Halt! A Defense of My Central Example

A Facebook commenter with a PhD in English challenged my interpretation of halt at KJVQuiz.com. It was perhaps an incautious challenge to make to a person only too ready to write articles upon the feeblest provocation. Here goes.

Many of our common words trace back etymologically to physical actions or directions. One of the most common ways we get “new” words is by the development of old ones from literal to metaphorical. Let’s probe this feature of language, on our way to understanding one specific word in one Bible passage in one translation.

Here’s an example from contemporary English: when I say about Harvey Weinstein, “His actions were indefensible,” I’m speaking on an abstract level; I’m arguing that no argument could justify him. But strip off the affixes (in-, –de-, and -ible) and you’re left with what was once a quite concrete idea: fens, from the Latin fendere, “to strike.” Our current abstract term indefensible derives historically from a very concrete action: striking something with a fist or tool. Something that is indefensible is something not able to be “fended off,” “struck aside.” We no longer hear a literal idea of striking in that word—or in offense, defense, or fend—the literal and concrete has been fully metaphoricalized (this actually happened before English was born).

A (precocious) four-year-old can declare his little sister’s actions indefensible just fine without any idea of its roots in the concrete idea of “striking.” And so can we adults; in fact, we generally have no clue what our words used to mean—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sometimes words have a literal meaning and a metaphorical extension. Try this:

I fell into a depression.

Both fell and depression could be literal—maybe the speaker was on a hike and stumbled into a low spot on the forest floor. But both could be metaphorical extensions of the literal, however—a low spot in one’s life. A tiny bit more context generally makes it clear which sense is intended:

My girlfriend dumped me, I lost my job, my hairline receded four inches in two weeks, and I fell into a depression.

I guess you could still read that last clause literally… (Language is so cool!) But change that last “and” to a “so” and I think we’re beyond the reach of confusion for any sympathetic reader. Exhaustive certainty in interpretation is not always available, but sufficient certainty usually is. We all tend to know intuitively, based on context, when a word is meant concretely or metaphorically.

How long halt ye?

If you’ve made it this far. Clearly, you are fascinated by the fun complexities of human language. So let’s dig a layer deeper into the depression into which we’ve fallen; let’s get below the pine needles and into the dirt. Let’s explore what is probably the key example in my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. The word is halt, and the passage is 1 Kings 18:21, where Elijah stands in his great contest with the priests of Baal and issues a challenge that has spawned many a sermon. Here’s a 1611 KJV:

From Wycliffe in the 1380s up through the English Revised Version 500 years later, every major English Bible translation translated the key word here the same way: halt.

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What did all these translators mean by choosing halt?

I have gone to the trouble of asking modern readers—from my six-year-old daughter to seminary professors—what they think the word means in the context of 1 Kings 18:21 in the KJV, and almost all, quite naturally, have assumed the definition of halt as we use it today. As my little cutie said confidently, “It means ‘stop.’” It’s odd to our ears to hear the word used as an intransitive verb (the intransitive use is “archaic,” says the AHD), and even then it’s usually a military term (“The troops halted at the river’s edge”), but we can make sufficient sense of it in 1 Kings 18:21. You could imagine a contemporary speaker saying, “The Israelites halted at a spot somewhere between the worship of God and the worship of Baal.”

Looking up “halt”

The ASV of 1901 was the first major English translation to break from the halt tradition. I noticed this while reading the ASV’s successor, the ESV, which renders the word the same way, “How long will you go limping between two opinions?”

Wait, what?

I remember reading this in the ESV and thinking, “How did we get from halt to limp?”

And then I remembered something else: the KJV has Jesus healing “the halt and the blind” in the Gospels. And who are the “halt”? They’re the lame, the limping.

Duh! I made a quick check of the Hebrew in 1 Kings 18:21. Sure enough, it used the word for “limp” (פָּסַח), not the word for “stop” (חָדַל or עָמַד). The Septuagint uses χωλαίνω, which also means “limp.” What the KJV translators meant by halt was “limp.”

Limp is first attested in 1523; it was available for the translators of our earliest Modern English Bibles (though not for Wycliffe, apparently). But the more common word was halt. (They even had another option you and I don’t, limphalt—language is so cool.)

Halt is what I call in Authorized a “false friend,” because when you read the KJV, it looks like a word we know. The “stop” sense makes sufficient sense in context, so no one thinks to look up halt. Who looks up words they already know? But if you don’t look up this word, or don’t happen to check one of the modern translations that uses limp, you miss the word-picture Elijah is going for: people hobbling back and forth between Baal and the Lord.

Complicating matters

However, fellow word nerds, there’s a possible objection to my argument: halt was, like fall, a word that could be literal or metaphorical. The Oxford English Dictionary, the only lexicon that traces English’s full history, offers “limp” as the first sense of halt, but it gives another sense, too: “To walk unsteadily or hesitatingly; to waver, vacillate, oscillate; to remain in doubt.” And it cites 1 Kings 18:21!

So halt had a metaphorical extension, according to the OED. Maybe Wycliffe and the translators after him didn’t mean the concrete, literal “limp” after all?

And here’s where I have to halt—because I’m skeptical of the OED, and that’s an odd place to be in for someone who relies on it so often. Yes, the overall phrase “halt between two opinions” means to waver, vacillate, and oscillate, to remain in doubt. The whole phrase is a metaphor. And I’ve got no problem with translations that use such words. But particularly because of the underlying Hebrew (and the concurring LXX), I don’t think the single word halt meant “remain in doubt” in 1 Kings 18:21 in the minds of the KJV translators. I still think it meant “limp.”

There are some fundamental uncertainties going on here, however: those translators didn’t “choose” halt; they “approved” it. They left it in the text they were revising—which was itself a revision of a revision of a revision. So do you look at English usage in the 14th, 15th, or 16th centuries to determine what halt meant? That’s tough. Literal ideas like “limp” develop metaphorical extensions like “vacillate, remain in doubt.” But is that really what’s going on in 1 Kings 18:21? When would most readers have heard the metaphorical rather than the literal idea? I don’t know. Exhaustive certainty is not available in all linguistic questions.

The clincher

But I’ve got a clincher, a secret weapon that will show that I’m right even if I’m wrong. The OED follows up the sense of halt that I’ve just doubted for 1 Kings 18:21, the metaphorical sense, with this comment:

Especially in the scriptural phrase ‘to halt between two opinions’; now often associated with halt v.2.

Halt v.2 is the “stop” sense. What the OED has been saying since 1901 is that, whether or not halt means the literal “limp” or the metaphorical “waver,” English speakers have been misunderstanding it. They have often erroneously associated it with “stop.” When modern readers see halt they misunderstand it without realizing it. Halt is—through no fault of the KJV translators or of modern readers—a “false friend.” The OED says so.

I checked the NOW Corpus, and I looked at many dozens of uses of halt—I couldn’t find a single one in which “halt” meant “limp.” I couldn’t find one in which it meant “vacillate,” either. In every instance it meant “stop” or “pause.” (I also couldn’t find it used intransitively.) I saw, “In an effort to halt the matter, the Doves Group filed papers in the Durban High Court.” I saw, “The resolution called on Israel to halt settlement activity.”

It is not a sign that you or I are intellectually deficient if we see in the KJV a common word we all know and assume it means what we all know it means, a meaning which makes perfect sense in the context of whatever KJV passage we’re reading.

It is not a sign that the KJV translators made a mistake when they failed to predict the future of the English language. Who could have predicted that the “gay nineties” would mean something very different in the “gay 90s”?


This post is way nerdier and more detailed than my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I’m playing to my nerdy audience here (and, honestly, answering a challenge from a skeptic on Facebook!).

But even if you don’t read the book, I invite you to get the point: all of this nerdery should not be expected of anyone but nerds. And God didn’t give his words to nerds; he gave them to all Christians. There are two really simple solutions to the misunderstanding now created (it wasn’t confusing in 1611) by halt in 1 Kings 18:21. And every major modern English translation uses one of them. You can use the concrete “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” like the ASV and ESV; or you can translate the overall meaning of the phrase and say “How long are you going to be paralyzed by indecision?” like the NET Bible.

These two solutions actually boil down to one, and it’s the thesis of my book: English Bible translations ought to be made into the current English vernacular.

The Preserved Word of God for English-Speaking Peoples

“Preserved” is the key word in KJV-Onlyism these days. Just about every KJV-Only doctrinal statement I see uses that word “preserved.” But I’ve been thinking for a long time along with famous systematic theologian Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what they think it means.

A new friend from KJV-Only circles contacted me on Facebook, asking me how I would assess the bibliology statement from a KJV-Only mission board. It turns out that the language is used elsewhere, and my best guess is that the original source is Heartland Baptist Bible College. So I’m going to use their text. I will bold the statements that concern me in this post, the ones about preservation.

Here’s Heartland:

We believe the Holy Bible was written by men supernaturally inspired: that it has truth for its matter without any admixture of error; that it is and shall remain to the end of the age, the only complete and final revelation of the will of God to man; and that it is the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.

We believe the Authorized (King James) Version, Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples by way of God’s divine providence and work of preservation; and that the Authorized Version translators were not “inspired,” but were merely God’s instruments used to preserve His words for English-speaking peoples.

By Holy Bible we mean that collection of sixty-six books, from Genesis to Revelation, which, as originally written and providentially preserved, does not only contain and convey the Word of God, but is the very Word of God.

By inspiration we mean that the books of the Bible were written by holy men of God as they were moved by the Holy Ghost in such a definite way that their writings were supernaturally and verbally inspired and free from error, as no other writings have ever been or ever will be inspired.

By providentially preserved we mean that God through the ages has, in His divine providence, preserved the very words that He inspired; that the Hebrew Old Testament text, as found in the Traditional Masoretic Text, and the Greek New Testament text, as found in the Textus Receptus, are indeed the products of God’s providential preservation and are altogether the complete, preserved, inerrant Word of God.

We therefore believe and require that the Authorized Version (King James Version) be the only English version used and or endorsed by the staff, faculty, and student body of this college.

There is much here that I joyfully affirm, of course: inspiration, inerrancy, the 66-book canon, the final authority of the Bible. I don’t want to fail to stress my wholehearted agreement with these historically orthodox beliefs. And I believe the people confessing them are truly my brothers.

But I find the language of “preservation” applied (repeatedly and insistently) to a translation to be confusing and misleading at best. We must guard against all language in doctrinal statements—where precise language is the whole point—which suggests that any one translation is perfect, or that it is the best available, or that all other translations should be avoided and viewed as untrustworthy. The Bible simply does not teach these things, even by “good and necessary consequence.” If the Bible is our “supreme standard,” and it is, we must refuse to go beyond its claims in doctrinal statements. When we do, we are building our doctrine on the same foundation on which Wile E. Coyote often found himself.

I’m going to bracket in this post the question of whether the Bible teaches that God will preserve his words in an unbroken line of perfect manuscript copies. I certainly have an opinion on this important question, but it actually isn’t relevant here. No matter what answer a KJV-Only brother might give to that question, I would like to urge him to stop using “preservation” language of any translations; this word properly belongs only in a discussion of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words God inspired.

“To Preserve, v.”

I looked up “preserve” in the three major contemporary dictionaries I always use. Here are the relevant senses, or so it seems to me:

New Oxford American:

maintain (something) in its original or existing state: all records of the past were zealously preserved


1 to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction: protect
2 to keep alive, intact, or free from decay

American Heritage:

To keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged: fossils preserved in sediments; a film preserved in the archives.

I have earnestly tried, with some encouragement from two intelligent friends (one KJV-Only and one not), to read “preserved” in KJV-Only doctrinal statements to mean something different than “maintained in its original, unaltered, unchanged, intact state.” Maybe by calling a translation “preserved” they’re only saying that an accurate translation of God’s preserved words are themselves God’s words. I can affirm that, but I don’t think that’s what preserved means in standard English. English can bend pretty far under appropriate circumstances, but I’m just not seeing it. No, to “preserve” is to “keep intact.”

To call a translation a tool for “preservation” of the source text is therefore a serious confusion of categories. It’s like saying that an ornamental bush trimmed to look like a mushroom really is a mushroom. It’s like saying that a bus is a plane because, clearly, they are both oblong vehicles which can move many people at once.

I am troubled when Heartland calls the KJV “the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples” (the language I see more commonly [here’s an example] is that the KJV is “the preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples”). Never mind for the moment that the English speaking peoples speak a different English than they did 400 years ago (that’s the problem my new book focuses on); I want to know: what is this “preservation” language supposed to mean when applied to a translation? If a translation “preserves” God’s words, then that translation would seem to be keeping them in perfect or unaltered condition.

What “Preserve” Appears to Mean

And that, friends, is either nonsensical or a doctrinal innovation I can’t accept. Let me state the obvious: every word in the KJV is completely different from every word in the Hebrew and Greek. Ἀ-γ-ά-π-η is 100% different from l-o-v-e. The KJV in that sense “alters” every last jot and tittle of the originals by putting them in an entirely different language with an entirely different script (I borrow this point from Bible translator and linguist Mark Strauss). Sure, the originals and the KJV mean the same things, and I’m glad to affirm that they do. But it’s still nonsensical to say that the KJV (or any translation) “preserves” the originals—if “preserve” means “keep intact.”

But I don’t like to attribute nonsense to people; I want to believe that Heartland is affirming something definite. So when this doctrinal statement confesses that a particular Bible translation revision made by a few dozen Anglicans between 1604–1611 was the object of “God’s divine providence and work of preservation” to the exclusion of all others (they’re not even allowed to “use” other translations, much less “endorse” them), they seem to me to be saying that the KJV can serve as a standard fully equal to the originals. By words like “intact” they seem to me to be saying that the KJV is perfect. I spoke at length on the phone with a Heartland professor in the last year (a gifted and dedicated guy), and when I asked him whether he would update any of the language of the KJV if he could, he said, “Well, you can’t alter the Word of God.”

This—viewing the KJV as perfect and inviolable—is a significant deviation from orthodox bibliology. Yes, a translation is God’s word, and this is important to affirm; but a translation is not God’s word in the same, ultimate sense as those originals. If we’re unsure what a passage means, the ultimate appeal is to the inspired Greek and Hebrew. Translations don’t trump the originals. Ever. And they don’t fully equal them. Nowhere does the Bible itself tell us to expect perfect Bible translations. “All Scripture is God-breathed,” yes—and the human subjects involved were “holy men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21; Bibliology 101). The KJV—and Reina Valera and Louis Segond—translators are not properly considered among the group of men moved by the Spirit. The Bible never tells us to expect this.

I’m not even sure what a perfect translation looks like: what is a “perfect” translation of a difficult word like στοιχεῖον (stoicheion) in Col 2:20? What’s a perfect translation of the disputed phrase in Rom 1:5, ὑπακοὴν πίστεως (hupakoen pisteos), often translated “obedience of faith”? To have a perfect translation means, in these and many other cases, making perfect interpretations of those phrases—do we really think all those Anglicans managed it? They certainly didn’t think so.

And what about the tiny judgment calls abounding in Bible translation—ones for which the KJV translators themselves felt compelled to add notes mentioning alternative renderings? Is it “trusted” or “hoped” in Eph 1:12? The KJV translators weren’t certain:

What about the even tinier judgment calls—like the one I came across while reading a new translation of the NT during my lunch break:

“The foxes have lairs…” The KJV has, of course, “The foxes have holes…” Which is it? Is it the more general holes or the more specific lairs? The referent is clearly the same in each case, and the lexicons give both glosses. Which translation is “perfect” and “intact”?

And what about the times when a MT/TR-based translation into another language, like the Spanish Reina-Valera of 1909, makes a different interpretation of a text than does the KJV? Who’s got God’s words, the English speakers or the Spanish ones? To pick a random example, the last word in Numbers 23:21 is translated them by the KJV and él (“him”) by the Reina Valera of 1909. Presumably this is a matter of interpretation on someone’s part. Who got it right? Who has God’s word there and who doesn’t?

KJV-Onlyism is a search for a perfect, physically accessible doctrinal standard: the KJV. I suppose I wouldn’t mind having a perfect translation, but that isn’t what God gave us, or promised to give us.

The Preserved Vulgate

One of the signal errors of the Roman Catholic Church was that for many centuries it treated their preferred Latin translation as possessing an authority which even they now recognize it did not. I say they recognize this because it is my understanding that Catholic translations are now made from the Greek and Hebrew originals. Even today there are Catholics who wish to go back to the days of the Latin rite. But some of the Vulgate’s translations, like poenitentiam agite, led to major problems over centuries. (Footnote: interestingly, the TR now preferred by the KJV-Only was originally accompanied with a new translation into Latin by Erasmus.)

No one, I guarantee you, stood up one day in any Catholic church and said, “Starting next Sunday, we’re going to read the Bible and conduct our services using a language no one can understand.” So how in the world did it happen? Slowly. Latin became Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and French; and the last one on that list just happened to pour numerous words (from multiple French dialects in different parts of France, it turns out) into the language of a nearby island country through successive invasions, and we got modern English. But the Latin Vulgate was “preserved.” It remained basically unchanged, kept intact. And eventually it became unintelligible to the common people.

One of the reasons we can’t have a perfect translation is that you can’t say a language is, once and for all. A language is always changing, always becoming something new and slightly different, until the changes add up and misunderstandings begin to occur more and more often. The “English-speaking peoples” of today don’t all speak precisely the same English—witness Kenyan, UK, Aussie, South African, Guyanese, Singaporean and other Englishes. And the “English-speaking peoples” of today most certainly don’t speak the English of the Elizabethans. One of the reasons translations can’t be perfect bullseyes is that languages are moving targets.

Charitable Hermeneutics

It just so happens that a friend of mine knows the now-deceased (?) gentleman who says he came up with the “preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples” language. I have not been able to track down more information, but my friend says this guy said he didn’t mean for that language to become what it has become.

So I’m not sure what the language originally meant, but I believe I know what it’s being used to mean now. The most charitable interpretation I can put on the common KJVO language—“The KJV is God’s preserved Word for English-speaking peoples”—goes something like this: they want to accord exclusive status to the KJV, but they recognize they can’t call it “inspired” (to be clear, I applaud this recognition). So instead they call it “preserved” (or “intact”)—which is somehow less than “inspired” but still makes the KJV superior to all other English Bible translations; yea, even perfect.

I have looked at hundreds of KJV-Only doctrinal statements, and not one of them explains whether other English translations are also “God’s preserved word”; this tends to leave the impression that they are not. More commonly (maybe 25% of the time?) these statements reject all other English translations, as Heartland does, and they insist that only the KJV will be “used” in their church or school or mission board. Recently I’ve even seen a few of them calling the KJV itself the “ultimate authority” for faith and practice.

They don’t actually tend to call the KJV “perfect” outright, but that’s the only thing I can get out of all the “preservation” language when applied to a translation.

Brass Vernacular Tacks

Some KJV-Only leaders, the ones working on developing the theological rationale for the movement, have come up with some impressive argumentation for their viewpoint. It is not irrational, I think, to conclude from “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” that we need every one of God’s words. It’s not a huge step from there to assume that, well, we must have all these words somewhere. It’s not an impossible step from there to say that a good God would give us all the words, and just those words, in our language.

I do think there are significant flaws in this reasoning, and I’ve discussed some of them in the past. But I’m supposed to be bracketing this question… So let me get to brass tacks, two foundational reasons why I’m skeptical of TR-Only views:

  1. The Bible never tells us to expect perfect translations. The Septuagint used by Jesus and the apostles was not perfect, just good. (Don’t believe me? Listen to the KJV translators in their own preface: “The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it.”) I don’t want language in my doctrinal statement to claim more than the Bible claims.
  2. And after spending multiple years on the issue of vernacular Bible translation and the KJV, I’m utterly convinced of this: the end point (I’d actually say the beginning point) of TR-Only reasoning is that we have have to accord top or exclusive status the KJV. And that means we have to read and memorize and teach from a translation people can’t fully understand because we no longer speak the English it uses. And that just can’t be right. What good is it to have all the right words if people can’t understand them? Paul speaks directly to this issue in 1 Cor 14. And the KJV translators do, too, in their excellent preface:

Without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”

This is why I’m always saying to the TR-Only: give us a translation of the Bible into our English using whatever texts you prefer.

Crossing Sea and Land

In the two weeks since my book’s release I’ve started to get letters from people who are in the process of leaving KJV-Onlyism. KJV-Onlyism has little to fear from me: I get the impression that these people were already skeptical and bought my book immediately upon release because they knew it would help them know how and why to leave KJV-Only bibliology behind. Also, I want to say that I cautioned all of them to be respectful and gracious toward—and grateful for—their heritage. I think it’s ugly to feel arrogant over people you agreed with yesterday, a denial of 1 Cor 4:7.

I also think it’s ugly to crow about the proselytes one has made within Christianity; that is, from one doctrinal view to another, even if one is aberrant. I don’t feel like saying to the KJVOs, “See my converts? Ha, take that!”; I just feel sad. I feel sad that we can’t be unified because of the KJVOs’ doctrinal innovation. I feel sad for the missionary, the assistant pastor, and the senior pastor who’ve contacted me recently and told me of their return to bibliological orthodoxy—because I know they’re going to lose friendships, and I don’t want them to be cast adrift relationally. I feel sad for the kids who are taught verses they can’t understand when the NIV and ESV are a click away. The idea that Christians would forbid not just the endorsement but the “use” (!) of Bible translations other than a 400-year-old one people struggle to read—I’m just at a loss. This is divisive extremism of the saddest and most unnecessary kind: how could regenerated people engage in it? This whole topic fills me with dread.

But the Bible fills me with hope: regenerated people have God’s Spirit; they have gifts and brains and love and Christ’s righteousness. Loving, rational, Bible-based appeals can make a difference. I’m seeing that difference, even if the results are currently small. So here’s my double appeal to the KJV-Only: 1) take advantage of the riches of modern English vernacular Bible translation: “all are yours” (1 Cor 3). And 2) don’t go beyond the Bible to “preserve” the Bible.

Authorized on Lexicon Valley

Check out my interview with John McWhorter on his Lexicon Valley podcast! McWhorter actually read the book, and I concur with him when he says in the piece, “I get it, Mark.” He does, he clearly does. I’m praying that a lot of Christians join him in getting it.

And for you faithful blog readers, here’s a small bonus part of the interview that got cut from the final product:

Image of John McWhorter from CNN.com.

Pre-order Authorized now at Amazon or Lexham/Logos; the price may change after the book releases in January.

Practical Questions about Original Language Study in Sermon Prep

A questions from someone who watched my Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies lecture on Original Languages (click here and here for related blog posts):

Most pastors I know have only about 6 hours max, maybe 8, to prepare a message and most need to prepare 3 messages a week. We want to spend more time in the original text, but if they are like me, I spend most of my time reading and re-reading the text in the ESV & HCSB, making sure I understand the context and authorial intent, analyzing the grammar to make sure I understand the main ideas and how the other parts relate to it (diagramming & clause displays), and then writing and refining my sermon notes. I also need to think about helpful illustrations & specific applications. So I never feel like I have spent enough time in the original text or even consulting commentaries. So do you have any practical advice for how much time we should set aside to spend in the original text out of the 6-8 hours we have per message, and how to use the, let’s say, 20-30 minutes we have to look at the original text? Also, any generality you can make about how much time you would spend consulting commentaries or how many? Lastly, if your Hebrew is pretty rusty, what resource would you use to try to get something out of the original text if you are preaching from an OT passage?

My answer:

A few caveats first: I’m not a regular preaching pastor. I teach Sunday School all year round, pretty much, but my sermon prep (I preach maybe five times a year) tends to get squeezed in between projects. I also tend to use exegetical work I’ve done recently for Logos articles. So though I get two or three hours of “sermon prep” per sermon, I’m spending most of that on rhetorical crafting and manuscripting in English. But I’m relying on other hours of work I’ve already done in exegesis, including time in Greek and Hebrew. This makes it hard for me to generalize. I also don’t do exegesis in such discrete steps that I could say: “Spend one hour in Greek.” I read the text in multiple English translations, and I go chase down in Greek or Hebrew interesting questions that occur to me. If I’m struggling with the structure of a passage, I use Logos’ sentence-flow diagrams. If I’ve got extra time, I do it in Greek rather than in English (I have not done this in Hebrew; the genres don’t usually lend themselves to this type of analysis). If I’m ever about to make a preaching point out of some finer point of grammar, I make sure to check the original languages. Again I’d say that use of Greek/Hebrew is not a step so much as a significant ingredient in the entire atmosphere of my sermon prep. Sometimes, however, I must admit that my time in Greek/Hebrew is limited to a last-minute realization that I’d better read the whole of my sermon text before I go preach it, lest I say something stupid! I totally get the time pressure question.

And I, too, feel like I’ve never spent enough time on commentaries, in particular. I’ve gotten to the point that I mainly tend to check commentaries either 1) when I know I need access to the history of interpretation, 2) when I’m guessing they’ve tracked down a niggling point of grammar or usage that puzzles me, or 3) when I’m looking for rhetorical help in communicating something I’ve already noticed in the text (for this homiletical commentaries are useful, but even technical ones will usually offer some help). The key is that I bring questions to commentaries; I don’t just read them. Most frequently the question I come to commentaries for is this: how have other people used this text throughout time? Often that means I get a quick vote from multiple commentaries on a particular exegetical or theological question (like “Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter?”). I think I’m at the stage of my exegetical skill that if something in the text really puzzles me, it’s going to divide the commentators. Checking commentaries is not a discrete step for me anymore than using Greek/Hebrew is—except that I do try to push commentaries toward the end of my exegetical process, after I’ve had a chance to generate questions. I typically use three to five commentaries at least a little (usually one of them gets more attention than the others), and on the occasions when I need to run an interpreters’ referendum, I use Logos to check a bunch—as many as 60, but usually more like 10–15. That’s what I did with Jephthah. I’m not digging into reasons, I’m just getting votes.

I’ve been influenced by the hermeneutical spiral model, in which knowledge is gained by attendance to generals and particulars in an ever-tightening spiral. In my limited sermon prep time, I’m grabbing as many generals and particulars as I can get, from as many sources as I can get them from, until the last second! I will never be able to track down all the details relevant to the interpretation of my sermon’s given Scripture passage; I have to trust God’s providence in the time he has allotted me. I guess I’d say that attention to theory and methodology—hermeneutics, linguistics, systematics, biblical theology—has really paid dividends, so that I can use the time I have more efficiently.

As for Hebrew… I’d point someone to the methodological reading. Get into linguistics enough so that you can do your own survey of the usage of a given Hebrew word using Bible software. Get into genre analyses like Robert Alter on The Art of Biblical Poetry so that you’re not reinventing the wheel on parallelism every time you preach a Psalm. I have recently been thinking that I need some refreshment of my Hebrew, and I’m strongly considering adopting the read-a-little-bit-every-day approach I’ve heard recommended. William Barrick of The Master’s Seminary has also put out a free online course.

Hope this helps.

Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.