Common Linguistic Fallacies in Biblical Word Studies

Word studies are a common Biblical study, teaching and preaching method. Most of the time the data from these studies arise from a faulty methodology, so that the conclusions may well be invalid.  Most of these fallacies arise from an inadequate theory of human language that continues among the older Biblical reference works and many of the more recent word study reference works.

In linguistics itself, an isolated word carries only limited meaning: the normal usage, other idiomatic usages, and the connotation (the emotional impact) and the denotation (the definition). Rather, the sentence itself – the series of words in syntactical relation to each other that convey a complete thought — is the primary carrier of meaning. Therefore, for Biblical study in the original languages, grammatical relations among the words in a sentence are as important as the actual individual words themselves. So, when Francis Schaeffer referred to the Bible as propositional revelation, he was not only philosophically but also linguistically accurate.

The most common linguistic fallacy is etymologizing. Etymology is not the same thing as the meaning of a word; rather, it is a history of the various meanings that the word has had throughout the time of its usage. Current usage is the real determinant of meaning in a sentence. One of the most common examples where a word’s meaning has shifted from its original etymological meaning is the English word nice. The word is derived from the Latin word nescius, which means ignorant, but calling someone nice in current usage is not usually considered to carry any meaning of ignorance. In the 18th century, nice meant ‘precise,’ but neither does calling someone nice in current usage carry any meaning of precision.

Rather, the chief usage of etymology in linguistic study is to illuminate the meaning of rarely used words. This is most useful in classical / Biblical Hebrew, since rarely used words tend to have insufficient usage to establish a definite meaning.

So, the upshot is that those who study the Bible and those who listen to Biblical preaching and teaching should carefully evaluate any arguments based on etymology of a word. Unfortunately, it is much, much easier for a pastor or teacher who is not fluent in the original languages to look up a word in a Greek or Hebrew dictionary and to give some appearance of scholarship than to wrestle with dealing with the grammatical and semantic relations of the sentences of the text – in other words, translating the text on his own, and noting connotation and idiomatic usages of the original language.

The next most common linguistic fallacy is appeal to meanings far away in time, distance and culture from the original writer to establish a meaning for a particular word. For instance, a Biblical scholar, preacher or teacher may appeal to usages in classical Greek and authors that most New Testament writers, with the possible exception of Luke, would not have read. In other words, Paul would most likely never have used a Greek word with a conscious awareness of how Homer used it and intended it to be understood in the same way. Moreover, it is also most likely that Paul would never have used a word with a meaning that is not attested until several hundred years later, when there was a well attested contemporary meaning and usage.

Here are the main fields of usage to establish meaning for Biblical words, from closest to furthest in validity:

  • Usage with the Biblical book itself.
  • Usage within the works of the same Biblical author.
  • Usage within the Biblical books of approximately the same date.
  • Usage within the same Testament.
  • Usage within the other Testament in the same language – namely, the Septuagint for the New Testament usage.
  • Usage within the common language of the time.
  • Usage within the entire lexical stock – the entire known and attested vocabulary – of the language of the book.

The closest field of usage establishes the meaning of a word with the best validity. The furthest – which is unfortunately often the one which someone uses to try to get support for an unusual interpretation – is the one with the least validity – and it is a semantic fallacy to try to use it to contradict any of the closer field of usage.

Another source of linguistic fallacies are the ignorance of polysemy (the same word with different meanings) and ignorance of synonymy (different words with the same or similar meanings). These can mean the inclusion of irrelevant data or exclusion of relevant data.

For an example of ignorance of polysemy, I once heard an attempt to give a discourse on pastoral visitation based on the usage of the word visit in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, it was difficult to keep a straight face during the discourse, since the word visit in the Old Testament was used to express God’s visitation of judgment, and not with his coming in any manner appropriate to a pastoral visit. The polysemy of the word visit was thus ignored, and a ludicrous application to pastoral visitation only narrowly averted.

Another case where synonymy was ignored was in an etymology of the Greek word daimon, which is usually translated in the New Testament as demon. Its earliest attested meaning is deity, and one scholar tried to derive it from the word daio, which means to cut and cleave. He came up with an ingenious explanation that this derivation was due to the cutting done during animal sacrifices. Rather, this etymology ignored the synonym daio, which means to shine, and a daimon – deity – would be a shining one in its earliest derivation if the synonymy of the word had been followed.

One more area where synonymy may be ignored is where different words with the same meaning are used close together, perhaps even in the same context. This is often simply a matter of writing style rather than an attempt to use a word with one slightly different nuance of meaning and another with another slightly different nuance of meaning. It would definitely be a thin argument to try to make much of what may simply a stylistic variation in vocabulary.

Linguistic fallacies often occur when dictionaries and translations miss idiomatic usage. Thus, mistranslations and misinterpretations come when there is ignorance of colloquial usage. For this, the New International Version mistranslates Mark 7:37 as “He has done everything well” when it should be, “He has made everything well.” This makes the meaning of the passage much clearer: the people are marveling at the  healing ministry of Jesus, who has healed all kinds of ailments. One of the most common places where idioms are missed are where Biblical authors cite common sayings and proverbs.

Here’s how to evaluate linguistic arguments which are found in Biblical reference works and preaching and teaching:

  • Is the author appealing to the etymology of a word that is not a rare word? The author’s point may be valid on other grounds, but the linguistic evidence is probably being misunderstood and misused, and this is probably unintentional.
  • Is the author appealing to authors far removed from the Biblical writer when data from other writers is available who are closer to the Biblical author in time and culture? Usually a good dictionary will carry indications of time of different usages and representative authors.
  • Is the author ignoring polysemy, synonymy, homonymy, or idioms? Again, a good dictionary, used with awareness of polysemy, etc., can be of great help.

Here are some guidelines for more valid word studies:

1. Make use of good dictionaries and concordances. Unfortunately, the best works may be too technical or call for greater fluency in the original languages than many pastors and teachers can or will attain. The large and expensive Liddell and Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, or Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker for New Testament and patristic Greek are well worth the expense for anyone who can gain fluency in ancient Greek. Also useful are Moulton and MIlligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament as Illustrated from the Papyri. Beware of extensive use of Thayer’s Greek Lexicon or Gesenius’s Hebrew Lexicon, since these are basically pre-archaeological, and do not have the kind of relevant linguistic data available from papyri and inscriptions that the later works do.

2. Master the alphabet of whatever language you are using! Most problems that people have learning Greek and Hebrew start with inadequate familiarity with the alphabet.

3. Along with reference works, pay attention to the various modern translations. Anyone not familiar with the original languages should beware of coming to any conclusions contrary to the united testimony of the Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, etc.

4. Nouns and verbs find themselves studied the most often; adjectives and adverbs less often, and prepositions and transitional particles least of all. Unfortunately, the New American Standard Bible Old Testament suffers greatly from misunderstanding of the Hebrew prepositions, especially in the Psalms. Prepositions also tend to add meanings throughout time, so the New Testament usage can be quite complex. Again, check the dictionary!

Too often commentators ignore grammatical relation – syntax – or misunderstand it. Blass—Debrunner – Funk is probably the best for the New Testament.

Here are some works that I found helpful.

Moises Silva. Biblical Words and Their Meaning (Paperback)

Moises Silva. God, Language and Scripture (Paperback)

James Barr. The Semantics of Biblical Language (Paperback)

G.B. Caird. The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Paperback)

Anthony Thiselton. The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Paternoster Digital Library) (Paperback)


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