One well known exegetical fallacy is the root fallacy, which is the presupposition that the meaning of a given word is bound up in its shape, components, or etymology. An example would be when commentators suggest ὑπηρετης (“servant”) is interpreted as “under-rower” because–supposedly–the word comes from ὑπο (“under”) and ἐρετης, perhaps related to ἐρεσσω (“rower” in Homer). This lexicography works about as well as suggesting a pineapple is a combination of a pine and an apple.

Sometimes, though, the root fallacy doesn’t apply. Sometimes, language users do combine two roots to create a word that is basically the sum of its two parts.

Eye-Service and Man-Pleasing

In Col 3:22, Paul tells slaves,

ὑπακούετε κατὰ πάντα τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις, μὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοδουλίᾳ ὡς ἀνθρωπάρεσκοι, ἀλλ᾽ ἐν ἁπλότητι καρδίας φοβούμενοι τὸν κύριον (Col. 3:22)

Slaves should obey their earthly masters, and they should obey in a certain way. Negatively, not “in eye-service,” as “man pleasers.” Here we have two words in the same phrase that are exceptions to the root fallacy. That is, their meaning actually is basically the sum of their parts. ὀφθαλμοδουλίᾳ is a combination of ὀφθαλμός (“eye”) and δουλεία (“service”). ἀνθρωπάρεσκοι is a combination of ἄνθρωπος (‘man”) and ἀρεστός (“pleasing”).

But–and here’s the important point–just because these two words are exceptions to the root fallacy does not mean their meaning is clear. In this context, ὀφθαλμοδουλίᾳ could have at least three meanings and ἀνθρωπάρεσκοι at least two.

ὀφθαλμοδουλίᾳ (eye-service) could mean (1) one works only when the master is present and watching; (2) one’s work is pleasing to the eye externally but superficially done; (3) one’s work is performed only to visually attract attention.

ἀνθρωπάρεσκοι could mean (1) pleasing to man generally; or (2) pleasing to a specific man, namely, the master.

Combining these possible meanings together gives us a few viable options:

  1. Do not work only when the master is present in order to please your master.
  2. Do not work superficially simply to please your master’s eye.
  3. Do not work superficially simply to please the eyes of other men.
  4. Do not work simply to attract attention in order to please your master.
  5. Do not work simply to attract attention in order to please other men.

Notice how, even though we have two words in the same phrase that are basically the sum of their roots, the interpretive work is not done! So, how then should we work?

Based on the context, I think options #1 or #2 are the most likely. The mention of “your earthly lords” (κυρίοις) contrasts with an implied “heavenly Lord” whom we should also please with our work. The last clause says we should work in this manner “because you fear the Lord” (φοβούμενοι τὸν κύριον), again echoing the mention of earthly κυρίοι. Finally, I can’t imagine too many slaves (or bond-servants) were too worried about what other men would think of their work. They were certainly far more concerned about what their masters thought of them.

As for deciding between #1 and #2, it’s a toss-up. Perhaps the ancient commentator Theophylact was correct when he said Paul here refers to work done only when the master is present, “for the master’s eye usually stimulates to greater diligence; his absence, on the other hand, renders sluggish” (cited in BDAG s.v. ὀφθαλμοδουλίᾳ).

Paul therefore commands servants to obey their masters through service (1) in everything; (2) not only when the master is present; (3) not wanting simply to please a man; (4) but rather with a sincere heart. They should do so “because you fear the Lord,” whom Paul implies they should aim to please instead of their earthly masters.

So there is a little nuance to the root fallacy. Sometimes words are basically the sum of their roots, but even in those cases, the meaning is not necessarily certain.

Improving our Lexicography

Why does this issue of word meaning continue to plague students and pastors? One reason is that many are trained not to learn Greek and Hebrew as languages, but rather to simply do word studies as a way to spice up sermons or to bring more “depth” to teaching. Rather than being trained to use proper resources (such as BDAG, Thayer, LSJ, BDF, NIDNTTE, etc.) and to read words in their context, words are pulled out as golden “nuggets,” as Kenneth Wuest called them. In this scenario, there is no control over a word’s meaning, and one is left with etymology alone (or worse, a “word studies” book).

If you want to learn how to treat biblical words carefully, you need to be able (1) to read the original languages and (2) to discern meaning from context. If you want to improve at both, get our Colossians Greek Reading Videos, which includes more than 10 hours of Greek instruction working verse by verse through Colossians, looking at words and their meaning in context.

Your Greek will improve and so will your ability to deal carefully with biblical words as part of a wider discourse. As you watch, you’ll get a model for close attention to syntax, word meaning, and exegetical decisions that you can build on in your own preaching and teaching.

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