Reading 12. Beyond Reading to Bible Study: Discovering Meanings

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Step Six: Do a Word Study

Students of Scripture have used several kinds of word studies. One of these is to look at the etymology of a word in order to discover its meaning. The use of etymology is not an appropriate way to find out what a word means. Etymology is the process of analyzing each part of a word and then concluding that the sum of all the parts is the definition or  meaning of the word.

To know the etymology or the root of a word almost never reveals anything about its meaning regardless of how interesting the information may be. There are two major difficulties with working with etymologies. First, the historical roots of biblical words are often unknown and often only conjecture. Second, the meaning of words changes from context to context and from time period to time period, so that little if any of the meaning of the root may remain. Thus, words can have different meanings from context to context. Some people have a problem with this statement. Some have been taught one way of doing word studies, which suggests that a specific word will have the same meaning each time it occurs. The context in which a word is used will determine its meaning.

Depending on etymology is questionable because words change in all languages. As an example, in the 1800s the English word enthusiasm meant “possessed by God.” The French phrase dent de lion originally meant a “lion’s tooth,” but today it is a flower (dandelion). Spinster meant one who spun wool with the hands, however, today it often means an unmarried woman. Manufacture meant, “to make with the hands,” but hardly any item is manufactured today using the hands.

Words should be studied to discover what the author meant by the word when used it in or her writings. Often good interpretation hinges upon the meaning of a word or words in a passage being studied. “Meaning” comes from context, not from definition.

Word study (lexicography) is a part of the process of exegesis. When a lexicographer writes a definition of a word, he simplifies as many of the ways that that word is used as possible. He looks at different geographical areas, different periods of time, and how it is used among different kinds of people.

We need to understand that Scripture is a human‑divine cooperative effort. The humans that entered into the process of writing Scripture did not have equal vocabularies or use words in identical ways.

Therefore, it is important to know how to do a word study. The following pattern will help you discover the intended meaning of the word as its author used it.

You can see that material by clicking on Page 2 at the bottom of this page. The material is relatively comprehensive. You may skip the material if you choose.

Living into the Text!

It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • Why is etymology not a valid way to study a word?
  • Where does meaning come from?

The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs.

Week 12: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Bible

Bible is the English form of the Greek name Biblia, meaning “books,” the name which in the fifth century began to be given to the entire collection of sacred books, the “Library of Divine Revelation.” The name Bible was adopted by Wickliffe, and came gradually into use in our English language. The Bible consists of sixty-six different books, composed by many different writers, in three different languages, under different circumstances; writers of almost every social rank, statesmen and peasants, kings, herdsmen, fishermen, priests, tax-gatherers, tentmakers; educated and uneducated, Jews and Gentiles; most of them unknown to each other, and writing at various periods during the space of about 1600 years: and yet, after all, it is only one book dealing with only one subject in its numberless aspects and relations, the subject of man’s redemption.

It is divided into the Old Testament, containing thirty-nine books, and the New Testament, containing twenty-seven books. The names given to the Old in the writings of the New are “the scriptures” (Matt. 21:42), “scripture” (2 Pet. 1:20), “the holy scriptures” (Rom. 1:2), “the law” (John 12:34), “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (Luke 24:44), “the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17), “the old covenant” (2 Cor. 3:14, R.V.). There is a break of 400 years between the Old Testament and the New.

The Old Testament is divided into three parts:, 1. The Law (Torah), consisting of the Pentateuch, or five books of Moses. 2. The Prophets, consisting of (1) the former, namely, Joshua, Judges, the Books of Samuel, and the Books of Kings; (2) the latter, namely, the greater prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets. 3. The Hagiographa, or holy writings, including the rest of the books. These were ranked in three divisions:, (1) The Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, distinguished by the Hebrew name, a word formed of the initial letters of these books, emeth, meaning truth. (2) Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, called the five rolls, as being written for the synagogue use on five separate rolls. (3) Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Between the Old and the New Testament no addition was made to the revelation God had already given. The period of New Testament revelation, extending over a century, began with the appearance of John the Baptist.

The New Testament consists of (1) the historical books, viz., the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles; (2) the Epistles; and (3) the book of prophecy, the Revelation.

The division of the Bible into chapters and verses is altogether of human invention, designed to facilitate reference to it. The ancient Jews divided the Old Testament into certain sections for use in the synagogue service, and then at a later period, in the ninth century A.D., into verses. Our modern system of chapters for all the books of the Bible was introduced by Cardinal Hugo about the middle of the thirteenth century (he died 1263). The system of verses for the New Testament was introduced by Stephens in 1551, and generally adopted, although neither Tyndale’s nor Coverdale’s English translation of the Bible has verses. The division is not always wisely made, yet it is very useful.

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Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)