Word Studies for Beginners part 5: Weighing the Usage of Words

Word Studies for Beginners part 5: Weighing the Usage of Words

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

1      Recognizing Words Worth Studying

2      Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)

3      How to do a Word Study

4      The Elements of a Word

5      Weighing the Usage of Words

One of the most helpful things you can do when studying a word is to look at a word’s usage throughout the Bible and other Greek or Hebrew writings. When you add up all the words each in its own context you can really get a feel for the semantic range of a word and gain deep insight into what it CAN mean in the passage you are studying.

While this is true, it is important that you don’t treat each occurrence of a word in any document as an equal vote on the meaning in your passage. When we glean from usage we are not dealing with a democracy, rather we need to weigh each word and treat their value accordingly. Below is a chart to help you do just that.

Word Usage Chart

The closer an occurrence of a word is to the passage you are studying, the more weight it carries in determining the meaning. The further away the word is, the less value it has in determining the meaning in your passage.

As per the diagram above, you can thing about the distance as the rings of a target with the immediate context being the center and therefore carrying the most weight. If you author uses the same word in the surrounding chapters it is very likely he is using it in the same way so pay attention.

The next ring out is the usage throughout the book. Although an author can and does use words in different ways over the course of a book, there can also be good clues to meaning (especially if it is a key word for the book)

Carrying a little less weight are occurrences of the word in other books by the same author.  You may have noticed that your friends or your teachers and pastors have a personal vocabulary. They have a tendency to explain a given concept every time using the same set of terms.

The next ring of the circle is other books in the Bible. The authors of scripture write as people immersed in the scriptures they are familiar with one another. Paul quotes Luke. Peter references the letters of Paul. Luke is familiar with the gospel of Mark. On top of that, the Bible is a religious text and thematically unified so meanings of words often (but not always) extend beyond books of the Bible and even authors to the rest of the Testament.

The final ring, which can be helpful but carries the least weight are extra-biblical sources. Even the different types of sources in this category can be further organized. If you are studying a Greek word and you consult the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament that the Authors of the New Testament are familiar with and quote) that should carry more weight than the writings of Emperor Caligula. Because language changes in space and time, a document that is close to the same age and was composed in the same area it has more value than one written hundreds of years later in a far away place.

Don’t make the mistake of giving every occurrence of a word equal voice in determining what a word means in a particular passage. Weighing the usage of words based on their distance from your passage will yield more trustworthy results.

 

Word Studies for Beginners part 4: The Elements of a Word

Word Studies for Beginners part 4: The Elements of a Word

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

1      Recognizing Words Worth Studying

2      Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)

3      How to do a Word Study

4      The Elements of a Word

5      Weighing the Usage of Words

When you look for a word in a dictionary you look for its most basic form. Whether you are looking for the adjective lovely or the verb loving they are both found under the base word love. We call this base word the lemma. When we use words in every day language we take this basic word, the lemma and we add the elements necessary to use it in the way we mean. We accessorize the lemma by parsing it and this changes the form of the word. When we do word studies its important to know not just what a word means (definition of the lemma) but how it is used in this passage. There are two areas to explore: morphology and parts of speech.

Morphology

Morphology tells us about the form a word takes. One way words change in morphology is through the use of prefixes and suffixes. By adding a prefix word change their meaning. For example when we add the prefix “a” to the noun “theism” it is no longer the belief in God but belief that there is no God. Suffixes also change words; sometimes they change the part of speech like the noun “walk” becoming the verb “walking”. They can also change the tense (walked). Morphology also controls if a word is singular or plural. To see how this plays out you can read this earlier post on recognizing you singular verses plural. This becomes especially important because any plural (like a crowd of people) is made up of a bunch of singulars (individuals in the crowd) so we need to know who is being addressed. Tense of a word also is part of morphology. In English we generally only talk about three simple tenses: past, present and future, but in Greek and Hebrew there is a bit more nuance but that will have to wait for another post. For now just be aware of these parts of morphology so that you can spot them in your own studies or in commentator explanations.

Part of Speech

Most words can be used (with a change in morphology) as different parts of speech. Knowing the part a word is playing helps us to understand how it relates to the other words in the sentence. Nouns of course are the objects and subjects of a sentence; the who what and where. Verbs are the action words that tell us what the subjects do (or did or are doing or will do). When we look at verbs we want to pay attention to their tense. We also want to see its voice; either active (the subject is doing it) or passive (it is being done to the subject). Lastly we need to see its mood: Is it an indicative telling us information or an imperative commanding us to do something or an interrogative asking a question among other moods. Adjectives and Adverbs modify a word by making it big or small or smelly or glistening (adjective) or telling us that someone did something slowly or well (adverb). Prepositions explain things in their relationship to other nouns (above, beyond, behind, within) Pronouns stand in for nouns (you, we, they). Conjunctions connect phrases and clauses (but, therefore, and, however).

Learning how to work with these things in a foreign language takes effort and is beyond the scope of this current blog, but now you have a working vocabulary and an introduction to the elements of a word that will help you explore more deeply.

Word Studies for Beginners part 3: How to do a Word Study

Word Studies for Beginners part 3: How to do a Word Study

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

1      Recognizing Words Worth Studying

2      Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)

3      How to do a Word Study

4      The Elements of a Word

5      Weighing the Usage of Words

 

Have you ever wondered how to do a word study? It used to be that doing a word study required a grasp of at least the Greek and Hebrew alphabet and a small collection of big books including a Concordance (tells you where a particular word is used in the Bible) a Lexicon (telling you how a word is parsed in a particular passage) and a collection of Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries (explaining the possible meanings or semantic range of a particular word). Modern technology has made these things much easier to use and the Internet has made them much more accessible. This means that you can use these tools effectively and do your own word studies with just a little guidance.

One of the best websites for people who want to do their own word studies is blueletterbible.org. Because it’s free and easy to use this post will focus on how to use their tools in your studies. To begin just navigate from the home page to the passage that you are studying and click the tools button to the left of the verse your target word is found in. They have made quite a few different study tools available but the one we need today is the interlinear. Selecting that will display the verse in Greek and break it down word-by-word below. Find the word you wish to study and click on the Strong’s number hyperlink. There are quite a few things on the screen now that are worth noting, so lets take a look at them one-by-one:

1: Root Word: The root word section will point you to the etymology, or history of your term. Here you can navigate to related terms to get a better feel of where this word came from. Be careful not to make too much of this information, historical meaning or the meaning behind the parts of a word don’t always translate into the new term. For example, the term butterfly can be broken down to two base words, but those terms don’t really tell us anything about what a butterfly is.

2. Dictionary Aids: Here you can dig deeper into the meaning of the word with the help of Vines Expository Dictionary and the TDNT. Just click on the Vine’s entry to get good advice on how the term is used throughout the Bible. The TDNT (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) is a wonderful resource that looks at how a word Greek word is used in the New Testament, in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the surrounding Greek culture. Although Blue Letter Bible does not make it available for free, it does provide the page and volume for the term for reference. You also may see listed one of my favorite resources. Trench’s Synonyms. Trench takes similar Greek words and helps you to understand where they overlap in meaning. His entry on theGreek word baptisma (baptism) uses an ancient Greek pickle recipe to help you see why the New Testament authors always use that term verses the other one available. No kidding.

3. Outline of Biblical Usage: This gives you the possible meanings of a word as its used in the Bible. We call this the semantic range. Note, any given occurrence of the word only carries one of these meanings, not all of them. By taking these possible meanings and filtering them through the context of the word where you are studying it you should be able to strike a few possibilities off the list, or even know for sure which meaning applies here.

4. Search Results by Book: This is one of my favorite tools. You can see every occurrence of the word you are studying listed by book. This is great for helping you to recognize words that an author is partial to. Notice that John in his gospel and first letter uses meno (abide) more than all the other New Testament authors combined. It is also a great way to spot key words in a book of the Bible. Matthew’s Gospel uses the word basileia (kingdom) over 50 times. By clicking on any of the Books you can see each occurrence in that particular verse.

5. Translation Count: Here you can see how the word is translated in the version of the Bible you are currently using. This is good both for getting a feel of how the word functions in English, as well as building up your instincts so that you can guess what original word lies behind the English as you read it. Blue Letter Bible only makes this available in a few translations.

6. Concordance Results using your translation: This shows you every occurrence of the word in your translation in the verse in which its found. Just skimming through this can give you a feel for the word but pay special attention to the wider context around the occurrence that you are studying. If the word is use in the same chapter, or the chapters right around where you are studying then it can often provide a lot of data on how to understand it in the occurrence you are focused on. You can take what we talked about in Studying a Word in the Wild and use it on these surrounding context occurrences to much benefit.

Once you have gleaned everything you can from these tools the final step is to take all this information back to the original context of the verse and study it again. No matter what you discover about what a word might mean, the context must be the final judge of what it must mean.

Blue Letter Bible puts a lot of tools and information at your fingertips. It may seem unwieldy and overwhelming at first but over time you learn what is helpful and develop instincts that speed up the process. You don’t have to be a scholar to study the Bible, with a little help and a lot of practice you can do a word study.

Have you ever wondered how to do a word study? It used to be that doing a word study required a grasp of at least the Greek and Hebrew alphabet and a small collection of big books including a Concordance (tells you where a particular word is used in the Bible) a Lexicon (telling you how a word is parsed in a particular passage) and a collection of Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries (explaining the possible meanings or semantic range of a particular word). Modern technology has made these things much easier to use and the Internet has made them much more accessible. This means that you can use these tools effectively and do your own word studies with just a little guidance.

 

 

Word Studies for Beginners part 2: Learning about Words in the Wild

Word Studies for Beginners part 2: Learning about Words in the Wild

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

  1. Recognizing Words Worth Studying
  2. Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)
  3. How to do a Word Study
  4. The Elements of a Word
  5. Weighing the Usage of Words

Never underestimate what you can learn about a word right where you find it. Studying a word in the wild is something special. When you observe it, you observe it as part of its own ecosystem. When we use words in the context of other words, words become interconnected, and when you look at one you learn about another. If you were building something and you studied a single piece not having the others you can learn a few things, but when you connect it with the other parts to make a whole you learn much more, its no longer a piece of wood but a crossbeam that provides support to the legs or the molding that makes the whole piece of furniture beautiful. Once we’ve highlighted the words worth studying, we begin by studying them in the context that they are found.

When you study a word in the wild what you are looking for is how that word interacts with the words around it. Does the author of the passage create relationships between the word you are studying and other words in the text? At the most basic level you will find adjectives that further refine your word, or verbs that make your words move, subjects that act upon your word, or objects that your word acts upon. Sometimes these relationships are helpful, but more often we are looking for something deeper. The main questions we want to ask are:

  • Is there anything in the text that tells me what this word CANNOT mean
  • Is there anything in the text that tells me what this word MIGHT mean
  • Is there anything in the text that tells me what this word PROBABLY means
  • Is there anything in the text that tells me what this word MUST mean

What you want to look for are author-provided definitions, descriptions or illustrations of your term. Also look for words that the author compares, or contrasts to your term. Are there any ideas in the context of that passage that would limit the semantic range (possible meanings) of the word in this setting? Be thorough, it is a good understanding of a word in its context that protects you from smuggling in an incorrect meaning from other sources. What you are doing is like taking crime-scene testimony and creating a suspect sketch so that you track down the right word.

Let me give you one example of how this plays out. In the midst of the Apostle’s Paul’s great defense of the resurrection in Romans 15 he makes this cryptic statement:

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (Romans 15:29)

What is Paul talking about here? If it weren’t for this reference we wouldn’t know anything about this practice. Is this something that the church should do? Is this some sort of post-mortem substitutionary baptism to save the unconverted? The concept clearly fits the criteria of a word worth studying: it is important to the context and we personally don’t understand it, but looking up the words involved won’t yield any help. Baptism means baptism and death means death. However, studying the concept right here in the wild does tell us a few things. First off, it is clear that the original audience understood Paul’s reference here. Both Paul and the church of Rome knew of this practice, if either did not, the logic of Paul’s point would be lost. Second, and more importantly we know that this was not a practice of Paul or the roman church. Note the pronouns used in your translation, it is “they” or “those” or “people” not “us” or “we” or “you”. This tells us that there were people who practiced baptism on behalf of the dead, but they were other people. Neither the apostles nor the church had such a practice. Paul’s point here seems to be that even these outsiders, as wrong as they are in this particular practice understand the deeper and more important truth of the resurrection. By looking at the concept in its context we have discovered both what it CANNOT mean (a practice of the early church that we should participate in) and what it PROBABLY means (a practice of outsiders who ironically understand the resurrection better than the true church).

When we study a word we begin to study it right where we find it. By observing the word in the wild we lay the foundation and the safety net for further study, and sometimes make that study unnecessary. It is worth noting in closing that you should never underestimate how much you can learn about the Bible from the Bible. Before you even open another book or consult the scholar, you can increase your understanding of the text.

 

Word Studies for Beginners: Part 1 Recognizing Words Worth Studying

Word Studies for Beginners: Part 1 Recognizing Words Worth Studying

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

  1. Recognizing Words Worth Studying
  2. Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)
  3. How to do a Word Study
  4. The Elements of a Word
  5. Weighing the Usage of Words

The Bible was not written in English. It wasn’t even written in King James English. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (Old Testament, also a few chapters in Aramaic)- and Greek (New Testament). That means that each and every word you read in your Bible is foreign. Bible translation is serious work and we owe a great debt to the translators who have toiled (and at some points in history even bled) to provide the Bible in our native tongue. However, the quality of translation we have available to us does not negate the value of studying words on our own. Languages are complex, and expressing a single word in its context with a corresponding word in another language (or even a whole phrase) does not always give us a full understanding of the word and its usage. Word Studies help us to unpack the important words in the Bible and peel away any meaning we have smuggled in from our own experiences and culture. With the right goals in mind, and the right tools every person can increase their understanding of the Bible through studying individual words.

The bible is made up of over well above 700,000 words. Even if you limit your study to a single chapter of the Bible you are still looking at hundreds of words. If you just start with word one and work your way through you will soon be bored and burned out. How do you know which ones you need to study? How do you know which ones are worth studying? These are the initial questions we must answer. Here are some guidelines on where to begin:

 

Are their English words in the passage that I’m not sure I understand?

Although our whole Bible has been translated into English, not all the English words that make up are Bible are used regularly outside of a Christian context. Words like propitiation, expiation and vestibule may be just as foreign to you as the original word it represents. Its good to start by looking up the English word in a good dictionary, but don’t stop until you have also studied the original word in Greek or Hebrew as well.

 

Is there a recognizable key word in the passage?

Key words are the words at the heart of the meaning of a passage. Sometimes they are easy to spot because the author repeats them throughout the passage (count the times Paul uses the word “comfort” in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7). Sometimes key words appear only once, but come to the foreground when you ask, “What is this passage about?” If one of the words in the passage makes it way into your answer you should set it aside to study.

 

Are any of the words ambiguous in the context?

Most words have a semantic range. The word can mean different things in different contexts. Take the word “grill” for example. I could be referring to the front of a car, a BBQ, interrogating someone or if your particularly hip you could be talking about your teeth. Most of the time, the meaning is clear from its context (I’m going to put the shrimp on the grill) but sometimes even the context doesn’t point to a single meaning clearly. That is a word worth studying.

 

Are any of the words theologically loaded?

This refers not only to words that are keystones in Christianity, like justification or the Kingdom of God but also words that the author seems to use as a technical term, referring to a specific concept and using the same word regularly as a form of theological shorthand (the way the Apostle John uses “abide” for example). For theologically loaded terms the value of a word study increases because you can learn both what the word means here in its context and by studying all the places it occurs come to better understanding of the concept itself.

 

Are any of the words load-bearing terms?

In your house some of the walls are of no structural value, they just divide up the space. Other walls however are load-bearing meaning that they help hold up the second story, the roof or the whole house. If you remove a load bearing wall you compromise the structural integrity of the building and the whole thing could fall apart. In a passage of Scripture there are often load-bearing terms, words that are so important that removing them would change or obscure the whole passage. Ask your self: what word in the passage is so important that removing or changing it would change the whole thing?

 

Once you have answered these questions you should have a short list of words to study further. It’s also worth noting that you should always be open to adding terms to the list as you study. Sometimes words are so interconnected that as you study one, it will make another seem more important and worth investigating. Follow those trails. In the following posts we’ll show you what to do with this list now that you have it.