Some Principles of Linguistics

1. It is not necessary to study the history of a word to understand its meaning.

Linguists use two terms for types of study:

  • Synchronic: one given point in time, e.g. English spoken in 2003
  • Diachronic: historical study of the change and development of the language

Originally it was thought that to study the language at a given point you had to examine its history up to that point. This has been shown to be totally false. You need to study how it was used at that point in time.

This means that for studying a word in the New Testament, the most important help we can get is from studying how people used the word at that time, i.e. in the rest of the N.T.

2. Language is a system

  • Language is not a bag of bits and pieces.
  • A word does not have a meaning that is absolute, but only in relationship to other words.
  • If one word disappears, the others shift to cover the meaning
  • Fear can be horror, reverence, awe—how do you determine which? —by the words around it.
  • Two types of relationships:
    1. The horizontal relationship within a sentence.
      e.g. “The love of God is manifested in Christ”
      • The word love has precise meaning only in the context of the sentence.
      • The sentence makes it specific.
    2. The choice to use one word excludes others
      e.g. saying “the love of God” excludes saying “the mercy of God”
      • Choosing the word love automatically excludes other words that could have been chosen. If the author had wanted to choose another word, they could have.
      • If Paul had meant to include the love and mercy of God he would have said both.

3. Distinction between a language and an individual’s use of that language

  • A language is a complex system of verbs, nouns etc.
  • Every individual uses their language in a unique way
  • We need to read them in terms of their own ways of expressing themselves
    • e.g. John uses very black & white terms, you are either “of the truth” or “a liar”
    • James uses “faith” a little differently to Paul
    • When John says “abide in Christ’, it is virtually identical to Paul’s “in Christ”

I. What is a word?

A word is a unit of language which has meaning. Thoughts are expressed when words are put together in a certain relationship. Many words do not have an identical meaning in all contexts.

  • Example: trunk
    • box to put clothes in
    • long nose of an elephant
    • luggage space in a car
  • Example: light
    • opposite of darkness
    • pale in colour
    • minimal in weight
    • object which gives light

It is particularly important to notice the way the word was used at the time it was spoken or written. A word used in the 1600’s will not necessarily have the same meaning as the word has in the year 2000.

  • Example: nice
    • In the 1300’s it meant ignorant and foolish.
    • In the 1800’s it could be used with the meaning of “precisely.”
      • “nicely done” = “precisely” or “carefully” done.
    • In the 2000’s it usually has the meaning of generally pleasant
  • Misunderstandings arise
    • when words are misused or are used imprecisely or ambiguously.
    • E.g. someone misunderstood the statement of Abraham’s servant “I being in the way the Lord led me . . .”
  • Sometimes biblical words are given a new distorted meaning.
    • We may read in the newspaper of a salesman who has been “born again.”
    • The writer does not mean that he has been saved, that he now has God’s life in him. He means that he has taken on a new career!
    • Apple computers employs “evangelists”
      • (to spread the Gospel according to Steve Jobs)
  • Sometimes we inflate the meaning of a word.
    • We say that a meal was fantastic when we mean that it was a good meal.
  • What does awesome mean?
    • “If you would put your empty water bottles in the garbage, that would be awesome”

II. What should we consider when we are determining the meaning of a word in a biblical passage?

1. The context is of great importance.

  • Example: a lion
    • “ . . . your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). In what way is the devil like a lion? What qualities of a lion are being emphasized? In this verse the devil is compared to a hungry lion: he wants to destroy for his own satisfaction. (a simile)
    • “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5). Here Jesus Christ is the Lion. We are presented with the lion as king of the beasts. We see Jesus Christ in His kingly role with power and authority. (a metaphor)

2. A word may have a range of meanings.

  • Example: the word sleep in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
    • v 7, “those who sleep, sleep at night” - refers to physical sleep
    • v 6, “let us not sleep as others do, but let us watch . . .” - warns believers against being “sleepy” or unaware. Sleep is opposed to alertness.
    • v 10, “. . . who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” - refers to death
  • The technical word for this is “semantic field” (=range of meanings)
    • e.g. to love: agapeo has an overlapping field with phileo

3. Different words may have the same or similar meanings.

Some say that the meaning of two words is never exactly the same, but often the difference is not of major significance. Synonyms, words that are close in meaning, enable an author to vary his expression.

  • Example:
    • Matthew 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
    • Mark 1:14-15 …Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
    • Which did Jesus say?
    • There would be no profit in trying to distinguish between the meaning of these two phrases. Essentially, they have the same meaning.

Synonyms give expression to different shades of meaning. They make a language capable of expressing more precisely, and more comprehensively, the different nuances and aspects of any particular idea.

  • Example: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil.4:6).
    • Prayer, supplication, thanksgiving, and requests are all prayer terms. Together they give a full picture of the activity of prayer.

4. Words change their meaning over a period of time.

  • Note the word conversation in James 3:13 (KJV):
    • “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.”
    • You might think that “conversation” is referring to the way he speaks to other people, but in the 1600’s conversation meant your daily conduct, your total behaviour, your whole way of acting.
    • Modern translations usually adjust to this situation:
      • James 3:13 (NKJ): “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.”
  • Examples:
    1. prevent - In the 1600’s, this word meant “go before.” Now its common meaning is to “hinder” or “stop.” “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (1 Thess. 4:15 KJV).
      • If we use the contemporary meaning, we would think that it meant, “We won’t stop them.” It actually means, “We won’t go before them.” (Note: Have you come across the term “prevenient grace”: grace that comes before salvation? Prevenient comes from the same root.)
    2. play - “And Abner said to Joab ‘Let the young men arise and play before us!’’’ (2 Samuel 2:14 KJV).
      • In verse 16, we read that they kill each other. This action does not fit with our idea of play. In the New King James translation, “compete” is used instead of play.
  • The meaning must be based on the way that the word was being used at the time.

5. Translation Challenges

  1. Different words in the original language may be translated by the same English word.
    • For example, in John 21, verses 15 to 19, the English word “love” has two different Greek words behind it.
      Jesus: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (agapao) me more than these?” (v.15).
      Peter: “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You” (v.15).
      Jesus: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (agapao) Me?” (v.16).
      Peter: “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You” (v.16).
      Jesus: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love (phileo) Me?” (v.17).
      Peter: “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love (phileo) You” (v.17).
    • The English language has only one word to describe the concept of love. The Greek language has several words associated with this concept.
    • Agapao has the general meaning of “love or cherish”, not necessarily for any benefit in return
    • phileo means “love, have affection for, like.” —we get something back in return, we enjoy the person!-eros is sexual love “erotic”
    • So why does Jesus choose to use different words?
  2. A word in the original may be translated by different English words.
    • Matt. 4:21 “mending their nets”
    • Luke 6:40 “everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher”
    • Rom. 9:22 “the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”
    • Gal. 6:1 “restore such a one”

The same Greek word (katartizo) is behind the bolded words.

6. Note those words whose meanings become doctrinal concepts such as sin, atonement, justification, and sanctification.

  • Example: save, salvation
    • In the biblical world, a person is “saved” if he experiences deliverance from any kind of trouble or calamity. It is sometimes used for healing.
    • The ultimate salvation is to be rescued from sin and death, to escape the anger of God. This is the Doctrine of Salvation. We must not use this sense of salvation in every text (Sproul, p.84).
    • 1 Timothy 2:15 (KJV) - [“she will be saved in childbearing”]
      • Does this mean that women will be brought into the kingdom of God by having children?

7. Word Study Fallacies

  1. The “Root Meaning” Fallacy
    • “Automobile” —auto = self so the word has the root idea of being selfish?
    • “Prophecy” = “bubble up”?? (I have no idea where that comes from!!)
  2. Pulling a word apart
    • Butterfly means... ?
    • Ekklesia = assembly (not “called out and gathered together”) see Acts 19:32, 39, 31
  3. Anachronism (wrong time)
    • dunamis really means dynamite?
    • a giver who is hilaron is hilarious?
  4. Appeal to very rare and unusual usages

Updated 2009-10-06 (build:3) by Andrew Fountain