Common Exegetical Fallacies

Article: Common Exegetical Fallacies (original source here)

Every good preacher or teacher wants to present the Scriptures in their original context and give the application for the modern listeners. We call the processes of discovering the original meaning, context, and application exegesis. Anytime exegesis takes place the exegete must go back to the original language to determine what is really being said, among other things. An Exegetical Fallacy (EF) is when the original language is misunderstood, misused, or misapplied to say or teach something that was not intended by the language.

The issue of Exegetical Fallacies stemming from a misuse and/or misunderstanding of Biblical Greek is deeply relevant and far too common in our day. These fallacies happen more often than most of us recognize. The scary thing is that so many people assume that they are excluded from them. When EF are being committed, they are usually done by a sincere, well meaning pastor or teacher, who genuinely is trying his best with the tools he has to communicate from Greek what he believes is being said. This person usually does not have any idea that they are teaching a fallacy. More so, it is thought that if someone has a Biblical Hermeneutic and sound “Reformed Theology”, then they are protected for the most part from exegetical fallacies. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, these fallacies may be as common in Reformed pulpits as they are elsewhere. Indeed, those often responsible for committing the fallacies which follow are those who do not have a working knowledge of Biblical Greek, but rather attempt find the meaning of the Greek through computer programs, lexicons or dictionaries, or some other means, but have not actually studied the language and learned it for themselves. In short, they are fully dependent on second-hand sources.

The best and most thorough treatment of this topic is D.A. Caron’s wonderful book Exegetical Fallacies. This little book should be carefully read by everyone who preaches or teaches the Word of God. If you have read it, then there is probably not much new below. Nevertheless, I will attempt to mention a brief list of some of the most common EF today.

I usually do not use transliterations of the Greek alphabet, but since the words referred to are commonly heard today and are already somewhat familiar to those without Greek, for the sake of clarity, I will use transliterations here so that there is no misunderstanding.

1. The Root Fallacy

This fallacy is based on the assumption that a word always derives its meaning from the shape or components of which it is made. This says that a word’s meaning, regardless of its other parts, always can be determined by its root.


Agapao and Phileo – It is commonly taught that these two words, usually translated as “love”, describe two different types of love. Agapao is often used to refer to God’s “divine” love for people, whereas phileo speaks of a “friendly” or “brotherly” love, one that is not divine and is to be distinguished from God’s agape love.

Observe that agapao and its related noun agape are used in 2 Sam. 13:15 (LXX) to describe Amnon’s incestuous rape of his half-sister Tamar. See also 2 Tim. 4:10 (agapao); and compare John 3:35 (agapao) with John 5:20 (phileo). See also the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17. None of this is to suggest that there isn’t a special quality to God’s love for us. Certainly his love is sacrificial and divine, etc. But this is not because of some intrinsic meaning in the verb agapao or the noun agape. When looking at the Greek text, we have no reason to derive any hidden or special meaning of word usage in the exchange between Jesus and Peter and the supposed two types of love.

Monogenes – This fallacy has existed for years and caused much confusion and damage. It is thought by many to be derived from monos (only) and gennao (to beget), hence “only-begotten”, however this is untrue. The word is found in John 1:14, 18: 3:16, 18; Hebrews 11:17; and 1 John 4:9. The KJV is famous for using the wording “only begotten”, though it did not originate there. This mis-translation of the Greek word has existed for centuries, and can be found even in some of the best early church creeds, such as the Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed. The best translation would probably be something like unique, special, well-beloved son, as the two Greek words which it is comprised of properly suggest: monos (only) and genos (type, class).

For a brief yet helpful explanation of this fallacy, see the appendix “The Monogenes Controversy” in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

Apostolos – The fact that this word is related to the verb apostello (to send), is often used to argue that the root meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent.” But as Carson points out, the “NT use of the noun apostolos does not center on the meaning “the one sent” but on messenger or envoy. Now a messenger is usually sent; but the word “messenger” also calls to mind the message the person carries, and suggests he represents the one who sent him. In other words, actual usage in the NT suggests that apostolos commonly bears the meaning of “a special representative” or “a special messenger” rather than someone sent out” (Exegetical Fallacies, p. 29).

The danger with this fallacy is that it is often used to say that there are “modern day apostles”. It is said that since an apostle is “one who is sent out”, therefore when we send missionaries we are sending “apostles”. Regardless of whether or not there are modern day apostles, this misrepresentation of the word apostolos cannot in any way be used to support the claim that there are.

Ekklesia – One often hears that since this word is built from the preposition ek (from) and the verb kaleo (to call) it means “the called out ones” or something similar. The following fallacy has far too often be preached from the pulpit: “The word which we have for Church in the Greek is ekklesia. It is comprised of two words which together compose the meaning ‘one who is called out’ or ‘the called out ones’. When this word is used in the NT, about 114 times in the Greek New Testament, it is referring to the Church, either universal or local, as the ones who have been ‘called out of the world and into the Body of Christ and now congregate in His churches.’”

As true as it may be that Christians have been called out of the world and into the Body of Christ or Family of God, there is absolutely no indication that this was its emphasis or meaning in NT times. It simply means congregation or assembly and refers to a gathering of people, really any people, yet in the NT that group of people happens to be Christians. This faulty translation could in part be due to the reader misunderstanding the nature of the Greek language used in the New Testament. It is was the common language of the day used by the common man, and not a divine spiritual language with special spiritual meanings particular to the New Testament.

2. Semantic Anachronism

This is when a late or modern use of a word is read back into earlier literature. Continue reading

The Meaning in Greek

their argument might have some validity; but I am always suspect of someone who bases their interpretation on any basis that you are not able to check… Beware of people who claim authoritative knowledge based on something you can’t check. If they can cite a well-known translation or commentary writer, or if they make a sensible contextual argument, that is one thing. But to dismiss interpretations to the contrary that are held by all translations, be suspicious.” – Bill Mounce

How not to use Greek

Greek4Justin Dillehay is a member of Grace Baptist Church in Hartsville, Tennessee, where he resides with his wife, Tilly. They blog at While We Wait. He is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes:

Bible students love to talk about “the original Greek.” Preachers, too. Some preachers seem to want to work Greek into their sermons as often as they can.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know something about the language that God gave us for the New Testament. But there are also dangers involved, since most Christians either don’t know Greek at all, or (which is almost the same thing) know only enough to look up individual Greek words. Just imagine how badly a foreign speaker could butcher English if all he could do was look up individual English words.

The path is littered with what D. A. Carson has called “exegetical fallacies” (a book I was assigned three times in school). This brief article is my effort to condense a couple of Carson’s lessons, in order to help us learn how not to use Greek in Bible study.

1. Usage Trumps Etymology: Avoiding the Root Fallacy

When I was a homeschooling high schooler, I took a course on etymology. Etymology deals with the “roots” of words—where a word originally came from way back in the foggy mists of time. It’s a valuable area to study, and nothing I’m about to say in this article is meant to suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, a problem arises when people mistakenly think that a word’s etymology tells them “what it really means.”

We can see the fallacy of this notion clearly in our native English language. For example, the word nice comes from the Latin root nescius, meaning “ignorant.” But no one but a fool would respond to your calling them “nice” by saying, “Oh, I see what you really mean! You’re saying I’m ignorant! You and your veiled Latin insults!”

No one does this in their native language, but many Christians do this very thing when studying the Bible. They look up Greek words in their Strong’s Concordance, find the original Greek root, and conclude that they have found the word’s “real” meaning. This is what Carson calls the “root fallacy.”

Don’t get me wrong: roots and etymology are good. They can sometimes give you an interesting back story on why a particular word came to be used to describe a particular thing. They can even help you win the national spelling bee. But they don’t tell you the “real meaning” of a word, because a word’s meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage. The question is not, “Where did this word originate?” but, “What did the writer/speaker mean by it?”

If you proposed to your girlfriend and she said, “No,” but you could somehow prove that “No” came from a Greek word meaning “Yes,” it still wouldn’t do you any good. “No” means what your girlfriend (and everyone else) means by it, not what it might have meant 1,000 years ago in an ancestor language. The reason no one today would take “nice” to mean “ignorant” is that no one today uses it that way. If you want to know what a word means today, you must find out how it’s used today. That’s what an up-to-date dictionary will tell you. For Bible students, it’s also what a good lexicon will tell you. One of the best tools for the Bible student to have right now is William Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. This volume also contains a helpful piece called “How to Do Word Studies,” which will warn you against some of the same pitfalls that I am telling you about. Continue reading

Learning to Read New Testament Greek

greekOver on the blog, Jeff Downs writes:

I am sure some readers of the Alpha & Omega Ministries blog have started learning Greek and ended up back in their favorite English translation(s). If you’re like me, you have started learning Greek around 45 times and you really want to get back at it again. Well, why not another website to motivate you.

Robert Plummer, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary now has the Daily Dose of Greek. If you know a little Greek (no not the owner of the sub shop down the street), or if you want to begin learning Greek, Rob’s site may be the place to begin.

If you are going to start for the 1st time (or 46th for that matter) Plummer’s videos follow David Alan Black’s book Learning to Read New Testament Greek. If you don’t know who David Alan Black is, check out this short video of him teaching Greek. I highly recommend Black’s video series.

Thomas Hudgins also has a series working through Black’s book. Click here to begin watching.

The Meaning in Greek

“If someone claims that the Greek says something that none of the translations say, dismiss their idea and walk away. Perhaps if they are commentary writers or scholars, their argument might have some validity; but I am always suspect of someone who bases their interpretation on any basis that you are not able to check… Beware of people who claim authoritative knowledge based on something you can’t check. If they can cite a well-known translation or commentary writer, or if they make a sensible contextual argument, that is one thing. But to dismiss interpretations to the contrary that are held by all translations, be suspicious.” – Bill Mounce

The New NA28 and the Preservation of Scripture

Eberhard Nestle

From wikipedia: The first edition published by Eberhard Nestle in 1898 combined the readings of the editions of Tischendorf, Westcott and Hort and Weymouth, placing the majority reading of these in the text and the third reading in the apparatus. In 1901, he replaced the Weymouth New Testament with Bernhard Weiss’s text. In later editions, Nestle began noting the attestation of certain important manuscripts in his apparatus.

Eberhard’s son Erwin Nestle took over after his father’s death and issued the 13th edition in 1927. This edition introduced a separate critical apparatus and began to abandon the majority reading principle.

Kurt Aland
Kurt Aland became the associate editor of the 21st edition in 1952. At Erwin Nestle’s request, he reviewed and expanded the critical apparatus, adding many more manuscripts. This eventually led to the 25th edition of 1963. The great manuscript discoveries of the 20th century had also made a revision of the text necessary and, with Nestle’s permission, Aland set out to revise the text of Novum Testamentum Graece. Aland submitted his work on NA to the editorial committee of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (of which he was also a member) and it became the basic text of their third edition (UBS3) in 1975, four years before it was published as the 26th edition of Nestle-Aland.

The NA27 edition was published in 1993, and now Dr. James White explains why the newly published edition of the Greek New Testament (the Nestle Aland 28th Edition) is a VERY good thing:

For those interested, the new edition is available to purchase here.

The Greek Alphabet Song

Now with louder Cowbells!

If you wish to learn koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament), not least of which is to attend a Greek class with a personal instructor. However there are some outstanding courses now available online.

Bill Mounce’s material is outstanding, found at

Also, just today I learned of this audio, animated, online Greek course from Professor Ted Hildebrandt of Gordon College which you might wish to check out.

ESV Greek Tools

This online resource is an excellent way to interact with the Greek text of the New Testament with advanced searches, parsing, interlinears, etc. It’s only $10 for lifetime access, and can do most of the things that you’d pay hundreds of dollars for elsewhere. (The price goes up to $14.99 on May 1).

You can try it for free at ESV Online, under the Content tab. Or you can purchase it at

You can see a video introduction and some explanation below:

ESV GreekTools from Crossway on Vimeo.

ESV GreekTools puts the original language of the New Testament into the hands of beginning and advanced students, as well as seasoned pastors, scholars, and laymen looking for an affordable and accessible Greek reference tool. Intuitive, easy-to-use, and fully customizable, ESV GreekTools is an online application available through the platform. Now you can do serious work with the Greek text, at home or on the go, no matter your level of proficiency. Continue reading