How Much Does a Word Mean? Word Studies, Part 3

by Jeff Miller | September 30, 2020

This is the third in a series of four blog entries about word studies and why they matter to egalitarians studying Scripture. The series points out fallacies to watch for in word studies because such studies can sometimes go too far. So far, we’ve looked at the problem with etymologies (overemphasizing the root of a word to understand it's meaning) and how we know what words mean based on context. The concern in this entry is that a particular instance of a word doesn’t typically mean all that the word can mean. That is, a word doesn’t communicate its entire meaning each time it’s used.

Most words have a range or scope of meaning. “Love,” for example, can range from a flippant expression, such as “lovey-dovey,” to a powerful statement, such as “For God so loved the world” or “The greatest of these is love.” Another example is “earth,” which has a scope of meaning that includes the whole planet, its surface, its material, and the people who inhabit it. Each instance of a word falls somewhere within that word’s broader range of meaning. For example, a large church may have satellite locations, but they don’t rotate around the original location in an elliptical path.

Turning to an example from the Bible, most English translations don’t reveal that Romans 12:13 and 12:14 have a word in common. Take a moment to try to discern from the Common English Bible what Greek word these verses share:

13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.

They share the word diōkō. It can mean “pursue” (as in “pursue hospitality,” which the CEB renders, “welcome strangers into your home”), or it can mean “persecute” (which the CEB translates as “harass”). Paul may have used an intentional play on words here, or he may have been unaware that he used one word with two meanings in consecutive sentences—much like you didn’t notice, a few lines above, that I used the word “common” with different meanings in consecutive sentences (even though I italicized them!).

The word authenteō, used as an infinitive (authentein) in 1 Timothy 2:12, presents an interesting example. Here are three translations of the verse:

  • KJV: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man . . .”
  • ESV: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man . . .”
  • NIV: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man . . .”

The difficulty of translating authenteō arises, in part, because it occurs only once in the Bible and infrequently outside the Bible. For Bible scholars, the first step is to establish its range of meaning, which is done by looking at all available occurrences of the word within a reasonable span of time around Paul’s life. The second step is to establish where in its range of meaning this particular instance falls, which is done by considering its context. Stated more fully, its several concentric circles of context must be considered—its paragraph, its surrounding paragraphs, the letter of 1 Timothy, and Paul’s writings as a whole. For those who are not Bible scholars, the first step is to compare a few translations watching for differences that seem to have some significance (such as “usurp authority” vs. “exercise authority”). The next step is to investigate that potential significance by various means (commentaries, study Bibles, Bible software, blogs, etc.).

If you’d like to read more about how scholars determine the meaning of authenteō, I recommend to you two outstanding studies of this difficult word. One is by Jamin Hübner, published in CBE’s journal, Priscilla Papers, and can be read here. Another, by Cynthia Long Westfall, appeared in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism and can be read at this link. Even the titles of these two articles are telling. Hübner’s is “Translating αὐϑεντέω (authenteō) in 1 Timothy 2:12,” and Westfall’s is “The Meaning of αὐϑεντέω in 1 Timothy 2.12.” Notice that both titles end with the phrase, “. . . in 1 Timothy 2:12.” This is because these scholars know that the word’s specific meaning here in 1 Timothy is only part of its entire scope of meaning.

One encouraging conclusion we can draw from all this is that, since context is the key, careful reading of the biblical text is the best way to turn that key. I encourage you, therefore, to read the texts, read them carefully and repeatedly, and read them from a variety of translations.


Read the last blog in this series here: Do Words Have Gender? Word Studies, Part 4