Seductive Etymologies

by Sep 17, 2010Exegesis, NTScholarship5 comments

Etymological studies have long been an alluring seductress to students of the Bible.


Etymological studies, through no fault of their own, have become a menace to sound interpretation. Those who sometimes maintain only the slightest grasp of the Bible’s original languages repeat their clichéd results from pulpits. These expositors desire to offer theological insight, but more often than not the result is exploitation.

John H. Walton, “Etymology,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 200.

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  1. DCrooks

    Can you give us a good example?

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      Excellent question. I’ll give a common example, one that Walton gives.

      Ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) is the Greek word translated (most often) church in the NT. Etymologically, it comes from ek and kaleo, “out of” and “call,” so many people have said that ekklesia means “called out.” That is, the church is a group of people “called out of” the surrounding culture. This may be true, but it is not encoded in the meaning of the word.

      If it’s true, you might ask, why is it dangerous? Why fuss over something like this and call it “seductive”?

      Among other things, I fuss because this method of interpretation takes the Bible out of the hands of the people. They can’t do this kind of etymologizing, because they don’t know any Greek or Hebrew. Listening to pastors who do this sort of thing regularly, they get the idea that there are hidden meanings everywhere in Scripture that only preachers and people with extra time to read thick theological books can ferret out.

  2. DCrooks

    That makes good sense to me. And now that you mention it, I’m sure I’ve responded internally to preaching of that sort in self-conscious, “embarrassed that I’m not smart enough to understand,” ways. Though, I guess there must be exceptions based on the demographics of a congregation.

  3. Don Johnson

    Now don’t go messing with my etymologies!

    I want to quibble with your example and your reason for objecting to overly depending on etymologies. With ekklesia, in fact, the etymological picture does inform us about the meaning of the word. Here is Thayer:

    “properly, a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly; so used…”

    (I know Thayer is old and uncool, I just happen to have it open in BW just now.)

    So to continue my quibble, I think you could have chosen a better example since the idea of an assembly has to do with it being a gathering of a group from somewhere for a specific purpose.

    BTW, would you object to a preacher explaining that the word ‘church’ is not really a translation but a technical term and that the word really means ‘assembly’?

    I agree in principle that we don’t want to communicate that the Bible is a secret code book and only those with the decoder rings get to know what is really going on. But the reason over dependence on etymologies is unwise is because etymological meaning may have no relation at all to usage. It once may have had this word picture in Attic Gk or some such, but over time usage developed an entirely different meaning by the time Koine Gk came along.

    See, you got me going by dissing one of my favorite etymologies!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. Mark L Ward Jr

    You ask a good question about the word “church” not really being a translation but a technical term. I’ll have to think about that one… (I know thinking about something in advance of answering is a violation of blogosphere etiquette, but so be it!)

    What you want to do with the etymology of ekklesia, thgouh, is ask “What components of meaning does this word carry with it every time it appears (in this sense—because it does appear to have a separate, non-Christian sense in Acts 19)?” People who study such things seem to be in agreement that “called out ones” is not one of those packets. “(Christian) assembly” does just fine. That doesn’t mean the church isn’t called out of the world; you just don’t need to get that idea from the word history. We’ve been called by Jesus Christ (Rom 1:6, 1 Cor 1:9, etc.); we’ve been called out of the world (2 Cor 6:17). I don’t need to say that I got my ideas out of a Greek etymology inaccessible to my people.

    Another thought: every once in a while churches do have linguists who raise an eyebrow in genuine confusion when they listen to their pastor preach. Or there are layman who have read Exegetical Fallacies.

    I do believe that appealing to the etymology of ekklesia is preaching the right truth from the wrong text. It’s just that in this case the text is one word.

    But, in another flagrant violation of blogosphere etiquette, I end with this: I could be wrong.