Lesson Two

Learning How Words Work

One of the primary goals of our linguistic approach to Bible study is this -- Determine what the words of any message meant to their original author and the audience to whom he or she was writing.  In order to achieve that goal we first must learn how words work. 

BHC's Fourth Bible Study Guideline
A word is one or more symbols or sounds with an attached bundle of associations.
The associations are a product of the author’s culture, historical time period,
geographic location, and personal experiences.

Without understanding how words work we are only able to perceive those things for which we have an understanding.  If we do not have a meaning we tend to either skip over the word or substitute another meaning of it.  Suppose you were standing in a crowd of bidders at an estate sale. The auctioneer points to the next item, an old safe.  Before the bidding begins, he tells everyone that it could be empty or it could contain a treasure Every one can see the safe, feel it, knock on it, even smell it, but without seeing what the previous owner placed inside it, we can only speculate.  Words are like that safe and the combination that will unlock them is the above guideline. 

Billions of Bible readers are in a similar situation, but they don’t know it!  The most important book in their lives is just like the safe.  They see words, hear them, and may have even memorized many of them, but they have never unlocked their ancient meanings.  But, before we begin to look at the words of your Bible, you must be aware of some more very important guidelines.

Through Whose Eyes?

One of the most common phrases you hear at BHC is: "Now what exactly does that mean to you?"  Misunderstandings over words can take place between people within the same culture, who speak the same language, and who are sitting in the same room together.  Your next step is to learn what we mean when we use certain words in this course.  

Vocabulary Terms

  1. Language - Language names and classifies things and people in terms of their significance of behavior.  If we have not been taught or have not learned a specific meaning of a word or phrase, we will be unaware of it and what it represents.

  2. Source - The writer or speaker.

  3. Signal - The words written or spoken.

  4. Receptor - The one to whom the Source was writing or speaking.

  5. Successful Communication Experience - The Source and Receptor have the same understanding of the Signal.

  6. Unsuccessful Communication Experience - The Source and Receptor have the different understandings of the Signal.

The Basic Communications Model

A Source sends a Signal to a Receptor.

Bill sent an e-mail to Jane.

 (1) Bill is the Source.

 (2) Jane is the Receptor.

 (3) The e-mail message is the Signal.

If Jane understands the message exactly as Bill intended, then they had a Successful Communication Experience.  If Jane doesn't understand what Bill meant, then they had an Unsuccessful Communication Experience. 

The ABC’s of the
Basic Linguistic Model 

A word consists of one or more symbols or sounds
with an attached bundle of associations.

The bundle of associations is a product of the Source’s culture,
historical time period, geographical location, and life experiences.

The Source’s meaning is the only correct meaning
and it is the standard that must be used to test later translations
or interpretations of the Source’s words.

Any belief or doctrine that is based on the authority of a Scripture or Scriptures
must be judged in light of the Source’s meaning(s).

Words Are Like Secret Codes

 As we have already seen, the symbols of a word are of no value unless someone understands them.  What does "tmeckstor" mean to you?  You recognize the symbols -- t-m-e-c-k-s-t-o-r, but you probably do not have any mental images attached to them.  Therefore the word "tmeckstor" probably doesn't mean anything to you.  At least I hope it doesn't because I just made it up.  Without an attached "bundle of associations" for the symbols "tmeckstor" the word is meaningless.  There is nothing inherent in the actual tomato plant itself that requires us to use the symbols -- t-o-m-a-t-o.  We could have just as easily used -- c-o-w.  Why do we call this plant a "tomato" instead of a "cow?"  Somewhere back in our history someone assigned the symbols to that plant and a growing number of people agreed by using the word "tomato."  

BHC's Fifth Bible Study Guideline
The meanings of words may change over a period of time
We must determine the meanings used during the author's lifetime first.

Did you know that two people can look at the exact same message and come up with two completely different meanings?  This always amazes me.  There may be several possible reasons for this phenomena, but there is one that shows up repeatedly when we work with the words of our Bibles.  It is due to another basic linguistic principle: 

Read the message below was written before our modern meanings came into existence, the same words could produce a completely different meaning. Our eyes would have seen exactly the same words as before. They were spelled the same and pronounced exactly as they were before. But because the meaning of a word may change, two completely different pictures would have been painted in your mind.  

Now, let me show you what I mean.  Keep in mind that words paint pictures in our minds as we understand the message.  See what kind of picture the words below paint in your mind.  As you read, pay special attention to the words in red (bold).

"Do you remember Mary? Well, she is still just as naughty as she used was the last time you were here. Some say that would change if she wasn’t so nice.  She really needs someone to give her some  fellowship, because I know it would really make a difference. Do you remember Bill?  Every one knows he is a gay guy. He was looking in the magazine again today trying to find something.  We are looking for a new constable, and hope he will also be a good steward too."

Write down the modern meanings of the underlined words in the message.

  • naughty

  • nice

  • fellowship

  • gay-

  • magazine-

  • constable

  • steward

Now describe the characters in the story using the above meanings.

(1) Mary -


(2) Bill - 


(3) the constable -


A question that must be answered at the beginning of every study is -- When were the words written?   The meaning of a word can dramatically change in just a century.  This brings us to the next BHC Guideline,  

BHC's Sixth Bible Study Guideline
The meanings of some words drop out of use
 and become unknown to later generations

In order to understand how a change in meaning of a few words can completely change the meaning of the entire message, read the meanings of the above underlined words that were in use a century ago. 

  • naughty- poor (one who has naught)

  • nice- stupid

  • fellowship- to lay down money or goods for a common cause

  • gay- joyful, happy, enthusiastic

  • magazine- storehouse

  • constable - person that works in the stable

  • steward - keeper of the pigs

Now describe the characters in the story using the older meanings.

(1) Mary -


(2) Bill - 


(3) the constable -


What happened to your mental picture?  Did it change significantly? If so much can change in just a century, how much more could the meanings of words that were written two-thousand years ago change?

"Fellowship" -in the Bible

If such a misunderstanding of a group of words could happen to a single message written and read by people from the same culture, who speak the same language, and are only separated by a few hundred years, how much greater is the possibility of it happening to the words of our Bible? The authors are from a different culture. They spoke a different language. They are separated from us by thousands of years. It is obvious that the potential for misunderstanding is much greater

This problem applies not only to the original words of the authors of the books of our Bibles, it also applies to older English translations, e.g., the King James Version (KJV). The KJV came from a related but different culture than ours - England. It was translated in 1611 CE - almost 400 years ago!  One example of the problems that may arise is related to one of the words used in Mary’s message. It is found in Acts 2:42:

 "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

The words from the Book of Acts record an event that took place over 1,950 years ago in another land and in a different culture. Never forget that the original words describing the event were not written in English.  Our oldest copies are written in Greek. So, the obvious question arises, who wrote the English that we find in our American Bibles? 

One of the long popular English translation is the King James Version (KJV).  The words of the King James English translators were  written in 1611 CE at England.  In England, at that time, the meaning of the word fellowship would be the same as the older meaning we used in the note about Mary: "to lay down money or goods for a common cause." 

However, today many people understand the words of the verse in this way:

"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and companionship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

That is probably the way you would have understood the verse  before reading Mary’s note?  Today, fellowship means getting together with others - companionship.  Now, look what happens when we use the meaning for fellowship that was in common use at the time of the King James translators.

"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teachings and laying down their money or goods for the common cause, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

Crowds might dwindle down at the local church if the preacher switched to the older meaning and instead of saying,  "Why don’t you come down and fellowship with us next Sunday"; changed it to "Why don’t you come down and leave some of your money with us next Sunday."  It sure takes on a whole new meaning when you use an old definition.

The Cost of Fellowship

Maybe the author of the words in Acts 2 was concerned that the original meaning might be lost. so he repeated the idea in verses 44 and 45.  Even though very few people connect the word fellowship with these verses, I am sure that you will now quickly see their connection:

"And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."

The writer of Acts expressed the same thought twice in just a few verses.  However, many modern readers can only see it once because they do not know how to use BHC's Basic Linguistic Model when they study the words of their Bibles. 

Familiar Words Whose Original Meanings
Have Been Forgotten

Would you like to have some fun with your friends?  Below is a list of familiar words whose original meanings have been long forgotten.  Write a couple of messages like the one about Mary.  Have your friends tell you what the message means to them, then give them the older meanings.  Watch their faces as they discover this basic linguistic principle.  The words are in red and their original meanings are in blue.

  1. foyer             =        fireplace

  2. meat             =        food of any kind

  3. naughty         =        poor (one who has naught)

  4. nice                =        stupid

  5. constable       =        stable companion

  6. holiday           =         holy day

  7. magazine        =        storehouse

  8. fool                =        tonguewagger

  9. steward         =        keeper of the pigs

  10. intoxicated    =        poisoned

  11. typewriter     =        the person typing (not the machine)

  12. noble             =        knowable

  13. jest                =        a brave deed

  14. chauffeur      =        fireman (stokes fire)

Out of sight, out of mind . . . forever?

"But what makes a word obsolete more than general agreement to forbear it?  And how shall it be continued when it conveys an offensive idea or recalled again into the mouths of mankind when it has once by disuse become unfamiliar, and by unfamiliar unpleasing."

(Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)

Congratulations! You have completed the second lesson!

Continue to Lesson 3

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