Request an Exam Copy

Etymologies—A First Look (Monday with Mounce 9)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Passage: 1 Timothy 1:3

This is the first time in the blog I have dealt with the issue of etymology, so perhaps a few introductory comments are in order.

The etymology of a word is the meaning of its parts. In English we might talk about a “goalpost.” This is a goal that is formed by two vertical posts. In other words, in the creation of the word for where you kick the ball in soccer — excuse me, football — somebody took the word “goal” and the word “post” and created a term. When you look at the etymology of “goalpost,” you can see its two parts and those two parts tell you the meaning of the new term, “goalpost.”

Etymologies can be fun to play with. I just found the Online Etymology Dictionary. I don’t know how reliable it is, but it is fun.

The problem in Bible Studies is that in previous years too much weight was placed on etymologies. You would find a word in a certain context, and in determining its meaning people would look at the meaning of its parts and assume that was the meaning of the current word under investigation. No effort was put into determining the word’s meaning within its current context. This led to some pretty poor exegesis and unfortunately many inaccurate sermon illustrations.

One of the most basic things you will learn in your hermeneutics class is the “Etymology fallacy.” An example like “butterfly” will be used to expose the error of placing too much weight on the meaning of its parts. Is a butterfly really a dairy product that flies? (Of course, that is a bit of an unfair description. It was believed that insects used to drink butter, or else the yellow color of the butter was similar to the color of a butterfly, so in actuality the etymology is still somewhat conveyed by the word “butterfly.”)

Any this is precisely the point. It seems to me that we have gone too far and it is time to bring the pendulum back to midpoint. You cannot assume that the meaning of the part of a word still describes the meaning of the full word. And yet sometimes they can.

One such example occurs in 1 Timothy 1:3.

Paul is reminding Timothy that he was left in Ephesus to warn people not to teach a “different doctrine” (ESV). TNIV says “false doctrine.” NASB has “strange doctrines.”

It appears Paul made up this word, heterodidaskalos.” It occurs elsewhere only at 1 Timothy 6:3 where it is used in contrast to “the healthy words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” didaskalos means “teacher.” heteros means “other.” In classical Greek, where many of these finer distinctions were maintained, heteros meant “another of a different kind.” allos meant “another of the same kind.” If you had an apple and I asked for an allos, you would give me another apple. But if I asked for a heteros, you might give me an orange. Another of a different kind.

This distinction is not always maintained in the New Testament (see Galatians 1:6-7 and the discussion in my Expository Dictionary, pp. 490ff.). If the distinction were intended here, Paul would be saying that the “gospel” preached by the false teachers was essentially different from the gospel that Paul himself preached. Can we read that etymological nuance into 1 Timothy 1:3?

In this context I think we can. It certain fits the context well, and it is precisely the meaning of the same word in its other use in 1 Timothy 6. We can also see other biblical passages where the classical distinction appears to be upheld (cf. Luke 9:29; Romans 7:23; 1 Corinthians 15:40; James 2:25). This is why the TNIV translates, “false doctrine.” In addition, it would be expected if Paul were coining a word and therefore there had been no time for usage to have changed the meaning of the word, that the meaning of the parts would still be reflected in the meaning of the whole.

When I started writing my Expository Dictionary, this was a key concern. I didn’t want to include etymologies that gave the impression I did not understand the Etymological Fallacy, but I also did not want to pass up linguistic devices that would help define a term. I came to the conclusion that if the word still reflected the meaning of its parts, then I could include the etymology.

It wasn’t that the teachers in Ephesus were simply teaching slightly different things. As they were in Galatia, the false teachers were teaching doctrine that was fundamentally different from Paul’s true gospel. Because the teaching was heteros, Timothy must stop them.

Paul has no tolerance for false teaching, and neither should we.

William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Visit for more info or read his blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

by John H. Walton" class="t-blog-entry__next-link">Hebrew Corner 6: "God's Own Heart"
by John H. Walton
Hebrew Corner 6: "God's Own Heart"
by John H. Walton
In previous entries we have noted how a word used in combination with other words must be studied in that combination, ...
Your form could not be submitted. Please check errors and resubmit.

Thank you!
Sign up complete.

Subscribe to the Blog Get expert commentary on biblical languages, fresh explorations in theology, hand-picked book excerpts, author videos, and info on limited-time sales.
By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at This form is protected by reCAPTCHA.