Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.

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