Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, June 7, 2010

How Do We Define Biblical Words?

Every once in a while I get a question that is so basic that it has never occurred to me to answer it. Someone asked me the other day, how do we know what Greek and Hebrew words mean?

The answers for Greek and Hebrew are somewhat different, so let me start with the Greek.

For a language like Greek, there has been a long tradition of lexicons and translations. From these, it is relatively easy to find the meaning of most Greek words. When a sentence is translated from, let’s say, Greek into Latin, since we know Latin, it is relatively easy to work back into Greek and see what the Greek word means. We can also look at the ancient lexicons and see how they define the Greek words.

Because we have so much Classical and Koine Greek literature, we have enough occurrences of the common Greek words to see them used in context, and from those many contexts see what they mean.

However, rare words are a little more difficult. If a word doesn’t occur that much” How can we determine what it means?

Part of the answer here is context. If you read a rare word that does not occur with enough frequency to give us a clear understanding of its range of meanings, we have to see if context is sufficiently clear to define the word.

In Classical Greek, scholars use the word’s etymology — the meaning of its parts. Words are made up of morphemes, which are the smallest unit of meaning in a word. For example, in English the suffix “ism” has a specific meaning that separates “baptize” from “baptism.” The same is true in Greek. The problem comes in Koine Greek, because words had sufficiently evolved that the word’s etymology no longer has any necessary bearing on the meaning of the word, regardless of how many times you have heard a speaker use etymology to illustrate the word. See Don Carson’s Etymological Fallacies.

But even with all this information, there are some words that defy precise definition. The most famous is in the Lord’s Prayer: “give us this day our επιουσιον bread” (Matt 6:11). Jesus uses an unbelievably strange word that does not occur anywhere else in all Greek literature except for discussions of the Lord’s Prayer. Why he did this, I do not know; I want to ask him that some day. But guesses include “daily,” “the coming day,” and “for existence” (see footnote on the NET Bible), the later explaining the NLT’s translation,. “Give us today the food we need.” I am not sure why, but my mind goes back the manna the wilderness story, and I wonder if that is the background to Jesus’ thinking of the Lord’s provision for his children.

But thankfully, there are not many words like επιουσιον.

Hebrew is a different animal, and although this is a Greek blog, let me say a few things about Hebrew.

The problem is that we have far less data for Hebrew than we do Greek, and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Testament) is sufficiently different from the Hebrew text that we cannot reverse translate with confidence.

Professors specializing in the Hebrew Testament spend a large part of their time learning the other Semitic languages like Aramaic, Akkadian, etc. Like English, a Hebrew word is made up of consonants and vowels, and it is the consonants that carry the meaning of the word. Hebrew scholars look at how those same consonants are used in the other Semitic languages, and use that context to help define the Hebrew word.

In many places in the OT, this does not pose a problem; we know what the words mean. But compare different translations of Isaiah and you will see the problem. The prophet’s vocabulary is astounding. If my memory serves me right, one fourth of the words used do not occur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and so there is no biblical context to define them. In these cases, we rely on Semitic usage, etymology, and the history of translation.

Good question.


What an interesting blog post! It seems that the "basic questions" are the ones that spark the most engaging dialogue. For example, when we were discussing Ephesians 5 in small group the other day, I asked the group, "What is the difference between goodness, righteousness, and truth?" That type of question and discussion leads to engaging conversation that will carry over into everyone's quiet time.