What is the Root Word Fallacy Danger

photo signifying the root word fallacy

A fallacy is simply a mistaken idea. In biblical studies, a root word fallacy is a mistaken belief that a word inherently carries one meaning in all of its uses. It unfortunately happens frequently. For example, a preacher is preaching away and then gets to an important word in the text and says, “Now this word comes from the Greek root word which always means [fill in the blank], and so we can import that root meaning here.”

Now, the connection made is not always incorrect. But, it is a flawed methodology. Language is not static, but dynamic. Hence, words can change in meaning over time. In fact, one of the most interesting things about language is that words sometimes take on a life of their own and develop meanings which were never found in the root meaning of the word!

For example, take the English word “nice.” Coming from Latin, the root of nice seems to originally have had the meaning to be ignorant (not knowing something). However, today nobody thinks that the sentence, “Bob is nice,” has anything to do with Bob’s intellectual capability. Rather, nice refers to one’s character. And it would be a compliment today, not a negative assessment!

For another example, take the root of the word “gay.” In many of the older English texts we can read sentences like, “Virginia was feeling rather gay.” A text like this, written in 1901, would simply mean happy, because that was related to the root. But, the root has nothing to do with the associated meaning today, 120+ years later.

The same principle applies to Greek and Hebrew. Word meanings and uses change over time. For example, in the Greek language the preposition ἐν changed from more of a specific use (pre-Hellenistic), to a general “wild-card” type of usage (Hellenistic), and then became not useful at all so it dropped out of Greek use (post-10th century).

How does knowing about the root word fallacy help you and me?

The big takeaway is that the primary information about what a word means should not come from its historic root. That information may be helpful, especially when a word is not used very often so we do not have much information on it. However, the key to understanding a word’s meaning is found mainly in how it is used in its present cultural context.

This is displayed in how New Testament writers often use Greek terms which coincide with vocabulary nuances that are found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX).

For example, take the Greek term diatheke (διαθήκη). In old Greek literature this term was used for a will or testament primarily. However, because the Hebrew concept of covenant in the OT had no Greek word to convey it properly, the Jews borrowed the Greek word diatheke to represent covenant. Hence, in the New Testament, when diatheke is used, it is primarily being used to refer to the covenant concept (which is not present in the original root of the word diatheke).

Don’t get caught in the trap of the root word fallacy! You should not trace everything back to a supposed “root meaning.” The meaning of words is located in the present cultural context, and the question to ask is, “What did the author mean by using this word in the textual context of his culture and time.” Many times what the author means is different than the root meaning of the word.

photo credit: Arcturus Aldebaran via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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