Everchanging Language and Bible Study

Translations can be frustrating.

We tend to forget that when we read our English, Spanish, French, German, or whatever Bible, it is only a translation of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text. These translations were done by groups of scholars (and sometimes individuals) that were looking at the original languages and trying to figure out how best to translate words that were used in a different cultural context than our own. This is difficult work.

One of the reasons it is difficult is because of the nature of language. Language is not stagnant. It changes over time and how words are defined changes with it. Here’s an example. Let’s look at the word “nice.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nice” means:

1 giving pleasure or satisfaction; agreeable.
▶ good-natured; kind.
2 fine or subtle: a nice distinction.
▶ requiring careful attention. [1]

But that was not its original meaning:

The word nice entered Middle English in the sense ‘stupid’, from Latin nescius, meaning ‘ignorant.’ It developed a range of senses, from ‘wanton and dissolute’ to ‘strange or rare’ and ‘coy or reserved.’ It was first used with a positive connotation in the sense ‘fine or subtle’ in the 16th century, and the current main meanings, senses 1 and 2, are recorded from the late 18th century.[1]

That’ll make you think twice before you call someone “nice.”!

On top of this issue, Greek and Hebrew words have what is called “semantic domains.” A semantic domain is a range or area of meaning related to a specific word. And the word’s sense is dependent upon the surrounding context (i.e., the sentence, paragraph, document.) “For instance, English has a domain ‘Rain,’ which includes words such as rain, drizzle, downpour, raindrop, puddle. We use these words to talk about the rain.” [2] So, the translators have to determine what sense the author of the text was trying to communicate to their audience.

Words alone do not determine meaning; we interpret them based on the context that they are in, namely their genre. The same words will be interpreted differently if they are found in a different genre or context. [3]

[Semantic Anachronism] occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature. [4]

What does this have to do with how we interpret the Bible? There is an overarching tendency amongst Christians to import our 21st-century meanings into the words we read in the Scriptures. We think that the translated word means the same thing back in its ancient context as it does today. When we do that, we end up doing violence to the text and rendering an interpretation that can be far off from what the original author intended. In other words, we make it express something that it does not signify.

One of the struggles that we have as individual interpreters is that we have traditional readings that have been handed down to us by our family, pastor, or favorite teacher. We think we understand how a passage or word is to be interpreted because we have been told how to interpret it. In other words, we do not do the work ourselves and just accept a reading because it came from an “authority” we trust. This is just plain laziness on our part and one of the root causes of mishandling God’s word. This not only does damage to the Scriptures, but it can really hurt other people that you share it with.

We have some great translators that have done a great job giving us very accurate renditions of the Bible. Some of the best are those like the NASB, ESV, NRSV, and others that seek to stay as close to the original language as possible. But that still does not solve the problem about how to interpret individual words.

Here are a couple of suggestions that will set you on the way to interpreting words and passages will greater accuracy:

  1. BUY AND READ D. A. CARSON’S EXEGETICAL FALLACIES – It’s $15 on Amazon and only $10 on Kindle. This is one of the best investments if you want to be a better exegete of scripture. It does a phenomenal job pointing out the mistakes we make when we interpret the Bible. This is a must have for anyone serious about Bible study. It is only 160 pages long (that includes bibliography and index, which you won’t read) and it is easy to understand with plenty of example from the Bible. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
  2. Read in context SLOWLY – This means understanding how a word is being used based on the surrounding words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Often you will find that the author gives you clues for how to interpret specific words. But don’t rush through what you are reading. Take your time. Look for clues. Understand the story or argument. This will more often than not yield some pretty amazing results.
  3. Use multiple translations – Obviously learning Greek and Hebrew would be best. But for those who do not have the time or money to invest in learning a new language, the use of different translations is beneficial.
  4. Read good commentaries – (Credit is due to my professor, Dr. J. Richard Middleton for helping me to see the importance of this.) The word “good” is obviously subjective. But a “good” place to start is at bestcommentaries.com. You can look up different commentaries and see how they have been rated. Many offer short descriptions about the author and their theological bent. But read the good one, even if you happen to disagree with a commentators theological position. They offer some great insight into how words were understood in the ancient world. If you don’t know Greek and/or Hebrew, the reality is that you are dependent on those who do. Take advantage and learn from those that God has given the church to learn from.
  5. Read with humility – Don’t assume that you already know how to interpret a word or passage. “Intellectual humility” is a hallmark of a competent interpreter. Learn to submit your results to those who have traveled before you. It’s ok if you are wrong.
  6. Soak your study time with prayer – The Lord loves to give His children help when they seek to honestly understand what the Bible is saying.  But never forget that prayer alone will not give you all the answers. You’ve got to dig for it, and the Lord rewards those who diligently seek to understand the Bible.


[1] Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] https://www.semdom.org/description

[3] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 13.

[4] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 33.

Image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/woodtype-printing-font-letterpress-846089/



One Comment on “Everchanging Language and Bible Study

  1. Pingback: Own the Text | Theology For Life

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