What does that word mean? – 6: Sacred Texts

Posted: January 6, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Checking the social or situational context also means checking out any texts which the community habitually ‘fed on’. If they have sacred texts, those will tend to shape word meanings for the community. Even though these texts may be much older, they function as contemporary texts because they are still being read and heard daily.

For Christian communities in the c.1st AD, the Greek OT, called the Septuagint or LXX, was the sacred text. Often NT writers use words in the same sense as they are used in the LXX. This skews their Greek in a Jewish direction (cf. Luke’s use of afesis to mean ‘Jubilee’). In other words, for the NT writings, the Greek OT is a primary context which must be considered.

This LXX context is so influential, that studies of NT word meaning ignore it at their peril. A weakness of much modern bible commentating is the failure to consider this key context. Exceptions to this are Karen Jobes’ commentary on 1 Peter, and the works of N. T. Wright.

Checking the LXX context for a word’s meaning, is easy to do thanks to modern computer Bible software. Many people in full-time Christian ministry have this software. With Accordance, for example, the LXX module can be purchased cheaply, and it allows searches of the entire Greek OT at the click of a mouse. How was this word used in the LXX? It’s a simple process to check. The results almost always shed light on NT word meanings.

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As an example of the importance of the LXX for word meaning in the New Testament, we return to John Stott’s attempt, in The Cross of Christ, to show that ‘at its most basic to “redeem” means to buy or buy back’ (ch.7).

In view of ‘the unwavering usage of profane authors’, namely that this word group refers to ‘a process involving release by payment of a ransom price’ often very costly, wrote Leon Morris, we have no liberty to dilute its meaning into a vague and even cheap deliverance.

John Stott is usually a good scholar, but he runs into trouble when he relies on the work of Leon Morris, as he does here. The problem becomes apparent with the little word ‘profane’. Morris has overtly based his definition on extra-biblical writings. When later Stott comes to consider OT usage of the word ‘redemption’, he has already settled on his definition, and the only question is, can the standard definition be squared with the usage we find in the OT?

[regarding] Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt…can we still say that to ‘redeem’ is to ‘ransom’? What price did Yahweh pay?

He concludes that although no price is mentioned in this setting, one can discern a price or cost involved in the Exodus, and thus ‘redemption always involved the payment of a price, and…Yahweh’s redemption of Israel was no exception’ (p.207).

Let’s assess Stott’s use of the sacred texts as context. The OT usage was actaully not considered at all when determining the word’s meaning: that job is done using etymology and ‘profane’ usage. The OT was brought in only after a definition had been achieved, and its usage was considered as a possible ‘exception’ to the rule. At no time were the sacred texts allowed to influence the ‘basic’ meaning. Stott has here ignored sacred texts as a significant context for determining word meaning.

However, Luke, the only Gospel writer to use the term “redeem”, explicitly links his usage to the sacred texts: for Luke redemption = the redemption of Israel or Jerusalem (see e.g. Luke 1:68; 2:38; 24:21). This idea of the redemption of Israel/Jerusalem is drawn from the OT Scriptures, and is most clearly connected with the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of it more than any other prophet.

In other words, for Luke this is a specialised, religious or semi-technical term. In cases like this the broader secular usage is generally not very influential on meaning, certainly not a reliable guide. Stott has drawn his ‘basic meaning’ from the wrong social context.

He would do better to draw from Isaiah. There, the redemption of Jerusalem is a main theme of the book. In none of its many occurrences is ‘redemption’ used in a context of payment, except for one time: Yahweh says ‘you will be redeemed without payment’ (Isaiah 52:3)!

Luke’s Gospel is steeped in the vocabulary and theology of Isaiah. In keeping with the prophet’s usage, Luke never uses the term ‘redemption’ in a context of payment. In short, there is no evidence that Luke uses ‘redemption’ with the sense of payment.

Stott ignores Isaiah’s distinctive take on the word ‘redemption’. By barring the sacred texts from influencing his definition, he fails to unearth the ‘situational context’ which allowed the prophet to influence Luke’s usage so heavily. He never notices the specialised, community-specific meaning which Luke is so clearly drawing on.

This is a pretty normal example of how Bible teachers go wrong when they ignore the LXX context for word meanings.

Tomorrow: sense

  1. […] because this is the literary context in which the NT documents were written. These are their sacred texts: they are massively influential. Simply put, the apostles’ writings are saturated with the […]

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