Jan 30, 2009 David Lang

Contra Strongnosticism, Part 3

The past two Fridays, I've been preaching against the error I call "Strongnosticism": that is, the tendency to use tools such as Strong's numbers to look for "secret knowledge" in the original Hebrew and Greek. In my last post on this subject, I began teaching you how to use Strong's numbers to identify the Greek and Hebrew words behind an English translation, how to look those words up in a basic Strong's dictionary, and how to consult more in depth lexicons.

I focused most of my attention on the Greek word translated "virgin" in Matthew 1:23 (parthenos), and I want to continue exploring that word. The lexicons indicated that parthenos refers to a young unmarried woman, and that over time this word developed a more particular focus on the virginal status of such women. So how is this word used in the New Testament? Is the focus on virginity per se, or merely on the state of being unmarried?

To find out, I need to search for all occurrences of the Greek word parthenos. I cannot simply search for the English word "virgin," because there is the possibility parthenos might be translated by some other English word.

To do this, I'll select the word "virgin" in my English Bible text with Strong's numbers (I'm using the ESVS) then hold down the option key while clicking the Search button in the bottom left corner of the Resource palette). Holding down the option key tells Accordance to search not for the English word I selected, but for the Key number with which that word has been tagged. Another approach is to control-click or right-click on the word "virgin" and then choose Key Number from the Search For submenu of the contextual menu which appears. Either approach will open a new Search window displaying every English word which has been tagged with the key number for parthenos.

The ESV does indeed translate parthenos in a variety of ways. It is translated as "virgin" in Matthew and Luke, but as "unmarried" in reference to Philip's daughters (Acts 21:9), and as "betrothed" in 1 Corinthians 7. Looking at each of these occurrences in context, it would appear that the ESV translators felt the emphasis in Acts was on the unmarried status of Philip's daughters more than on their sexual purity. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 7, which deals with a variety of marital situations, the ESV translators have placed the emphasis on the unmarried status of the young women being referred to, as opposed to their virginity.

Do other translations render parthenos with the same variety of expression? To find this out, I could certainly place other translations in parallel with the ESVS, but I find it quicker just to search those other translations for parthenos. I can do that by selecting the word "virgin" in the ESVS, and then holding down the option key while selecting the KJVS or NAS95S from the Resource palette. By doing so, I can quickly scan the results and see that the KJV translates parthenos exclusively with the English word "virgin." The 1995 update to the NASB uses virgin in every case but Revelation 14:4, where it uses the word "chaste" in reference to male virgins.

Interestingly, the NAS95 supplies the word "daughters" when referring to the "virgins" of 1 Corinthians 7. The NAS translators clearly understand Paul to be addressing fathers with respect to whether or not they should allow their daughters to marry, while the ESV translators understand Paul to be addressing young men about how they should act toward the women to whom they are betrothed. The KJV's translation could be understood either way.

If "meaning is use" (something my Hebrew professor used to drill into our heads), then being able to use Strong's numbers to search for every occurrence of a Greek or Hebrew word is far more important than just being able to look it up in a dictionary. By examining each occurrence of parthenos in context and comparing how it is rendered in various translations, we get a fuller sense for how the word is actually used than we ever could by reading a lexicon entry.

Now, having said that, looking up each occurrence in context has ultimately only reinforced the very things the lexicons have already told us. The lexicons told us that parthenos can be used to refer to young unmarried women generally (as we've seen in Acts and 1 Corinthians 7), or with particular emphasis on their sexual purity (as in the references to Mary as a virgin in the gospels).

If looking up the occurrences of a Greek or Hebrew word in context hasn't told us anything beyond what we already learned from the lexicons, why would I say that being able to do the former is more important than being able to do the latter? I say that because of a common mistake Strongnostics make with lexicons. They'll read a lexicon entry, and find that a word can have a variety of meanings. Then when they run across that word in a particular context, they will either inject it with all of its possible meanings or simply pick the meaning they like best. Both approaches completely disregard the context as the primary determiner of meaning. Conversely, searching for every occurrence of the word and examining it in context reinforces the importance of context for determining meaning.

Now that we've explored the semantic range of parthenos and seen how it is used in a variety of contexts, we must return to the passage we were originally studying (Matthew 1:23) and ask ourselves what the word means in that particular context. In one respect, this is easy to determine. Matthew 1:18 states explicitly that Jesus Christ was conceived before Joseph and Mary "came together." Consequently, the use of parthenos here has particular reference to Mary's virginity as opposed to just the fact that she was betrothed. Yet Matthew also connects Mary's virginity with an Old Testament prophecy that a "virgin would conceive"—a fact which raises additional questions.

What, for example, was the Hebrew word translated "virgin" in the original prophecy? Does that Hebrew word have the same range of meanings as the Greek word parthenos, or are there important differences? How was that Hebrew word being used in its original context, and how might understanding that context illuminate Matthew's appeal to that prophecy in Matthew 1:23? In the next post in this series, we'll use the Strong's number capabilities of Accordance to explore that Old Testament context.

Let me just close this post by pointing out that we have yet to uncover any hidden meanings or to make any real earth-shattering discoveries. In fact, most of the conclusions I've drawn have been downright prosaic. But that's okay. Our goal is not to engage in Strongnosticism, but to avoid it by a careful examination of original words in context. The kind of mining we're doing may not yield large glittering nuggets of fools' gold, but it will lead to rich veins of clear understanding.

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Archived Comments

Mark Pearson

February 01, 2009 3:54 PM
David, keep it coming! "Careful examination of original words in context" is a great benefit well within the reach of many who have access to some of the tools you've mentioned in this series. The temptation to "Strongnosticism" undercuts much good study and perverts the power of Bible software. So many of us evangelicals get the cart before the horse in our enthusiasm to prove the Bible right or true or predictive so we cherry pick and proof text. You've done us a service even just by naming it! Thanks for the careful corrective.