It is, perhaps, we lay preachers who are particularly prone to commit exegetical crimes, lacking as many of us do a technical grounding in the original languages of the Bible. ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ when it comes to drawing conclusions about the ‘literal meaning’ or the ‘original meaning’ of words. Here are some of the exegetical fallacies identified by D.A. Carson:-
1. The root fallacy. This based on the assumption that the meaning of a word is inevitably bound up in the ‘basic’, ‘original’, or ‘literal’ meaning of its component parts. Thus, ‘apostolos’ is related to ‘apostello’ (‘I send’), so the ‘literal’ meaning of ‘apostle’ is ‘one who is sent’. However, in the NT the emphasis falls on ‘the message’ rather than on ‘the sending’. Accordingly, an apostle is best defined as ‘a special messenger’. The ‘literal’ meaning of ‘monogenes’, we are told, is ‘only-begotten’. However, biblical usage (LXX & NT) shows that it means nothing more than ‘unique’, ‘only’ or ‘alone’, Ps 22:20; 25:16; Jn 3:16; Heb 11:17.
The fallacy of this approach is apparent when we consider the etymology of English words, such as ‘nice’, which comes from the Latin ‘nescius’, meaning ‘ignorant’. So, if we say a person is ‘nice’ do we ‘literally’ mean that he or she is ‘ignorant’? If one person says ‘good-bye’ to another, does it ‘literally’ mean ‘God be with you’? See 1 Cor 4:1n. This is not to say that etymology is irrelevant, but that meaning is determined by usage, not by etymology.
2. Semantic anachronism. This occurs when a later use of a word is read back into earlier literature. Example: we might assume that everything that is meant by the word ‘bishop’ today was also meant when that word was used in NT times. Again, preachers are too ready to read the modern meaning of ‘dynamite’ into the Gk word ‘dunamis’ (power, miracle). But this is not what Paul had in mind when he used the word, Rom 1:16, and in any case God’s power is not measured by the destructive force of an explosion, but by the empty tomb, Eph 1:18-20. Once more, it is cheating to suggest that because the Gk word behind ‘cheerful’ in 2 Cor 9:7 is ‘hilaron’, what God really wants is a hilarious giver.
3. Semantic Obsolescence. Here, the interpreter assigns a meaning to a word which it used to have, but which is no longer relevant. For example, there are several stages to the development of meaning in the word ‘martyr’:- -one who gives evidence – one who gives solemn witness – one who dies as a result of that witness. Mistakes can be made by those who too readily try to establish the meaning of a word by appeal to its use in classical Greek rather than its use in Hellenistic Greek.
D. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies.