Common Word Study Fallacies
Before we show you how to do a word study properly, we want to point out a few of the more common mistakes interpreters make when studying words. The list could be much longer, but this should give you some idea of what to avoid when studying words.
Because the Bible was not originally written in English, it must be translated into English from the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. This fact can complicate word studies for students who do not know the original languages. Here are two examples of problems that may develop. (1) You may not realize that a word in Hebrew or Greek is often translated into English by a number of different English words. For example, the Greek word paraklçsis is translated in the NIV with the following English words: “comfort, encouragement, appeal, be encouraged, consolation, encourage, encouraged, encouraging message, exhortation, greatly encouraged, preaching, urgently.” You will immediately notice that English words like “comfort” and “exhortation” can mean different things depending on the context.
(2) English-language students may not be aware that different words in Hebrew or Greek can be translated into English using the same English word. For instance, the NIV uses the word “comfort” to translate these different Greek words: parakaleô, paraklçsis, paramytheomai, paramythia, paramythion, parçgoria.
The English-only fallacy occurs when you base your word study on the English word rather than the underlying Greek or Hebrew word and, as a result, draw unreliable or misleading conclusions. This section teaches you how to study words so that you don’t make this mistake.
One of the more common fallacies is the notion that the real meaning of a word is found in its original root (i.e., in the etymology of the word). Think about how silly this can be even in English. Is a butterfly actually a fly that has lost control and crash-landed into a tub of butter? Is a pineapple a certain kind of apple that grows only on pine trees? What in the world is a sawhorse?
Switching from English to a biblical language doesn’t automatically change things. Just because someone can spout off the component parts of a Greek word doesn’t mean that he or she has discovered the “real meaning” of the word. It is true that a word’s individual parts may accurately portray its meaning, but only if the context supports such a meaning. Give context priority over etymology, and you will be on solid ground.
This fallacy occurs when we latch onto a late word meaning (usually a meaning popular in our own time) and read it back into the Bible, or when we insist that an early word meaning still holds when in fact it has since become obsolete. You will encounter the first instance of this fallacy far more than the second. D. A. Carson uses the English word “dynamite” and the Greek word dynamis(sometimes translated “power”) to illustrate a particular form of the time-frame fallacy:
I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes”—often with a knowing tilt of the head, as if something profound or even esoteric has been uttered…. Did Paul think of dynamite when he penned this word?
Most certainly Paul was not thinking of the English word dynamitewhen he wrote the Greek word dynamis since the English word originated centuries later. The two words may sound alike (a temptation many preachers find irresistible), but they are two words with very different meanings. Confusing the two word meanings is misleading and dangerous. Do we really want to read this late word meaning back into the New Testament and conclude that God’s power destroys like a terrorist bomb when Paul himself says in this verse that God’s power leads to salvation for everyone who believes? Carson concludes: “Of course, what preachers are trying to do when they talk about dynamite is give some indication of the greatness of the power involved. Even so, Paul’s measure is not dynamite, but the empty tomb.”
Most words can mean several different things. The overload fallacy is the idea that a word will include all of those senses every time it is used. For example, the English word “spring” can refer to a season, a metal coil, an act of jumping, or a source of water. You would be overloading “spring” (pun intended … perhaps) to assume that in every passage in which it occurs, the word carries not just one, but all, of those senses. Which meaning for “spring” does the context demand in the sentence, “Spring is my favorite season of the year”? If you said “all of the above” or even if you chose any meaning except a season of the year, you would be guilty of the overload fallacy.
We make this mistake when we insist that a word must have the same meaning every time it occurs. For example, if we are confident that a word carries a certain meaning in seven of its eight occurrences in Scripture, we might be tempted to conclude that it must have that same meaning in its eighth occurrence. Yet, as Darrell Bock maintains, “word meanings are determined by context, not word counts.”
Later in this chapter we will use the example of a word translated “suffer,” which seems to carry the sense of negative experience every time it is used in Paul’s letters, with one exception. In Galatians 3:4 the context suggests that the word refers to a positive rather than a negative experience and should be translated “experience” (rather than “suffer”). All this is to say that the word’s immediate context should take priority over secondary contexts in determining the meaning of the word.
We fall prey to the word-concept fallacy when we assume that once we have studied one word, we have studied an entire concept. If, for example, you want to discover what the New Testament says about the church, you should certainly study the word translated “church” (ekklçsia). Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that once you have studied ekklçsia, you will know all that the New Testament teaches about church. A concept is bigger than any one word. To see what the New Testament says about the church, you need to broaden your study to include ideas like “body of Christ,” “temple of the Holy Spirit,” and “household of faith.” The concept of church is much broader than the one word ekklçsia.
When we cite just the evidence that supports our favored interpretation or when we dismiss evidence that seems to argue against our view, we commit the selective-evidence fallacy. This error is particularly dangerous because here we are intentionally tampering with the biblical evidence whereas in other fallacies the mistakes may be unintentional. Although we want the Bible to support our convictions in every case, there will be times when its message confronts us for our own good. When that happens, we should change our view rather than twist Scripture to advance our own agenda. Before you begin studying a word in the Bible, make up your mind to accept all the evidence.
We have discussed seven common word-study fallacies. These mistakes are easy to make, but being aware of them will help you to avoid them. Now it is time to learn how to do a word study. The process consists of three steps: (1) choosing your words, (2) determining what the word could mean, and (3) determining what the word does mean in context.