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Hermeneutics 13 – G-H Interpretation Part 3 – Anachronisms

December 10, 2012

Last post we talked a bit about defining words properly.  We will continue on that theme as we address what are called anachronisms.  An anachronism in word studies takes place when we read a definition of a word that was given at a later point in history back into a text that was written before the word took on that meaning.

To give a basic example in the English language I will discuss the word “let.”  Today when we use the term, “let” we mean “allow.”  When we say, “let it happen,” we mean, “allow it to happen.”  However, the definition of the word yet used to have a different connotation.  It used to mean, “to hinder, or to prevent.”  Therefore, we find phrases in the King James Version of the Bible like 2 Thess 2:7 that say, “only he who now letteth will let,” which means, “only he who now hinders will hinder,” or as the ESV translates it, “and you know what is restraining him now.”  It should be clear that to take the contemporary definition of the term, “let” and read it back into the King James Version would cause a reader to misunderstand that passage of the Bible.  In fact, if someone thinks of the later definition of the word, “let” when reading the passage, they will walk away thinking this verse teaches the exact opposite of what the apostle Paul meant.  I hope this makes it clear that we need to beware of anachronisms.

There are a couple very popular anachronisms that are often taught in the church.  Just recently I was listening to a teaching on the radio where the speaker was expounding on one of the words that Paul uses that is translated “power” in English translations.  The English transliteration of the Greek word is dynamis.  You will often hear preachers say what the speaker said that I was listening to a few days ago.  He asked the congregation to think about what English word this Greek term sounds like.  Why it is dynamite of course.  He then proceeded to expound the passage of Paul speaking of God’s explosive power to move and change things.  This is an anachronism and I believe causes us to misunderstand what Paul was saying.  When Paul used the Greek word dynamis he was not thinking about a little stick that blew things up.  As D.A. Carson says in Exegetical Fallacies “the power of God concerning which Paul speaks he often identifies with the power that raised Jesus from the dead…. Paul’s measure [of the greatness of this power] is not dynamite, but the empty tomb,” (34).  You may think this is a trite discussion but I ask you to consider what is more powerful, a stick of dynamite or the power of God that rose Jesus from the dead?  You see by this anachronism we are actually minimizing the power of God in our minds.  Since Paul uses this word in passages like Romans 1:16 and Ephesians 1:19 that speak of dynamis as God’s “power… for salvation” and the power that God works “toward us who believe” (ESV) should we think it sufficient to stop short of thinking of the power that rose Jesus from the dead?  Is dynamite sufficient to make our dead hearts alive or did Paul have something else in mind when we encouraged his readers about what God does or has done in our hearts? If Paul had something else in mind, we should want to know what he was referring to and have that as the basis of our faith.  Dynamite is simply not good enough to define the word that Paul used.

Another popular anachronism is found in expositions of Eph 2:10 that reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” (ESV).  The Greek word for “workmanship” is transliterated poiema which looks like the English word “poem.” I have heard people then explain that our lives are a beautiful poem that God is writing.  The goal is to create in us an existential response.  This however is not what Paul had in mind when he used the word.  The word poiema had nothing to do with poetry when Paul used it.  If you look at various Greek lexicons you will notice that the meaning of the word poiema has to do with something being made or created.  The point of Eph 2:10 is that our lives and good works have been made by God.  We owe all of what we are and who we are to God.  The point has nothing to do with a poem.  If we read the similar English word back into the text of Paul, we will walk away with a misunderstanding of the text.  Even though the anachronism teaches us something beautiful, it is a misrepresentation of Scripture.

Let us be careful whenever we hear someone say, “The Greek word is X which sounds like the English word Y, therefore this verse means Z.”  Check out the lexicons and other translations.  If no lexicon or translation has given that meaning for the word it is likely a wrong definition, regardless of how good it sounds.

From → Hermeneutics

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