Saturday, February 11, 2012

Word Study

Word study is an important element in bible study.  Probing not only the meaning of words in Greek or Hebrew, but also of their tenses, cases, moods and whatever other stuff grammarians have names for, is intended to enlighten our deeper understanding of the author’s meaning.  It all seems to be based on the assumption that the writer was intentional about the detailed particulars of what he or she put to paper or parchment. 
I’ve been thinking about that as I write, and rewrite, and then publish these occasional brief essays only to discover errors in spelling, punctuation, and usage after the thing is out there before the public.  Fortunately, I have a very small public, and the one who most often comments on my mistakes has her studio just above my study.  Now and then I look at something with no serious mistakes, but recognize that I could have said it better in so many other ways.  At other times it appears that the key to the logic of an idea was in my head, but failed to make it onto paper.
One of my biggest faults is that I switch tenses in the middle of things without very good reason.  It’s not intentional.  It just comes out that way.  That’s aided and abetted by my inconsistent use of commas, semicolons, and colons, although I think I’m better than many British writers who seem to sprinkle them about like so much pixie dust.
But I digress; what about Paul, the gospel writers and all those prophets?   They didn’t have spell check, backspace keys, or cut and paste options allowing them to move things into their proper order, which may explain a lot about Romans.
Would Paul be appalled to find that we treat his every scratch of ink as if it had theologically intentional meaning?  Or would he say something such as, “Oops!  I didn’t mean to mix up my tenses like that.  Sorry.”   
I imagine a conversation between two of Paul’s secretaries (Why do we feel compelled to use words like amanuensis?):
“He’s mumbling again.  It sounded like licentiousness, what do you think?”
“That’s as good a guess as mine, how do you spell it?”
“Don’t worry about it.  He never reads the draft anyway.  He just signs off with that big, scrawly signature of his.”
I enjoy word study.  My friend Deirdre Good devoted nearly the first half of her book, Jesus, the Meek King, to the meanings of the word meek.  It made a big difference in my understanding that has been incorporated in many a sermon.  Several of Raymond Brown’s commentaries are my guides into alternative meanings I had never suspected.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament helps me understand how many Greek words were used in everyday use, literature and historically.
All of that aside, I suspect that we too often put more weight on biblical words than they can bear.  We don’t give enough credit to their authors for being just as ordinary in their writing skills as we are.  On the other hand, if you are a literalist who believes the scriptures to be not simply inspired but true and correct in every word, then none of this makes any sense.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ancient writers on any subject did not use any capitalization, space between words, punctuation of any sort, or even paragraphs! In the New Testament, the chapters were artitrarily separated in the late Middle Ages (in the Latin text first)and the Calvinists first put verse numbers and divisions (badly!) in the Geneva Bible around 1555! In my recent edition of the Latin Vulgate, the Catholic editors deliberately omitted the capital letters and all punctuation since, as they say, all those amount to interpretations
anyhow! Your dramatizing of Paul's secretaries was hilarious! Dr B