Linguistics and the Bible

Linguistics and the Bible:
A Layperson’s Guide to Interpretation

The Bible has deep importance for all Christians in their spiritual lives. Yet their awareness of the text is limited and mediated by translation and interpretation. As we examine any text, we must recognize certain key linguistic features. For every form of writing is rooted in speech, and thus, is an approximation of the utterances that come forth from the mouth. Writing mimics speech and not the other way around. In realizing this phenomenon, one can quickly conclude that biblical scholars should incorporate some linguistic ideals or theories into their work. It seems in practice, however, that many Christian laypeople lack key knowledge of concepts from the study of linguistics.

In this article, I intend to open up the field of linguistic analysis to the lay person in order to provide another way of thinking about the Bible and the idea of biblical interpretation. Three main concepts will be covered: semantics, specifically lexical (meaning of words semantics), the significance assigned to a text or portion of the Bible, and finally, recognition of the role of discourse as a whole in determining meaning.

First, we must look at the difference between connotation and denotation. Connotation deals strongly with metaphorical text; this feature of words reflects how the words are used and what they mean in a social context. Denotation marks the dictionary meaning of a word. Quite often, simply looking up a word in a dictionary does not do justice to fully understanding the context of a word or the way it is used in the Bible because connotation has shifted the meaning of a word.

A modern day account of the struggle between connotation and denotation occurred in the proceedings of the English Standard Version Bible’s Translation committee. They worked to translate the words ‘ebed’ (from Hebrew) and ‘doulous’ (from Greek) into modern day meanings. Both denote the English translation ‘slave,’ but they do not directly correspond with slavery in the way we see it today. “These terms, however, actually cover a wide range of relationships . . . either ‘slave,’ ‘bondservant,’ or ‘servant.’” At the time that the Bible was written, no concept of the nineteenth century “dehumanizing” institution of slavery in the American South existed, and thus, the modern day connotation does not correspond directly with the connotation of the word in the day of the Bible. In the new ESV translation of the Bible, ‘slave’ is only being utilized when absolute ownership of a person is inferred. Most other cases where freedom of choice is indicated, ‘bondservant’ (1 Cor 7:21-24) and ‘servant’ (John 4:51) are to be used instead.1 This distinction is important because the term ‘bondservant’ is intended to convey the type of indentured servitude that was more prominent in ancient times. When the Bible supposedly endorses ‘slavery,’ it is not promoting the chattel slavery characteristic in antebellum America, but permitting the indentured servitude that was common at the time.

All words contain morphemes (smallest unit of meaning), which help the reader better determine the meanings that are contained through the various parts; however, unless a word is transparent (a word equivalent to the sum of all the morphemes), this phenomenon can be misleading. Lexical meaning indicates a word is not just the sum of the different morphemes (e.g inter- or dog), which make up the word. There are two types of meaning relative to a lexeme (word): opaque and transparent. A transparent word really is the sum of the meaning of its constituent morphemes; however, the more opaque a word or idiomatic a phrase, the sum of its parts don’t necessarily translate to direct summation (e.g. underdog would be a word that means a dog that is under something; although metaphorically understandable, opacity refers to literal semantics of the lexeme).

Idioms are particularly important to translate correctly to understand the meaning, but are often opaque to modern readers. For example, the story of Ruth at first glance appears to portray her as the model of chastity, boldly laying at Boaz’s feet to persuade him to marry her. Until, of course, you learn that the phrase “uncovering feet” is actually an idiom for a sexual encounter. Lacking knowledge of this idiom dramatically alters one’s understanding of the text, even going so far as to imply the opposite of what might otherwise be concluded.

When we move up the linguistic scale of meaning, the next largest unit of meaning is the meaning of the lexeme after all morphemes have been accounted. This analysis leads us to the phenomena of homonymy and polysemy. If a word has multiple distinct lexemes (meanings derived from it) with the same phonological representation/same orthography (written the same way), such as bank (river bank) and bank (financial institution), this phenomenon is called homonymy. If a sentence is left ambiguous as to what type of bank is being referred to, then misinterpretations can occur. Although homonymy may occur in interpretation, the likelier scenario is that of polysemy. Polysemy deals with the phenomenon of a single lexeme taking on an ambiguous meaning because the specific noun in question has not been clarified. For example, a financial bank can mean a myriad of different financial institutions and although they are all banks (i.e financial banks), the specific bank is not defined (Bank of America, Chase, TDS). In biblical text, ambiguities can be direct relatives to the above phenomena, so meaning and relation of words needs to be directly related to the context of each individual situation. If only individual words are accounted for in meaning, the reader is often left with a trailing idea of what specifically is happening in each part of the inspired text.

Homonymy as present in the Bible includes phrases when translated that are taken from homonyms or near homonyms (most of the sounds are the same as to be recognized as similar). One such example present in the Hebrew translation of Genesis 1:2 is the appearance of the words ‘tohu’ (formlessness) and ‘bohu’(emptiness).2 These words can be seen as related in their Hebrew surface form, but differ slightly in meaning. They refer to two different types of being: a shapeless form and a form with an infinite void. It is important to note that the homonymy, which suggests a poetic genre, is lost in the most accurate translation into English. Whereas the rhyme in Hebrew could suggest a more fluid, figurative meaning, the lack of homonymy in English makes the poetry of this passage more difficult to distinguish. Near homonymy also ties strongly into synonymy described below.

The last holdout of lexeme meaning is synonymy, the idea that a word can be replaced with another word and still retain the same meaning. However, quite often in translations, near synonymy instead of absolute synonymy can result. In understanding the Bible, readers must scrutinize how they describe the Word of God, lest they forget that explaining the stories of the Bible with near-synonymous words may slightly shift the meaning of the Bible. We should strive for a higher sense of accuracy in our lives, especially when reading the book that guides much of our faith.

Sentence sense and paragraph sense make up the next level of interpretation in the pyramid of linguistic semantics. In sentence sense, being able to paraphrase is sometimes more useful than just being able to break down the meaning of every word in the sentence and putting each word (separate meaning) together with each of the other words. It is important in biblical interpretation to not only focus on one word, but rather a slew of words that belong together. If words are taken out of context, varying and quite often very strange interpretations can occur.

As a real life example of this phenomenon, one can cite the Westboro Baptist Church, which pulls sentences specifically from the Bible out of their contextual homes. By doing so, they effectively squelch the original meaning of the words, and a new inspiration (far from the original God-given inspiration) takes foothold. One example of this gross reinterpretation involves their signs. On many signs, they write “God Hates Fags,” citing the verse from Romans that says “as it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13, NIV) Nowhere is homosexuality remotely mentioned in this passage, nor is there an understanding of what ‘hate’ means here. In context, hate refers to the opposite of being loved; St. Paul uses such strong terms to make his point clear that no matter a person’s deeds, God will love him regardless. For Esau was described as the perfect man, whilst Jacob is described as being slightly subpar in comparison. The Westboro Baptist Church’s interpretation of hate is only valid if passages are deliberately taken out of context, at least in this case.

This out-of-context phenomenon is very dangerous, and to some extent, all of us are guilty of it (although to a much less extent) because a language’s meaning depends upon a individual’s interpretation and parsing of structures. If we are not careful, gross miscalculations of the text are possible. Stanley Fish clarifies the way we view text and points out problems with personal interpretation of text:

“There are still formal patterns, but they do not lie innocently in the world [in texts]; rather, they are themselves constituted by an interpretive act. The facts one points to are still there . . . but only as a consequence of the interpretive . . . model that has called them into being.”3

When we read, we must mindful that quite often the way we approach a text, determines the “key to the meaning” of the certain text. We embark upon a journey of discovery when we read, but our reading faculties and focus are geared to how we semantically see the text and the way in which we envision the text to be spoken, which carries us over to the next point about gesture below.

One such example, which comes to mind is: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him (Prov 13:24, NIV).” If someone who read this passage was unfamiliar with the idea of a cane being used as a symbolic gesture to indicate corporal punishment, then they might believe that a rod was something entirely different (maybe a fishing rod). In this case, one might wrongly conclude that any father who doesn’t go fishing with his son is negligent. Different interpretations can arise based upon our own experiences, so neutral phrasing understandable to all is necessary in a translation.

“Paralinguistic gesture” has two categories: learned and instinctive.4 The learned gesture deals with the cultural context of the time. It’s important to realize that every culture has different ways of communicating through gestures; the American context of gestures could be different than that of the Corinthians. Instinctive gesture includes such movements as nodding to indicate approval and putting your fingers to your lips to indicate quietness. Since writing somewhat limits the use of these gestures, any interpretation can never be as fool-proof as a situation where you can ask for clarification of what is meant from the author nor see affirmation or emotion evoked through gesture. Gesture evokes another semiotic (symbolic) view, which unless described effectively in scripture can make the tone of the Word confusing upon first glance. One famous gesture in the Bible involves Judas’ kiss to betray Jesus. Although explained well in the passage surrounding the event, the magnitude of this kiss might carry a slightly differ connotation today as kisses are almost exclusively shown as a sign of love in society. We might even go so far as to see Judas’ kiss as merely an identifying mark of Jesus so Pontius Pilate could take him away; however, in the time of Jesus, this friendly maneuver carried with it the stain of betrayal. Gestures that are not common today might imbue a sense of confusion amongst Christians unfamiliar with certain actions in the Bible.

Reflecting back upon sentence sense above, we can derive paragraph sense. When sentences become more complicated and depend on greater levels of organization, paragraphs must and generally do arise. Each successive sentence therefore builds upon the last and culminates in a combined meaning. The context of the related sentences therefore allow a pool of thought in which larger and often more universal meanings can be derived. These pools can be termed ‘Pools of Supposition.’

In order to derive the “correct” meaning from the text, one must presuppose that the author of the text and the reader understand the same background information. (“Correct” in usage above does not refer to a right or wrong interpretation, but an interpretation coincident with that of the author’s intent). Inevitably, each passage will mean something different to each reader because there is no way to standardize a reader’s experience with that of any of the Gospel writers or with the experience of the letters’ intended audience. Understanding the context of the time in which a passage was written vastly enhances the likelihood that the reader will comprehend the author’s original intent.5

Next, genre of text must be looked at to decide meaning. Poetry can be understood figuratively, whereas discourse is intended to actually describe how a situation or conversation generally unfolded. We cannot take some Psalms completely literally. For instance, Psalm 18:4-5 reads, “the cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.” If we took this literally, it would require us to conclude that a deceased person was writing the text. Instead, we must strive to understand the metaphorical meaning of the poetry and thus derive a lesson from it. The genre of the text helps us navigate whether we should take a literal or metaphorical approach to the reading. Linguists Brown and Yule underscore this point in the below passage:

“One of the most pervasive illusions which persists in the analysis of language is that we understand the meaning of a linguistic message solely on the basis of the words and structure of the sentence(s) used to convey that message.”6

Brown and Yule make a point for us to look past what is on the page, and also advise to consider the underlying semantic meaning of what we read. For if we only read at face value, some of the message either lacks clarity for us or altogether lacks comprehensibility at any level. If we read the above Psalm at face value, we only get an image of death overwhelming us. If we probe the deeper meaning underlying the surface text, we discover the interpretation that death confronts us in many ways: physically as is described, mentally as we must take on the challenge, and spiritually as God waits for us and guides us to eternal life.

Finally, at a deeper level, etymology and anachronism must be looked at carefully in order to determine the meaning of any text. Etymological taxation is a term used to describe when etymology is not matched to the right time period and thus lacks the same effect that the correct meaning would bear. Although as a linguist, I am fascinated by etymologies, when determining biblical meaning and translation from original Greek, I cannot look at the etymology of a word to define each lexeme any more than I can depend on a dictionary from the Middle Ages to give me an accurate description of a word as it is used today. All too often, etymologies go back to when the word was originally formed and diachronically or comparatively, the only definition which matters is the definition in use at the time that each portion of the Bible was written.

Anachronism is the complete opposite of etymology. Anachronism or selective looking back at a word to define it (i.e. using a modern definition to define a word used at an earlier time, the definition of which has changed) is misguided . Modern translations of older translations are thus needed in order to allow the wording to stay current to the meaning in modern language. For example, if Ancient Greek had all the same words as Modern Greek, but defined each word differently, the languages would not be mutually intelligible. Using an anachronistic view and reflecting Modern Greek usage onto the Greek of Christ’s time, this phenomenon would cause a shift in meaning of the Bible (however small or large it may be), which would change the interpretation of the Bible over time and subvert the original message. The original meaning of the Bible must be preserved for modern readers; biblical scholars must adopt a modern language approach (and for the most part do) in order to assure that the original message translates to today’s Christians.

The importance of understanding anachronism and etymology is revealed by the way many Christians understand the word “mansions” in the King James Translation of the Bible. The King James Version translated Jesus’ promise as “in my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:2, KJV). In the 14th century, the word meant rooms or dwelling places, but if this translation is to be interpreted by the lay person today, the concept of modern day “mansions” may take foothold in that Christian’s mind.7 Mansions, in the modern sense, invoke images of grandeur and wealth, but John was not trying to invoke such images of wealth. Rather he is simply telling us that we may look forward to having a place in the house of God.

From these examples, it becomes clear that a linguistically detailed approach to biblical scholarship is not only compatible with, but also essential to, modern Christianity. Analyzing the Bible as an inspired piece of literature without taking into account the scientific constraints of human language is misguided. A deeper understanding of universal grammar and semantic roles of lexemes, morphemes and contextual clues are needed to ensure that biblical language is conceptualized in the same mind frame as language today. Though inexhaustive, this article hopefully offers a greater awareness of linguistic phenomena in practice, which can break down and guide further analysis of the Word of God into the future for greater accuracy and understanding.

[1] Justin Taylor. “The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of Slave.” The Gospel Coalition Inc. November 7, 2011. http://the tee-debatesthe-translation-of-slave/
[2] Delabatista, Dirk, Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation. Denmark, 1997. p.76.
[3] S. Fish, Is there a Text in This Class; The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Cambridge, Mass, HUP, 1980, p.12f.
[4] Cotterell, Peter and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation, Great Britain, 1989, p.55.
[5] Ibid, p.93.
[6] G. Brown and G. Yule, Discourse Analysis, p.223.
[7] Harper, Douglas. “Mansions.” Online Etymology Dictonary. 2011. <>.

Christopher Hopper ’13, a Linguistics concentrator in Quincy House, is the Grants Manager of The Ichthus.

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