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Vincent's Word Studies, by Marvin R. Vincent, [1886], at


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Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.


New Testament commentaries are so numerous, and, many of them, so good, that a new essay requires some explanation. The present work is an attempt in a field which, so far as I am aware, is not covered by any one book, though it has been carefully and ably worked by many scholars. Taking a position midway between the exegetical commentary and the lexicon and grammar, it aims to put the reader of the English Bible nearer to the stand-point of the Greek scholar, by opening to him the native force of the separate words of the New Testament in their lexical sense, their etymology, their history, their inflection, and the peculiarities of their usage by different evangelists and apostles.

The critical student of the Greek Testament will, therefore, find himself here on familiar, and often on rudimental, ground, and will understand that the book has not been prepared with any design or expectation of instructing him. It has in view, first of all, those readers whose ignorance of Greek debars them from the quickening contact of the original words, and to whom is unknown the very existence of those tracks which the Greek scholar threads with unconscious ease and in clear light.

No scholar will maintain that such a task is rendered superfluous by even the most idiomatic and accurate translation. The most conscientious and competent translator is fettered by difficulties inherent in the very nature of a translation. Something must exhale in the transfer from one language to another; something which is characteristic in proportion to its subtlety. Reading an author in a translation is like hearing through a telephone. The words may reach the ear distinctly, but the quality of the most familiar voice is lost. In translation, as in exchange of money, transfer often necessitates breaking up — the destruction of the original symbol, in order to embody its contents in the symbols of another tongue. A particular coin of one country may have no exact representative in a coin of another country; and the difference must be made out with small change. A single Greek word often requires two or three words for its reproduction in English, and even then the partial equivalent must be made good by comment or paraphrase. There are, besides, certain features of every language, and particularly of every dead language, which defy transfer by any process — embodiments of a subtle play of perception or of thought which has vanished, like the characteristic expression from a dead face, and which, though it may give some hint of itself to an English mind, eludes the grasp of an English formula.

Difficulties like these can be met only by the study of individual words. The translator is compelled to deal mainly with the contents of sentences and periods; to make the forms of thought subordinate to the substance. A translation which should literally reproduce the idiomatic structure of its original would be a monstrosity. If the thought is to circulate freely and familiarly in Anglo-Saxon society, and to do its best work upon Anglo-Saxon minds, it must assume the Anglo-Saxon dress. It must modify or abandon its native habits. It cannot be continually thrusting into notice its native antecedents, and the forms of the life which evolved it. It must be naturalized throughout. Hence the translator is compelled to have mainly in view his own audience; to expound the message rather than to flatter the nationality of the messenger. He cannot stop to show his reader how each constituent word of the original sentence is throbbing with a life of its own, and aglow with the fascination of a personal history. This is rather the work of the commentator; and not of the commentator who explains the meaning and the relation of verses and chapters, but of one who deals with words in detail, and tells their individual stories.

For a language is not made to order and out of hand. It is a growth out of a people's life; and its words are not arbitrary symbols fixed by decree or by vote, but are struck out, as needed, by incidents and crises. They are the formulas in which new needs and first impressions of external facts spontaneously voice themselves, and into which social customs run. Hence language becomes more picturesque as we recede toward its earlier forms. Primitive speech is largely figurative; primitive words are pictures. As the language becomes the expression of a more conventional and artificial life, and of a deeper and more complex thought, new words are coined representing something more subjective and subtle; and the old words, as they become pressed into the new service and stretched to cover a wider range of meaning, lose their original sharpness of outline. They pass into conventional symbols in the multiform uses of daily speech; they become commonplace factors of a commonplace present, and remain historic only to lexicographers and philologists. None the less, these words forever carry hidden in their bosom their original pictures and the mark of the blow which struck each into life; and they will show them to him who lovingly questions them concerning their birth and their history.

These remarks apply in a peculiar manner to the Greek language, which was the outgrowth of a national character at once poetic and passionate, logical and speculative, and which was shaped by an eventful and romantic history and by a rich and powerful literature. The words of a language which traverses the period from Homer to Aristotle, from Marathon to Leuctra; which told the stories of Herodotus, carried the mingled fire and logic of Demosthenes, voiced the tremendous passion of Oedipus, and formulated the dialectic of Plato and the reasoning of Aristotle, must enfold rare treasures; and the more as we follow it into its later development under the contact of Oriental thought, which fused it in the alembic of Alexandria, ran the new combination into the mould of the Septuagint, and added the last element necessary to constitute it the bearer of the Gospel message. The highest testimony to the resources of this wonderful tongue is furnished in its exquisite sensitiveness to the touch of the new faith, and its ready adaptation to the expression of the new truth. Its contact with the fresh, quickening ideas of the Gospel seemed to evoke from it a certain deep-lying quality, overlaid till then by the baser moral conceptions of Paganism, but springing up in prompt response to the summons of Christian thought and sentiment. Yet even the words which lent themselves so readily to the new and higher message of Christianity could not abjure their lineage or their history. They bore the marks of the older and less sacred burdens they had carried. In the histories of its choicest words, Christianity asserts itself as a redeemer of human speech. The list of New-Testament words lifted out of ignoble associations and uses, and mitred as ministers of sacred truth, is a long and significant one; and there are few more fascinating lines of study than this, to which Archbishop Trench long ago directed English readers in his "Study of Words" and his "New-Testament Synonyms."

The biblical student may therefore profitably combine two distinct lines of study; the one directed at the truth of scripture in mass, the other at the medium or vehicle of the truth in detail. A thorough comprehension of scripture takes in the warp no less than the woof. Labor expended upon etymologies, synonyms, and the secrets of particles and tenses, upon the wide range of pictures and hints and histories underlying the separate words and phrases of the New Testament, is not thrown away, and issues in a larger result than the mere accumulation of curious lore. Even as nature fills in the space between the foreground and the background of her landscapes with countless details of form and color, light and shadow, so the rich details of New-Testament words, once apprehended, impart a depth of tone and a just relation and perspective to the salient masses of doctrine, narrative, and prophecy. How much is habitually lost to the English student through the use of one and the same term in rendering two words which the writer selected with a clear recognition of a distinction between them. How often a picture or a bit of history is hidden away in a word, of which a translation gives and can give no hint. How many distinctive characteristics of a writer are lost in a translation. How often, especially in the version of 1611, the marvellous play of the Greek tenses, and the nicely-calculated force of that potent little instrument, the article, are utterly overlooked. As the reader steps securely over the carefully-fitted pavement laid for him by modern revisers, he does not even guess at the rare and beautiful things lying beneath almost every separate block.

Can the reader who knows no Greek be put in possession of these treasures? Not of all; yet certainly of a goodly share of them. It has seemed to me that the following results might be reached:

1. Where a word has a history, he may learn it, and may be shown through what stages the word has attained its present meaning, and how its variations have successively grown out of each other. Illustrations are furnished by such words as "humility," "meekness," "blessed."

2. He may be shown, in part, at least, the peculiar form in which a thought comes to a Greek mind; or, in other words, he may form some acquaintance with Greek idioms. Thus, to take some very simple instances, he can easily see how, when he thinks of his food as set before him on the table, the Greek thinks of it as set beside him, and writes accordingly; or how his idea of sitting down to the table comes to the Greek as reclining; or he can understand how, when Luke says, "we came the next day," the idea of the next or second day comes to him in the form of an adjective qualifying we, so that he thinks of himself and his companions as second-day men. Sometimes, when two languages develop a difference of idiom in their classical usage, the classical idiom of the one reappears in the vulgar dialect of the other. The spirit of numerous Greek words or phrases, even in the New Testament, could be reproduced most faithfully by English expressions which have been banished from polite diction.

3. He can be shown the picture or the figure hidden away in a word. See, for example, the note on compel, Mat 5:41.

4. He may learn something of Greek synonyms. He may be shown how two different Greek words, rendered by the same English word, represent different sides or phases of the same idea, and why each word is used in its own place. Thus, the word "net" occurs in both Mat 4:18 and Mat 13:47; but the Greek word is different in each verse, and either word would have been inappropriate in the place of the other.

5. He may be shown how two English words, having apparently no connection with each other, are often expressed by the same Greek word; and he may be put in possession of the connecting idea. He does not suspect that "bosom," in Luk 6:38, and "creek" or "bay," in Act 27:39, are one and the same word; or that there is any connection between the "winding up" of Ananias' body (Act 5:6) and Paul's assertion that the time is "short" (Co1 7:29).

6. He may be made to understand the reasons for many changes of rendering from an older version, which, on their face, seem to him arbitrary and useless.

7. He can be taught something of the characteristic usage of words and phrases by different authors, and may learn to detect, even through the English version, certain differences of style. (See the Introductions to the different books.)

8. He can be shown the simpler distinctions between the Greek tenses, and the force of the Greek article; and how the observance of these distinctions adds to the vigor and liveliness of the translation.

Much valuable matter of this kind is contained in commentaries; and in some popular commentaries considerable prominence is given to it, notably in the two admirable works of Dr. Morison on Matthew and Mark. But it is scattered over a wide surface, and is principally confined to commentaries prepared for the critical student; while very much lies hidden in lexicons and etymological treatises, and in special essays distributed through voluminous periodicals. I have collected and sifted a large amount of this material from various and reliable sources, and have applied it to the treatment of the words as they occur, verse by verse, divesting it of technicalities, and trying to throw it into a form suited to the students of the English Bible.

I had these so prominently in view at the beginning that I seriously contemplated the entire omission of Greek words. On further thought, however, I decided that my plan might, without detriment to the original purpose, be stretched so as to include beginners in the study of the Greek Testament, and certain college-bred readers who have saved a little Greek out of the wreck of their classical studies. For the convenience of such I have inserted the original words wherever it seemed expedient; but always in parentheses and with the translation appended. The English reader may therefore be assured that any value which the book may have for him will not be impaired by the presence of the unfamiliar characters. He has but to pass them over, and to confine his attention to the English text.

It is evident that my purpose relieves me of the duty of the exegesis of passages, save in those cases where the word under consideration is the point on which the meaning of the entire passage turns. The temptation to overstep this limit has been constantly present, and it is not impossible that I may have occasionally transgressed. But the pleasure and the value of the special study of words will, I think, be enhanced for the student by detaching it from the jungle of exegetical matter in which, in ordinary commentaries, it is well-nigh lost.

A few words should be said respecting a name which the title of this book will at once suggest to New-Testament students — I mean Bengel. The indebtedness of all workers in this field to John Albert Bengel it is not easy to overstate. His well-known "Gnomon," which still maintains a high and honorable rank among commentaries after the lapse of nearly a century and a half, was the pioneer in this method of treating scripture. My own obligations to him are very great for the impulse to this line of study which I received in translating the "Gnomon" more than twenty-five years ago; more for that, indeed, than for any large amount of help in the present work. For his own labors have contributed to the great extension of his special line of study since the appearance of the "Gnomon" in 1742. The entire basis of New-Testament philology and textual criticism has been shifted and widened, and many of his critical conclusions, therefore, must be either modified or rejected. His work retains its value for the preacher. He must always stand pre-eminent for his keen and deep spiritual insight, and for that marvellously terse and pithy diction with which, as with a master-key, he so often throws open by a single turn the secret chambers of a word; but for critical results the student must follow later and surer guides.

As to materials, let it suffice to say that I have freely used whatever I have found serviceable. The book, however, is not a compilation. My plan has compelled me to avoid lengthy discussions and processes, and to confine myself mostly to the statement of results. In order to avoid encumbering the pages with a multitude of references, I have appended a list of the sources on which I have drawn; and the names of other authors not mentioned there will be found appended to quotations.

I have not attempted textual criticism. I have followed principally the text of Westcott and Hort, comparing it with Tischendorf's eighth edition, and commonly adopting any reading in which the two agree. It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to say that the very literal and often uncouth renderings which frequently occur are given merely in order to throw sentences or phrases as nearly as possible into their Greek form, and are not suggested for adoption as versions. Each word or passage commented upon is cited first according to the authorized version.

My task has been a labor of love, though pursued amid the numerous distractions and varied duties of a city pastorate. I hope to complete it in due time by an additional volume containing the writings of John and Paul.

It is said that there was discovered, some years ago, in one of our Western States, a magnificent geode, which, on being broken, disclosed a mass of crystals arranged in the form of a cross. It will be a great joy to me if, by this attempt to break the shell of these words of life, and to lay bare their hidden jewels, I may help a Bible-student here and there to a clearer vision of that cross which is the centre and the glory of the Gospel.

Marvin R. Vincent.Covenant Parsonage, New York, October 30, 1886.

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