Are Words Less Than the Sum of Their Parts? Word Studies, Part 1

by Jeff Miller | August 26, 2020

I once saw a bookmark that gave the meaning of the name Caleb as “Best Friend.” Actually, Caleb is from a Hebrew word meaning “dog.” The bookmark maker presumably thought that “dog” wouldn’t sell well. One of my granddaughters is named Nora Kate. She’ll likely never know that her first name means “honored” and her middle name is one of about a hundred variations of Katherine. Names, like all words, can be tricky.

This is the first in a series of four blog entries that demonstrate some common word study fallacies and why they matter to egalitarians studying Scripture. Word studies are a common part of Bible interpretation and the preparation of sermons and lessons, so let me affirm the value of word studies before giving some warnings:

  • They have illustrative value: Learning about a Bible word can help make a text or a truth interesting and memorable.
  • They have rhetorical value: Learning about a Bible word can underscore its power and relevance.
  • They have interpretive value: Learning about a word can, of course, give more precise understanding of what a biblical author meant.

Unfortunately, however, word studies can also be misleading and unhelpful! The purpose of this series is to offer a few guidelines for spotting problematic word studies.

The first problem I will address is that word studies sometimes overemphasize etymology. That is, they sometimes overutilize the parts of a word—especially its root—in the quest to understand and explain it.

It’s not difficult to find examples of English words that share roots but do not share meaning: emerge/emergency, respectively/respectfully, delicate/delicatessen, visor/supervisor. The same is true of Hebrew and Greek.

I’ll start with a simple example—noncontroversial and not related to egalitarianism. In the story of the friends who dug a hole in a roof, Mark 2:4 says they “unroofed the roof.” Most translations rightly read something like “made an opening in the roof” (NIV) or “removed the roof” (CSB). In Greek, this verb and noun are both from the same word root (steg). To point out this repeated root would be interesting to some and boring to others, but in either case it doesn’t aid in understanding the story.

Now consider the word “endures” toward the end of 1 Corinthians 13:7: “Love . . . endures all things.” It’s built on the same root, steg. Surely there’s no connection between enduring love and tearing up roofs! To know that key words in these two Bible texts share a common root doesn’t help us understand either passage.

I started simple, using an odd connection (love and roofs) that I’ve never actually heard anyone make. I’ll move now to an example I have heard many times, one that relates directly to biblical egalitarianism.

In 1 Corinthians 16:13, Paul instructs the Corinthian Christians to “act like men.” Or does he? About half of all English Bibles include “men” or “man” in their translation of this word. Why? Because the word, andrizomai, is built on the four letters andr, which are also the root of the Greek word for “man.” The word, however, means “to be courageous” (see CSB, NIV, NRSV, etc.), not “to be manly.”

This word, andrizomai, occurs in the NT only here. But it’s in the Greek translation of the Old Testament twenty-five times. Five of these are in Joshua’s famous words, “Be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9, 18; 10:25). In each of these five, andrizomai is a translation of a Hebrew word that is not built on the word for “man.” That is to say, Joshua’s actual words do not associate courage with manliness.

Back to Paul: While he does want Christians—including Priscilla (mentioned in the same paragraph, in 1 Cor. 16:19) and Chloe (mentioned in 1 Cor. 1:11)—to be courageous, there’s no reason to think he wants them to be manly.

The bottom line: Etymology can be interesting and informative, but it is rarely the key to meaning. What is the key to meaning? That’s the topic of part 2 in this series, coming next week.


Read other blogs in this series here: 
Context Makes Meaning: Word Studies, Part 2
How Much Does a Word Mean? Word Studies, Part 3
Do Words Have Gender? Word Studies, Part 4


Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash.