16 Mar 2007

Text & Context 3: Word Study Principles

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching

Text & Context #3: Word Study Principles

Word studies are an important part of the study of the biblical text. There importance can be over emphasized however. From time to time we encounter an “exegesis” that is basically nothing but word studies (or the author claims they are). But as valuable as a word study can be they can also be easily distorted and abused. 

The abuse of word studies has actually come under some rather intense scholarly criticism over the last generation or so (led by James Barr). Some of the worst violations of sound rules for word studies are by scholars themselves . . . especially in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Kittel. Most scholars today will say “TDNT is still a valuable tool but it must be used with caution.” The same is true of Colin Brown’s Dictionary of New Testament Theology. But the principles of a good word study are also violated routinely by preachers. What follows are seven guidelines for a procedure in doing a word study.

1) A distinction should be made between glosses (that is translation substitutes) and definitions. All of the meanings (please note the plural) of a particular English gloss may NOT transfer back to its Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic counterpart.

2) The study of a word is not equal to the study of a concept. This is, in the opinion of James Barr (i.e. The Semantics of Biblical Language) the fundamental problem with TDNT and many other biblical studies. A study of the article in TDNT on agape for example provides more than adequate criticism here. It is not infrequent to hear that “agape” means a distinctive kind of godly or Christian love. The exchange between Jesus and Peter in John is a classic case where this rule is abused (greatly!). This conclusion can only be reached by a highly selective reading of John’s usage of the terms agape and phileo. Certain approaches to worship share in the problems of this “word study” approach to biblical theology. I would suggest that the ever popular “Edification Model” to worship exhibits these problems. 

3) A single word often has several distinct . . . even UNRELATED senses. There is, often, no common core sense underlying all of its occurrences. (Please recall my illustration of the word “means” itself in the first installment of Text & Context.

4) The lexical sense(s) of a word should be studied using both the conventional conceptual approach which identifies the concept(s) the word denotes and the lexical field approach which compares and contrasts the word with other words with related senses. 

5) Etymology is commonly useful as a mnemonic device for remembering transparent meanings, but it is generally irrelevant in determining a word’s sense in a particular context. The word “automobile” means “self-moving vehicle” but few people actually know that or use the word because of that etymology. One example that is quite common is the word “ekklesia” to which preachers commonly will define by its “etymology” to mean “the called out.” But there is little to no evidence that Paul or Luke ever actually used the word in that sense. Context, not etymology, determines the meaning of a word.

6) The immediate context is the most determinative feature for identifying the meaning of a word in particular occurrences.

7) The immediate context of word usually points to only one of its possible senses. Deliberate double entendre is rare and should normally be invoked only when clearly indicated. 

The new third edition of Baur’s Lexicon (BDAG) is an essential tool and should be consulted long before TDNT. The recent New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis 5 volumes, ed. by W. A. VanGemeren moves ahead of the older theological dictionaries in avoiding many fallacies in word studies. For further reading on word studies I recommend the easily accessible material by Donald Carson in Exegetical Fallacies (a book that belongs in every preacher’s library). If you are hardy then Peter Cotterell and Max Turner’s textbook Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation is a must have.
Bobby Valentine

19 Responses to “Text & Context 3: Word Study Principles”

  1. Matt Says:

    If you are a preacher or Bible student, proceed to the print button and push it. Read this again and file it for future reference.

    1)Good note on glosses and definitions. Danker/BDAG does a wonderful job with this now. Glosses are normally a “this English word for that Greek (or other language) word. The definition is the underlying concept (which would not be fully spelled out in the translation of a single word).

    2)Barr’s article really hurt TDNT and word studies in general. Although I think I will keep it on the shelf for a while longer because as you said, it still has its place.

    Word studies are valuable but, like many other types of studies, have been greatly abused. People make the same mistake that is made in preaching – knowing what you want to say before you know what it says. When you do a word study you have to be open to what you find out. You may not agree with the best option and then you have to face making a change in your thinking. That is not easy. I see poorly done word studies like poorly done statistics – you can get them to say many things that aren’t really there and support what you think all the while being intellectually dishonest with what is really there.
    Word studies are abused just like any other type of studies. Historical backgrounds have been abused only slightly less (for instance the reference to 1000 temple prostitutes in Corinth – which was not the Corinth of Paul’s day, being mentioned as a background for idolatry in Corinth in the time of Paul).
    Number 2 goes back to number 1. It is extremely hard for one word to fit all the concepts behind it. See gameo in BDAG – to marry can mean you marry someone, you give someone in marriage, you are pledged to be married(if my memory is right). Here the concepts and context are extremely important over just one word (like in 1 Cor 7). BDAG is far superior to its predecessors and is a must have book. The extra biblical references are great as is its use of concepts over glosses. I just wish it had an index.

    7) Double entendre is something to consider primarily in the Gospel of John.

    Carson is good. Gordon Fee’s book is good (one for beginners and one for the more advanced). The Jack Lewis fetschrift is pretty good if you can get your hands on one. And on a humorous note, check out one of my old posts on an ironic error in the book you mentioned Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation


    Thanks for all the hard work you put into your posts.

  2. Alan Says:

    6) The immediate context is the most determinative feature for identifying the meaning of a word in particular occurrences.

    So, for example (NASB):

    1Co 13:9 For we know in part [Gk merous] and we prophesy in part[Gk merous];
    1Co 13:10 but when the perfect [Gk teleion] comes, the partial [Gk merous] will be done away.

    How should teleion be translated in verse 10? Should it be rendered “perfect”, or “complete”, or “mature?”

    Merous in verse 9 is unambiguous. From Thayer:

    Thayer Definition:
    1) a part
    1a) a part due or assigned to one
    1b) lot, destiny
    2) one of the constituent parts of a whole
    2a) in part, partly, in a measure, to some degree, as respects a part, severally, individually
    2b) any particular, in regard to this, in this respect

    So the context is making a contrast between something that is “in part”, and something that is “teleion”. Therefore “complete” is the proper translation since that is the logical contrast to something “in part”.

  3. Matt Says:

    That is a very good example of what Bobby is talking about. It is important to mention the need for up to date lexicons like BDAG. Our definitions and glosses improve over time as we find more contemporary examples of how words were being used during the same decades or century as the NT. Thayer was published in 1886. There were 767 words that were unique to the NT at that time. Today there are less than 50. That makes a huge difference in the accuracy of translation for not only those 767 words but also many others as at the time of Thayer there were many words they only had in 1 or 2 extra biblical sources but now in dozens. As we get more examples to look at how the words were used in context at that time, we can better tune our glosses and definitions. Keep up the good work and thanks for the example.

  4. Alan Says:

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the insight. Can you tell me what BDAG says on the two words I mentioned in my post?

  5. Zack Says:

    Brilliant Bobby! Very interesting. Alot of that I’ve never thought about before. Excellant work brother! I’ll check back in to read more. God bless! How’s Rachael doing? I hope she’s all better now. Or at least on the road to a full and complete recovery. Be blessed!

  6. Alan Says:

    I’ve just done a bit of exploring for information on the BDAG lexicon, and it has left me perplexed. Apparently the various editions of Baur’s original work represent a tug-of-war between the four men over doctrinal interpretations (for example, compare what the various versions say about psallo). I want a lexicon to rise above this sort of thing. If my best source material is tainted by the author/editor’s doctrional position, then I have no unbiased way to decide for myself what I think a passage means.

    My first experience with a tainted source was a KJV with Strong’s concordance I purchased from Olive Tree. I eventually discovered that someone had altered the entry for eis inserting their doctrinal beliefs about Acts 2:38. I do have a hardcopy of the original Strong’s work and can confirm that commentary is not in the original.

    I would love to have access to the true source so I can evaluate whether the lexicon is promoting a doctrinal position or reporting the facts from first century Greek sources (for example, I’d like to see the actual text of the more recent extra-biblical discoveries that reduced the 767 words to 50 per Matt’s post). It really is becoming difficult to get unbiased source material for study. Sigh…

  7. Matt Says:


    I love the spirit you are approaching this with. The problem is when it comes to coming up with a gloss or even a definition there is some subjectivity involved. In BDAG you will find some subjectivity as Danker puts the passages under which one he thinks it fits best. If you were compiling a lexicon, I am certain that your doctrinal positions would be reflected to some degree and the same for me. The nice thing with BDAG is it does exactly what you are asking for and references the extra biblical material so you know exactly where to look and even gives snippets in partial context (the phrase it appears in) in many instances.

    If you want to get as close as possible you are going to need to some knowledge of the original languages and then wade through the data provided in BDAG and come to your own conclusions. There will be numerous times you will disagree when you start putting the pieces together. But that is true of any lexicon. BDAG is well worth the steep price tag. Just make sure that when you get it you get the latest edition from 2000. The older ones are not nearly as helpful.

  8. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Matt, Alan and Zack thank you for interest in these matters. I think they are of great importance for a number of reasons. Some imagine they have done a word study if they look in the back of Strong’s, then others assume because a “word” means something in one context that it has to mean the same thing in another. Others imagine they have digested all the theology of “love” or “grace” or “worship” if they simply list all the occurances of “agape” or “charis” or … but this is fallacious reasoning.

    Alan BDAG is by far the best tool you can have. Matt has been overly kind to Thayer. Some of the critics of BDAG being influenced by Danker’s bias also have their own bias that is often simply denied. Some of those critics also want words like psallo to be neater than what the case really seems to be.

    I am enjoying this discussion.

    Bobby Valentine

  9. Alan Says:

    I’m compulsively (some would say obsessively) drawn to these kinds of studies. Every now and then I take a couple of steps back and remind myself that 200 years ago, people could get everything they need for life and godliness, and they didn’t have to be Greek scholars to do it. But then I return to my compulsion.

    Matt and Bobby, your recommendation of BDAG is enticing. I actually haven’t found the third edition for sale yet. I’d love to get it in electronic form, especially if it could be usable in my favorite Bible software (e-Sword). But that’s not very likely, I know.

  10. Brian Nicklaus Says:

    thanks Bobby V
    I heard some of this at heard and still haven’t bought Carson’s book but it has been on my list a while.

    I try to tell people about “ekklesia” but they assume this “new teaching” must be biased or slanted. go figure!

    I also read a good article at the acts17:11 site that pointed out that “agape” is used for those who “love” the darkness in John. boy, they must really love the darkness with an altruistic love.

    what about Barclay’s commentaries. he is all about history and word studies. are his comments, which seem to rely on etymology often, safe??

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I know that Barclay is a favorite among preachers but I have learned to be wary of him. Indeed I have divested myself of his material. The new series by N.T. Wright (Matthew for Everyone; Paul for Everyone; etc) is a better place to go for popular level (and reliable) exposition.

    As a rule I would be wary of any study that depends on etymology to build its case.

    Bobby Valentine

  12. Matt Says:

    Alan, it is on sale at a steal at amazon.com for $90.00 and I wouldn’t pass that up. It won’t last at that price.


    It is available through Logos in electronic format.

    I will look up the words you mentioned when I am at the office but I gaurantee you that to put all the info here will be a stretch.

  13. Matt Says:

    That link didn’t paste all the way in:

    Electronic – Logos:


  14. Matt Says:

    Something is weird with the links. Search for it on amazon.com and click the used for sale link and you will find it for 90…Don’t worry, I won’t post this three more times!

  15. Bob Bliss Says:

    Bobby, it was like being back in Dr. Black’s Greek class at Harding Grad.

    #2 demonstrates, to some degree (at least IMHO) that systematic theology (and/or topical studies) is inferior to biblical theology. Or maybe I should say that biblical theology should at least have precedent over systematic theology and topical studies.

    Alan, I think your dream of unbiased scholars is just a dream. I don’t think any human is capable of total unbias. If we keep reading, listening, and being challenged to keep digging, then I think we can break through to truth.

    Brian, you’re too young to be changing our theology 🙂 Seriously, most of our fellowship has been fed a certain diet and when you change that diet they get upset. You have to be careful how you introduce “truth” to people raised on the truth.

  16. Brian Nicklaus Says:

    here’s my example for explaining ekklesia

    it’s like breakfast in english. no one thinks about the fact that we are breaking the night-time fast, we are just talking about the first meal of the day.

    of course, no one is arguing that the church isn’t the “called out people”, that’s Bible (1 Peter 2), but the word isn’t saying that…

  17. Tim Archer Says:

    I think on of the great things about the Internet is it gives us the chance to exchange ideas on topics like this. We can check interpretations by consulting with others. I learn a lot from reading things like this.

    Thanks Bobby!

    Grace and peace,

  18. Paula Harrington Says:

    Thanks so much for this. It’s very informative.

  19. Limblog Says:

    Jim M’Guiggan used to say, many years ago, that he heard someone playing a tune on a “soft-loud”. I have been irritated by people using etymologies in this way for decades. But is it not a little unfair to blame Kittel and Brown for the fact that their readers don’t know how to use their works. Barclay, however, is not even allowed in my house. An excellent fairly recent book on this subject is Moisés Silva’s little book on the exegesis of Galatians.
    Not everyone can learn a second language, but knowing more than one modern language is a great help in avoiding some of the pitfalls you mention here, because you know that – for instance – the way the definite article is used in Spanish is not the same as in English, so it is probably different also in NT Greek.

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