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Understanding Words in Scripture
Words for Biblical Studies

Dennis Bratcher

Hebrew Terms     Greek Terms

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 Criticism) as 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 study aids.

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 rendering.

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 interpretation.

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, 1990.

Bauer, 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.

Brown, Colin, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology; 3 vols.  Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.

Harris, R. Laird, Archer, Gleason L., and Waltke, Bruce K. eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols.  Moody Press, 1980.

Jenni, Ernst, and Westermann, Claus, eds. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. 3 vols. Trans. Mark E. Biddle. Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; 10 vols.  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968.

Koehler, Ludwig, and Baumgartner, Walter, eds. Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros. E.J. Brill, 1953.

Spicq, 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, 1996.

Hebrew Terms     Greek Terms

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2011, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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