Q59 : Word Meanings in the KJV Bible

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Q59 : Word Meanings in the KJV Bible

I wanted to ask about helps for reading the KJV Bible. There are many resources available for the archaic words—that's not a problem. I'm concerned about words that I already know but have changed in meaning over the years! These are not necessarily listed in the archaic word list. A quick example is 'rightly dividing the word of truth'. What does it mean to 'divide'? We've seen that the hyper-dispensationalists take this literally and in the sense divide means today. It seems that the KJV translators intended divide to mean 'handle rightly' and not 'chop'. Aside from using another translation, do you know of any resources that list common words that have changed meaning in the KJV Bible?

A59 : by Tony Garland

As you mention, there are some excellent resources for gaining insight into the archaic words in the KJV. One which I can recommend is Archaic Words and the Authorized Versiona by Lawrence M. Vance.

Yet, as you observe, this does not help with other terms which are not archaic. However, I would not underestimate the value of using other translations as a valuable way to check the range of meaning (semantics) possible for a given word in the specific context of its usage in a verse. This is a valuable approach for those with no knowledge of how to use Strong's Numbers or the original languages. By checking other translations, one can gain an appreciation of both the range of meaning and the emphasis that most translators see the term as carrying within its context. For example, with reference to the phrase 'rightly dividing' (2Ti. 2:15):

ASVhandling aright
Darbycutting in a straight line
ESVrightly handling
HCSBcorrectly teaching
KJVrightly dividing
MKJVrightly dividing
NAS95accurately handling
NETteaching . . . accurately
NIVcorrectly handles
NKJVrightly dividing
NLTcorrectly explains
NRSVrightly explaining
Tyndaledividynge . . . iustly [dividing ... justly]
WEBproperly handling
Wyclifferiytli tretinge [rightly treating]
YLTrightly dividing

From a simple comparison, we can readily see that a number of translators (both committees and individuals) recognize that the underlying Greek term can denote ideas which may be represented in English by terms as diverse as 'handling,' 'treating,' 'explaining,' 'teaching.' Clearly the phrase is not emphasizing division, but the idea of properly handling the Scriptures while explaining or teaching their contents. So we can definitely learn more by comparing English translations.

This having been said, we should realize there are limitations with such an approach. For one, we are subject to the interpretive whims of various translators. And, as we've discussed elsewhere, some translations — especially those of a more recent origin — tend toward paraphrase or are unduly influenced by modern agendas or political correctness. Second, our study of the meaning is essentially reduced to a 'popular vote' by the different translations to which we give essentially equal weight in determining what is the most accurate phrase. The problem is translations are unequal in their methods of translation. Some are very careful with the text whereas others are less so. And it is not always obvious which is which.

Ultimately, the best way to study the meaning of English terms, be they archaic or common, is to get closer to the original text. Ideally, we would learn Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) and Greek (the language of the New Testament). However, this may not be practical for all students of God's Word. So the next best thing is to use the system of Strong's Numbers developed by James Strong which allows those without knowledge of Hebrew or Greek to work in limited ways with the original text. Instead of having to read the Hebrew or Greek alphabet (required to work with original language resources), once can use a Strong's Number-coded concordance to identify the Hebrew or Greek term. James Strong assigned a unique number to each basic Hebrew and Greek term in the original text by which non-Hebrew and Greek readers can refer to the original language words.

You'll need to purchase a concordance which includes (1) Strong's Numbers; (2) a Hebrew dictionary; (3) a Greek dictionary. For the KJV Bible, you can use The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bibleb and for the NASB consider the New American Standard exhaustive concordance of the Biblec.

This can also be done (much more efficiently) using Bible study software. For example, on our website, this is a two-step process:

  1. Open the KJV-Strong's Bible at 2 Timothy 2:15d.
  2. Then click on the blue dot1 above the phrase 'rightly dividing.'

This will open Thayer's Greek Lexicon at Strong's Number 3718e.

In our example, 'rightly divided' (2Ti. 2:15, KJV) is found to be Strong's Number 3718 in the Greek.

Thayers' gives the following information:

g3718 orthotomeo (or-thot-om-eh'-o) from a compound of 3717 and the base of 5114; TDNT - 8:111,1169; v

AV - rightly divide 1; 1

1) to cut straight, to cut straight ways

1a) to proceed on straight paths, hold a straight course, equiv. to doing right

2) to make straight and smooth, to handle aright, to teach the truth directly and correctly

From this information, we deduce that the Greek term happens to be a hapax legomenon, that is, it only occurs once within the entire New Testament ('something said once'). This is indicated by the word's usage count: (1;).

This presents a challenge because it makes it impossible to look at various ways the same Greek term might be translated in other passages within the Bible since it only exists in 2 Ti. 2:15. (It is still possible to study its usage in Greek texts outside the Bible, but that is a subject for another time.)

We can also see that the word is made up of two other words (from a compound of 3717 and the base of 5114 ) which we can also look up.

g3717 orthos (or-thos') probably from the base of 3735; TDNT - 5:449,727; adj

AV - upright 1, straight 1; 2

1) straight, erect

1a) upright

1b) straight, not crooked


g5114 tomoteros (tom-o'-ter-os)

comparative of a derivative of the primary temno (to cut, more comprehensive or decisive than 2875, as if by a single stroke, whereas that implies repeated blows, like hacking);; adj

AV - sharper 1; 1

1) sharper

Although compound words do not always reflect the meaning of their individual components (e.g., a pineapple is not an apple from a pine tree), in this case there seems to be a reasonable correlation.

For additional information, we can check other resources such as Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary Of Old And New Testament Wordsf:

ORTHOTOMEO (3718), lit., to cut straight (orthos, straight, temno, to cut), is found in 2 Tim. 2:15, A.V., 'rightly dividing,' R.V., 'handling aright' (the word of truth); the meaning passed from the idea of cutting or dividing, to the more general sense of rightly dealing with a thing. What is intended here is not dividing Scripture from Scripture, but teaching Scripture accurately.

Notice how the meaning of the term, though originally derived from its component words, came to mean something somewhat different.

We have seen how Strong's Numbers can give us additional information about word meanings — and we've just scratched the surface because if we were working with a word which occurred multiple times in the text we could do much more (look at the range of meanings assigned by translators, look at how the meaning varies in different contexts, etc.).

However, one caution I want to mention in passing: Using Strong's Numbers is a valuable tool, but it will never substitute for using the original languages themselves. There are a number of reasons why this is true. First, Strong's Numbers, even when augmented with tense-voice-mood indicators, still lack other important grammatical indicators (e.g., case, declension, person, gender, number). Second, all terms are reduced to their most basic Hebrew or Greek root so subtle, but potentially important variations are lost. Third, as with any original language knowledge, a little knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge. A Christian, newly equipped with Strong's Numbers, can be much like a teenager who thinks he knows more than his parents. There are few things which try the patience of a teacher of God's Word more than to have undertaken the complexity of the study of the original languages only to have students in his class make bold and contradictory assertions based on the rudimentary use of Strong's Numbers tools. However, when used with caution and humility, valuable insights can be obtained.

Having seen that the term translated by the phrase "rightly dividing" is less about dividing and more about properly handling Scriptural information, we would be remiss if we concluded that properly handling the text does not involve recognition of divisions in God's Word:

The Stewardship; the economy, the household management; the way God runs His affairs, has changed. The way He deals with people, the way He carries out His sovereign plan has changed. The plan hasn't altered, but the way He works it out, the people He uses and the way it's done, those things have changed, and that's what we mean by a dispensation, (i.e. a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purpose).2

For example, concerning the eating of meat: God originally specified vegetarianism (Gen. 1:29), but allowed the eating of animals following the flood (Gen. 9:3; Deu. 12:15; Rom. 14:2; 1Ti. 4:3). Yet it appears that vegetarianism will prevail again in the future, at least among animals (Isa. 11:6-9; Isa. 65:25; Hos. 2:18). Clearly, there have been changes in God's program which we must recognize in order to make sense out of Scripture.

Concerning marriage to siblings: it was both necessary and acceptible for Cain to marry a sister within the family of Adam and Eve since there were no other women available (Gen. 4:17). Yet later, God laid down specific laws prohibiting marriage within the family unit (Lev. 18:7; 20:11; 1Cor. 5:5).

Another example: if one fails to distinguish between Israel and the Church, one can attempt to appropriate the unique position of the Levitical priesthood within the Law of Moses to the modern Christian church:

What emerges from the data we have examined is that the radical transformation of the Christian ministry during the second and third centuries was, to a large extent, the result of the Church taking over the Levitical practice on the assumption that such instruction was intended for the Church. This assumption is a fruit of replacement theology, according to which the Church, and not Israel, is the true subject of the Law and the Prophets. . . . The disinheriting of Israel did not remain an isolated element in the development of Christian thought. One area of theology that it influenced in the early Christian centuries was ecclesiology. For eample, in what became the standard interpretation of Malachi 1:10-12, the idea that the Church had replaced Israel was linked with the reinterpretation of the Lord's Supper in the Levitical terms of sacrifice. Once the Hebrew Bible was thought to be a thoroughly Christian book, there developed a more general use of Levitical forms and terminology in the context of the Church. Instead of being called elders, local church leaders began to be called priests in order to comply with the new concept of the Christian ministry as sacrificial. At the same time important characteristics of the new covenant, such as the priesthood of all believers, the sufficiency of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice, and the crucial importance of faith in Christ for personal salvation were neglected. 3

So although we would disagree with the extreme to which Hyperdispensationalism divides the Scriptures, we must recognize the important principle that the Scriptures only make sense as a cohesive noncontradictory canon when we recognize clear distinctions which Scripture itself sets forth. Failure to recognize or accept these distinctions has led to great pain and confusion throughout history as well as numerous strange practices.4

1 - By clicking on the red dot above the same phrase, you can see the tense-voice-mood information for the Greek word which is present tense, active voice, and a participle. In this case the participle functions as a verbal noun conveying an ongoing action of: 'while doing.'

2 - Robert Lightner, 'Progressive Dispensationalism,' The Conservative Theological Journal Vol. 4 No. 11, March 2000, 49-50.

3 - Ronald E. Diprose, Israel and the Church: The Origin and Effects of Replacement Theologyg, pp. 136, 170.

4 - For example, teaching that infant baptism is the New Testament continuation of infant circumcision found in the Old Testament.

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