1Cor 4:1 — probing the application of etymology in translation

I’m still exploring translation.  Following the sharing of my 1Cor 4:1-5 translations and abbreviated thoughts on the role and processes of lexical works, I want to consider the application of etymology in biblical studies.

[Caveat lector for the sake of any NB* or CB* or QQB* who may happen in here:  this is no seminarian blog; neither am I subject, by reason of salary or conscience, to any denomination.  Rather, I am a sincere believer who tries—among pursuits in Christian, musical, and other spheres—to study the original NT language, toward a more apt application, in this era, of well-attested, ancient texts.   * NB = non-believer; CB = closeted believer; QQB = questioning or quasi-believer ]

I confess this:  it is difficult for me to give up etymology.  I am a “word guy”often thinking about words, punning and teaching my child to pun, and looking for the perfect expression. . . .  When I began to realize that etymology would often steer me off course (eresso/hupēretas | row or steer reference intended!), it was painful.

In the last day of preparation of this post, I found someone else’s blog that’s even titled with the word eresso (the root etymological component of hupēretas).  On that blog, a single, etymologically derived definition has taken on a life of its own.  Says that writer, Brad Besson, “‘Eresso’ describes the galley slaves in the belly of the ship whose rowing propelled the ship through the sea.”  Besson has apparently taken as his jumping-off point this same text, 1Cor 4:1, but he has perhaps been a bit more careless than I:

  • he misspelled hupēretas (an easy mistake to make)
  • he conflated two related words as though they are one and the same
  • he advanced one etymologically derived definition (presumably Robertson or Thayer) to the exclusion of others

I think Besson was seeking to create, for the sake of his readers, an image of a dutiful slave, rowing a boat for Christ.  Devotionally speaking, that may in fact be a rich or helpful image, but it is less textually justified than my own translation.  The question may be one of purpose:  what is the purpose of this or that blog or translation?  Besson doesn’t appear to have text translation as one of his primary purposes, so he should probably be graciously excused from the requirement to adhere strictly to the most stringent translation principles.  Or should he not be excused?

How far afield from the text can one go in order to make a devotional point?

When one uses an etymologically based definitionin Besson’s case, sort of amalgamating definitions of two related wordsto support a preconceived point, he is in danger of saying something the text doesn’t say.  (For the record, I don’t think Besson has said anything remotely “dangerous.”  He has made a point in keeping with general NT thoughts about serving under Christ.)  On the other hand, when one uses appropriate resources appropriately, he is much more likely to say what the text actually says.)

Etymology’s berth in textual studies is not a particularly elevated one.  Yet etymology may at times be judiciously pressed into service.

Moisés Silva deems etymological research “the backbone of comparative linguistics” (Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, 1983-1994, p. 41), but 1) the value of comparing cognates inside a family of ancient languages is more on-track than 2) attempting to determine the meaning of a single, Koiné Greek word based on its components.  In other words, etymology is not as valuable in NT Greek word studies as it is when an ancient, Semitic language is being compared, say, to Aramaic or Hebrew.

Many a time have I heard preachers and others make the points given as negative examples in Silva’s book.  ShootI have made those points myself!  Hermeneutically speaking, I have been guilty of the crime of stealing identitiesidentities of words, that ishijacking them without harmful purpose, but taking them where they didn’t want to go nonetheless.  It’s hard not to make connections, for instance, between 2000-year-old Greek and contemporary English when I’m a teacher who naturally searches for metaphors to communicate important ideas to students.  The Greek dunamis (dynamis), for example, may easily be connected by morphemes to the English “dynamic” and “dynamite,” but any real, conceptual linkage is tenuous at best.

In over-exuberance, I might be caught saying something like this to a music ensemble when they are being conservative with musical dynamics:

“You guys are playing more like hibernating rabbits than lions right now.  The dynamic shape here should be larger and more dramatic.  You know, the word “dynamic” comes directly from a Greek word that was sometimes used to describe powerful displays — miracles — beyond the naturally observable.  Let’s make the dynamic shape of this passage more powerful — almost miraculous.”

In saying all the above, I would have been

  1. mixing animal and language metaphors (whatever . . .)
  2. communicating fairly well about interpreting music (yay, me)
  3. treading on very thin ice with regard to comparative linguistics (ouch).  Connecting the English “dynamite” or “dynamics” backward to dunamis can “tend to create certain associations in the mind of the modern Bible reader that might have been foreign to the original writers.”  (Silva, p. 45)

Generally, as a teacher, I’m reluctant at times, yet I should probably be more careful than I already am when thinking and teaching about biblical words and their usage.

This has gotten too long, so I’ll continue in a second, summary post on “applied etymology.”

Brian Casey, 2/18-23/2015


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