Understanding Bible Words
I often run across words that are either unclear to me, or deserve further study because of their importance to the passage or topic. Here are some strategies for getting at the meaning of words, and some pitfalls to avoid. (Note: I don�t use all of these strategies for every word. Often one will suffice. Nor do I always apply them in this order.) Some strategies are limited to people who can work with the original languages.
1. Look it up in a standard English dictionary. If the translators of your modern, accurate translation (such as the NASB or NIV) painstakingly chose that English word as the best translation of the Greek or Hebrew, it sometimes pays to know clearly what the English word means.
2. See how other versions translate it. When translations disagree, I realize that the original word may have more than one meaning, and translators must make a judgment call based upon the context and other considerations. For this reason, I consult my New Testament in 26 Translations for every verse I study.
3.Look it up in your Strong�s Concordance. There are several Greek words that can be translated "forgiveness". Strong�s lets you know which Greek word is used in your text. Then, if you turn to a resource like Vine�s (see below) you will know which Greek word to focus on. Strong also gives a brief definition and other ways the word has been translated. If you want to trace the word�s usage in the Bible further, Strong�s will give you every verse where the English word "forgiveness" is used. (What a handy tool! Another plus: other word study tools are keyed to Strong's.)
4.Consult a Bible Dictionary. My New Bible Dictionary gave me an overview of "forgiveness" in the Old and New Testaments. Bible Encyclopedias will give you even more help. I�ve also used Vine�s Expository Dictionary. More often, I consult the the three volume Dictionary of New Testament Theology. It may, however, get pretty heavy for those without theological training. Fortunately, it is keyed to the Strong�s Concordance.
5.Those with a knowledge of the original language will consult such Greek tools as the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon, for basic definitions. I have Kittel�s massive 9 volume set, but only drag out a volume as a last resort. If you want to track a Greek word through the New Testament, you�ll need The Englishman�s Greek Concordance. For those who know Hebrew, Both the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, and the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament are valuable.
6.Go to your commentaries. Sometimes, I take this step before I consult my Strong�s or dictionaries. If my commentaries and translations all concur on the meaning of a word, I may feel no need to go further. If, however, a commentary convinces me that the meaning could easily go two or more ways, or that the word probably doesn�t mean what I first thought it did, I may simply chunk that verse for a clearer, non-controversial passage. If, however, I�m stuck with the passage, I grab my pick and go mining in my dictionaries.
7. >Use your mind.> Just as one English word can mean different things in different contexts ("I�m running to town." "He ran out of gas." "You�ve got a run in your hose!") so it is with Greek and Hebrew words. Once you know the possible definitions (from your bible dictionary or suggestions from commentators), decide which one you think fits best in the context of the verse you are considering. If your commentary disagrees, wonder why it would disagree. After all, the commentator had to go through the same process you�re going through right now. When it comes to deciding which definition fits best, the context rules. But also weigh in such factors as which definitions occur most frequently in the Bible, or most frequently in the writing of that biblical author. Brilliant Greek and Hebrew scholars are capable of blundering on such judgments. If the commentary doesn't make sense to you, perhaps it doesn�t make sense!
Common Pitfalls in Word Studies
The "This is the definition I like best" syndrome >. The purpose of a word study is to determine what the author meant in the context he wrote. Don�t fall for the temptation to take the definition that best fits your purpose, or that you personally like, and read it into the context.
The "Look where this word came from" obsession>. Some preachers love to tell about the history of a word, and derive their definition from that history. The bible dictionaries will often tell the development of a Greek word from the classical period through Bible times. Be careful not use an earlier meaning to define the use in a different time period! Words can change meaning drastically over time. For example, our word nice came from the Latin word nescius, which meant "ignorant!" Please don�t confuse that older meaning with my comment that "you are nice." D.A. Carson uncovers lots of similar fallacies in his book, Exegetical Fallacies. Heavy reading for a lay person, but great for serious students.
Think of it this way. Imagine you�re an archeologist (okay, imagine you�re Indiana Jones) living in the 25th century. You uncover a late 20th century newspaper and run across the unfamiliar words "nice" and "refrigerate." Recalling that "nice" comes from the Latin word nescius, you conclude that they are calling people idiots. Dividing "refrigerate" into its component parts ("re"-to do again; "frigerate" � related to "frigid") you conclude that this device cools only things that have already been cooled once. Both conclusions are erroneous. Yet I often hear preachers make this type error in defining biblical words. [Exception: when a Greek word is used only once in the New Testament (Called "hapax legomena". You may run across the term in commentaries), and we can�t find it in the extra-biblical literature of the time, looking to its history might be our only option.]
The "I�m pretty smart" head trip>. A pet peeve of mine: preachers who wax eloquent on the history of a word, the component parts of a word, and the tense of a word, only to conclude that it means precisely what an ordinary reading of my English translation indicated it meant in the first place. If you do this, the .001% of your youth who aspire to be linguists will doubtless squeal with delight and rush the stage after the lesson. But for the rest, it only confirms their assumption that the Bible is boring and that they should have never brought their friend.
My study of "forgiveness" took me through several reference tools. Out of all that study, my youth only heard me say, "Forgiveness means not getting even on the outside, or holding grudges on the inside." I never see a biblical author using precious teaching time to pursue academic interests that have no profit for the hearer. Use such material only when it's necessary to help clarify the meaning of the text.