Context Makes Meaning: Word Studies, Part 2

by Jeff Miller | September 02, 2020

This is the second in a series of four blog entries about word studies. The first explained that word studies sometimes give too much attention to etymology in their quest for meaning. If that’s the case—that words do not always equal the sum of their parts—then where do we turn for meaning?

How do words mean? To ask it in a less odd way: How do we know what a word means? The most common answer is to look it up in a dictionary, so let me ask it still another way: How do dictionary makers know what words mean? A linguist could spend a career answering this question, but here’s the simple answer: Words do not have meaning outside of context. It is the context that makes meaning.

Context matters: I recently walked up to a sign that read, “No trespassing!” I kept on walking. Why? Not because I care nothing about property laws, but because the sign was faded, rusted, mangled, and lying on the ground.

Context matters: Before Saudi Arabia began issuing driver’s licenses to women in 2018, I once said to a classroom full of students, “Even though I’m an egalitarian, I believe women are not good drivers.” Several students took the bait and were quick to say that I was both wrong and rude. Then I clarified, “I forgot to mention that I’m talking about Saudi Arabian women.” That bit of context changed the conversation, and students rightly pointed out that women in Saudi Arabia tended not to be good drivers because they lacked training and experience—not simply because they are women.

Context matters: It is widely believed that the Greek word agapē refers to a specific kind of love—a self-giving, unconditional, active love. This idea is so common that New York Life Insurance Company paid several million dollars for a 2020 Super Bowl commercial about it!

Why, then, does the Greek translation of 2 Samuel 13:15 use agapaō (the verb form of the noun agapē) to say that Amnon loved Tamar? “But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her. Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her” (2 Sam. 13:14–15a, NIV). And why does the Greek translation of Song of Songs use agapē and agapaō nineteen times in places where eros seems more appropriate? And why does John 5:20 use phileō (often claimed to refer to friendship) to say, “For the Father loves the Son . . .” (NIV)?

It’s because agapē is not, in itself, a unique word about a unique kind of love. Instead, context gives it meaning, and the apostle Paul used it in especially powerful and eloquent contexts (such as Rom. 8:35–39, 1 Cor. 13, and Gal. 5:22). While the bad news about the Super Bowl commercial is that it butchers the Greek words for love, the good news is that Paul’s contextual use of agapē remains incredibly influential today.

Let’s turn to an example that is part of the complementarian-egalitarian debate. In Romans 16:1, Paul calls Phoebe “a diakonos of the church in Cenchreae.” Because diakonos can be translated either “servant” or “deacon,” most complementarians opt for the former and most egalitarians for the latter.

The word occurs eight times in the Gospels. In these cases, historical context rules out the translation “deacon,” for there were no ordained deacons (and no institutional church, for that matter) at that time. In certain texts in Paul’s letters, the translation “deacon” is ruled out because of the context: Romans 13:4, where diakonos refers to government officials, and Romans 15:8 where Christ himself is called a diakonos.

In Philippians 1:1, however, the context makes clear that the role or office of deacon is meant: “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (NIV). This statement links diakonos to a particular congregation, or cluster of congregations, and the same is true of Romans 16:1, which calls Phoebe a “deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” The dictionary definitions of the word leave us wondering, but its particular context guides our understanding.

In short, a word by itself has no constraints. Context clues are needed. The more context (both literary and historical), the clearer the meaning.

At the beginning of this blog entry, I asked, “How do words mean?” Take a moment to congratulate yourself that you didn’t for a second think that “mean” in that question meant “naughty” or “mathematical average.” You knew the context, so you knew the meaning.


Read the last two blogs in this series here:
How Much Does a Word Mean? Word Studies, Part 3
Do Words Have Gender? Word Studies, Part 4

More on Phoebe:
"What Can We Say About Phoebe?" by Jeff Miller
"Fretting Over Phoebe" by Michael Bird
"Phoebe: 'Helper' or Leader?" by Allison Quient