Friday, August 22, 2014

Beware Thayer's in Blue Letter Bible!

I have long introduced students to Blue Letter Bible because 1) it's free and 2) it gives you a quick way to see all the instances where a Greek or Hebrew word is used in the respective testament. I also take time usually to point out that there is very little difference between the Greek behind the KJV and the Greek behind all the other versions.

However, I also warn them not to pay attention to the dictionary stuff in BLB, the "Outline of Biblical Usage" and Thayer's. This material goes back to an era of RAMPANT word fallacies, fallacies that are proclaimed from pulpit and televised sermon Sunday after Sunday. This is the Kittel generation.

Kittel's 10 volume Theological Dictionary is useful for background information on words, but it is the embodiment of fallacious and sophomoric semantics. These German scholars assumed that because the German language compounds etymology - Hand-tuch, Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung, Heilsgeschichte - that Greek and all languages thought this way.

But, of course, it is DEFINITIVELY and obviously true that not all languages or language speakers even consider the etymology or history of a word when they use it. Only the most poetic and clever of us try to "stand under" something when "under-standing" something. Most of us just use the word. It is even a wild goose chase to picture a wild goose when using this dead metaphor. Words take their meaning from their current context, not from their history.

So to sin is not to miss the mark. The church is not the collection of those who are called out--at least not semantically. By all means, continue to use illustrations like these. Just know that it's a fun blast from the past, not the real meaning. The word ekklesia didn't mean anything of the sort at the time of the NT. Agape is not a special kind of love that only Christians have. I hate to burst everyone's bubble. It may be true that Christians need to have a higher love than the default human, but this truth doesn't come from a magical word.  And abba isn't Daddy.

Preach the same truths you were, continue use these myths as illustrations. Just know that the truth you are preaching is true because it's true, not because the words actually mean those things.

I came across an example of the overload fallacy this week, based on Thayer's in BLB for Philippians 4:10 - "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that once again now you revived in your thinking about me."  Thayer's says this about the word anathallo, the word I've translated as "revive" here: "to shoot up, sprout again, grow green again, flourish again." Someone was explaining this word as pointing toward a flower that comes back to life.

There are two potential fallacies I see in this line of thought. First, Thayer's may be fine to say this word means to "shoot up." But if you are good at words, you will know that just because anathallo historically comes from ana and thallo doesn't in any way guarantee that the meaning of the compound will be the meaning of these two parts put together. That's called the etymological fallacy. All of Thayer's definitions look like etymological put-togethers. again-sprout, again-flourish. "Revive" is a fine translation.

The flower illustration is exactly that, an illustration. Someone might say, "This is a word you could use if you wanted to talk about a garden coming back to life." What you can't do is take the meaning a word has in one sentence in one context (gardening) and then assume the word will take that flower power to a completely different sentence in another context.

The meaning comes from a word in context, not from the word by itself.

For more on word fallacies, see other party poopers like James Barr and D. A. Carson.


Randy Dewing said...

Thanks for this. I needed this moderated and optimistic version. This is the first time I've been able to see past the Schenck rant against etymological thinking and get some insight into how I might actually succeed in translating anachronistic works divorced from etymological clues. You still have some work to do to convince me that a word can have meaning only in its usage and still remain useful-- but this is a step in the right direction. :)

Bob MacDonald said...

I have often considered how it is that the BLB, quite a useful piece of software, could have been built first over such a limited dictionary and secondly with such a collection of fundamentalist thought behind it. But I have never worried about the etymological fallacy. No meaning comes from words alone. AKMA's thoughts from his disseminary reveal the difficulty. But it is false to say that no word has a meaningful history with respect to usage and its etymology. Here you go too far. Muscle is a little mouse - and of course I am comprised of little mice under my skin. Here the fallacy applies but not from etymology rather from dead metaphor.

Your example of agape has nothing to do with etymology. It has to do with exclusive pride in the Christian. Understand is an excellent example of just how false is our notion of understanding. When we say we get it, we have taken power over it not submitted to that truth that is in the mechanism we now understand. We are over rather than under standing. In fact we may not be able to stand at all in the presence. It is lively sometimes to have explanation, but it also traps the spirit into a false security.

I have my beefs with all dictionaries purporting to explain word glosses. We have this very complex pattern recognition process we call language - but we are in a power battle rather than a meaning battle.

O well, I am just not quite hitting the target as usual. Ah such a cool definition that missing the mark. Very helpful in fact. Long live the metaphor.

Bob MacDonald said...

The next article in my reader was all about new words from the OUP blog. Some co-incidence.

Who will determine the meaning of anti-vaxxer or selfie in the future dictionary. Derived from vaccine, derived from self. Not fallacious.

Randy Dewing said...

Of course I'm an anti-vaxxer. No one like cows!

Randy Dewing said...

Of course, language is not an alphabet or a vocabulary or a syntax; but the way in which we, somehow, express meaning through those components. It isn't the Lego blocks that go back into the box in a jumble, but the ephemeral form of the house we built with them--and it remains, to me, a great mystery.

But as I cannot translate mystically, surely it is of some use to study the tools of language to understand how they might be used. We can't just throw up our hands and say "who knows what he meant by that?" It seems to me we can take a stab at examining the blocks he used and how others have used them and might repurpose them in the future.

That, at least, is more fun to this poor scholar.

Ken Schenck said...

Bob, Randy has also pushed back a little on Facebook, and let me make three clarifications:

1. Yes, my examples were not all etymology but also some overload fallacy and probably with Abba-Daddy even broadened to the anachronistic fallacy.

2. If part of a word's use today involves attention to the history of the word, then etymology is significant to meaning, not because etymology is intrinsic to meaning but because it is relevant to current use.

3. Usage assumes what I might call the proximate history of a word. The etymological fallacy simply says that the past history, especially the distant past history of a word, is not necessarily indicative of how the word is used today.

Mike Aubrey said...

Are you saying the 'overload' fallacy is explicitly in Thayer's original entry?

I hope not. Because it isn't. It's a perfectly acceptable lexical entry.

When Thayer says, "to shoot up, sprout again, grow green again, flourish again," that has absolutely nothing to do with Phil 4:10. Those glosses clearly refer to the range of usage of the word across a variety of texts.

Ken Schenck said...

Mike, I was primarily speaking of the way the student used the definition as a flower that comes back to life. I haven't studied this word to draw a conclusion on the extent to which the basic Thayer definition here might skirt the edge.

prophetwitness said...

Dnt over think it fellas!