The discipline of Word Study is based upon the linguistic principle of context. Responsibly used, the New Testament is itself its own best commentary, as the usage of a word provides the most accurate clues to its intent. It is also helpful if you can explore the historical and contemporary uses of the vocabulary, but that can wait. For responsible word study, the tools you need are few:
1. at least 2 or 3 different New Testament translations — the more the better. NOT paraphrases. A paraphrase is not a helpful study tool, as it invariably departs from a literal rendering of the text. One of these should be the KJV, to facilitate the use of the concordance.
2. Young’s Analytical Concordance. First compiled in the 19th century, Young’s work has resources not available elsewhere. Entries are sorted by the original word used in the text, and in the back, a separate section identifies alternate translations for most words.
3. A notebook
4. A few brothers/sisters to compare notes with. This is IMPORTANT, as you will discover things that you will find it hard to accept unless they are confirmed by the study of others whose faithfulness you trust.
5. Leave your other commentaries, dictionaries, etc. on the shelf, until AFTER you have completed your own study.
There are many places where one English word represents the same Greek word throughout the text. These are the easiest. Even here, looking at the context is very constructive. Write down what you understand the word to mean before you begin, and compare with your conclusions. Consider the audience being addressed; the subject under discussion; whether the focus is past, present, or future. Ask questions!
It is important to look up every reference. Use multiple translations. Often the greatest insight comes from the references that don’t seem to “fit.”
Read the surrounding material. What does the word seem to mean here?
You are right now looking at New Testament references only, for language reasons. If you want to include OT uses, you will need a copy of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, and a concordance to that work, since the correspondence between Greek and Hebrew words is outside the scope of this study.
After you have looked up every reference to your target word, try to formulate a definition that would “fit” in every instance. Can you think of a synonym, or a phrase, that describes it?
If your target word appears with more than one Greek word in the listing, you need to proceed to Lesson 2.
There are many places where the same English word has been used to translate two or more Greek words. This results in the confusion of separate concepts as if they were one. The Greek language, for the most part, is much more precise than English. If a different word is used, A DIFFERENT CONCEPT IS INTENDED!!! Accurate understanding requires that these differences be identified and communicated. The approach of Young’s Concordance is very helpful here. References are separated according to the original word, which enables the student to distinguish which passages are truly talking about the same idea, and which are not connected, even if the same English word has been used.
For example, the English word “gift” is used to translate no less than NINE different Greek words! It is NOT a single concept! The different words have implications including such ideas as:
–the identity and relationship of the giver and receiver
–the nature and purpose of the gift
— the intentions of the parties involved,
and other considerations. The carefully chosen vocabulary of the writers must be honored, by any responsible translator or teacher!
Ask yourself, what is the difference between these terms? Why was one chosen over another? What errors result from assuming that all are alike?
Yet another complication occurs when a single Greek word has been translated by multiple English words. This usually happens when the translator’s theological presuppositions are challenged by the text. “Righteousness” and “justice”, for example, are translations of the SAME WORD! Dikaiosune and its related verbal and adjectival forms, are LEGAL, not philosophical or religious words. However, it appears that translators/theologians preferred a “theological” flavor — which of course can be kept pretty theoretical rather than practical! — to the more overtly obvious concept of “justice.” Sadly, it is not rare for folks to prefer theoretical speculation to practical instructions! That was one of the big problems the “establishment” had with Jesus!
To discover these situations, “the answers are in the back of the book,” in the section titled “Index-Lexicon to the NT.” You need to copy down the original word (Young has helpfully transliterated them for you in both sections), and look it up in the back, where he has listed all the other ways that the KJV translators rendered it. Then return to the main concordance listings, and track down each of the alternates.
Realize that THESE ARE ALL THE SAME WORD — consequently, the same concept! Your conclusion must include ALL the references. You need to come up with a single word, phrase, or concept that would fit in ANY of those contexts! Be careful that you confine your search to groups of references that appear under the SAME ORIGINAL WORD.
For example, look at the word, AGGELOS. The transliterated form, “angel”, has been used when the powers-that-be thought that the reference was to a supernatural being. Where they assumed the creature to be human, they wrote “messenger.” But THE WORD IS THE SAME! This indicates that the focus is not upon who or what is carrying a message, but simply upon the FUNCTION being performed. Yet a huge mythology has grown up around speculation about many sorts of “angelic” creatures — when the very same word is used of quite ordinary humans. God can use natural or supernatural “messengers”, as he pleases! Even you and me!
This is also true of many other words referring to functions served by many individuals in the NT church. They were not “titles” or “offices” at all (Jesus had forbidden that!) but simply assignments to do a needed task. “Titles” were assigned much later, as a hierarchy developed.
Well, folks, this is just to get you started. In the next weeks, I hope to post a few specific studies to whet your appetite. I will augment them with some further linguistic research. One of my favorite resources is the Oxford Greek Lexicon (Liddell/Scott) which lists literary word usage through many centuries, and provides fascinating insight. But basically, with these few simple tools, you can find a huge amount of wonderful stuff.