Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Danger of Misusing Greek and Hebrew Word Studies

Tonight I preached on John 21, and I was in a quandary.  I had listened this week to Mark Strauss talk about the danger of misusing Greek and Hebrew in your sermons.

And he is absolutely right: Word studies are an extremely helpful tool and part of Bible study.  If you are at all able to read (or decipher) the Greek, you need to.  BUT, Strauss warns that you must be very careful what you take into the pulpit.  Strauss notes that there are several issues.

1. Some preachers use Greek and Hebrew as a way to exert spiritual power over their listeners.  (“I know what the Bible REALLY says, and you don’t.  Therefore you need to follow me and don’t get out of line, because I am the authority here….”)  That may happen, but I think it is a fairly infrequent abuse.

Related to that is the danger of preachers using Greek & Hebrew (G&H) to impress others. (“See how educated I am.”)  WHY is it necessary to use the Greek words? Cannot the sermon simply reflect the insights that come from the G&H meanings?

2. The bigger difficulty is “eisegesis”.  (Reading into a text what you want say. As opposed to exegesis, which is trying to determine what the text actually says). 

Part of this difficulty arises because ALL words (including Greek and English) have a RANGE of meaning. (technically called “a semantic range”). That means there is a range of ways words are used.  Strauss uses the English word “field”: what does “field” mean?  image

  1. a cultivated piece of ground (“He planted corn in his field”)
  2. a background area (a flag with a field of blue)
  3. a topic subject of academic interest (“He is an expert in the field of mathematics.”)
  4. a place where sports take place (“the players took to the field”)

Which is “the correct” meaning?  All of them are. You have to use the context to determine which of the possible meanings is being used in this place.

An example in Greek:  “charis” is usually said to “mean” grace.  And that is one common meaning.  But it also means:

  1. favor (Luke 1:30)
  2. credit earned (Luke 6:32)
  3. good will earned (Acts 7:10)
  4. thanksgiving (Luke 17:9)

Which of these are correct?  ALL of them are in their context.  The context, again, determines which sense is meant. 

Related to that is that words generally only have one sense in a passage. You can’t find “hidden” meanings because a word means something else somewhere else. Just because “charis” means on thing in Luke 1:30, does not mean that it can legitimately ALSO mean “credit earned” as in Luke 6:32.

3.  You must also ask yourself WHEN the word is being used.  Because words in all languages change meaning over time.  This is most noticeable for us in the church in the King James Version of the Bible. 

James 5:11 says in the KJV “The Lord is very pitiful.”  When the KJV was translated it means the Lord was full of pity [compassionate] for others; Today it would mean that God is weak or to be pitied.  

James 2:3 –“You have respect to him that weareth gay clothing” Again, in  1617 (when the KJV was published, “gay” meant fancy or expensive, not homosexual.  Today most of us would not want to be wearing what others might call “gay clothing.”  And so, in Strauss’ words: “So both historical context and literary context determine a word's meaning.”

4. Etymology is never a reliable guide to meaning.  what is etymology?  It is the words historical derivation or component parts.  Strauss gives a host of examples in English:

  • “pineapple”. A pineapple is neither from a pine tree nor is it an apple.
  • “Understand”: does not mean to stand under.
  • “Undertake”: does not mean to take under. It means to begin.
  • “Quarterback”: the leader on the offensive side on a football team. It’s component parts do not tell us what it is.
  • Monday-derivation—Moon Day. The day dedicated to the moon.  How is that relevant to our use of the word Monday today?  It’s not except as an historical trivia question. 
  • Sunday-The day of Sun. We don’t mean “’the day we worship the Sun.”  Historically that may have been how it was used, but you cannot presume that we in the 21st century still worship the Sun because we use the word.
  • Sophomore: a second year student. If you take the Greek words from which it comes, it would mean: a wise fool.
  • In our months of the calendar,
    • September-Sept= seven
    • October-Oct=Nine;
    • November; Non-Nine;
    • December-Deca = ten  But you would be wrong to presume that September was the seventh month. It is the ninth.  (It USED to be the seventh in Roman days, but then July was added to honor Julius Caesar and a jealous Caesar Augustus demanded that they add a month in to honor him as well and it had to have the same number of days as July lest he be thought of as less important.  So both days have 31 days. 

The conclusion of the matter is two fold. 

1. How do you determine what a word means?

  • Contemporary semantic range (what the word CAN mean)
  • Literary context in which it is used. (which of its possible uses the word means here)

2. Strauss stresses that you should only use Greek & Hebrew when it provides insights that cannot be recognized by reading the English translations.

That brings me to tonight’s problem.  But this has gone on long enough…so I’ll continue this tomorrow. 

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