I don’t watch many videos online. I almost always skip them when people link to them. But when blogger Mark Ward says, “This video is fantastic,” I pay attention. Mark shares my love for linguistics and for careful, contextual Bible study, so I respect his recommendations on such things.
So I now share with you Anne Curzan’s TED talk entitled, “What Makes a Word ‘Real’?” And I echo Mark’s evaluation. This video is fantastic. Watching it may be your best-invested 17 minutes all week. I believe you’ll find the video to be quite impactful, and I wish I had some way to incentivize your watching of it.
Curzan explains how language changes over time, and she peels back the curtain on the editing of dictionaries. I appreciate her comment that the dictionary is probably the only book we’re trained never to think critically about. But we should. Below the video, I’ll trace some implications for Bible study.
What does Curzan’s presentation tell us about Bible study?
- Because languages can change drastically every hundred years, word studies are far less important than book studies when we come to the Scripture. Our chief goal should be to understand how each author uses his language; our goal should not be to tap into the history of the Bible’s vocabulary.
- “No dictionary is the final arbiter of what words ‘mean.'” This is no less true of Bible dictionaries and lexicons than it is of modern English ones. The difference, of course, is that biblical languages are now dead and no longer changing. But those languages (particularly Hebrew) changed so much over the time the Bible was written that it’s irrational to think we can look back over their millennia of use and identify the single “true meaning” of any biblical word. Just think of the American Heritage Dictionary’s contradictory entries for the word peruse.
- Just like in contemporary word usage, biblical authors felt free to make up new words to suit their purposes (I think of “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 as an example). In such cases, they likely were aiming more at emotional impact than technical precision.
- We must be careful not to read current theological categories back into the words of Scripture. The Scriptures must stand on their own, in their own context. For example, when the New Testament uses the word “church,” the authors do not always have in mind what we think of as “church” (a local congregation, meeting at least weekly for worship services, with a pastor, a budget, a building, a set of by-laws, and an annual meeting). “Preach” is not always referring to the sermons presented by the ordained minister on Sunday morning.
Words are beautiful things, as long as we notice how they’re used and don’t expect them to carry loads they simply can’t bear. Consider this video your invite to a fruitful understanding of basic linguistics. And please don’t defriend me over it.