Please, Not Webster’s Again

by Barry Newton

This past week week I encountered it again. We have all heard it. I have lost track of the times I have seen it in print.

If we’ll be honest perhaps we may have even said it ourselves while discussing the Bible. “According to Webster, this word means …”

No longer is it just Webster’s authority to which people appeal. This past week during a discussion on what the Bible teaches about faith and works, someone pointed me to Encarta, an online dictionary, as providing reliable definitions.

Good dictionaries or encyclopedias will accurately describe all of the ways an English word is used today. But our English dictionaries can fail miserably to inform us about the message in our English Bibles.


Translators select English words to accurately convey an idea from the original languages of the Bible into English. Unfortunately, many times our English words carry additional meanings foreign to what the biblical word meant. It is these additional English meanings which can create havoc.

Several popular arguments utilize a type of shell game in order to claim as biblical, messages foreign to the text in the original language.

What do you find when you look up the word baptize in a dictionary? A good one will describe various modes of applying water such as sprinkling and immersion, as well as several other ideas. If people today were to use baptize to signify eating a hamburger, that too would be listed.

To use an English dictionary as the basis of arguing that the Bible promotes sprinkling water as a form of baptism would be irresponsible.

Others still argue that Acts 2:38 teaches people should be baptized *because* their sins have already been forgiven. It is true that in English we say, he is wanted for murder to indicate someone is sought *because* he is accused of having already committed murder.

However, the Greek word *eis* which is accurately translated as *for* in our Bibles to indicate purpose, never means *because*. Thus Acts 2:38 can not mean that we are baptized because our sins have been forgiven. It teaches us to be baptized that we might be forgiven.

Sometimes this shell game regarding *for* has been taken to a new level by pointing to “Christ died for our sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:3) Although English translations might use *for* in both this verse as well as Acts 2:38, they are completely different words in the Greek. Therefore a person can not legitimately argue on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:3 what is meant in Acts 2:38.

If we want to understand what a Biblical word means, we need to consult a Hebrew or Greek Lexicon, or a good Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. We do not need to be looking at Webster’s.

4 Replies to “Please, Not Webster’s Again”

  1. Good point. Modern dictionaries tell us what English words mean today. We must look up the word that was used by Biblical writers to understand what the Greek/Aramaic/Hebrew/Chaldee word meant when it was used.
    This was well written and thoughtful.
    I think the last reference to Acts 15.3 is supposed to be to Acts 2.38. Looks like the chapter:verse reference from 1 Corinthians snuck into Acts 🙂

  2. Thanks for the feedback as well as reading closely thereby catching the duplication of 15:3. I’ve made the appropriate correction.

  3. Hi brother,
    I am David Sargent, minister of the Creekwood church of Christ in Mobile, AL. I really appreciate your articles!
    What resource would you recommend above all others as being the best dictionary for Bible words? I know Thayer is dated, for example. Is there one resource that you have found particularly helpful?

  4. Thanks David for the feedback. Glad you are enjoying these resources.
    My short answer for a quick reference tool would be Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon and Arndt, Gingrich and Danker’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
    Incidentally, the latter lists “eis” in Acts 2:38 under the definition “to denote purpose in order to, to.” p.229
    For the English reader unfamiliar with Hebrew, Brown-Driver-Briggs is coded to Strong’s numbers.

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