Words of a Fether

I am the way, the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father except through me. ~Jesus

site banner

Grammar Got Run Over by a Context

(Sing the title to the tune of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’. … Get it? … sorry)

I was reading a conversation about exegesis recently, and compulsive analyst that I am, just had to break it down. But it really boils down nicely into a tiny package:

The semantic range of a word is what it can mean in all possible contexts, but the context and grammatical details in each instance narrow the possibilities. So in a given immediate context, the word’s meaning is only a subset of the whole range. Context (which includes grammar) is the inner limit, while semantic range is the outer limit.

That’s my exegesis tip for the day. There will be no charge. ;-)

But seriously, I see too many people basing arguments on semantic range alone or grammar alone. But the primary function of grammar is to piece various parts of the sentence together and tell us things like quantity or time, and thus it gives only limited meaning by itself. This is very close to the ”exegesis by etymology“ problem, where a word is interpreted by the literal meanings of its parts. For example, the word typically translated ”worship“ is made of smaller words that mean ”to kiss the hand“. If we were to commit the etymology error, we’d say that this word must actually mean ”to kiss the hand“, even though we know that at the time of the NT it was a figure of speech.

Speaking of figures of speech, many idioms in Greek have been translated literally into English, obliterating the intent of the writer and sometimes leading us to erroneous conclusions. For example, the phrase in Greek that literally reads ”remove the fig leaf“ was a figure of speech that meant ”circumcise“. Another common error is to impose modern idioms onto ancient ones. A prime example is when ”the head of“ is presumed by some to mean ”the boss of“, even though this was not an ancient Greek expression for a boss.

Yet another source of erroneous interpretation is when we note that a word carries a certain meaning in most contexts, and then presume that it must have this same meaning in all contexts. But this is putting the cart before the horse; we can only know its semantic range when we first consider all the contexts, and if we are unsure in some of the cases, then we cannot arbitrarily assign the meaning we prefer. This is especially the case with the word translated ”salvation“ or ”saved". Some say that since Paul usually uses it in the context of salvation from eternal wrath, then he must always mean this, even when the context is not on that topic at all, or is vague.

So someone arguing for only part of the facts can appear to be right, but they neglect to include all the pertinent factors. They have committed a logical fallacy and we need to be alert to it. When it comes to interpreting scripture, the whole is truly more than the sum of its parts. Sound exegesis requires a lot of work, and a sharp eye for errors in reasoning.

Posted 2010-03-12 under Bible, Bible, translation