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Foundations for Christianity:
201 Bible Translations
and Manuscripts



Are Translations Unreliable? (Part 2)

Are Translations Unreliable? (Part 1)
Are Translations Unreliable? (Part 2)
A Brief Examination of Manuscript Variation Issues



Measuring Accuracy: How to Translate and Interpret Reliably

Since translations can be reliable but are not infallible, how do we measure and establish accuracy so that we can know that not only the translation is reliably accurate but that the doctrines resulting from a translation are reliably accurate as well?

As we have said from very early on in this article, accuracy can be measured with concrete methods and criteria. As such, since the reliability of a translation is dependent upon the accuracy with which it preserves the meaning of the infallible original, reliability is also measured by these same criteria. (The issue of which manuscripts are used in a translation is also involved in reliability but that issue is not dealt with here. For more information on that topic, please visit the links to articles by author Tim Warner under our section titled, "Bible Translations and Manuscripts.")

The methods and criteria outlined in this segment describe the steps that scholars employ when translating. The accuracy of a translation can be measured by the extent to which a translation makes its word and grammar choices in accordance with these steps and criteria for determining word meaning. Our purpose in outlining these items here is threefold.

First, our purpose is to share the steps individuals can perform so that they can understand the Bible for themselves without needing to rely on an intervening interpreter to preside as an authority over the Word of God in their lives. Second, our purpose is to explain the process of translation in simple, accurate terms in order to take it out of the mystified cloud in which some scholars portray it. In this way we will build confidence in scripture's self-sufficiency and the principal of sola scriptura rather than building up any need for an authoritative interpreter to preside over the meaning of scripture. Third, our purpose is to both explain and defend the methods employed when deriving meaning from passages and words in our own studies by showing that our own methods perfectly conform to the steps used by scholars when translating.

At this point we should talk briefly about harmony. In hermeneutic terms, harmony is one of the main principles of the grammatical-historical method of interpreting scripture. The principle of harmony is based upon the idea that two particular qualities of scripture logically require us to make a necessary assumption when interpreting the meaning, teaching, or position of scripture on a particular topic or in a particular passage. The two particular qualities of scripture in view here are 1) that scripture is infallible and therefore cannot contradict itself and 2) that scripture was written in progressive revelation by God so that each revelation built upon what had been previously revealed. (For more information on the meaning and significance of these 2 issues, please visit our article entitled, "Hermeneutic Systems and the Grammatical Historical Method.")

These two qualities of scripture logically imply that what scripture says on a topic in one passage will have consistency and continuity with what scripture says on that same topic in another passage. Different passages on the same topic will either be contemporary with one another, in which case they will concur, or will logically build from or built toward each other. Thus, two passages on the same topic will harmonize with each other. They will harmonize because God revealed his truth progressively building strategically and deliberately on prior revelations and God cannot contradict himself.

As such, when we interpret scripture to develop an understanding of it's meaning, we should always try to build uniformity and continuity from start to finish on a particular topic. We should always assume passages on the same topic will be part of a continuous commentary on that topic throughout scripture rather than a variety of diverse, unrelated, dismembered, or contradictory thoughts on a particular topic area.

What we will see in this section is that this principle is necessary not only on the larger scale when comparing one passage to other passages, but also on the microscopic level of determining the meaning of words as it pertains to translation and interpretation.

This brings us to the segment outlining the criteria used for discovering and establishing meaning. This is, of course, the most essential and fundamental aspect of all interpretation, whether within a single language or between languages, and therefore including translation. The steps or criteria for determining meaning outlined below allow us to measure the reliability of a translation in concrete terms that will yield consistent and accurate results. It is adherence to these criteria that allows translations to be reliably used to establish doctrine even though a translation is not infallible.

This is the case for the simple reason that these criteria make the original language the measure to which we defer when examining translations. Thus, the original language remains the infallible authority and the translation's reliability is tied directly to its accurate representation of the meaning of the original as determined in accordance with these criteria.

For the purposes of interpretation it is necessary at this point to define accuracy and reliability in more direct terms. For the purposes of interpretation, reliability is measured by the degree to which a fallible translation is an accurate articulation of the meaning of the infallible original. For the purposes of interpretation, accuracy is defined as the degree to which a fallible translation preserves or deviates from the meaning of the infallible original.

But before we get into the criteria that determine the meaning of a word, it is necessary to establish a few basic facts on this topic.

First, the study of word meaning is the science known as semantics.

"Semantics - also called semiotics, semology, or semasiology, the philosophical and scientific study of meaning...The word semantics has ultimately prevailed as a name for the doctrine of meaning, in particular, of linguistic meaning. Semiotics is still used, however, to denote a broader field: the study of sign-using behaviour in general." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Meaning in linguistics, Semantics in the theory of language - semantics, the study of the elements of a language from the point of view of meaning; and syntax, the study of the formal interrelations that exist between the elements of a language (i.e., sounds, words) themselves. Subsequently, certain authors spoke of three levels: the phonetic, the syntactic (the phonetic and syntactic together are often called grammatical), and the semantic level." - Britannica.com

"Semantics - 1. Linguistics The study or science of meaning in language. 2. Linguistics The study of relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. Also called semasiology. 3. The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form." - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

"Semantics - in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The empirical study of word meanings and sentence meanings in existing languages is a branch of linguistics...In linguistics, semantics has its beginnings in France and Germany in the 1820s when the meanings of words as significant features in the growth of language was recognized." - The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.

The inclusion of the word "empirical" in the quotation above indicates the scientific nature of the process of determining word meaning. It indicates, as we have said all along, that there are measurable criteria for determining meaning, and therefore for determining the accuracy and reliability of translations as well. And of course, to express meaning is to articulate the concept contained in a word using alternate words. Once again, we recall our earlier example of a dictionary that defines every word only by that word itself. The word strong means strong. The word fluid means fluid. Such a dictionary would be useless. So the very process of determining meaning inherently requires that meaning can be accurately and reliably expressed using alternate words.

As we continue ahead to the actual empirical criteria, this is where we begin to take the mystery out of word meaning - a topic before which some modern scholars might want us to be dazzled in awe and confusion. Unfortunately, some have presented the study of word meaning and translation as though we were the Israelites in Exodus crying out to Moses before the fiery appearance of God on the mountain, "You go up for us and figure this out. It is too much for us." But translation and word meaning are not as immense or frightening as that famous event, not by any means. But unless they are portrayed that way, we'll lose our perception that we need an authoritative interpreter to perform the impossible task of determining the meaning of scripture for us. But that perception itself undermines sola scriptura by creating the need for an authoritative interpreter who presides over even the meaning of scripture in our lives.

Now we are ready to discuss the criteria or methods for determining word meaning, whether in translation or interpretation within the same language. After we cover these criteria, we will discuss the how's and why's behind them and what that means for our interpretive methods when we study the Bible. In this way we will take the mystery and obscurity out of the meaning of the words of the Bible and out of the process of interpretation by showing the simple techniques available to everyone for discovering the meaning of a word, and therefore of a text as a whole.

Our analysis here is intended to break down the process of translation into simpler terms but a more comprehensive explanation can be found at the following website address:

http://www.concordant.org/expohtml/TheScriptures/tranprin.html

(NOTE: The article at the web address above is written by James Coram of the Concordant Publishing Concern, a "denominationally independent nonprofit association for Scripture research," which also describes itself as "not a church, but a translating and teaching ministry," which has been around since its founding "in 1909 in Los Angeles, California.")

There are 5 criteria that scholars use to determine word meaning. These same criteria are employed in our Bible studying.

Word meaning is indicated by:
1.) Etymology.
2.) Grammar.
3.) Immediate Context.
4.) Usage/Multiple Contexts.
5.) Translation Contexts.


Etymology

"Etymology - 1. The origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its ancestral form where possible. 2. The branch of linguistics that deals with etymologies." - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

Etymology has to do with where a word came from. Most words are derivatives of other, more basic "root" words. Some words are compounds words that are formed when two or more simpler words are put together. Other words are borrowed or adapted from other languages. By looking at such things, we can get some understanding of the essential meaning or concept a word is used to describe. But, because by its very nature, etymology is the study of how a word has changed over time, adapted, or been modified through compounding, etymology is typically thought of as a lesser factor in discovering the meaning of a word.

"In consideration of the subject of word meaning, a word needs to be said first of all concerning both etymology and the meaning of word elements. 'Etymology,' or the study of a word's origin, is not central but strictly peripheral in determining word meaning. Even the meaning of a word's elements is not determinative of a word's own meaning. Considerations of etymology may be helpful; but they can also be misleading. A knowledge of the meaning of a word's elements is nearly always helpful, with a view toward one's general understanding of a certain word. Nonetheless, such information simply is not decisive in determining the actual meaning of a word itself. Definitive context alone determines meaning." - James Coram, Copyright Concordant Publishing Concern, Concordant.org

So, while a word's etymology and an understanding of any simpler words that a compound word may break down into are a necessary background for understanding a word's meaning, these are not the definitive factors for determining meaning.

Let's look at an example to help understand how etymology works. And what better example might there be than the word "etymology" itself.

"Etymology - ETYMOLOGY: Middle English etimologie, from Old French ethimologie, from Medieval Latin ethimologia, from Latin etymologia, from Greek etumologi: etumon, true sense of a word; see etymon + -logi, -logy." - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

The English word etymology is a compound word that traces back originally to the combination of two Greek words, "etumon," meaning, "true sense of a word" and "logia" or "logy," meaning "science, theory, or study." So, by looking at the original Greek root words that come together to form the English word "etymology," we get an understanding that the basic concepts contained in this word involve, at least originally, the idea of "the study or science" of "the true sense of a word."

Let's look at another example using a word from the Bible. In Romans 8:29, the apostle Paul says Jesus Christ is the "firstborn among many brothers." The Greek word for "firstborn" is "prototokos," (Strong's No. 4416) which is defined as follows.

4416 prototokos
from 4413 and the alternate of 5088; TDNT-6:871,965; adj
AV-firstborn 7, first begotten 2; 9
1) the firstborn
1a) of man or beast
1b) of Christ, the first born of all creation

As we can see, prototokos is a compound word derived from two other Greek words. The Greek words that come together to form prototokos are "protos" (Strong's No. 4413) and "tikto" (Strong's No. 5088). Below is the definition for both of these Greek words.

5088 tikto
a strengthened form of a primary teko tekw tek'-o (which is used only as alternate in certain tenses); ; v
AV-bring forth 9, be delivered 5, be born 3, be in travail 1, bear 1; 19
1) to bring forth, bear, produce (fruit from the seed)
1a) of a woman giving birth
1b) of the earth bringing forth its fruits
1c) metaph. to bear, bring forth

4413 protos
contracted superlative of 4253; TDNT-6:865,965; adj
AV-first 84, chief 9, first day 2, former 2, misc 7; 104
1) first in time or place
1a) in any succession of things or persons
2) first in rank
2a) influence, honour
2b) chief
2c) principal
3) first, at the first

As we can see, "tikto" conveys the general idea of bearing offspring or reproduction, including both in terms of animal and plant life. "Protos" conveys the idea of the first or chief in terms of either succession or rank. We can see from the meanings of these two root words the relationship that each word has to the meaning of "prototokos," which is defined as conveying the concept, "firstborn."

However, not only does "prototokos" provide for us a good example of etymology at work in a compound word, but it also further exemplifies etymology because the root word "protos" itself is a derivative of a more primitive word. In the definition (above) for the word "protos" we see the notation that "protos" is a "contracted superlative of 4253." Strong's No. 4253 is the Greek word "pro," which is defined below.

4253 pro
a primary preposition; TDNT-6:683,935; prep
AV-before 44, above 2, above ... ago 1, or ever 1; 48
1) before

So, as we take a look at the English word "firstborn" in Romans 8:29, we find that it is a translation of the Greek word "prototokos," which traces its formation from two more basic root words, "tikto" and "protos," of which "protos" also traces its formation back to the even more primitive Greek root word, "pro." And so we can see the evolution of word meaning. "Pro" conveys the basic concept of coming "before." "Protos" conveys the idea of "first or chief in a succession or rank." "Tikto" conveys the idea of "offspring." And "protos" and "tikto" come together to convey the idea of "offspring" that is "first or chief in succession or rank."

This is essentially how etymology works and how the etymology of a word can help inform us about its meaning. But as stated above, while the etymology of word is informative, etymology does not definitively determine the meaning. With that in mind, we now move on to another factor that informs us about the meaning of a word.


Grammar

"Grammar - 1a. The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences. b. The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history. 2a. The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language. b. The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language." - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

"Syntax - 1a. The study of the rules whereby words or other elements of sentence structure are combined to form grammatical sentences. b. A publication, such as a book, that presents such rules. c. The pattern of formation of sentences or phrases in a language. d. Such a pattern in a particular sentence or discourse." - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

Syntax is a specific sub-category within grammar. Grammar and syntax both involve the study of the rules of how components of a language, such as words, combine to convey ideas and meaning in sentences. Grammar involves which words act as nouns, verbs, or adjective, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. It also involves identifying which words are the subject and which the object of a verb. By identifying which of these categories each word in sentence falls into, we get an understanding of how a word is being used in a particular sentence, and therefore, what it is meant to convey. Grammar is essential to understanding word meaning.

"Semantics, Meaning in linguistics - The contribution of grammar to semantic theory is by no means exhausted by this step. For the grammatical restrictions on a word represent, as it were, the "skeleton" of its meaning before the "flesh" is put on by the co-occurrences. The very first step in giving the meaning of a word is to specify its grammatical category-noun, verb, adjective, adverb, connective, and so forth..." - Britannica.com

There are different parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. These are extremely simple concepts to learn but understanding which of these roles that a particular word fills is essential to determining the meaning of a word and a sentence. However, identifying which form of speech a word functions as in a sentence is often quite obvious even after translations has occurred. Other aspects of grammar may not always be so obvious, such as the tense, voice, and mood of a verb. And verb conjugation often has a very significant impact on what is being said by a sentence. These things also have to be taken into consideration but they, too, are not all that complicated.

Let's take a look at the following examples of how grammar affects the meaning of a statement. In the following passages, not only is the Strong's Concordance Number denoted for each verb, but also the second number behind a verb denotes the verb's conjugation. (Note: it is not our intention to examine the issues discussed in the following passages in detail at this point, but only to illustrate the significance that grammar has on meaning. For more analysis of the specific issues discussed in these passages, please visit our other articles on those topics.)

1 Corinthians 7:10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart (5563) (5683) from her husband: 11 But and if she depart (5563) (5681), let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away (863) (5721) his wife.

The Greek verb for "depart" in verse 10 is "chorizo" (Strong's No. 5563). The second number behind the verb denotes the specific conjugation of that verb. Each conjugation number tells us three things: verb tense (such as past, present, or future), verb voice (such as active or passive), and verb mood (such as infinitive, imperative, indicative). In this particular case in 1 Corinthians 7:10, the conjugation of the verb "chorizo" is denoted with the number 5683, which denotes that the verb "chorizo" is in the Aorist tense, the passive voice, and the infinitive mood.

Since this is just an example, we will focus only on one of these grammatical concerns. Since our concern is the meaning in the original Greek, notice that in the Greek the verb "chorizo" is in the passive voice. The passive voice is also denoted with a particular four-digit number, which is 5786. Here is the definition of the passive voice.

5786 Voice-Passive - The passive voice represents the subject as being the recipient of the action. E.g., in the sentence, "The boy was hit by the ball, " the boy receives the action.

As we can see from the definition, the passive voice means that the subject is not the one who performs the verb but instead the subject is the recipient of the action conveyed by the verb. The definition includes the example, "The boy was hit by the ball." In that example the boy is NOT the one performing the "hitting." The boy is not "hitting" the ball. Rather, although the boy is the subject, it is the ball that is hitting him. The subject receives rather than performs the verb. So, when 1 Corinthians 7:10 was written, the wife was NOT performing the action of departing. As the subject of the sentence, the wife is the one who receives the action of being parted just as the boy was the one hit by the ball and not the other way around. The wife is being parted. She is not doing the parting.

In verse 11, similar grammar is used in the phrase, "if she depart (5563) (5681)." "Chorizo" is still the verb and once again the subject is the wife (as indicated by the female pronoun "she"). Additionally, once again the verb is in the passive voice, as indicated by the alternate conjugation number 5681. Like 5683, 5681 denotes a verb in the passive voice. So, the wife is again the recipient of the verb "chorizo." She is the one being parted, not the one doing the parting.

But for the sake of contrast, let's look at the verb tense in verse 11 concerning the phrase, "let not the husband put away his wife." The verb is a different Greek word. This time the verb is "aphiemi" (Strong's No. 863) rather than "chorizo." And likewise, the conjugation is entirely different. The number designating the conjugation of "aphiemi" is 5721, which denotes that "aphiemi" is in the present tense, active voice, infinitive mood.

Unlike "chorizo," "aphiemi" is in the active rather than the passive voice. The active voice is designated by the number 5784 and is defined as follows.

5784 Voice-Active - The active voice represents the subject as the doer or performer of the action. e.g., in the sentence, "The boy hit the ball, " the boy performs the action.

Notice the difference between the active and the passive voice. In the passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the verb as in the example, "The boy was hit by the ball." In the active voice, the subject is performer of the verb as in the example, "The boy hit the ball." So, in terms of the scripture verses of 1 Corinthians 7, the original Greek was written to indicate that the wife (in verse 10-11) was merely the recipient of the separation while the husband (verse 11) is the performer of the sending away of his wife.

In this very basic example, we can see how the grammar, particularly the way a verb is rendered, is very significant to the meaning of a statement. If we did not pay attention to the grammar of the original language, we might think that the wife was performing the action of separating in verses 10-11, when in fact she is simply the recipient of an action performed by the husband. But again, as we have said, these considerations are not difficult and while other scenarios involving grammar might be more complex, they are not really anything that cannot be looked up in a basic grammar book or even a dictionary to help us understand what a particular grammatical term such as "passive" or "conjunction," etc. means if we are unfamiliar with it.


Immediate Context

"Semantics, Meaning in linguistics, Meaning, structure, and context - Foreigners in a strange country and linguists are often confronted with the task of learning a new language...Therefore, although at the very beginning their learning remains on the ostensive level (trying to find out the name of this or that kind of object), very soon they proceed to the level of first guessing, then establishing, the meaning of words from the contexts in which they occur." - Britannica.com

"In consideration of the subject of word meaning, a word needs to be said first of all concerning both etymology and the meaning of word elements...Nonetheless, such information simply is not decisive in determining the actual meaning of a word itself. Definitive context alone determines meaning." - James Coram, Copyright Concordant Publishing Concern, Concordant.org

While etymology provides basic familiarity with word and grammar provides a necessary understanding of how a word relates to the other words in a sentence, context is the primary manner in which the meaning of a particular word is established. As we will see, learning the meaning of a word from its immediate context is closely related to the next criteria. But for now, even as indicated in the first quote above, we are discussing how word meaning is built upon the initial step of the immediate context in which that word occurs. And it is no doubt an absolute fact that the meaning of any word necessarily has to make sense in the immediate context in which it occurs.

Let's take a look at another example. In order to illustrate how the meaning of a word is indicated by its context, we have left the Greek word "eleutheros" (Strong's No. 1658) un-translated in the verse below. The goal will be to demonstrate how the meaning of this unrecognized word is indicated by the immediate context in which it occurs.

1 Corinthians 7:39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at ELEUTHEROS to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.

In the middle of this verse, we have this word "eleutheros," which we do not recognize or know the meaning of. What can we learn from the context? Well, we can see that "eleutheros" is a part of a phrase that follows the conjunction "but." This tells us that "eleutheros" is being contrasted to the concept that occurs before the conjunction "but." This is information provided to us by the grammar. So again, we see the essential role that grammar has in determining word meaning. From the context, we also see that "eleutheros" is part of a phrase that begins with the word "if." This tells us that "eleutheros" is connected here to a condition. From this we understand that a wife is either "bound by the law" or "eleutheros" depending upon "if" her husband is dead. So, this simple examination of grammar and context, allows us to take an unknown word like "eleutheros" and derive a working understanding that "eleutheros" means something that contrasts with the state of being "bound by the law."

The immediate context tells us that "eleutheros" conveys the idea of "not being bound by the law." This is how context is used to determine meaning.


Usage/Multiple Contexts

"We have the evidence of a word's true meaning-and therefore of the meaning that truly satisfies such a definitive context-when that same meaning also fits all the occurrences in which the word appears. Due to considerations of idiom, such a meaning may or may not fit smoothly in all its occurrences. But if a certain meaning is cognizable in all of a word's occurrences, while being singularly capable of satisfying those of its contexts which seem definitive, we may be certain (1) that such a meaning is indeed the word's true meaning, and (2) that those contexts which we have deemed definitive, are, in fact, definitive." - James Coram, Copyright Concordant Publishing Concern, Concordant.org

"Language, Semantic flexibility - Not only are word meanings somewhat different in different languages; they are not fixed for all time in any one language. Semantic changes take place all along (see below), and at any moment the semantic area covered by a word is indeterminately bordered and differs from context to context. This is a further aspect and condition of the inherent and necessary flexibility of language." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Meaning in linguistics, Meaning, structure, and context - Foreigners in a strange country and linguists are often confronted with the task of learning a new language...Therefore, although at the very beginning their learning remains on the ostensive level (trying to find out the name of this or that kind of object), very soon they proceed to the level of first guessing, then establishing, the meaning of words from the contexts in which they occur...Moreover, linguists find no great difficulties in learning dead languages-e.g., that of the ancient Egyptians-without any contact with any speaker, provided that a sufficiently large corpus of texts is available and that some clues are provided to the meaning of at least some words." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Meaning, structure, and context - If any more evidence concerning this point is needed, one should remember that "pictorial" dictionaries are bound to remain on the kindergarten level, and that the mark of a good dictionary is the abundance of appropriate contexts. Thus, the contexts show the concept." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Meaning, structure, and context - The contribution of grammar to semantic theory is by no means exhausted by this step. For the grammatical restrictions on a word represent, as it were, the "skeleton" of its meaning before the "flesh" is put on by the co-occurrences...The co-occurrences then complete the picture." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Lexical entries - Good dictionaries offer a variety of contexts for the items listed, but, obviously, this is not enough. For one thing, no dictionary can list all the co-occurrences. There must be devices to sum up, as it were, the information revealed by the contexts. This is the role of dictionary definitions." - Britannica.com

As the above quotes demonstrate, after determining word meaning by immediate context, the next step is to compare a variety of contexts (or co-occurrences) in which that word occurs. As Britannica.com simply puts it, "the contexts show the concept."

"Semantics, Meaning in linguistics, Meaning, structure, and context - Foreigners in a strange country and linguists are often confronted with the task of learning a new language...Therefore, although at the very beginning their learning remains on the ostensive level (trying to find out the name of this or that kind of object), very soon they proceed to the level of first guessing, then establishing, the meaning of words from the contexts in which they occur." - Britannica.com

Although initially, word meaning is determined by the first context in which a person finds that word, the ultimate criterion for word meaning is discovering a meaning that fits in all contexts. This leads to what is known as "semantic flexibility," "essential meaning," and "referential meaning."

"Language, Semantic Flexibility - Not only are word meanings somewhat different in different languages; they are not fixed for all time in any one language. Semantic changes take place all along (see below), and at any moment the semantic area covered by a word is indeterminately bordered and differs from context to context. This is a further aspect and condition of the inherent and necessary flexibility of language." - Britannica.com

Yet despite the fact that a word's meaning shifts, that does not mean that the word has multiple meanings. As following summary states, words have one singular, essential meaning.

"It is impossible for a word actually to have two or more meanings, however varied its usages may be. Communication would be impossible were we consistently to adapt the policy that words may have more than one meaning, or, to say the same thing, that they may have primary meaning, secondary meaning, tertiary meaning, and so forth. Meaning, that is, essence, is a singular concept." - James Coram, Copyright Concordant Publishing Concern, Concordant.org

So, if words have one essential meaning, how is it possible that the same word can shift in meaning depending upon the context? The following quote explains why and how these kinds of shifts in meaning are possible.

"It is vital to distinguish between word meaning and word usage; that is, between denotation and connotation, or essential meaning and referential meaning. It is true that the same word is sometimes used to convey a different idea in one text than in another. It does so, however, not by inherent signification but by contextual application, or usage...Properly speaking, then, such a word has a plurality of references, according to its varied usages. It does not, however, have a plurality of intrinsic significations or essential meanings. A word's essential meaning is also its universal meaning...Speaking loosely, we may say that a word has two or more 'meanings' in that in one place it is used to refer to one idea and in another place is used to refer to a different idea...Such a concept, however, speaks of referential meaning, not essential meaning." - James Coram, Copyright Concordant Publishing Concern, Concordant.org

As the above quote states, sometimes two situations in which a word occurs are so diverse that at first it may not be easy to see how the same word can be applied to both. However, this "semantic flexibility" occurs because the essential meaning of a word is broad enough to apply to a variety of much more specific situations. Effectively, the broad meaning can break down into more particular nuances. One nuance can seem quite different from another while both share the same, larger essential concept. This does not change the fact that every word has a single, broad meaning. We simply must understand that the basic concept conveyed by a word is broad enough to include even diverse applications.

"Due to idiomatic differences between the original and the receptor language (especially scope of usage or idiomatic range), in translation it is often necessary to use a number of synonyms or other variants to translate a single word in the original. These variants may be quite different from each other in certain obvious respects. Even so, they often share a common central idea among themselves, and, in any case, always correspond to the essential idea of the original expression." - James Coram, Copyright Concordant Publishing Concern, Concordant.org

This is why dictionaries often contain multiple definitions. They are simply summarizing the more common nuances into which a word's essential meaning is often applied.

"Semantics, Meaning, structure, and context - If any more evidence concerning this point is needed, one should remember that "pictorial" dictionaries are bound to remain on the kindergarten level, and that the mark of a good dictionary is the abundance of appropriate contexts. Thus, the contexts show the concept." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Lexical Entries - Good dictionaries offer a variety of contexts for the items listed, but, obviously, this is not enough. For one thing, no dictionary can list all the co-occurrences. There must be devices to sum up, as it were, the information revealed by the contexts. This is the role of dictionary definitions." - Britannica.com

Here is where the principle of harmony comes back into play on the microscopic level. Perhaps the central goal in determining word meaning (and therefore the central goal in translation as well) is to discover that singular, basic meaning of a word common to all the occurrences of that word. Once that occurs, then we can discover the nuances of meaning contained in that general root concept. If every time a word occurs it has an entirely different and unrelated meaning, then determining word meaning would be nearly impossible and so would translation because the primary means of accurately establishing meaning is by comparing the various occurrences of a particular word.

In this way, even though a word may be used a multitude of times and in vastly different contexts, we do not end up with a list of 20 distinct meanings for a single word. In point of fact, the more meanings that a word has, the less meaning that it truly has at all. The whole purpose of a word is to express a particular concept distinct from other concepts expressed by other words.

Thus, translators or interpreters that assert either by their teaching or practice that the meaning of a word in one passage should be kept isolated and distinct from its meaning in another, are really acting in direct opposition to both translation and the entire science of determining meaning. Consequently, such persons merely dawn the guise of translators and interpreters in order to obfuscate and deny the essential processes of determining meaning. Translators and interpreters of this kind should be rejected.

Having said that, we will now return to the subject of hand, which is an examination of how meaning is ultimately determined by a comparison of a word in multiple contexts. At this point we are ready to take a look at another example.

In our previous segment, we saw how the context of 1 Corinthians 7:39 indicated that the Greek word "eleutheros" (Strong's No. 1658) meant a state of being "not bound by the Law." 1 Corinthians 7:39 provides for us a definition through the immediate context. As the quotes above state, word meaning is initially determined by immediate context, but it is also necessary to determine a word's meaning by a comparison to other contexts in which the word occurs. For this reason, we will take a look at the Greek word "eleutheros" in the other contexts that it occurs in the Bible to see what those additional contexts tell us about the meaning we initially discovered from the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 7:39.

The following 16 passages contain all 23 New Testament occurrences of the Greek word "eleutheros."

Matthew 18:24-26 - "eleutheros" is contrasted to being obligated to pay taxes to rulers.
John 8:33-36 - "eleutheros" is contrasted to being in bondage or servitude to other men.
Romans 6:20 - "eleutheros" is contrasted to being in servitude.
Romans 7:3 - "eleutheros" is contrasted to being under a law.
1 Corinthians 7:21-22 - "eleutheros" is contrasted to being in servitude.
1 Corinthians 7:39 - "eleutheros" is contrasted to being in bondage to a law.
1 Corinthians 9:1, 19 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with servitude.
1 Corinthians 12:13 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
Galatians 3:28 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
Galatians 4:22-31 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
Ephesians 6:8 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
Colossians 3:11 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
1 Peter 2:16 - "eleutheros" is associated with being servants of God.
Revelation 6:15 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
Revelation 13:16 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.
Revelation 19:18 - "eleutheros" is contrasted with being in bonds.

This survey allows us to compare what we found out about the meaning of "eleutheros" from the context of 1 Corinthians 7:39 to the meaning of "eleutheros" in the other 22 instances it occurs in the New Testament. Our initial examination of 1 Corinthians 7:39 indicated that "eleutheros" was a state of not being in bondage to the Law. This represented one specific nuance in the meaning of "eleutheros." However, by surveying all of the available biblical contexts for this word, we found that the broader meaning of "eleutheros" is a state of freedom from servitude or bondage in general, not just specifically from the Law. This is a simplified example of "semantic flexibility" in which the broader meaning of "eleutheros" is freedom and in specific instances "eleutheros" can mean freedom from slavery or servitude, freedom from the law, freedom from paying taxes, freedom from obligations to men, etc. Here we see the broader essential meaning as well as the more specific nuances of the various referential meanings.

In summary, we see that words generally have one essential meaning. That meaning is broad enough to adapt and shift to fit a variety of diverse circumstances, which are known as referential meanings. Each context typically expresses a referential, more specific nuance of the broader essential meaning of a word. The essential meaning is established only by a sufficient examination of a word in multiple contexts. And as we have seen, although this kind of survey work can take some effort, it is still work that any layperson can do.


Translation Contexts

Translation contexts are really just a very peculiar subtype within the larger category of contexts that we've already covered. However, translations offer additional help in determining meaning because the foreign translation is itself a definition of the unknown word. Perhaps the most prominent example is the Rosetta Stone.

"Rosetta Stone - ancient Egyptian stone bearing inscriptions in several languages and scripts; their decipherment led to the understanding of hieroglyphic writing...Inscribed in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, and three writing systems, hieroglyphics, demotic script (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics), and the Greek alphabet, it provided a key to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing...He also established that the hieroglyphic text of the Rosetta Stone was a translation from the Greek, not, as had been thought, the reverse. The work of these two men established the basis for the translation of all future Egyptian hieroglyphic texts." - Britannica.com

The Rosetta Stone was an inscribed stone containing writing in Egyptian and Greek. The Greek text allowed translators to determine the meaning of the previously un-deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because translators knew that the Greek was a translation of the Egyptian text, the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs could be determined by the corresponding Greek words. The Greek words provided a definition for the unknown Egyptians words.

Similarly, since the New Testament is written in Greek and the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, whenever the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, the texts provide a definition for each other by means of the corresponding words from each language. Let's look at an example.

1 Timothy 1:9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind (733), for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.

First, here in 1 Timothy 1, Paul refers to the Law of Moses in verse 9. Then he states that the Law of Moses is for persons who do certain things. Then he lists several examples including a few peculiar ones, "murderers of fathers," "manslayers," "menstealers," and among these "arsenokoites" (men who lie with men.) Paul is saying all of these things are listed in the Law of Moses. So, it is no surprise that we do, in fact, find all 4 of these peculiar phrases as crimes in the Law of Moses.

"Murderers Of Fathers And Murderers Of Mothers"
Exodus 21:15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.

"Manslayers"
Numbers 35:16 And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. 17 And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. 18 Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.

"Menstealers"
Deuteronomy 24:7 If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you.

"Men Who Lie with Men as with a Woman"
Leviticus 20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

In terms of our current discussion of translation, we might take for our example Paul's use of the phrase, "them that defile themselves with mankind." In the original Greek, this entire English phrase is one word, "arsenokoites" (Strong's No. 733). In determining the meaning of this Greek word, we can break it down into its two more basic component words "arrhen" (Strong's No. 730) and "koite" (Strong's No. 2845), as we discussed in a previous section concerning etymology. The word "arrhen" means "a male," such as in Matthew 19:4 and Galatians 3:28. And "koite" means "a place for laying down, resting, sleeping in" such as in Luke 11:7. More specifically, "koite" refers to sexual intercourse that occurs in a marriage bed such as seen in Hebrews 13:4 and even Romans 9:10, which describes how Rebecca conceived of Jacob and Esau from Isaac.

At this point, we have learned something about the meaning of "arsenokoites" both by breaking it down etymologically and looking at other contexts, which involve the two component words. From these methods, we see that the meaning of "arsenokoites" has something to do with "men" and "lying down" including the idea of how a man normally lays with a women in sexual intercourse.

However, because we know that Paul is stating these prohibitions can be found in the Law of Moses, we can also learn more about the meaning of this word by comparing it to its Hebrew counterpart. As seen above, there can be little doubt that Paul is referring back to the fornication laws in Leviticus 20, where "a man lying with a man as with a woman" is listed among other types of prohibited items. Here again is Leviticus 20:13, only this time each word is denoted with its Strong's Concordance number.

Leviticus 20:13 If a man (0376) also lie (07901) with mankind (02145), as he lieth (04904) with a woman (0802) both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

We mentioned already that the Greek word "arsenokoites" used by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 involved the idea of "men," and "lying down" even as men normally lie down with women in a marriage bed and sexual intercourse. We also saw that Paul himself states that he is referring back to the prohibitions found in the Law of Moses. Here we find a prohibition in Leviticus 20:13 that specifically involves all of these same concepts of a "man" lying with "men" even as men normally "lie with women." In fact, the word for "lieth" in the phrase "as he lieth with a woman" is the Hebrew word "mishkab" (Strong's No. 4904), which means "a lying down" including specifically "sexual contact" just as the Greek word "koite" includes.

So, similar to the Rosetta Stone, knowing that the Greek wording in 1 Timothy 1 corresponds to Hebrew wording in the Old Testament, we gain additional insight into the meaning of the word "arsenokoite" because the already defined Hebrew words act as a definition for this Greek term. Consequently, when a translation context is available, it is a valuable indicator of the meaning of the word in question.


Summary

Our previous segment concludes the 5 criteria used by translators when determining word meaning. As we've stated above, the determination of word meaning involves a scientific process, known as semantics.

"Semantics - also called semiotics, semology, or semasiology, the philosophical and scientific study of meaning...The word semantics has ultimately prevailed as a name for the doctrine of meaning, in particular, of linguistic meaning." - Britannica.com

"Semantics - 1. Linguistics The study or science of meaning in language." - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

"Semantics - in general, the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The empirical study of word meanings and sentence meanings in existing languages is a branch of linguistics." - The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.

The empirical methods for determining word meaning are:
1.)Etymology.
2.) Grammar.
3.)Immediate Context.
4.)Usage/Multiple Contexts.
5.) Translation Contexts.

And by understanding these simple, easy-to-understand processes for determining the meaning of a word, we have taken the mystery out of translation and interpretation of the Bible. In doing so, we have not only reaffirmed the principle of sola scriptura by removing the necessity for an authoritative interpreter who presides over the very meaning of scripture for laypersons, but we have provided some groundwork empowering individuals to better see the clarity of God's Word for themselves. Throughout the studies on our website, you will see us employing these same 5 criteria as we examine the meaning of words and critical texts during our investigation of Biblical doctrine.

Before we close, we would like to make one final argument concerning the suggested necessity for a scholar who is fluent in Greek or Hebrew in order to interpret the Bible.

If layperson needs the aid of a scholar who is fluent in Greek or Hebrew in order to properly understand the Bible, then the original scholars who provided the English translation should suffice. In other words, if speaking Hebrew or Greek is required in order to interpret the Bible correctly, then the men who translated the Bible into English are indeed qualified as interpreters, because it was their fluent understanding of Hebrew and Greek that allowed them to convey the meaning of those original texts to English-speaking audiences.

Thus, the argument that we need someone who reads Hebrew or Greek to interpret the meaning of scripture for us is effectively undermined by the fact that the translators themselves are by definition qualified interpreters by virtue of the fact that they were using their fluent understanding of Hebrew or Greek. So, even if a correct interpretation for English speakers required the aid of someone who spoke Hebrew or Greek to enlighten us about the meaning of the original language, the translators themselves fill this role and so we already have such an interpreter and would not need any additional interpreters along these lines.

And this leads us back to the usefulness and function of Bible Lexicons.

"Semantics, Meaning, structure, and context - If any more evidence concerning this point is needed, one should remember that "pictorial" dictionaries are bound to remain on the kindergarten level, and that the mark of a good dictionary is the abundance of appropriate contexts. Thus, the contexts show the concept." - Britannica.com

"Semantics, Lexical Entries - Good dictionaries offer a variety of contexts for the items listed, but, obviously, this is not enough. For one thing, no dictionary can list all the co-occurrences. There must be devices to sum up, as it were, the information revealed by the contexts. This is the role of dictionary definitions." - Britannica.com

"Language, Lexical meaning - The other component of sentence meaning is word meaning, the individual meanings of the words in a sentence, as lexical items. The concept of word meaning is a familiar one. Dictionaries list words and in one way or another state their meanings." - Britannica.com

The function of a dictionary (also called a lexicon) is to sum up the findings produced by the application of the various 5 criteria for determining word meaning. Lexicons, while not infallible, are helpful because the interpreters have already summed up for us their findings in terms of the essential and referential meanings for each word as determined by their survey of the multiple contexts in which a word has occurred. Effectively, the work has already been done, but since neither a lexicon nor a particular translation is infallible, all that is necessary is for the layperson to double check the work for critical words in a passage in light of these 5 criteria. In this way, we will follow the practice of the apostles themselves who were able to double check the translation work of the scholars who produced the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), which the apostles often used when supporting New Testament doctrine.

In closing, there is no need for laypersons to be dazzled in awe and confusion when faced with the task of properly understanding word meaning in the Bible. Unlike the Israelites in Exodus crying out to Moses before the fiery appearance of God on the mountain, there is no need for us to cry out to scholars concerning interpretation, "You go up for us and figure this out. It is too much for us." Translation and word meaning are not as immense or frightening as that famous event, not by any means.

There are simple, sufficient tools and criteria available that allow all men to see the clear, intended meaning of scripture. By understanding those criteria and making use of the tools that are available to us, we can reaffirm the principle of sola scripture, and discard the suggested need for an authoritative interpreter to preside over the meaning of scripture for us. Likewise, we can reaffirm that the meaning of God's Word is robust and resilient so that mistranslations are easy to remedy and discard any scholarly rhetoric, which suggests that God's meaning is fragile and fleeting, that a correct interpretation of the text is incredibly difficult, unsure, and precarious, and by implication that the text of the Bible is by its very nature prone to misinterpretation. Finally, Christians can confidently proclaim that, unlike the Koran, translations of the Bible can reliably preserve God's intended meaning and can be reliable for establishing doctrine.

We leave this article with a restatement of a comment from earlier in this article. It is the goal of interpretation and translation to preserve meaning reliably. Either this concept is possible or it is not. Those who reject that translations of the Bible can be reliable for accurate understanding necessarily hold that reliable interpretation and translation are not possible. They are effectively anti-translationists and anti-interpretationists. Furthermore, those who reject that word meaning is determined by the application of the 5 scientific criteria for determining word meaning (listed above) are also effectively anti-translationists and anti-interpretationists. While offering themselves in the role of interpreters and translators, they actually work against the goal of determining word meaning and their work is in opposition to the scientific criteria used to determine meaning. In all cases they will end up undermining either that the meaning can be known at all or the scientific, empirical methods for determining meaning. They are nothing more than tricksters or con artists promising to deliver something not only that they themselves assert cannot be done but something which they themselves work against - namely, an explanation intended meaning of the text to their audience. In reality, they work to obscure the meaning of the text, to place determination of word meaning beyond reach, and to render the scientific criteria for determining word meaning null and void. Such persons should be rejected.