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Understanding Words in Scripture
Words for Biblical Studies
This is a new section of the CRI/Voice web site
that is under development.
The rapid growth of a wide variety of translations of the Bible into
English reveals a simple fact: translation is not an exact science.
If translation were simply a matter of finding a one-to-one
correspondence between words in one language and an equivalent word in
another language, translation would be straightforward with very little
difference between various translations. But that is not how languages
work. Even beyond the mechanics of word use, grammar, and semantics, as
well a manuscript variations (see Textual
complicating factors in translation, translators know that words do not
have an single absolute and fixed meaning even at a single point in
history. Words have meaning only as they are used in a context.
And that context is influenced not only by the immediate situation of
the speaker or writer, but by the larger historical and cultural milieu
that shapes and informs who is communicating, what is being
communicated, as well as to whom it is being communicated.
Complicating that is the reality that in the Bible text we are
dealing with material that spans two millennia, from the time of Abraham
between 2,000 and 1,000 BC and the time of the early Church at the end of
the first century AD. During that time the biblical material
emerges from a wide range of cultural and historical contexts, ranging
from Mesopotamian tribal culture to the Empire of Rome. The
stories of the Bible intersect with a staggering array of cultures:
Sumerian and Akkadian, Hittite, Aramean, Egyptian, Canaanite, Syrian,
Philistine, Phoenician, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman,
not to mention a host of subcultures such as Moabites, Elamites,
Ammonites, Hurrians, etc. To assume that Israelites, later
Jews, and still later Christians were unaffected by any of these
cultures in terms of how they spoke, thought, or wrote would be
incredibly naive. This suggests at the very least that how we understand
and translate words in terms of meaningful communication is as much a
historical and cultural task as it is a purely linguistic one.
In light of this, the observation that words do not just tell us
about things but communicate ideas becomes far more important in
trying to move from one language to another. Without moving into
philosophical linguistic theory, we can note that ideas are not absolute universals that can be
reduced to single terms in one language that can then be
translated into another language to communicate the exact same idea.
Ideas and concepts arise from within the milieu of history and culture
and are most often expressed in the language of that milieu (some would
argue for universal "languages," like mathematics or music, but that is
not very helpful for translating ancient languages!).
This suggests a couple of important points for translating as well as
for reading translations. First, we
must understand biblical terms in light of a broader cultural and
historical context in order to understand what is being communicated.
This renders many traditional "word study" approaches to biblical
interpretation of little value, since most of them have operated with
the premise that the basic lexical or morphological meaning of a word
determined its meaning in any context. We now realize that, for
example, understanding how a Greek word is formed and the meaning of its
various components does not necessarily give us any insight into
how that word is actually used in a particular text.
Here context is crucial for understanding the meaning of words.
And it is not just the literary context, the physical location within a
sentence or paragraph, as important as that might be to understand.
It is also, and perhaps more crucially, the larger cultural and
historical milieu out of which the term arose and in which it is used
and continued to be used that is often more indicative of meaning.
Second, we must realize that the same factors apply to the word or words that are used in the receptor language (in this case
English). The terms that we are using to render the biblical terms also
have a milieu from which they arise and in which they are
used. That context may give terms meaning or nuances of meaning
that range far beyond, or even in different directions, than any lexical
definitions that are used to decide on equivalent terms for
translations. That in turn influences how someone will hear the
term and what meaning they will assume it to carry.
For example, the English word “angel” has traditionally been used to
translate the Hebrew word malak (as in Genesis 19:1). Yet
in Hebrew the word malak means “messenger,” especially the envoy
of a leader or king who communicates the king's wishes and represents
the king (as in 2 Samuel 5:11). The word is translated simply
“messenger” in the NRSV over 100 times. It has no inherent connection to
any divine being. Even when the term is modified as “messenger of
God” (malak yhvh) there is nothing in the term itself that
demands what we mean by a supernatural being. We assume this to be
so because of our understanding of the English term “angel.” But
in Hebrew the “messenger of God” can as easily be, and
probably more often is, a human being.
Yet in English the term “angel” evokes a very specific mental image of
the traditional white robed winged figure that makes grand
pronouncements from God. That image has come to be associated with the
English word angel over two millennia of paintings, poetry, writing, and
biblical interpretation. While the word “angel” comes into English
through the Greek word anngelos, which itself originally meant
“messenger,” the English term no longer means that.
So to use “angel” to translate malak introduces a level of
interpretation, and baggage, into the English that is not at all present
in the original Hebrew text. This creates the potential for
misunderstanding the communication of the text, and the potential for
creating bad theology, simply because the biblical terms are not
understood in their own context.
This illustrates the need to consider carefully the meaning of
Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms as they are translated into English.
Or at the very least, it suggests that if we are going to do sound study
of Scripture, we should consider whether the English words with which we
are so familiar in translations really do communicate the biblical text
adequately. Of course, the best solution would be to learn the
biblical languages. But realistically most students of Scripture
cannot master the biblical languages and must rely on translations and
The purpose of this section of the CRI/Voice site is to provide some
of those aids to the study of Scripture. Here we provide an
analysis of some of the most common Hebrew and Greek terms and how they
are translated into English. In some cases, the conclusion is that
traditional translations of some words have confused understanding the
biblical texts. For example, there was a tremendous uproar among
conservative Christians in the 1950s when the original RSV translated
Isaiah 7:14 as "a young woman shall conceive" rather than "a
virgin shall conceive." Yet today most translations recognize
that the traditional KJV was influenced by theological confession and
not by sound understanding of the language, and adopt the RSV
The goal in this section is not to provide exhaustive historical and
linguistic word studies. That is available in several scholarly
works, such as Botterweck and Ringgren's Theological Dictionary of
the Old Testament or Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament. Rather, the goal is to provide a basic guide to the
meaning in cultural and historical context of a select group of important biblical terms in order to gain
insight into the biblical text apart from the baggage that might be
introduced by particular English terms. In some cases, bad
translation in some versions necessitate dealing with some terms. In
other cases, it is more a matter of deeper insight into the text.
In all cases, the goal is more faithful and reliable biblical
Other resources for Biblical word meanings:
Balz, Horst. and Schneider, Gerhard, eds. Exegetical Dictionary of
the New Testament. 3 vols. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,
Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature; 2nd ed.; ed. By W.F. Arndt, F. W.
Gingrich, F.W. Danker. University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Botterweck, G. Johannes and Ringgren, Helmer, eds. Theological
Dictionary of the Old Testament. 8 vols. Trans. John T. Willis. Wm.
B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974-1998.
Colin, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology;
3 vols. Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
R. Laird, Archer, Gleason L., and Waltke, Bruce K. eds. Theological
Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Moody Press, 1980.
Ernst, and Westermann, Claus, eds. Theological Lexicon of the Old
Testament. 3 vols. Trans. Mark E. Biddle. Hendrickson Publishers,
Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, eds. Theological Dictionary of the
New Testament; 10 vols. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968.
Ludwig, and Baumgartner, Walter, eds. Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti
Libros. E.J. Brill, 1953.
Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Trans. and ed.
James D. Earnest. 3 vols. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
VanGemeren, Willem, ed. The New International Dictionary of Old
Testament Theology and Exegesis. 5 vols. Zondervan Publishing House,
Transliteration of Biblical Languages
Biblical Languages Study
Sacred Words or Words about the Sacred?
A Basic Introduction to the Issues of Text Criticism