Friday Rant: Contra Strongnosticism
Jan 16, 2009 David Lang

Friday Rant: Contra Strongnosticism

I'll never forget the first time I was exposed to a Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. I was at a high school Bible study in which the Bible study leader decided it would be a good idea to teach us how to use a concordance. First he showed us how to look up a word in the concordance to find all its occurrences, and then he showed us the little numbers to the right of each occurrence. These, he explained, represented the original Greek or Hebrew word being translated. To find out more about that word, you simply turned to the back and looked up the number in the included Greek or Hebrew dictionary. He illustrated the usefulness of this practice with a few standard examples: the alternating use of agapao and phileo in John 21, the wordplay between adam (man, human) and adamah (earth, ground) in Genesis 2, and the semantic range of ruach, which can be translated as "spirit," "breath," or "wind."

At the time, this process of study seemed almost magical. What was I to conclude from all this but that if you knew the Greek and Hebrew, you could unlock a whole new level of meaning and know what the Bible "really says"? Fortunately, I didn't go out and buy a $50 Strong's Concordance and begin looking for secret knowledge. Instead, I invested in a $10 NIV and benefited from reading an English translation I could easily understand.

Today, I help develop software that makes it incredibly easy for those who don't know Greek and Hebrew to examine the original words behind their English translation, and I'm proud of that. The more people are equipped to examine the text of Scripture for themselves, the less susceptible they will be to the influences of the latest theological fads. But there are also dangers inherent in giving people powerful tools without also training them in how to use them.

That's why I cringe whenever I see Bible programs advertise that they will let you "unlock" the Greek and Hebrew without actually "knowing" the languages. For example, I once saw a demo of a Bible program in which the demonstrator (a college-age student who clearly had no seminary training) made much of the fact that in Matthew 28:19, the word usually translated "Go" is not actually an imperative, but a participle. The only imperative in that verse is "make disciples." Now, while that's certainly an interesting grammatical point to consider, this young man went so far as to say, "See, we've been translating and preaching this verse wrong all these years!"

I couldn't help but marvel at the hubris. By making much of a relatively minor grammatical distinction, this young man was willing to dismiss about a gazillion English translations which understand the participle in question to have imperatival force. Apparently this young man didn't realize that participles can sometimes function as imperatives.

Therein lies the problem with the promise that Bible software—any Bible software, including Accordance—will enable you to unlock the Greek and Hebrew without actually knowing it. I call this effort to find secret knowledge through the use of Strong's numbers Strongnosticism. I hope in upcoming posts to combat Strongnosticism by showing how you can effectively use Strong's numbered Bibles in Accordance to gain important insights, and by discussing how far such insights should be taken.

For now, I'll leave you with the number one way to avoid slipping into Strongnosticism:

 

Realize that Greek and Hebrew are merely languages, and think about how you use language every day.

 

To see how this works, ask yourself whether you "parse" most of the things people say to you. Do you ask yourself why they used this word and not that word? Do you ponder the verb tense they chose or puzzle over why they used a participle or infinitive? What if they break some grammatical rule like splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition? Do you ponder what they meant by that, or do you just chalk it up to colloquial expression? When someone says something confusing or unclear, we do sometimes resort to this kind of parsing, but most of the time, we know what they are trying to get at and we don't get bogged down in the grammatical details. I'm convinced that if most interpreters kept that simple reality in mind, their interpretation of Scripture would be vastly improved, and they would avoid the temptation toward Strongnosticism.

For the rest of this series, see parts 2, 3, and 4.

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Archived Comments

Robb

January 16, 2009 2:49 PM
I can't help but wonder if you're referring to quotes like these: "How many times have you read this verse in your English Bible and not seen the difference in this verse here? Studying the Bible in your English translation is like water skiing: you are simply skimming the surface. But with the Greek and Hebrew tools So-and-So provides, you are now scuba-diving into the depths of God’s Word." "Now you don’t have to know any Greek or Hebrew to study the Bible at the word level." Frankly, this type of "marketing" frightens me. It's untrue. I'm all for people learning Greek and Hebrew, but learning a language to use it well requires more than reading a dictionary article or two on a word in a language you know nothing about. I have always appreciated that Accordance does not market its product in this way.

David Lang

January 16, 2009 3:08 PM
Robb, I'm not familiar with the particular marketing blurbs you're quoting, but yes, that's the kind of thing I mean. And it's not confined to just one or two products. I've seen even low-end shareware and freeware programs make the same kinds of claims. I tell myself that they just don't know any better, but it does perpetuate the fallacy that you can get some hidden meaning from examining the Greek and Hebrew.

learnfrenchwiththebible

January 16, 2009 4:16 PM
It is amazing to see people who cite Strong's numbers to "correct misunderstandings" scholars have. On one of the e-mail lists, one person has likened this process to someone walking into an operating room and trying to correct the neurosurgeon by using a medical textbook that is 120 years old.

Mike Aubrey

January 16, 2009 11:44 PM
I agree with you, David, but at the same time (and probably on a different level - i.e. a more methodological and scholarly one), I think a lot of scholarly disagreement would never have appeared had scholars spent more time exegeting the arguments of those with whom they disagree as they did scripture.

David Lang

January 17, 2009 8:58 AM
Mike, To be sure, there are times when one must parse other people's words and exegete their arguments, and I agree that much scholarly disagreement might be avoided if such care were taken. But that point leads to another aspect of communication which needs to be considered: the emotional aspect. You see, we can "parse" another's arguments in one of two ways: sympathetically or antagonistically, and which approach we choose can depend largely on our emotional reactions to something they've said or written. If I read an author who seems to be challenging some doctrine I happen to cherish, I am more likely to exegete his arguments for the purpose of refuting him. Conversely, if I'm reading an author I happen to admire, I am more likely to read questionable statements in the best possible light. If we really want to eliminate unnecessary misunderstandings, we need to be aware of this subjective/emotional element and do our best to parse people's arguments sympathetically. In other words, careful exegesis needs to be combined with giving others the benefit of the doubt.

William Volm

January 21, 2009 12:53 PM
This topic is of particular interest to me, and I want to thank you for it. I only work with English (I know a few Greek words and some of the alphabet, but nothing at all about Hebrew). I do like the study of words and their meaning in Scripture with the goal of better understanding what is being said so that it may be applied to our lives. However, since I am limited to English, I often wonder about the accuracy of what I come away with when I study the Bible. Your blog entry gave me an opportunity to respond about this. Two things I have thought about are (up to this point): (1) How can I find a root word and its related words? (2) How can I find a word in the NT that would be the equivalent used in the OT as well as the other way around? For example, how could I find faith as the root word in Hebrew or Greek (not just an English translation of it) and all its related words (I think these are known as cognates). Then how could I find the equivalent word for faith in the NT if I start in the OT, or in the OT if I start in the NT? I share with you a desire not to get caught up in looking just for some "secret knowledge," but being limited to English I would like some degree of confidence that what I glean from my studies would be accurate and present the truth. Thanks again for this series, I am looking forward to more entries on this subject.

John Wheeler

February 19, 2009 5:30 PM

Greetings, David! What you wrestle with with regard to Strong's is one of the things that the late author of the excellent syllabus DO IT YOURSELF HEBREW AND GREEK (Zondervan) deals with therein -- one of the first, in fact. How do you teach people to use the "English language tools" from Strong's upward without making them think they know more than they really do? Now I've learned Biblical and Classical Hebrew (accents -- after Suzanne Haik-Vantoura's deciphering key -- and all) well enough to use an all-Hebrew Bible created for Hebrew-Christian readers (the Letteris Edition OT and the Franz Delitzsch NT) in regular Bible study. [I also know just enough Greek to be dangerous. :) ] Permit me to speak from that perspective for a moment. On the one hand, there are some genuine pitfalls in the original languages which don't exist in English; for example, Biblical Hebrew in particular is notoriously context-driven in meaning. On the other -- and here's the real problem -- some would have you believe that Strong's, or their own low-end language tool, is sufficient to help a student grasp what those pitfalls are. One really has to study the languages *as languages* in order to grasp, piece by piece, their thought-worlds. And in that, I still count myself a student -- not an "expert" -- and plan to do so always. Humility is hard-won, but it goes a long way toward understanding *anything* properly!


John Wheeler

February 19, 2009 5:40 PM

This is for William Volm. The Greek NT gets much of its theological vocabulary from the Greek Septuagint version (LXX) of the OT. Edward Goodrick's DO IT YOURSELF HEBREW AND GREEK mentions sources that point out the cross-references. One venerable work is the HATCH-REDPATH CONCORDANCE. A recent and helpful work (designed to be a complementary one, in fact) is the HEBREW/ARAMAIC INDEX TO THE SEPTUAGINT by Takamitsu Muraoka (Baker). Another great source that often gives Hebrew and Aramaic parallels to NT Greek words is Walter Bauer's A GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND EARLY CHRISTIAN LITERATURE (Chicago University Press). A good, SCHOLARLY Classical Hebrew NT version (like that of Delitzsch or Salkinson-Ginsburg) can give many valuable clues. You will need to at least know how to spell the appropriate Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words to use these sources well, but it is not all that hard to learn how.


Matt

February 20, 2009 2:28 PM

Great new word, David -- Strongnosticism!  I love it....and I heartily concur with what you're getting at.


Stephen DeNagy

February 20, 2009 2:52 PM

I appreciate your observation! What I wish for, as a person who is learning Greek (and maybe someday) Hebrew, is better and more accessible (esp. to the lay person) linguistic tools so that these issues can be attended as they come up. Having a good English grammar would help since many, many people who are being exposed to these powerful tools may not even know what a participle is!

Having said that, the reverse of your stated malady is having heated linguistic arguments about Bible words based exclusively on English grammar! I will usually chime in on the Greek that underlies simply to point out that the issues are far more nuanced and that some grace has to be given!

The biggest advantage to your and similar software is that we have the Greek words (mostly) fully parsed so that I have backup for my weak conjugation skills. But understanding verb agreements goes a long way to clarifying many texts! In this way it is superior to either the concordance or an interlinear text.


Ron Bailey

February 23, 2009 6:17 AM

I appreciate these comments but I wonder if 'merely languages' is doing full justice to verbal inspiration.  The old Newberry Bible made a big issue of the precision with which the Hebrew and Greek languages were used in the OT and NT.

God's choice of Hebrew and Greek I suggest was not just a happy coincidence but part of a particular choice which has included culture, idiom and even climate as a unique way of expressing his mind.  In the way God chose Isaiah or Peter to perfectly express his mind in language which although theirs was also from the mouth of God, so God has chosen Hebrew and Greek as the best vehicles for his accommodation to communication with human beings.  This is not to say we need Hebrew and Greek to know the mind of God but simply that Hebrew and Greek are not 'merely languages'.


Dave Stabnow

February 23, 2009 11:42 AM

I agree with Ron in that, if the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, it will stand up to close inspection.  Nevertheless, I would treat different portions of the Bible differently.  To illustrate, while I might not parse the word choice of my friends, I feel that I can consider carefully the word choices of, say, O Henry, Ben Bernanke, or Justice John Roberts, because I can assume that each has chosen his words with care (albeit for different reasons).  Likewise, the reader of the Bible needs to balance whether he is parsing the casual words of Paul (or Tertius) or the precise words of the Holy Spirit, and whether to consider carefully the word choices in Genesis 2, Exodus 20,Samuel and Kings, or  the first 9 chapter of 1 Chronicles.

That is, on the one hand I might not always practice minute exegesis of the historical portions of the Bible, but on the other hand I can look carefully at the way the Holy Spirit chose to communicate the Law, Jesus' teaching, Paul's doctrine, and certain other portions.

 


David Lang

February 23, 2009 12:04 PM

Dave, I certainly agree that the Bible can stand up to close inspection, and I sure don't intend to discourage "minute exegesis" of the text. However, there's a sense in which many exegetes end up "straining at gnats and swallowing camels," because they fail to step back from the minutia to consider the main point the human and divine authors are making. If we fail to keep the main thing the main thing, allowing context to be the final arbiter of what the minutia actually add up to, we can easily spin off from the minutia into all kinds of erroneous interpretations. That's what I mean when I say that we need to think about how we use language every day.




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