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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Epistles


In studying epistles, one encounters a broader vocabulary than in narratives. Frequently, a passage can have two or more very different interpretations, depending on what definition you assume for just one word. For this reason, it is important to be able to do responsible word studies.

What is a word study? A word study is when you study a word. Shocking. But it’s just that simple. You take one word from a passage and study its usage elsewhere in Scripture (and even in extra-biblical literature) in an effort to determine its most likely meaning in the passage at hand.

Why do I say responsible word studies? Because some of the most common errors in biblical interpretation are the result of irresponsible word studies. As I explain how to do a word study, I’ll explain what makes a word study responsible or irresponsible. I’ll confess to you, before I learned how to do this responsibly, I was like a bull in an interpretive china shop. I shutter when I think of some of the things I have taught with great conviction based on reckless word studies. It really makes me nervous to even teach someone how to do word studies, but it is an important part of studying, especially studying epistles.

When you do a word study, you are not studying the English word that you see in your bible. You are actually studying the Hebrew (OT) or Greek (NT) word underlying the English word. I tell you in all seriousness, this can be intoxicating. We all know how exciting it can be to see something or understand something in Scripture that you’ve never seen before. I refer to this as the “wow, I’ve never seen that before” factor. Word studies can be dangerous because every time you do a word study, there is the possibility of seeing something totally new. If you’re not careful, you can end up creating new things that you’ve never seen before. When we dig a nugget out of Scripture, we need to make sure that we didn’t plant it there in the first place.

Back when I first started to do word studies, there was no internet so the task involved flipping through the pages of a lot of very big books with very tiny print. But now, you can find all the resources you need right on the internet. There are also some very good software packages, but if you’re just learning, you might as well do it for free.

A very good website to use for word studies is I’m only going to explain how to do a study on this site. If you learn there, you should be able to figure out how to use another online tool if you find one you like better. The first link you want to click on the home page is Interlinear Bible. When that page loads, you’ll find a “search for” box in the center of your screen. Simply type in the English word you want to study. Before clicking the “find” button, you may want to change the search version. The default is the King James Version. If you prefer the King’s English, don’t be ashamed – just click “find”. If you prefer a more modern translation, use the pull-down box to change the KJV Strong’s Version to the NAS Strong’s Version. Then click find.

What you see next may look a bit weird. Don’t worry about the nonsense words under the English translation. Those are simply the underlying Greek words spelled phonetically using English characters. You don’t need to pay attention to them. Just scroll down until you find the Scripture reference for the verse you are studying. Once you locate your verse, click on your study word within that verse. You will then be taken to a page that gives all the information for the underlying Greek word. Scan down to the definition section, and there you will find one or more definitions. This is where things start to become dangerous.

Every word in the Bible has a specific meaning in the context in which it is found. It does not have several meanings in that one context. For example, if we are studying the word “light”, each use of that word can only have one meaning. One single use cannot simultaneously mean “not heavy” and “illumination”. Our objective is to determine which meaning is used in the particular verse we are studying. One danger when looking at a number of definitions for one word is that we may be tempted to pick the definition that gives us that wow factor I mentioned earlier. But we don’t have the liberty of picking the coolest answer. The biblical author meant something specific and we are bound to that meaning. Another danger is when rather than picking one definition, we take all of them and force them into one hole, so that we end up reading multiple scenarios into one word. Obviously, that won’t work. The word can only mean one thing per use.

So how do we find the one correct meaning? Two things: context and cross-references. Remember, context is king. So once we have our list of possible definitions, we then take each one back to our passage to see if the context excludes any of them. We ask the question, “Does this definition fit this context? Does it make sense?” You may have to read through the passage several times with that definition in mind before you can tell whether or not that definition makes sense. Hopefully, you’ll be able to exclude all the definitions but one. If you still have more than one, move on to cross-references.

On your word study screen on, you already have the cross-references you need right there at your finger tips. On the right side of the screen, there is a column “NAS Verse Count” (or "KJV Verse Count".) This is a tally of all the times that word is used in the Bible, with the number of uses shown in each individual book. If you click the book names, you will be taken to each use in that book. And here again, context is king. If you are studying a book written by Paul, you’ll want to look at all the uses of your word in Paul’s writing. Don’t look at books written by other writers, yet. You want to find out how Paul has used this word elsewhere in his writings. If the contexts are similar, he may be using the same definition in both passages. This will help you narrow down your definitions. However, be careful. Just because Paul used a certain definition for a word in one place, does not mean he used the same definition elsewhere. At the end of the day, the immediate context is the deciding factor.

At this point, if you still are not sure, you can look at the usage of the word by other Biblical authors. But honestly, I would encourage you to just take your list of possible definitions and check them against any commentaries you may be using. Sometimes a commentator will make a case for a specific definition that will help you make a careful decision.

One last thing. Be very careful with verbs. If there is the potential for false “wow factors” in Greek nouns, Greek verbs are like crack cocaine. Greek verbs are very easily abused in word studies because they hold so much more information than do English verbs. While English verbs will typically tell you tense (past, present, or future), person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), and number (singular or plural), Greek verbs tell tense, voice, mood, person, and number. And participles tell even more. (This information is referred to collectively as the verb’s parsing.) This makes Greek verbs very expressive, but also very complex and therefore very easy to mishandle. It is very easy to read a booklet on Greek verb tenses and begin to think you are an expert. Just stick with the definition of the word and don’t worry about the parsings.

Never, ever, ever base any interpretation on a Greek verb parsing. If fact, if you have a study tool that gives you the parsing of a verb, but you don’t know Greek, forget that you have that tool. Danger, danger, danger. It may sound extreme, but you can really butcher the Word this way. It is best to trust a good commentary. If you are not satisfied with that, learn Greek. You won’t regret it.

If you are too intimidated to try a word study, that is fine. Don’t think you’ve wimped out. Quality commentaries will deal with any word issues for you and as you gain experience studying the Bible you may feel more comfortable trying a word study at a later date.

Next time, Interpreting Epistles – Proposition Analysis.

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