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This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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“Literally” – A Discussion of Definitions

I recently read an interesting short article on the use of the term “literally” that I want to share with you, then comment upon.

Two Misuses of “Literally”

“He literally knocked his head off.” No. If he had, the head would have rolled across the floor, separated from the body. “Literally,” in that case, is mistakenly used to intensify a figure of speech, but “literally” does not intensify the figure. It says “knocked his head off” is not a figure of speech but a true description of what he did.

Another misuse of “literally” has to do with word meaning. Someone says, “proskuneo ‘literally’ means ‘kiss the ground toward.’” No, proskuneo literally means “worship.” “Kiss the ground toward” is its etymology, how the word was formed. It is also an archaic meaning; as ancient Persians did literally fall on their faces and kiss the feet or hem of the robe of their deified kings. Etymology does not determine meaning; usage does. The New Testament frequently says, “They fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:11; e.g.). “Fell down” is from a different original word, “worshipped” is proskuneo.

“Literally” does not intensify a figure. A word’s etymological meaning is not its “literal” meaning.

Cecil May
Preacher Talk (Vol. 27, No. 2—April 2012)

The first misuse of the term “literally” is typical in casual conversation. While irritating to those who are sensitive to the mangling of the English language, it is innocuous. However, defining biblical terms by their etymology, (or even their assigned dictionary definitions), without considering context, is extremely troubling as we seek to interpret God’s word.

Take as an example the term translated “church” in the New Testament. The term is from the Greek ekklesia. The etymology, as any student knows, is formed from the Greek roots ek (out), and kaleo (to call). The etymology leads us to say that when God uses the term church, he is referring to “the called out” as in those called out of the world.

While it is indeed true that Christians are called out of the world by the gospel (Romans 1:16), the definition of the term ekklesia is properly “a meeting or assembly.” The term generally refers to a called or organized assembly, but on at least one occasion, the term is used by Luke to refer to an unruly mob (Acts 19:32). On this occasion, the silversmith’s response to Paul’s preaching in Ephesus caused the whole city to be “filled with confusion”, and led them all to rush “into the theater.” The city clerk in an attempt to quiet the “assembly” contrasted it with “the lawful assembly” (vs. 39) which would be a better place to settle their grievances against Paul and his companions. Here is an example of usage (context) establishing the exact meaning.

The term “angel” comes from the Greek aggelos. In turn, the Greek term derives from (its etymology) the root ago “to bring.” The term is defined as “a messenger, one who brings tidings.” While the term is often used to refer to the spiritual, created beings we commonly refer to as angels, such as Gabriel and Michael, there is nothing inherently “spiritual” in the term. The term can be and is used to refer to human messengers. One example of this is in Jesus’ reference to the prophet Malachi concerning John the Baptist, “For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You’” (Mark 10:11). This is another clear example of usage (context) establishing the meaning of a word.

A third example is the word “left” as it is used in the New Testament. The term comes from the Greek word aphiemi. The word derives from the prefix apo– which when used as a prefix denotes a separation; and hiemi “to send or go.” It is defined very similarly to its etymology “to send or go away.”

In 1 Corinthians 7:13 the term is translated in the NKJV as “divorce.” “And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him.” The translation is accurate, as divorce is certainly the meaning in the context. However, consider Luke 18:29-30, “So He said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life.’” The phrase “left house or parents or brothers or wife or children,” in the context, simply does not and can not indicate divorce. To assign such a meaning (as some have recently done) is to take a leap that does violence to our Lord’s words.

A few years ago I called my friend Jay Bowman to ask his take on the usage of a Greek term that had been in dispute among brethren. It was a technical argument, and those who know Jay are aware of his proficiency in the language. When I made my inquiry, I learned an important lesson from his answer. He told me that he wasn’t sure you could determine the “technical” answer, but that the context clearly revealed what the writer intended. The lesson? While a knowledge of Greek grammar and usage is important, a little knowledge can be very dangerous. We must be careful not to base an interpretation of scripture on the supposed meaning or etymology of a word, without the clear support of both the immediate context, and greater context of all scripture.