The Study of Biblical Words
A study of Bible words can, and should, be approached from several angles. In this article, we will consider the following three important concepts:
- word etymology
- grammatical form
Etymology is that branch of “word science” that has to do with the origin and development of words. The investigation of a word’s root form can be very helpful in obtaining a full and rich meaning of certain passages.
The Hebrew words kopher, keppurim, and kapporeth are rendered by the English terms “ransom,” “redemptions” or “atonements,” and “Mercy-seat.” All three words are derived from the root kaphar, which means “to cover.” The words thus suggest that redemption or atonement is accomplished by a “covering” of sin.
The meaning is this. When one, through obedient faith, responds to the will of God, his sins are covered by the blood of Christ. In the Old Testament, of course, the blood of animal sacrifices typified the redemptive death of the Lord.
In the New Testament, numerous Greek words have great etymological significance. The word for “church” (ekklesia) derives from the roots ek, a preposition meaning “out of,” and klesis, “a calling.” The literal translation is thus a calling out of.
This interesting word denotes a spiritual body of people who have been called by the gospel (cf. 2 Thes. 2:14) out of the world (cf. John 15:19; Col. 1:13) into a holy relationship with Jehovah (2 Cor. 6:17, 18).
Another fascinating word is translated “bishop” in our English Bibles. It is from the Greek term episkopos. The root forms are epi (upon) and skopeo (to look or watch—cf. our word “scope”). The New Tesament term thus denotes a certain class of men (also called “elders” — cf. Acts 20:17, 28), who possessed biblical qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1ff; Tit. 1:5ff). They were are appointed to oversee or supervise the business of local churches of Christ.
For the average church member, a good book like W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words can be a valuable tool in determining the original significance of New Testament words.
It must be recognized, however, that frequently words, as they travel across several generations of time, can loose their etymological meaning and take on a new emphasis.
The careful Bible student must therefore ask: “Does this word retain its etymological meaning or has it adopted a ‘derivative’ sense?” In other words, what did the word actually mean at the time it was employed by the biblical writer? A failure to recognize this fact has led to some rather serious doctrinal errors.
Originally, the word kolazo meant to “prune” or to “cut off.” But by the time of the New Testament age, the term conveyed the idea of “punish” (cf. Acts 4:21; 2 Pet. 2:9). It is, therefore, a serious blunder to ignore this New Testament derivative meaning and revert to an earlier usage.
This is precisely what the Watchtower Witnesses have done in the case of Matthew 25:46. There, the Lord speaks of wicked people entering eternal “punishment” (kolasis). The Watchtower translation of the Bible, in attempting to avoid the idea of punishment (which implies consciousness), renders the term everlasting “cutting-off,” thus hinting at the total extinction of the unrighteous.
Similarly, even though the word psallo denoted “plucking” in ancient times — such as the plucking of the strings of a harp — in the New Testament era the word had simply come to mean “sing” (cf. Eph. 5:19). Note the testimony of W. E. Vine, a denominational scholar , in this respect:
“The word psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, or to sing with the accompaniment of a harp. Later, however, and in the New Testament, it came to signify simply to praise without the accompaniment of an instrument” (1951, 191).
A second factor that must be considered in the study of words is that of syntax. In studying syntax, one is dealing with the grammatical principles of the language in which the document was originally written.
In this connection, it is important to remember that the function of grammar is not to determine the laws of language; rather, it merely explains how language was employed by the people who originally used it.
In the study of syntax (the relationship of words to one another), one might ask the following questions: Is the term with which I am dealing a noun or is it a verb? If it is a noun, is it singular or plural? Of what gender is it? In what case is it found?
If one is analyzing a verb, he will want to know: What is the voice of this verb? The tense? The mood? All of these factors contribute to the understanding of a term in the sentence in which it is found.
Let’s note some examples.
In John 1:12, 13 the apostle affirms that as many as received Christ, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them who continue to believe on his name. Then, describing these children of God negatively, he declares: “who were born, not of blood.”
The word “blood” here is actually a plural term (cf. ASVfn), and the thought suggested is this. Whereas one was constituted a child of God under the Mosaic covenant by virtue of his Hebrew parentage (cf. Paul’s phrase “a Hebrew of Hebrews” — Phil. 3:5), it was not to be so under the new system. Under the Christian regime that family relationship is to be accomplished by means of a new birth (John 3:3-5).
Due to their misunderstanding of Ephesians 2:8, some have contended that one need not exercise personal faith in God in order to be saved; rather, faith—it is claimed — is a “gift” that one passively receives. It is helpful to note, however, that “faith” in this passage is a feminine gender form, whereas, “gift” is a neuter form. The “gift” referred to in the verse, therefore, is not faith. The gift is salvation, which is implied in the context by the verbal form “saved.”
Or consider the fact that some argue, on the basis of Galatians 3:26, that salvation is solely a matter of faith in Christ and that without baptism. The claim is carelessly made: “Paul says that we are children of God by faith in Christ, and that settles it.”
The truth is, though, the apostle is not discussing “faith in Christ,” as though “Christ” were the object of one’s faith. Had such been the case, the name “Christ” would have been in the accusative case, but it is not. An examination of the Greek text reveals that “Christ” is in the dative case, the case of location here.
The apostle is thus discussing the realm or sphere wherein salvation takes place; it is “in Christ.” He then proceeds to inform us as to how one enters that relationship. “For [an explanatory term] as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put Christ on” (vs. 27).
Think about some of the grammatical truths connected with verbs. In New Testament Greek, as in English, verbs have tense. But the tense has more to do with the type of action under consideration than with time (time being secondary).
Has the action in view been completed? Is it ongoing or in the past? An understanding of these matters can add much richness to your study of the sacred text.
When Peter spoke of his impending death (2 Pet. 1:14), he alluded to the fact that the Lord had “signified” such unto him. The aorist tense form lets us know that the apostle is specifically thinking of that event in John 21:18, 19, wherein Christ had signified by what manner of death Peter should glorify God.
When Matthew informs us that Herod “inquired” of the chief priests and scribes as to where Christ would be born (Mt. 2:4), the imperfect tense form of the verb reveals that the king had repeatedly made such inquiries in his frantic efforts to locate baby Jesus!
Paul expressed surprise that his Galatian brethren were so soon “removed” (KJV) from their holy calling (Gal. 1:6). Actually, though, the Greek verb is in the present tense indicating their apostasy was currently in progress!
The present tense form “committeth adultery” in Matthew 19:9 clearly shows that the unscripturally divorced and remarried person is living a life of adulterous intercourse. A consideration of these tense forms is vitally important in sound biblical exegesis.
Verbs also have voice, which indicates how the action is related to the subject of the sentence. The active voice represents the subject as acting, the passive voice represents the subject as being acted upon, and the middle voice suggests the subject is acting in some way in reference to itself.
Note some examples.
The King James Version describes Christ as “separate from sinners” in Hebrews 7:26. The Greek verb is actually a passive form (cf. ASV), and thus, in this context does not stress the purity of Jesus. Instead it is an allusion to his ascension, at which point he was “made higher than the heavens.”
When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia (Acts 18:5), Luke says that Paul “was pressed in spirit” (KJV) and so testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ. The better Greek text indicates, however, that the apostle “held himself to the word” (middle voice). That is, on this occasion he refrained from his usual trade of tent-making and confined himself solely to preaching the gospel.
It is quite important to give careful attention to the grammatical details of the Bible.
The context of a biblical passage is the most important aspect of all, for the special use of a word, in a given context, can overrule both etymology and grammar.
For example, in Matthew 3:10 Jesus declared that “every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is cut down [present tense], and cast into the fire.” Though the present tense form is used, the context shows that the Judgment Day is in view. Here, the present is figuratively employed to stress the certainty of that future event.
Similarly, Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of man is delivered [present tense, though affirming a future event] into the hands of men” (Mk. 9:31). And so, context (special emphasis, symbolism, etc.) can modify grammar on certain occasions.
Too, the same word can have widely different meanings in different contexts. The Greek word presbuteros is translated “elder.” The term is sometimes used merely of those advanced in age (Acts 2:17). It is employed of Israel’s ancestors (Heb. 11:2), of members of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Mt. 16:21), of heavenly beings around the throne of God (Rev. 4:4), and of leaders in the church (1 Tim. 5:17). Clearly context must determine the usage of this term in these respective passages.
We have spoken of the word ekklesia, usually rendered “church” in our common versions. Most often it denotes that body of the Lord’s “called out” people whether in an assembled (1 Cor. 14:34), local (1 Cor. 1:2), geographical (Acts 9:31), or universal (Mt. 16:18) sense. It can, however, be used of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), or an unruly mob (Acts 19:32), or of a town council (Acts 19:39).
Consider the term peirazo, which can mean either “to tempt” or “to try, or test.” James states that God “tempts no man” (1:13). So how does one harmonize this statement with the biblical affirmation elsewhere that the Lord “tried” (from peirazo) Abraham (cf. Heb. 11:17; Gen. 22:1)?
The harmonization is obviously made on the basis of contextual difference. James uses the term “tempt” in the sense of soliciting to do evil, attempting to ensnare, while the writer of Hebrews employs the same term, but with a different meaning. Jehovah was simply “proving” or “testing” the father of the Hebrew nation. There is no conflict when the context is respected.
Here is the point about context. The truth does not turn merely upon the original word itself. There is more to correct interpretation than etymology or grammar.
The study of Bible words is a truly thrilling endeavor, but it requires skill, some good language tools, common sense, patience, and a desire to be accurate with God’s sacred Word.
- Wive, W. E. 1951. 1 Corinthians Local Church Problems. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.