What does that word mean? – 2: Immediate Context

Posted: January 2, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics
Tags: , , ,

wet-spongeOne of the most widely accepted findings of modern linguistics is the primacy of context in determining word meaning. Words get their meaning largely from the ‘environment’ in which they hang out.

Contexts come in different varieties. Most obviously, there is the sentence or phrase in which the word appears: sometimes called the co-text. Consider this sentence:

The wages of sin is death.

The word ‘death’ here is coloured by the sentence. This particular sentence gives ‘death’ a meaning that is theological. Here ‘death’ appears, not as a natural part of the biological life cycle, nor as a regrettable accident, but rather as a reward or even a judicial verdict returned as a result of wrongdoing. It is a kind of ‘wages’ or payment, based on the behaviour ‘sin’. The death in view is a real, human death. The sentence strongly colours the meaning of the word.

Compare this to the same word in a different phrase:

Death by chocolate.

Here the word lacks much of the meaning mentioned above. Death here is used as a metaphor: it is not real death in view. On the contrary, the word has a positive sense of extreme enjoyment.

The same word in these two co-texts means very different things. This particular kind of context, i.e. the immediate context of the neighbouring words, is usually the most important for determining the meaning of a word.

You can think of meaning as a liquid which flows backward and forward through a sentence, filling individual words. Words are porous like sponge, the liquid can get inside them. When you place a word in a new co-text, it gets filled with meaning by its neighbours. But that meaning which it soaks up is not transferable to a different sentence. If you extract the word out of that setting, the meaning runs back out of the holes like a liquid, and is left behind. When you put the word down in another sentence, it is empty again. But it once again soaks up meaning from its new neighbours.

This is not to say that words can mean anything. There are a range of meanings that any given word is capable of ‘soaking up’ – for other meanings, a different word is needed. There are things which the word ‘Onesimus’ cannot mean, no matter where it is placed. If you want to talk about ice cream, you’ll need a different word.

This principle that context is supreme, has an important implication for determining word meaning:

A word can have more than one meaning.

All of this is good news for ordinary Bible readers. It means you can have a good go at figuring out what a word means, even by reading the English. You mainly need to look at the sentence the word is sitting in, and take your cues from there. Whatever the sentence is about, the word in question will be about that too. The trick is to realise that even though you’re staring at an English word and you think you already know what it means, actually you don’t know – not until you’ve determined its meaning from the context. The dictionary can give you a range of possible meanings, but it can’t tell you what the word means here, because it can’t assess the context for you. But you can do it!


As an example, consider the word ‘justified’ as it occurs in Titus 3:7

…so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs…

Normally in Paul this word has a judicial or forensic sense: ‘declared righteous by the judge’. But there is no forensic language here: verse 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy…BUT when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared,  5 he saved us…through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour,  7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs…

Here the context is not judicial language but moral language. We were wicked but God washed and made us new us by his Spirit, a rebirth. Now having been justified in that way, we are heirs. Here the word ‘justified’ is being used to talk about moral categories. It means something like ‘put right’ – a meaning not normally to the fore in Paul’s usage, but perfectly permissible in his day.


Failure to appreciate the primacy of context leads to spurious arguments about word-meanings. The most common error is where a word’s meaning from one location is assumed to hold true in a different location. As though the liquid, having flowed into the sponge, was trapped in there for good and could travel with the sponge to its new setting.  The technical name for this error is ‘illegitimate identity transfer’. Back in the 1960s, James Barr complained that this mistake was frequently found in both Bible teaching and Bible scholarship. It still is today.

So when a preacher (or author) as part of their argument says ‘this word means this’ or ‘this word always means this’, they are wrong. The idea that there is a pre-existent meaning for the word, ready to pull off the shelf for this occasion – this is misleading. What they should be saying is: here, the word means this.

Tomorrow: context circles


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