What in the world does THAT title mean? Who ever heard of starting a blog post that way? That’s three big beasts in there, isn’t it? I’ll explain, don’t worry. 🙂
Let’s start with II Timothy 3:16-17:
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
The English words “given by inspiration of God” all come from a single Greek word, theopneustos (see, I’ve already explained one of those things in the title, it’s the Greek word for “inspiration by God”). There has perhaps been more written about this one Greek word than any other word in the Bible. Anyone who tells you the proper translation of this word is a simple matter is confused, showing off, or just wrong.
Unfortunately, the day of dictionaries hadn’t arrived when the Bible was written, so we don’t have a handy dictionary of Koine Greek (“common Greek”, the language of the Bible) to tell us the exact meaning of the words of the Greek New Testament. In translating ancient languages, we have to look at the clues to find out what a word means.
Some Clues or Evidence as to Meaning
Among the “clues” as to a word’s meaning in a particular document are:
- The way the word is used in other documents written previously or at the same time. This can help us to understand what the word meant broadly within the language at the time.
- The way the word is used in related documents (Scripturally, this would primarily mean other books of the Bible). This helps even more, because a word might have different meanings in different contexts, but if we can find it in a similar context, that is likely to be a strong indicator of what it means in the context at hand. For instance, if we want to know what a Biblical author means by a particular word, our best evidence is not how Greek philosophers used the word, but rather how other Biblical authors used it.
- The way the word is used elsewhere in the document, or in other documents by the same author. This is even better, because it gives us clues as to what this particular writer meant by the word. Scripturally, this would mean, for instance, when trying to decide what John meant by a particular word, it is always a good idea to examine how John used that word elsewhere, and that may give us even better evidence than how Luke or James used the word. If we want to determine what John meant in I John 1:1 by “Word of life,” we need to at least consider the possibility that it is similar to what he wrote in the first few verses of John 1.
- The way the word is used in the particular context at which we are looking.
- The words from which it is derived (called etymology — now I’ve explained another word from the title).
- The way the word is used in later documents. This can help us understand what the word meant later — but meanings change over time, so it is an imperfect indicator.
- The grammatical context in which it is used.
- Any known connotations to the word or its components.
- Sometimes similar words in other related languages give hints as to meaning.
- Translations of the text into another language, when available, give further evidence — not necessarily as to the intent of the author, but certainly as to how the translator understood the word.
Words that only appear once are called hapax legomena (singular hapax legomenon), which means “said once” (and that explains the last of the three monsters from the title). The meaning of these words can be more difficult to determine — we don’t have clues #2 & 3 above. The Greek word graphe, for instance, appears many times in the New Testament, so we have many contexts in which to examine it. Thus, we have enough evidence to know exactly what it means — “Scripture”. A word that only appears once gives us far fewer clues. We have to look carefully at its single usage in Scripture, and rely more heavily on the other clues listed above.
The Greek Word for Inspiration — theopneustos
Theopneustos is particularly awkward for us, because it is not only hapax legomenon, but its usage in Koine Greek (“common Greek”, the language of the New Testament) is very limited. There is no conclusive evidence that it was ever used before Paul used it here in II Timothy — certainly there are no indications that Paul or Timothy had any prior knowledge of the word. Paul may have actually invented this word (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit). We can’t assume that any other usage of the word in Greek literature really had the meaning that Paul meant to convey, or the meaning that Timothy received when he read it. In other words, not only are we without clues #2 & 3, #1 is no help to us, either.
Clue #10 is of limited value, as well. We don’t have any translations of the New Testament within perhaps 150 years of the writing of II Timothy. As a result, translations only tell us what someone much later thought theopneustos means. They may not be entirely useless, because they may reflect an accurate tradition of the meaning which was passed down by Paul and Timothy through other believers, but in general we can’t rely much on clue #10.
Does that mean we don’t know what theopneustos meant (and means)? Certainly not. We still have clues 4-9. For now, I’m going to skip over clue #4 and go to #5, etymology. I haven’t forgotten #4, I’m just deferring it to a later post.
Etymology of theopneustos
As we look at how theopneustos was derived, we find it consists of three parts:
theo: from theos, the Greek word for “God”.
pneus: from pneo, the Greek verb meaning “breathe” or “blow”. This is also the root word for pneuma, the Greek word for “wind” and (more commonly in the NT) “spirit”.
tos: this suffix in ancient Greek, especially with theos (“God”) almost always, if not always, indicates a passive form — it is describing something which is being done by God.
If we are going to define theopneustos etymologically (by its derivation), we would say something like “breathed by God” or “God-breathed”. This is comparable, for example, to another theo-x-tos compound word, in I Thessalonians 4:9, where theodidaktos means “taught by God”.
We need to be careful with etymology. I’ll give you an example from English. Water which is safe to drink is called “potable”, which comes from the Greek root potamos, meaning “river” or “stream”. We can see the connection between the English word “potable” and its root (when away from cities, running water is usually safe to drink, standing water often isn’t), but the meaning is certainly not identical.
Sometimes, after many years, the meaning drifts very far from the etymology / derivation, so that the connection between the two has virtually disappeared. We should not immediately assume that, once we’ve nailed the etymology, we have the meaning. Even if meaning and derivation are related, there can be quite a range of meaning. Another word from the same root potamos is hippopotamus (the Greek word for “horse” is hippos). If we defined it solely on etymology, we might decide that “hippopotamus” is a horse that lives by the river, a swimming horse, a horse used to tow a ferry across a river, the horse towing the river barge in The Wind in the Willows, or maybe even one of these (that’s just what I always thought a hippopotamus looks like!). Etymology is helpful, but it is hardly the final answer to a word’s meaning.
Nevertheless, etymology is generally the best place to start with hapax legomena, especially if it might be a “coined” word — one that Paul himself invented. Usually, when people invent a word, the meaning is closely tied to its derivation. For instance, “blog” came from “web log”, and that is what a “blog” is, a log that someone records on the Web. Fifty years from now, meanings may have changed, with “blog” having different connotations (probably it will come to mean “ravings lacking either facts or logic” :)), but at this point in its history, the etymology is very close to the meaning. Since theopneustos was probably a relatively new word, even if not invented for this text, the meaning is likely close to the etymology.
Etymology — a Starting Point for the Meaning of theopneustos
We can’t entirely trust the way a word was derived to tell us its meaning, but it probably (in this case) provides strong clues. Based on derivation, the Greek word theopneustos (“given by inspiration of God”) has a meaning related to “breathed by God.” It is indicating something about the divine origin of the Scriptures — they came from God. To discover if there is more than “from God” to its meaning in II Timothy 3:16, we’ll have to look for other clues, which we’ll do in my next post.