The Meaning of Words (Part 2): Context and Semantic Range

Spelunking and what it has to do with semantic range

This is the second of a two-part series on words and their meanings.1

Part 1 discussed the difference between “words” and “concepts.” In Part 2 we will examine the interaction of “context” (the words surrounding a particular word) with “semantic range” (the complete gamut of how a word is being used by the speakers of a particular language at a particular point in time).


When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I chose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”2

“Context is king” runs the common mantra in biblical studies, and to a certain degree this is true. Yet the “king” cannot rule without some sort of legitimization from the people, and that’s where “semantic range” comes in. If “context is king,” then “semantic range is parliament,” for semantic range represents the will of the people.

In other words, language is a social construct.4

Consequently, without denying the existence of idiolect,5 anybody who wishes to communicate must make sure that how they use a word has at least some overlap with how their dialogue partner uses it.

Individual Lexicons

I will illustrate this with two examples from the adventures of a former missionary to Japan (one quite talented in language!) who is very dear to me (and granted permission for these stories to be posted).

In the first example, this missionary was preaching on Jesus’ statement “I am the Light of the world.” To illustrate, he spoke of spelunking during his college days, noting how dark it was in a cave without a light, how easy it was to get lost in a cave (even when he and his friends had a map), etc.

Confused expressions greeted him, for rather than using the word hora-ana (“cave”), he accidentally used the word ana-guma (“badger), thus regaling a dazed audience with tales of how, in his college days, he would get lost exploring the insides of a badger, despite having a map of the insides of the badger, etc. Obviously context was not enough to prevent miscommunication.

In the second example, the missionary had both context and etymology on his side, but to no avail. Attempting one day to witness to a lady, who had a young boy with her, the missionary endeavored to make friends with the young boy, who was clearly scared of the foreigner. Gesturing at the young boy, the missionary attempted to say, “He seems not to like me” by combining the word for “dislike” (ya) with the adjective for “seems to be” (ra-shii).

Unfortunately, when combined in such a manner vocally, the resulting word was radically different and did not possess “seems to dislike” as part of its semantic range. What the missionary said to the horrified lady was, “He seems to be morally repugnant.” The lady stalked away in shock, much to the missionary’s confusion.

What of Context?

In other words, context is not enough to facilitate clear communication, if in fact a word is not being used in accordance with how others use it. The assertion that “Context is King,” then, is in and of itself insufficient. As E. D. Hirsch states,

It is sometimes said that ‘meaning is determined by context,’ but this is a very loose way of speaking. It is true that the surrounding text or the situation in which a problematical word sequence is found tends to narrow the meaning probabilities for that particular word sequence; otherwise, interpretation would be hopeless. And it is a measure of stylistic excellence in an author that he should have managed to formulate a decisive context for any particular word sequence within his text. But this is certainly not to say that context determines verbal meaning. At best a context determines the guess of an interpreter (though his construction of the context may be wrong, and his guess correspondingly so). To speak of context as a determinant is to confuse an exigency of interpretation with an author’s determining acts. An author’s verbal meaning is limited by linguistic possibilities but is determined by his actualizing and specifying some of those possibilities.6

From a slightly different perspective, NT scholar Daniel Wallace aptly states, “Often linguists say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant.”7

When we examine a sentence, then, each word is not a blank slate, “x,” to be filled with whatever context demands of it. Rather, each word has, at that moment of time, a number of concepts that it can point to based on how people are, at that moment, using the word. Furthermore, the concepts the word reflects, as well as the very form of the word, may change over time. This is why etymology should not be relied on except in rare circumstances.

Consequently, communication can only occur when substantial overlap exists between how one person uses a word and how another person uses a word. Context will delineate which of the possible meanings is the correct one.8 Yet if neither of them are drawing from the possible meanings of the semantic range reflected in that language (or at least that particular dialect), miscommunication occurs.

Enter Semantic Range

Consider the following sentence: “Little Jimmy has been getting quite good at the violin. Do you want to come see him play in tomorrow night’s performance?” Now, the average speaker of English will be fully aware that “play” has multiple meanings, but can there be any doubt what the word means in this context? The word “violin” and the expression “tomorrow night’s performance” both make it clear that Little Jimmy is not throwing a football or sitting down to a friendly game of monopoly.

Yet, on the other hand, what would happen if in the above sentence the speaker replaced the word “play” with “belch”? The listener would most likely be confused and ask for clarification (or flee away in horror), simply because the word “belch” is not a word associated with the structured performance of musical instruments (at least not in the kind of concerts I’m familiar with!). We cannot force the word “belch” to mean what people usually mean by “play.” Despite what Humpty Dumpty claimed, it is the masses, not the individual, that determines the meanings of words.

In other words, when we have conversations with other people, we usually try to use words in such a way that they will understand. Exceptions do exist, especially in poetry, and since words do change meaning it is clear that somebody, somewhere, had to try something new; language is not static. For a fascinating discussion of this very point, see Peter J. Leithart’s book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture.9

Nonetheless, radical semantic change is slow and not easily detectable within small periods of time—we usually do not wake up one morning to realize that “professor” has suddenly become slang for “communist infiltrator.”

Bible Study and Semantic Range

So how does this practically affect our study of words in the Bible? First of all, serious study should not overly rely on lexicons at the expense of the literature of Koine Greek. As John A. L. Lee has convincingly demonstrated, too often lexicons do not conduct original research but merely repackage the work of those that have gone before.10 Obviously lexicons are helpful tools; my point is that they are not infallible.

Secondly, in order to understand a word’s semantic range, its use in Koine should be examined in the following order: 1. the NT itself; 2. the Septuagint; 3. Josephus; 4. other 1st century writers such as Philo, Plutarch, and the various papyri (if you have access to how a word is used in the papyri, this should trump Plutarch and other “fancier” writers since the papyri represents how the common man and woman of the day spoke and wrote).

After the NT, the LXX and Josephus take priority simply because they represent Jewish authors writing in Greek about biblical matters, and thus can be expected to possess significant parallels with the NT authors. Furthermore, as far as the LXX goes, we have to assume that the apostles had thoroughly immersed themselves in both its message and terminology.

Consequently, when the Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus as our ἱλαστήριον (Rom 3:25), one should naturally expect that he wished to invoke images of the actual physical Mercy Seat in the OT tabernacle, which is almost exclusively how the word is used in the LXX (cf. also Heb 9:5).11

Semantic Range and Context

Yet although one should look at semantic range in addition to context in order to determine meaning, ironically one cannot understand the semantic range of a particular word in the Bible without looking at its use in various other contexts. Yet when looking at a particular context, the reader should already know the semantic ranges of most of the words in order to understand the meaning of a particular word.

Occasionally, a sentence will be too difficult to puzzle through precisely because the reader does not know the semantic ranges of words or the significance of specific syntactical constructions. Consequently, when learning both written and vocal languages, one must always work from the simpler to the more complex, gaining insight as one continues to immerse oneself in the language.

This can be illustrated with a “tourist” analogy. At the most primitive level of communication, a completely lost foreigner looking for the train station in Tokyo would probably not (contrary to popular perception) resort to raising his voice, but rather to gestures imitating a train (“charades”).

Having established, through the use of gestures, that “train” is denshain Japanese, he can now make educated guesses as to the words surrounding densha in a sentence, especially those words that occur frequently in simple contexts. Some of his guesses will be wrong, but his guesses will improve the more he is immersed in the language. As his understanding of the meaning of both words and sentences improves, so will his ability to make educated guesses regarding the meaning of new words within different contexts.

Furthermore, his guesses will be more likely to be correct in simpler sentences than in complex sentences. After all, the English word “car” would be more easily understandable to a non-native speaker in the sentence “The car was in an accident” (accompanied by gestures) than “Tony Stewart short-shifted his car while expertly slipstreaming past the lead.”12 So, when examining how a word is used in a particular biblical text, how a word is used elsewhere in simpler and non-controversial texts is better evidence than how a word is used in complex and murkier texts.

Thus the more comprehensive one’s grasp of the language (i.e., semantic ranges and syntactical constructions), the more likely somebody can determine from a specific context the meaning of a particular word. Both a knowledge of context and semantic range are necessary; once again, if “context is king,” then “semantic range is parliament.”

Goodbye Etymology?

Since we are relying on semantic range and context to determine meaning, very rarely do we have to worry about etymology, the history of a word. Etymology simply does not factor into the way society normally uses language. For example, as a baby develops and learns the meanings of words, he or she does not do so based on an inherent knowledge of the history of a word,13 but rather based on how people in the same room are using the word!14

To be sure, a baby experiences trial and error: “da-da” may alternately refer to a toy truck, an older sister, or even the family dog before the baby “gets it right.” At no point in the development of a child, however, does he or she stop and think, “I will use this word based on how the word was morphologically constructed 500 years ago.” Generally speaking, neither do adults.

Having said that, etymology can be helpful in two cases. First, “The etymology of a word may help to determine its meaning, but only if it can be demonstrated that the speaker was aware of that etymology.”15

Secondly, for extremely rare words or words such as θεόπνευστος which appears nowhere else in Greek literature prior to the 2 Timothy, etymology may be our only clue as to its meaning.16

Compound Word Fallacy

Notwithstanding rare examples such as θεόπνευστος, a corollary to the etymological fallacy is the idea that a compound word automatically has the same semantic range as the combination of the meanings of the two words it derived from. Granted, obviously there will be a connection. Yet with compound words, the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

In other words, προστρέχω, for example, should not be understood as: “=[semantic range of πρός] + [semantic range of τρέχω],” as if the compound word would automatically have the meaning of “running in accordance with something” instead of “running up to someone or something.”17 As Turner and Cotterell state, “We should not, however, be beguiled . . . into thinking that compound lexemes always are, or even usually, bear a meaning that is little more than a summation of the separate meanings of the elements of which the word is composed.”18 Compound words must be studied in their own right, not on the basis of their morphology.19


In summary:

  1. Words and concepts are different, and their relationship will change over time
  2. A single word can point to different concepts at different times (rarely at the same time)
  3. Multiple words can point to the same concept (which means you need to study more than one word to understand a concept)
  4. Both a knowledge of semantic range (how a word is used elsewhere) and context are key to determining meaning
  5. Etymology can be helpful but should only be used as a last resort in determining meaning.

One final point for the linguistically-inclined (or any “gluttons for punishment”). Language is fluid, and as we pointed out earlier, there are some brave souls who will use words in ways they haven’t been used before. In other words, as Relevance Theory points out regarding the interrelation between words and concepts, these relationships may be somewhat modified on the fly to create what Robyn Carston calls an “ad hoc concept.”20

So anybody can, in theory, utilize words to create a new concept for the listener or hearer (by “new” I mean “one which the reader had not thought of before”). Carston gives the example of somebody who uses the expression “Ken’s a (real) bachelor,” which would not point to the normal meaning of “bachelor” as simply an unmarried man, but rather to a different concept, that of a particular lifestyle.21

Furthermore, an author may use a word in an unfamiliar way and then use multiple words to explain what he or she means, or even introduce a totally new concept to somebody with multiple words, and then associate that concept with a specific word or phrase (e.g., Paul Bloom gives us the excellent example of teaching somebody who is not a hockey fan the meaning of “hat trick”).22

No doubt this happens in the NT, but it is not the word itself which introduces a radically new concept, but the explanation surrounding the word. This, then, brings us back full circle to Barr’s point: theology is generally performed at the sentence level, not the word level.

Suggested Readings

Thanks again for reading my posts on The Meanings of Words, part 1 and part 2. If you want to learn more, here is a list of suggested readings:

Barr, James. The Semantics of Biblical Language. Reprinted. Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock, 2004.

Black, David Alan. Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995.

Bloom, Paul. How Children Learn the Meaning of Words. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Carson, D. A. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984.

Cotterell, Peter, and Max Turner. Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1989. (Note: if you could only afford one book on this list, I would recommend Cotterell and Turner over the others (with a close second being Black, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek).

Carston, Robyn. Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Green, Gene L. “Lexical Pragmatics and Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (2007): 799-812.

_______. “Lexical Pragmatics and the Lexicon.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 22 (2012): 315- 333.

Gutt, Ernst-August. Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Lee, John A. L. A History New Testament Lexicography. Studies in Biblical Greek 8. New York: Lang, 2003.

Leithart, Peter J. Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009.

Lyons, John. Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968. Warning: of all the books listed here, Lyons is easily the most technical! Approach at your own risk!

Silva, Moisés. Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics. Revised and Expanded ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

  1. This discussion is adapted from a paper I presented at the (Bible Faculty Summit, July 2016, at Maranatha Baptist University (Watertown, WI), which in turn was based on (though not copied from) my book Foreknowledge and Social Identity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).
  2. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, ed. by Florence Milner (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1917), 99.
  3. As Ferdinand de Saussure notes, language is “a social product” and “a social occurrence” (“un produit social” and “un fait social”; Troisième cours de linguistique générale (1910-1911): d’ après les cahiers d’Emile Contantin, ed. and trans. by Eisuke Komatus and Roy Harris [Oxford: Pergamon, 1993], 9 and 97. The social nature of language can be further illustrated by how a baby learns English. Left to itself, a baby does not learn to progress beyond babbling. Yet through its interaction with parents and caretakers, a baby slowly but surely learns the difference between “papa,” “mama,” “yes,” and “no,” based on how people around it use those words. For an excellent discussion of linguistics and child development, see Paul Bloom, How Children Learn the Meanings of Words (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).[\note] Language exists only so far as two or more sentient beings manifest structured interaction, interaction which may include physical signs, written words, or vocalized speech (or, for the science fiction fans among us, maybe even “ESP”). A “personal language” would be something of an oxymoron, for language does not exist without interaction between two or more beings.3This does raise the interesting speculation that language might be an intrinsic feature of God Himself, in the sense that He is a Trinity and consequently a social Being.
  4. D. A. Cruse correctly notes that each person has their own “mental lexicon”; nevertheless, communication occurs due to “an adequate degree of overlap between individual lexicons” (“The Lexicon,” in The Handbook of Linguistics, eds. Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller [Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001] 263).
  5. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 47-48 (emphasis added).
  6. Daniel B. Wallace, “Lexical Fallacies by Linguistics,” Online: (accessed 2/12/2015).
  7. As David Alan Black succinctly states, “Because most words are polysemous, the context is usually necessary to disambiguate (clarify) the meaning of the polysemous word by indicating which of the several possible meanings is intended in that particular occurrence of the word.” See especially Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 129.
  8. Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), ch. 3, “Words Are Players,” esp. 80–89.
  9. John A. L. Lee, A History of New Testament Lexicography, Studies in Biblical Greek 8 (New York: Lang, 2003). Note especially his statement on page 177, “Yet New Testament lexicography has failed to deliver the results one might expect from such long-sustained attention. Instead of a commodity that provides accurately described meanings and a reliable summation of the relevant data, we have haphazard coverage of the latter and a considerably flawed treatment of the former. The reasons for this outcome have been identified in the foregoing chapters: undue reliance on predecessors, an unsatisfactory method of indicating meaning, interference from translations, and inadequate means of gathering evidence and opinion.”
  10. Significantly, this may be a perfect example of a NT writer doing something new with a word, although it is worth noting that 4 Maccabees 17:22 we do see the word being used to refer to the deaths of people, specifically martyrs for the Jewish faith. Regardless, clearly the Apostle Paul’s use of ἱλαστήριον draws from the LXX use of ἱλαστήριον, and we can reasonably suppose that the average Christian in Rome would have understood what Paul was doing.
  11. With apologies to any NASCAR fans, I don’t even know if that sentence makes sense! I simply went online and searched for technical NASCAR terms that I could mold into a sentence.
  12. Robert L. Thomas argues that etymology was “subconsciously available for an ancient culture and therefore an implied element in his usage of a given word” (see his article “Modern Linguistics Versus Traditional Hermeneutics,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 14 (Spring 2003), 32. Consequently, for Thomas, etymology “. . . is the only way modern man has to ‘get into the minds’ of the ancients and so better understanding their intentions in the choice of words” (32). I honestly have no idea what Thomas means by saying that etymology was “subconsciously available for an ancient culture,” but at the very least Thomas’ argument seems unfalsifiable; how do you prove that anything was either “subconsciously available” or “not subconsciously available” in the minds of an ancient culture?
  13. For an excellent discussion of infants, children, and lexical semantics, see Bloom, How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, especially page 55. Contra what Thomas seems to be implying (see the previous footnote), with Bloom I would declare that babies, both today and two thousand years ago, learn words based on their interaction with those around them, not some “subconscious” encoding in their brain.
  14. David Alan Black, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, 122.
  15. Wallace, “Lexical Fallacies by Linguistics,” n.p.
  16. The word can mean “run before” in addition to “run up to” (see Josephus, Jewish War, 2.213 [2.11.4]). My point is that not everything that πρός can mean will automatically be reflected in the compound word.
  17. Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1989), 130.
  18. I believe many have been guilty of this mistake in regards to προγινώσκω, assuming on the basis of the Hebrew ידע and its relation to the Greek γινώσκω that προγινώσκω must also mean “deep intimate relationship with” or something similar. Perhaps προγινώσκω does sometimes mean that, or perhaps it does not, but this must be established on the basis of semantic range, not etymology (especially since the Greek προγινώσκω nowhere in the LXX translates the Hebrew ידע).
  19. Robyn Carson, Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 228-234.
  20. Ibid., 328-30.
  21. Bloom, How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, 254).
Written by
Paul Himes

Paul Himes is professor of Bible and Ancient Languages at Baptist College of Ministry (Menomonee Falls, WI). He received his PhD in New Testament in 2014 under Dr. David Alan Black at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Foreknowledge and Social Identity in 1 Peter (Pickwick, 2014).

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