Once you have identified a specific term that you want to study, what do you do? There’s a short answer and a longer one. The longer one will always feed your soul more, so go there when you can.
Short answer – Look it up in a dictionary. Don’t use a contemporary English dictionary. If you look up “glory” in Oxford or Collins you won’t quite get the nuance of “glory” in John’s Gospel!
Some Bible related dictionaries will give various aspects of meaning, along with various terms used in a translation. Warning – do not dump all the possible aspects of meaning into the specific instance you are studying. The word “chip” does not mean everything it could mean whenever it is used, it means something specific.
Other dictionaries will give much more information (some even have pictures!) The point is, whatever you see in a dictionary is new information to bring back to the text. But don’t stop thinking. Think about how the word is being used in light of that potentially helpful (or potentially distracting) information.
Long answer – Do the work the dictionary folks should have done. This means chasing the term through a set of uses to see how it is used.
1. Determine the underlying term in your focus verse. Let’s take “glory” as a working example. A concordance (or software) will help you discover that the underlying term is probably “doxa” or 1391 (in Strong’s numbers).
2. Find every use of that term in the surrounding context. Be careful you don’t limit yourself to the English term because there may be some uses of “doxa” that aren’t translated as “glory,” or some uses of “glory” that don’t translate “doxa.” The first choice of context parameters would be the book in which you are studying. So let’s say you look at John’s Gospel. Are there enough uses of “doxa” to give you a good sense of its use by John? Yes indeed. If there weren’t, then you’d want to go to John’s other four books before spilling over into other writers. You might find John’s use of “glory” is slightly different than other writers.
3. Look at each use in its context and see what observations you can make. Try not to import your preconceived notions of “bright shiny-ness” or “weightiness” or whatever. You might find John uses the term in a slightly nuanced way!
4. Collect your observations of how the writer uses it, and write something of a broad definition. This is like the options in a dictionary. It gives a sense of the range of meaning. Feel free to check with a dictionary or two at this point, but remember that they may not have better content than your work has produced.
5. Bring that understanding to the specific verse and see how he is using it here. Don’t dump all the possibilities into the term’s use here, but recognize the specific aspect in light of the full range in his writings.
This longer approach takes time, but it is so enriching. Try it with “glory” in John’s gospel and see what you find! I love Bible software and thank God for the time it saves. But not all time saved is good stewardship. Be sure to soak in God’s Word and let this kind of chase mark your life and ministry.
One thought on “Word Studies 3 – The Process”
Great advice, Peter. Packing all possible meanings into a given occurrence of a word is a pervasive and heinous error. In particular, many practitioners of the “health and wealth” gospel do it, packing “save” and “heal” into every use of “sozo” to claim that everyone who is saved is promised healing. Even in English this is patently wrong: If I say that some doctors saved me after a car crash, you don’t assume that my soul is now secure! As my Greek teacher said (often!) “context, context, context”.