How to find the meaning of words (was: A question about tombs)

From: Perry L. Stepp (
Date: Tue Apr 06 1999 - 07:57:14 EDT


PLStepp wrote:
>>>The only dependable way to find a word's meaning is to study its *usage*,
>>>working in concentric circles from the writer in question to the writers
>>>his/her immediate milieu (in this case, the New Testament) to other
>>>Christian and Jewish religious writers to the writers of Koine literature
>>>general. Etymology and word origins are secondary resources for finding
>>>word's meaning, and can often be misleading.

Jim Denley ( responded:
>>I liked your comment regarding "how" we read the scripture from the author
>>outward. As you are, I, too, am concerned about the emphasis some place
>>on word origins (on B-Greek and from pulpits). Words develop very quickly
>>in a culture, and some authors can use words in unique ways.

>>I wanted to note, however, that I'm less confident about reading in
>>"concentric circles" from the author outward. I think that would make
sense, >>for example, in chosing to find a 2rd century AD text more reliable
than a 9th >>century BC text.

Sensing that his post had been misunderstood, PLStepp replied:
>My point is that, in trying to determine the meaning of, say, FRONHTE in
>Paul's letters, one should NOT start with etymology. One should also not
>start with Byzantine Philosophers, or Clement of Alexandria, or Augustine.
>One should work in concentric circles as follows:

>1. Start with Paul, how does HE use the word?
>2. Progress to writers of Paul's milieu--how did the Christian and Jewish
>religious writers of Paul's day use the word?
>3. Work backward and outward: how did the documents Paul was influenced
>by (either direct influence from Hellenistic Jewish Apocrypha, the LXX, or
>documents which certainly influenced the milieu in which Paul's intellect
>formed, such as Plato and Aristotle, historians, the other writers in
>Malherbe's collections) use the word?

>If you want to know what Paul meant by a certain word, it is anachronistic
>to start with Homer and Plato. It's also anachronistic to start with
>Clement of Alexandria or Eusebius, or Suidas. (Although both Clement and
>Eusebius will serve as important and promising sources of quotations from
>otherwise unknown earlier documents).


By "reading in concentric circles," I mean moving from writers of a
particular social location (say, 1st century Christian authors) and moving
OUTWARD to writers of progressively more remote locations (LXX, Plato,
etc.), always being aware of the danger of anachronism (e.g., projecting
Augustine or Luther back on Paul.)

To restate (pardon the redundancy): the only reliable way to determine the
meaning of a word in a particular context is to work in concentric circles,
1. starting with that occurence in its context,
2. moving to occurences of that word elsewhere in that author's corpus,
3. moving to other authors/documents from the same general milieu,
4. moving to earlier authors/documents that seem to have influenced the
author's milieu.
And in practice, one will constantly move back-and-forth between the

There was a recent exchange--I can't remember if it was on this list or on
C-P--regarding the meaning of PISTIS/PISTEUW in Paul. The suggestion was
made--and it's not a new suggestion, K. Stendahl is its most famous
supporter--that we tend to read Paul through the aforementioned Luther and
Augustine, through "the introspective conscience of the West." If we read
Paul and understood his terminology--"faith," "righteousness,"
"reconciliation," et. al.--in the manner I suggest above, we would likely
have a somewhat different (and more historically accurate, for those of us
to whom it matters) picture of his theology.


Pastor, DeSoto Christian Church, DeSoto TX
DCC's webpage:
Ph.D. Candidate in Religion, Baylor University
#1 Cowboy Fan

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in
ignorance when the need for illusion is great.
        --Saul Bellow


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