My daughter is married to a man who loves to take things apart, just to see how they work. I enjoy doing that too, but Joe can put the machine back together again . . . with no parts left over!
Preachers and Bible students share the same instinct when they are studying a Greek word. How often have you heard your pastor say, “This word is made up of two Greek words”? He then launches into an explanation of how the two original words combine to make the newer, bigger term.
When you dismantle a Greek word to look at its component parts, you are studying etymology.
More simply, you are analyzing the history of a word, checking to see if it was originally formed by combining other Greek words. (Of course, not all words are formed from smaller words, but Greek does have a remarkable number of such combination terms.)
Is this a legitimate way to study words? Of course!
Let’s say that you are interested in studying the uses of the word homologeo, usually translated “confess” or “acknowledge.” If you check a reference source like the Strong’s Concordance, you will find a notation that homologeo comes from two Greek words, homos (“same”) and logeo (“to speak, say”). Put the two ideas together and you get the commonly-expressed idea that homologeo means “to say the same as.” In reality, that is a useful way to think about the term. When we confess our sins, we are agreeing with God that our actions really are sinful, and we are the ones who committed those sins!
However, the field of etymology contains some pitfalls and we need to use such observations with caution.
1. We may misunderstand the meaning of the original, shorter words.
Take the English word supervisor, for instance. It’s easy to see that it comes from the words super and visor. Can’t you see some linguist of the future deciding that visor means “an eye shade” and super means “higher quality, extremely good.” Thus a supervisor becomes an extremely high quality eye shade!
2. We may find that a word has multiple meanings, and some of them seem rather remote from the original words.
If you decide that undertaker comes from the words under and take, describing someone who takes a corpse under the ground, how will you explain the origin of a phrase like “I will undertake this task”? Perhaps you’re going to run it into the ground?
3. The biggest problem is that the word you are studying may have originated several centuries earlier than the New Testament, and the meaning could have changed during that time.
You can see that process working in English:
1 Thessalonians 4:15 in the King James Version — “We who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.”
The same verse in the New American Standard Bible — “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
In 1611, the word prevent meant “to come before.” It came from the Latin words pre (“before”) and venire (“to come”). However, English has changed in the last 400 years, so the word has almost flipped to the opposite meaning. It is possible for the same thing to happen in Greek, so we must be cautious when we talk about the etymology of a word.
The key: Usage trumps etymology.
To find out what a word means, look at the way it is used. Follow the patterns we have described elsewhere, studying all the places where it is found. Then once you have done your research on the usage, take a look at the etymology or history of the word.
Sometimes you will find that the meaning has changed, so history doesn’t help.
In other passages, you will find that the etymology gives you a vivid, easily understood way to describe the meaning of the word. By all means, take the word apart. Tell people when “This word is made up of two Greek words.” But make sure you can put it back together again. Do your homework. Don’t depend on the etymology alone.
NOTE: For a fuller discussion of this issue, see D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 28-33. In his discussion, he uses the term root fallacy to describe the problem of misusing etymology.