexical entry (from Bauer he gives the example of the word, thyreos) from that found in a theological dictionary (the same word listed above from the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). 4. The distinction between the two (lexical verses encyclopedic approach) “became blurred by the production of many works giving” an encyclopedic description “about objects in the world or concepts, rather than about word-sense.” Both Kogel and Kittle did not explain this to their readers. 5. Kogel referred to the “difference between „external lexicography‟ (that concerned with morphology and sense, such as found in Bauer, or Liddell and Scott) and what he termed „internal lexicography‟ (a distinction taken over by Kittel too).”6 D. This idea of “internal lexicography” refers to historical overview of how a word is used.7


James Barr and the Criticism of Word-Study Approaches to Theology. A. James Barr‟s book, The Semantics of Biblical Language, appeared in 1961.8 Barr‟s work “shook the foundations of the then many attempts to provide theology in the shape of word-studies.” The purpose of his book was to challenge or critique the idea of the word-study approach.9 B. Barr starts of by taking “issue with those who try to correlate an alleged gulf between Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking with characteristics of the lexical stock, morphology and syntax of the respective languages.” 1. The claim that a lack of Hebrew “abstract nouns” means that Hebrew thought is less abstract does not hold up. 2. The same claim could be made about the French language (the supposed “erotic” overtones of the culture due to every noun having to be either masculine or feminine is absurd).10 3. The supposed difference between Greek and Hebrew thought may not be as “deep” as say between “Aristotelians and Platonists within the Greek speaking world.”11
6 7

Ibid, 109. Ibid. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid, 110. 10 Ibid, 111. 11 Ibid, 112.


4. Barr argues that supposing that just because a language has several words for one idea means they have a “rich understanding” of this concept (the notion that having several words for “snow” mean you comprehend snow better) is simply not true.12 III. C. Barr‟s Criticisms of Etymology as Determinative for Word-Meaning. A. Etymology of a word does not always correlate with the meaning of a word. A word will often take on a “new” meaning throughout the “life of a language.”13 B. One might think that this “etymological fallacy” that etymology determines meaning to be a proverbial “dead horse,” but Barr‟s book shows this not to be the case.14 1. Case in point. Barr shows the fallacy of T.F. Torrance who argues that “special use of ekklesia in the Septuagint gives the New Testament its technical term for church.” Torrace then tries to show that the word ekklesia in the Greek OT referred to the people “collectively” as a “whole” rather than as “assembly or meeting.” Then he stretches his argument to the limit by saying the Hebrew word behind ekklesia, qahal, comes from the root, qol (voice) and thus referred to a “community summoned by the divine voice, the word of God.” The fallacy of his argument can be shown in the fact that ekklesia meant “assembly” or “meeting” long before the LXX translators used it as a translation for the Hebrew term, qahal.15 C. Barr‟s Criticism of the Kittle Dictionary. A. Barr‟s greatest objection to Kittle is the “confusion amongst the contributors as to whether they are describing words, or concepts, or the realities in the world which the words denote, and which the concepts isolate and focus.16 B. The “triangle of signification” (pg. 116), the concept, sign, and the significatum. This “triangle is an attempt to diagram an essentially triadic relationship that is usually recognized as existing between the verbal signs (the words) of a language, the concepts associated with them, and the things in the world to which both (separately) relate.”17 C. There is also a “trapezium of signification” that consists of (1) sense, (2) concept, (3) word, and (4) significatum.


12 13

Ibid, 112-13. Ibid, 113. 14 Ibid, 113-14. 15 Ibid, 114. 16 Ibid, 115-16. 17 Ibid.


1. The contributors to Kittle‟s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament fall into two categories: those who “are not sure whether they are writing articles about the usage of particular words or about the history of ideas or of broad concepts; whether they are writing a dictionary or an encyclopedia.”18 2. The example given on the article for agapao shows the extent of article: (i) Old Testament – Profane and Immanent Conception of Love (ii) Religious Conception of Love (iii) Words for Love in Pre-Biblical Greek (iv) Love in Judaism (v) Jesus (vi) The Apostolic Period (vii) The Post-Apostolic Period 3. Dangers in this presupposition: the title of Kittle‟s work is misleading; the articles encompass much more than the New Testament (Old, Intertestamental, Apostolic) and does not include everything under a particular heading (under agapao, why not include other words that depict love?), nor does it include every passage concerning love (nothing about the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, which probably deals as much about Jesus‟ love for sinners than any other passage in the New Testament).19 4. This type of approach would be like studying “Kant‟s concept of knowledge merely by doing a study of the occurrences in his writing of the German very wissen „to know,‟ and it its cognate noun.”20 Another danger from this type of approach is forgetting that an author may use the same word in different ways (he shows the various ways John uses the term agapao). 5. If a dictionary of Hebrew or Greek words is “to be written at all, it would need to be of a different kind, leading from the linguistic data to the theological significance by a more cautious route.”21 V. Responses to Barr. A. Most of the comments to Barr‟s work have been favorable, but some have argued that he went too far. 1. David Hill, in his book Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings, points out that many New Testament words are “dependent” upon Hebrew Old Testament ideas and are “distinctively Christian development of thought.”22

18 19

Ibid, 118. Ibid, 119. 20 Ibid. 21 Ibid, 123. 22 Ibid, 124.


2. In response to Hill‟s objections, Barr did not deny “that words conveyed definite areas of meaning, nor that there was a relationship between words and concepts.” What Barr is arguing is “that there is a wide variety of relationships between words … and concepts, and that these entities should not be confused …” B. Barr‟s criticisms paid off; the new editor of Kittle‟s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, G. Friedrich (from vol. 6 on), began to accept and implement much of Barr‟s ideas. Even the Old Testament to Kittle, Botterweck and Ringgren‟s Theological Dictionary of The Old Testament, “is altogether a more carefully linguistically nuanced enterprise.”23


Ibid, 125.


“The Grammar of Words: Lexical Semantics,” In Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, By Peter Cotterell & Max Turner Etymology & Exegesis Project – John R. Neal I. The Conventional Nature of Language, Word Formation, and Transparency. A. We cannot always determine the meaning of a word from its “lexical stock” or “compound lexemes.” 1. Idioms are phrases that cannot be determined based upon etymology.24 2. An idiom can be defined as “complex lexemes acting as a single semantic constituent, but the traditional formulation at least sounds a warning against too ready an assumption of transparency in language.”25 B. Changes in Language and Lexical Stock: Diachronic and Synchronic Analysis. 1. Languages change over time and words carry different meanings. 2. The word “nice” in the 21st century does not mean the same as it did back in the Middle Ages (originally meant “simple” or “ignorant”). 3. The authors of this book list three types of changes in languages. a. Shift – a change in “sense by relatively small steps.” b. Metaphorical Transfer – the word “spine” originally meant a person‟s “backbone” later came to refer to the “back of a book.” c. Metonymic Transfer – is a “figure in which the name of an attribute or adjunct is substituted for that of the thing meant.” Ex – the brand name of a soft drink, Coke, has been taken over in the deep south to refer to any type of soft drink (growing up and asking a friend, “Do you want a coke,” simply means, “Do you want a soft drink” – Dr. Pepper, Sprite, Pepsi, etc.).26
24 25

Ibid, 130. Ibid, 131. 26 Ibid, 131-32.


4. “The history of a word (a diachronic study of its use) may explain how a word came to be used with some particular sense at a specified time, but in order to find out what a lexeme means at that particular time we have only to look at the contemporary usage.”27 C. The Consequent Dangers of Etymologizing. 1. For one to appeal to both “etymology” and “word formation” is extremely dangerous. 2. “Even if a word did originally mean what etymology and word formation suggest, there is no guarantee whatever that the word has not changed meaning by the time a particular biblical writer comes to use it.” 3. He gives an example of the Greek word, baptizein. Another good example from the Greek New Testament is the word, psallo (Eph. 5:19).28 “Sermons, semi-popular writings, and even some more serious works, evince frequent examples of improbable conclusions drawn from etymologizing or from word-formation considerations.”29 D. The Corresponding Danger of Anachronism. 1. “One‟s understanding that the lexical stock is continuously subject to change should also prevent the corresponding error to etymologizing, namely anachronism; that is, the explanation of biblical meanings in terms of senses which only developed later.”30 2. Example of commentaries that argue the modern Greek term arrabon (word for an “engagement ring”) is used in 2 Cor. 1:13 with the same meaning (here means “pledge” or “first instalment”).31 E. Words and the Multiplicity of their Senses: Polysemy and Homonymy. 1. The danger of looking in the back of a grammar at vocabulary list and finding each entry having one sense. The reality is that words have a wide “range of senses.”32
27 28

Ibid, 132. Ibid. 29 Ibid, 133. 30 Ibid. 31 Ibid, 133-34. 32 Ibid, 135.


2. The various meanings of the word “field.” 3. Bank: financial institution and the edge of a river. “That is, the one (phonological) word is considered to stand for two words; or more technically, for two lexems. The phenomenon of two or more lexemes having the same spelling (lexical form) and pronunciation is called homonymy.”33 4. “The phenomenon of a single lexeme having a multiplicity of senses is called polysemy.”34 5. “If now we define a lexical unit as the combination of a lexical form … with a single distinct sense …, we may then think of lexemes as families of lexical units related to each other in sense.”35 6. From a “Syntactic” viewpoint, a word like “bank” could also be used as a verb (to bank, “banked,” or “banking”). 7. “In sum, what at first might appear (on the basis of form and pronunciation) to be a single word may prove on closer analysis to represent several quite distinct lexemes each with a plurality of senses.”36 F. Is There a Single „Basic‟ or „Core‟ Sense in Polysemous Words? 1. “We have spoken of polysemy in terms of a single lexeme having multiple but semantically related senses.” 2. This does not imply that there is one “basic” meaning that holds every sense “together.” 3. Various usages of the word “chair.”37 II. Analyzing the Different Senses of a Word. A. Distinguishing „Lexical Senses‟ from „Word Usages.‟ 1. Acts 27:17 – boetheiai – helps; can it mean in the context “cables” (even though the word may not carry this idea)? 2. Liddell and Scott‟s giving of “dip in poison” as a meaning of the verb, bapto (based on two passages from Trachiniae). Is this a legitimate definition, or not? 3. Does kephale only mean head (sense of “ruler” or “authority”), or can it mean “source” or origin (as the head of a river)?38
33 34

Ibid, 136. Ibid. 35 Ibid. 36 Ibid. 37 Ibid, 138-39.


B. Does kephale mean “head” or rather “source,” “origin”? Here are four arguments that are often given in support of this belief. 1. Even though kephale is interchangeable with arche (with the meaning of “chief” or “ruler”) in the rendering of the Hebrew word rosh (or “head”) in the LXX does not “increase the probability that kephale” also possessed the sense of the second usage or meaning of arche (that of “beginning” or “source”). The term kephale is never used in the LXX to render the word rosh “when the latter meant “beginning” (of a time sequence), nor was it used on the one occasion where rosh perhaps meant “source” (Gen.2:10).” The translators of the LXX were well aware that kephale did not possess this idea (source) in either rosh or arche.39 2. The plural form of this term, kephalai, occurs one time in reference “to the sources of the Tearus in Herodotus (4.91; cf. the same quotation preserved in Anthologia Graeca 9.703.2).” The singular form of the word “is also used of the mouth of a river … and the easiest explanation of both of these usages of kephale is that they derive from the lexeme‟s established sense of “extreme end” (both ends of the poles used to carry the ark of the covenant are called the „heads‟ in this sense: 3 Kings 8.8 LXX).” The authors of this book show there is lack of evidence beyond these two references to show a “lexical” meaning of source for kephale.40 3. Some point to a fifth century B.C. reference to Zeus (in Orphaic Fragments 21a) as the “head” as proof that kephale in this passage can mean “source.” The problem with this argument is that there is not enough information here to prove that the author intended the idea of origin or source (even though some manuscript evidence reads arche rather than kephale, but arche can carry the idea of “beginning” without meaning “source.”41 4. The weakest argument made to support the idea that kephale means sources is the “claim that amongst the ancients the head was often regarded as the source of a variety of substances and influences pertinent to life.” There is no evidence of kephale

38 39

Ibid, 140-41. Ibid, 142. 40 Ibid, 142-43. 41 Ibid, 143.


being used in the sense of “source” prior to “the third century A.D.”42 C. Clarifying What We Mean By the „Sense‟ of Word. 1. To give a definition of the word “sense” in a lexical context that is satisfactory to all is difficult (if not impossible). We might define a particular word‟s “sense” as “referring to some sort of more-or-less discrete bundle of meaning, a segment of the language users‟ understanding of their world, conventionally bound to a particular lexical form.” 2. Concept Oriented Sense and Field Oriented Sense.43 a. Concept Oriented Approach to the word Sense. This might be called the “more traditional approach” to understanding the sense of a word, the so-called “descriptive sense of a word” which is found to “be the bundle of meaning we might otherwise call the concept donated by that word.” Note his example of Wierzbicka‟s lengthy definition of the word “cup” in her Lexicography and Conceptual Analysis– a descriptive definition.44 Could you imagine defining a bicycle as anything that does not contain “handlebars” (even if handlebars are not part of the words etymology)?45 From an exegetical perspective of the New Testament, what does the term “apostle” mean (especially, in reference to Paul as an “apostle of Christ)? We recognize the original 12, but could the reason why some rejected Paul be the fact that they misunderstood the definition of apostle?46 What about the sense or “concept” of Paul‟s referring to Jesus as the “Son of God” in Galatians 4:4-6? What constitutes Him being God‟s Son? Being “pre-existent,” coming into the world (“incarnate”) and dying on the cross to redeem mankind?47 b. Field-Oriented Approach to the word Sense. How would we define the meaning of the word “dress”? A young girl would learn over time what dress means “not merely by having dress pointed out to her, but by gradually
42 43

Ibid, 144. Ibid, 145. 44 Ibid, 146. 45 Ibid, 146-49. 46 Ibid, 150-51. 47 Ibid, 152-53.


learning to distinguish them from her mother‟s blouses, smocks, skirts, suits, coats, and trousers too.”48 Thus the “sense of a word depends on the availability of other words in the same field of meaning, and on the word‟s relationship to those other words (and their respective meanings).”49

D. Types of Sense Relationships Existing Between Words. There are two types – Substitutional (paradigmatic) and Collocational (syntagmatic). 1. Collocational Sense Relations.50 2. Substitutional Sense Relations.51 a. Incompatibility b. Contiguity c. Overlapping d. Inclusion e. Synonymy 3. A Clarifying Not on Synonymy – “Absolute synonymy hardly ever occurs.” There is “partial synonymy” exists when there is “a true identity of meaning between two lexemes in at least some, rather than all contexts; or for some of the senses of the lexeme, if not for all.” The author says in John 21, when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him, there is probably some significance in the number of times He asks Peter (three), but “less probable” the change in terms for love.52 E. „Sense‟: Concept or Sense Relations? 1. Those who are “working with a field-oriented idea of „sense‟ are talking about similar sets of relationships between words in the whole language, or in some specialized corpus of literature; say, the Pauline epistles.”53

48 49

Ibid, 154. Ibid, 155. 50 Ibid, 155-56. 51 Ibid, 156-159. 52 Ibid, 159. 53 Ibid, 161.


2. The “field-oriented approach to lexical analysis obviously sharpens our perception of the sense of a word by posing the question of how it is to be distinguished from other closely related words.”54 3. “Furthermore, a field-oriented approach can also help us to analyze what are normally regarded as related senses of the same word.”55 4. One major objection to this approach is “that theoretically we cannot know the sense of a word until we know all the other words in the associated lexical field, and have a rough idea of their senses too.”56 5. “The biblical interpreter has no need to arbitrate between these approaches to the elucidation of sense; they are both helpful, and they are clearly complementary.”57 F. Towards Definitions of Lexical Sense, Contextual Sense and Specialized Sense. We use the term “lexical sense” to refer to the “descriptive meaning of a „full‟ lexeme” by meeting the following conditions: a. The meaning is “publicly established.” b. The meaning “can be embodied in a verbal definition that includes both the essential and the prototypical elements of the quality, event, object, or concept potentially signified by the lexeme.” c. The “sense relations to closely related lexemes may be specified.”58 2. Contextual or Discourse Sense of a “lexeme.” a. “It is the contextually determined descriptive meaning.” b. “It can be embodied in a verbal definition that includes both the essential and the semantically focused elements of the specific „token‟ (or „type‟) quality, 1.

54 55

Ibid, 162. Ibid. 56 Ibid. 57 Ibid, 164. 58 Ibid.


event, object, or concept actually signified contextually by the lexeme.59 c. The lexeme‟s “sense relations both to the lexical sense (whether semantic narrowing or extension or both) and to closely related senses may be specified.”60 3. The ability to give a definition or “sense” of Christian baptism (by using these methods) and giving a proper sense of holiness in the New Testament (by comparing this word with closely relate terms).61 Using the “specialized sense” to uncover how a particular term (like “Spirit”) is used in the various writings like Luke, John, or Paul.62 G. Relating Senses to Semantic Domains: Introducing the UBS Greek New Testament Wordbook. 1. The need for a new wordbook/lexicon that groups similar words (run – similar to dribble, trickle, pour, gush, and spurt when saying that water was running in the sink. 2. Example of pneuma (pg. 167-70) and Paul‟s use of “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5 (and what this means).63 H. Distinguishing Related Senses of a Single Lexeme or of Related Lexemes: Componential Analysis. “Componential analysis grew out of the conviction that „senses‟ are rather like molecules; they are built out of smaller universal „atomic‟ concepts” (such as “boy” being divided up into categories such as “Human,” “Male,” and “Non-Adult”).64 2. “And componential analysis can easily be expanded to give an account of the meaning of whole sentences.” Example of “chairs.” a. “First, it must be emphasized that componential analysis is usually related to components of prototypical objects of analysis.”65 1.

59 60

Ibid, 165. Ibid. 61 Ibid, 165-66. 62 Ibid, 166-67. 63 Ibid, 170. 64 Ibid. 65 Ibid, 172.


b. “Secondly, it should be obvious that the whole form of analysis owes much to field theories of sense (though not all field theorists approve of it). c. “Thirdly, it will be clear that no claim is being made that the components of meaning used to compare and contrast the different forms of seating are in any sense the „atomic concepts‟ of a more philosophical theory of meaning.”66 3. The “holiness” word group.67 4. Concluding comments – this chapter hopes to discourage exegetes from using the “cowboy” hermeneutics in doing word studies, but to use caution!68 III. Context and the Choice of Senses. A. Just because a word may have a full range of meanings does not mean we should ignore how the context “singles out” a single meaning. At times an author may intend there to be a dual meaning (word play), but often (when we are patient in our exegesis) we can determine the single meaning of word(s)/context.69 B. Summary of Implications of Lexical Semantics for Theological Word Studies. “Word formation and etymology may guide the reader to the meaning of the word, but cannot be counted on so to do.”70 2. “Usually a lexical form … has several senses- either because we have a plurality of lexemes with the same form … homonymy … or because we have lexemes with multiple senses (polysemy), or both.”71 3. “Given the last two points it should be clear that if we wish to establish … that it would be natural for Paul to use the word stoicheia to denote certain planetary powers, we have to show not merely that the lexical form stoicheion was current, but that 1.

66 67

Ibid, 173. Ibid, 173-74. 68 Ibid, 174. 69 Ibid, 175-76. 70 Ibid, 178. 71 Ibid.


there was already current a lexeme which combined the lexical form stoicheion with the required sense “elemental spirit.” 72 4. “As a rule of thumb we should recognize that, in any one context, a word will only carry one of its possible senses.73 5. “The sense of a word is a discrete bundle of meaning, the content which may be clarified using two approaches. a. Attempting to “compare and contrast the sense of the word in question” with other related words. b. Attempting to “define the concept lexicalized.”74 6. “In light of the distinction just made between lexical senses and discourse concepts, it is not unlikely that many interpreters will conclude that it is actually the broader discourse concepts, rather than the lexical, contextual or specialized word senses, with which they are primarily concerned!”75

72 73

Ibid, 178-79. Ibid, 179. 74 Ibid, 180. 75 Ibid.

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