One of the greatest aspects of learning Greek is being able to conduct word studies. One of the worst aspects of learning Greek is also being able to conduct word studies.
The problem is that many students take enough Greek to learn vocabulary and basic grammar, but quickly forget the grammar and never work on syntax and never get a feel for the language. Their use of Greek then quickly becomes a way to mine “golden nuggets” from the text for sermon or lesson material. Unfortunately, this often results in fallacious word studies that don’t treat the word correctly in context or involve some linguistically problematic methodology for arriving at the word’s meaning.
In order to combat this tendency of conducting fallacious word studies (among many other fallacies), D. A. Carson wrote Exegetical Fallacies (Baker Academic, 1996). This first part of this series summaries the 16 word study fallacies explained by Carson in order to ensure that these types of errors occur less and less, especially while teaching and preaching to those who don’t know Greek and therefore can’t check your conclusions for themselves.
I read Exegetical Fallacies twice and it was the best thing I ever did for my exegetical skills. If you haven’t read it yet, definitely buy it and read through it at last once. Until then, this series will summarize sixteen different types of word study fallacies. You’re welcome! (All are summarized from Carson’s book, chapter 1.)
- The Root Fallacy
- Definition: The presupposition that the meaning of a given word is bound up in its shape, components, or etymology.
- Example: 1 Cor. 4:1 — “So then, men ought to regard us as servants (ὑπηρετης) of Christ…” The word for servants used in this passage has been mistakenly translated as “under-rower” because of the apparent use of the prepositional prefix ὑπο( meaning “under” and the root “ἐρετης” which may appear to be related to ἐρεσσω, a word for “rower” used in Homer. However, it is fallacious to derive the meaning of ὑπηρετης directly from these two components; the word does not mean “under-rower” but simply servant. (An English parallel would be deriving the meaning of pineapple from pine and apple.) Deriving word meanings in this fashion is not necessarily fallacious (as in the case of ἐκβάλλω, to throw out), but care must be taken.
- Semantic Anachronism
- Definition: Fallacy where a late definition of a word is read back into earlier literature.
- Example: Romans 1:16 — “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power (δύναμις) of God unto salvation….” Here δύναμις may be mistakenly translated to dynamite, a later derivative of the original Greek word. This translation is fallacious because Paul would not have had the idea of “dynamite” in mind when he penned the epistle, nor would such a definition fit the context of the passage (dynamite, while powerful, destroys, but Paul is speaking of God’s power in effecting salvation).
- Semantic Obsolescence
- Definition: Fallacy where the interpreter applies an obsolete meaning of a word.
- Example: The use of the word κεφαλή in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 has been taken to mean “source” or “origin” based on standard classical lexicon definitions. However, by the time of the Biblical writing, this use of κεφαλή was obsolete; instead, the word would have been taken to mean “head” in the New Testament time period.
- Appeal to Unknown or Unlikely Meanings
- Definition: Fallacy where an unknown, unlikely, or esoteric meaning is applied to a given word.
- Example: Continuing with the previous example, even in the standard classical lexicon, the use of κεφαλή to signify “source” or “origin” is both rare and uncertain. Therefore, even ignoring the semantic obsolescence fallacy, this particular meaning is unlikely. Its lack of attestation in the history of interpretation also suggests that a rare and uncertain meaning of a word has been applied to κεφαλή in NT contexts because of ideological reasons.
- Careless Appeal to Background Material
- Definition: This fallacy is similar to the appeal to unknown or unlikely meanings in that it misapplies the background of a given word, although that background may not produce an unknown or unlikely meaning.
- Example: Carson’s own dissertation referenced John 3:5 “water and (εξ ὕδατος) the Spirit.” In his original interpretation, he weighed the various past interpretations and landed on the likelihood that water referred to “male semen” and therefore in context Jesus is speaking of “natural birth (water) and supernatural birth (spirit).” However, one of his students showed him that it is better to understand these two words as a fulfillment of Eze. 36:25-27. Therefore, Jesus is neither referring to multiple births in this verse (though he uses the language of being ‘reborn’ earlier), nor is he using ‘water and spirit’ as a hendiadys. He rather refers to the one birth (the re-birth) and the dual work of the Spirit in this birth – to clean (with water) and make new (with spirit).
We hope you won’t make these five word study fallacies (anymore?)! Come back Thursday for five more.
Find Exegetical Fallacies here on Amazon.