Last time we looked at the importance of the meaning of specific words in the Bible. Individual words are building blocks, but we do not discover the rich meaning and truth of God’s word just by looking at individual words. We find the meaning in the statements and ideas that the biblical authors gave us in complete expressions (sentences or groups of sentences). And even those ideas can be grasped only by viewing them in the wider context of the biblical book they are embedded in.
Nevertheless, we have to be able to study words in order to get at the whole meaning. Or at least we need to understand how the translators decided what words in the receptor language (English, for instance) best represent the original meaning (in Hebrew or Greek).
None of us need to pretend we are linguists and lexicographers. That work has been done for us by people who have worked hard for many years in those disciplines. I learned Greek and Hebrew in graduate school, but that does not make me a linguist or lexicographer (and I’m glad!).
Here is the point: the ordinary Bible student does not need to judge the subtleties of translation alternatives when studying the words of a specific biblical passage. Yes, we can note the various translations, or even the details of the semantic range of a given word, but unless you have spent many years immersed in studying Hebrew or Greek, it is not your responsibility to judge the translation options.
It is important for us to have confidence in our Bible translations. We all will decide what version we prefer to use. Some prefer word-for-word (sometimes referred to as “literal”) translations. These translations let the reader know the specific word choice and phraseology of the biblical author, but sometimes are more difficult to read because they may not have the flow of the way we use language today. Other people gravitate toward what may be called thought-for-thought translations. And then there are paraphrases or free translations which take whole sentences and render them in the colloquial use of language.
[More about specific Bible translations HERE ]
So if you are studying a passage and there are some words that are pivotal for the meaning of the text, how do you drill down on the meaning of those words, using tools that expert linguists and lexicographers have put in our hands?
1. Look at how three or four different Bible translations have the word rendered in the passage you are studying (you can look at many translations at Biblegateway.com). Perhaps the same English word or phrase is used uniformly. If not, you will learn something by noting how different translators rendered it.
2. Use a concordance (or an online tool like Biblegateway.com where you can use “keyword search”) to glance through a list of verses using the word you are curious about. Just remember that the word in English may be the translation of several different Hebrew or Greek words. (There are concordance functions that allow you to focus on only one specific Hebrew or Greek word.)
2. Look up the word in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. If “baptize” is in your passage, you’ll learn a lot from the article in the tool. There are not many uses of the word in the New Testament, so you can go and look them up yourself as well. Just make sure you do not assume that the entire semantic range of meaning of the word is included in the intended thought of a biblical author in any one passage. Note that some dictionaries specialize in theological words.
3. If the word is really pivotal, a detailed commentary will explain the meaning of the word (more about commentaries later). The commentator is leaning on the research of linguists and lexicographers, and giving us summary meanings. You are not likely to find word studies in one-volume commentaries, but in commentaries devoted to single biblical books.
The big picture is this: as life-long students of the Bible we are continually growing in our biblical vocabulary. Our understanding of the words of Scripture grows both wider (as we link many passages) and deeper (as we take time to study the words with the tools available to us). We gain a language of revelation, with the light of truth becoming brighter and brighter. We do not do this in order to be arrogant or esoteric, but to know God better and to explain the ways and the will of God better to others. Jesus warned some experts in Scripture that they knew the words, but had missed the meaning. May that never be said of us.