Save Time: Stop Doing Word Studies
Word studies are a favorite tool of Biblical exegetes, but usually aren’t worth the time. Why not? Because either (1) the work has already been done for you, or (2) what you are trying to “find” can’t be found using a word study.
Word Studies and Word Meaning
First, of course, we need to define what we mean by “word study.” Many exegetes embark on word analysis under the assumption that there is a deeper and truer meaning for a particular word than can be represented by their English translation. In the original language a particular word under consideration has a depth and richness that can only be truly appreciated by analyzing all the occasions that the word is used in the rest of Scripture. Once I have compiled that information, I am able to determine what the word “really” means. I’m going to call this (admittedly simplistic) approach to word study a “brute force” approach because it usually involves using a concordance (or software) to find all lexical and grammatical parallels to a particular word or phrase.
The problem with this kind of analysis is twofold. First, the meaning of a word is not the sum total of everything it could mean. Words have a range of meaning, and in most cases your goal as an interpreter is to pick the meaning within that range that best fits the context. Under normal circumstances, only one meaning within the range will “activate” for the reader. That means that the method of word study described above is a hermeneutical fallacy: “illegitimate totality transfer.”1
The second reason this kind of analysis is problematic is that this work has already been done for you. If you are doing word study right, that is, if you are looking at the multiplicity of ways in which a word is used in order to determine its potential range of meaning, then I’ve got good news for you! If you are looking for word meaning, just use a lexicon. A good critical lexicon (BDAG for Greek, BDB or Hallot for Hebrew) will look at all the ways a particular word is used in a subset of literature, then collate and compile it in a (relatively) easy to use entry. Generations of work have gone into this. Scholars have poured their lives into this kind of analysis, then passed that work onto the next generation to continue the labor. Don’t reinvent the wheel; use a lexicon. Look up the word in question, think through the range of usage, then then pick the sense most obviously “activated” by the context.
The Richness of Words
Are we denying, then, that words have a depth and richness to them? When John, for example, uses the word λογός (“word”) to describe the Divine Son, and when he continues to link that word to fuller theological concepts in the course of his writing, isn’t that significant? The word “word” is “special” in John, and a word study will help me demonstrate and analyze that, right? Yes and no. Yes, it will help because a “brute force” style word study as described above will expose the ways other texts and ideas intersect with John’s usage. But in the end, “no:” brute force word studies lack the literary, historical, cultural, and conceptual tools needed to do this kind of work efficiently and comprehensively.
Let’s switch to English for a minute. If, in the course of teaching, I say the word “Inconceivable!” in a particular way, it will likely “trigger” a mental image of a movie scene for a certain (increasingly aging) subset of the class. The sense of the word goes “beyond” the dictionary definition in this case. If I’m a student in the class and miss the reference, but see a couple of my neighbors chuckle politely at the teacher’s outdated allusion, I might come to realize that there’s a “subtext” to the word. And yet looking it up in the lexicon isn’t going to help. The reference isn’t a function of word meaning (and, conversely, the reference doesn’t change what the word means). So what will help me figure out what’s going on? Word studies to the rescue?
No. A word study won’t help either. Searching for every instance of usage for the word “inconceivable” is going to turn up too much data. It’s inefficient. Furthermore, even if I’m able to hypothetically lock in on the “subtext” of the reference (probably not that hard in this case with the right web search), I haven’t really reached understanding yet. I have to watch the whole movie first. And I probably need to watch it in the context of other 80s/90s flicks to figure out why this was a cultural moment for Gen-X. I won’t “get it” until I embed myself a bit into a now fading age of cinema.
What Should I Be Doing Instead of Word Studies
Word studies as described above are not the best tool for this kind of hermeneutical task. There often (but not always) is a depth in the usage of particular words and phrases, but that depth is not a function of the dictionary definition or “meaning” of the word. It is a function of how the word triggers particular cultural moments and concepts and stories and ideas. The best tool for that kind of analysis is cultural engagement. It is to live in and within the historical “intertext” of the word. That’s obviously hard when it comes to interpreting Scripture. For an outdated 80s reference I just need to find dad’s old VHS collection, or figure out which streaming service owns the rights these days. But the Bible is much older. How do we study the “intertext” of Biblical words?
Word studies can be a part of that process, but it’s really just the first step, and an inefficient one at that. They don’t really help you find what you’re looking for because what you are looking for is a function of culture and theology and the inter-connectedness of texts, not word meaning. Back to λογός (“word”). I can get out a concordance and compile every reference, but that’s a lot of work, and only a small subset of those occurrences are going to be relevant. There’s a better way. First, I need to determine that the word is “special,” that John means it to be rich with intertext. Literary tools are your guideposts here, and with John it’s a no-brainer. He loves images; he excels at sub-texting other sections of Scripture (John would love memes, I think), and he uses these metaphorical skills to do heavy theological lifting.
As we do that literary work, we find that John is pulling on some obvious biblical parallels, like Genesis 1-3. If you’re familiar with your Bible, this isn’t subtle. It just “triggers” intuitively, much like “inconceivable” does for 80s kids.2 Why? Because you’ve immersed yourself in the culture and literature–in this case, the culture projected by the Bible. It might also trigger Pss. 8 and 139, even though the word “word” does not appear in those psalms. The creational concept is in both, though, as is the tie between creation and an Adamic representative (so no concordance will alert you to this).
There are ways to go still deeper, to expose the “not so obvious” connections (though the obvious ones should be your primary guide). At this point we could talk about Biblical Theology, typology, intertextual analysis, metaphor theory, cultural anthropology, and plain old history. Once you know how to use these tools (and some are more intuitive, and more useful, than others), you will find that they are far more robust and far more efficient. Sadly, this post isn’t really about how to use these tools, it’s simply a reminder that they are there, and they are awesome.
So free up your time. Stop doing word studies. What should you do instead? The absolute best thing you can do is immerse yourself in Scripture. Stop picking the Bible apart into little bits and start reading comprehensively. Second, start developing your facility with exegetical tools like Biblical Theology and typology. Third, start reading “around” the Bible. Language is a function of culture and history as well as syntax and grammar; upgrade your understanding of the ancient world and how it works.
- You can read about this, and other fallacies, in D. A. Carson’s excellent Exegetical Fallacies.
- And it’s worth noting that a “brute force” approach–that is, a word-search on λογος–wouldn’t actually return Gen. 1-3 as a result