Exegetical Fallacies

By Joan Berry

In this study will be a discussion of exegetical fallacies as they appear in the epistles which should be treated as the letters that they were to the early churches. Paul did not intend for them to become systematic theology and should not be read in that manner. Much of our Christian faith is based on these letters because of the theology through orthopraxy that they offer. Paul was writing to persons in his era of the early church – his original audience – and we should not read meanings into his letters that are not based on how we think now or express any “reading between the lines” to insert our own opinions.

Fallacies to Avoid

Word meanings change over time; root fallacy should be avoided. In regard to Hebrew and Greek terms, efforts must be made to determine what a word meant at the time it was written.

          Example: In English language Bibles, the classic Hebrew use of El Shaddai in Genesis 35:11 (NIV) is translated as “God Almighty.” The root word, Shadad, means destroyer or to overpower. However, in Genesis 28:3 and 49: 25, the word takes on the meaning of being associated with God as provider.

 The second fallacy is sematic anachronism in which a more contemporary word meaning is read back into a much earlier work where the word did not have the same meaning. Try to determine how far removed in time the word is now from the selected Scripture. Prevent in the King James Version meant to precede. But in modern English, it means to stop something from happening.

           Example: Psalms 119: 147-148:

KJV:  I prevented the dawning of the morning and cried I hoped in thy word.

NIV:  I rose before the dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.

A continuation of sematic anachronism includes the error of modern-day speakers misinterpreting a Greek term with an English word that happens to have the same Greek root. D. A. Carson (1996) gave the following example from personal observation:

            Carson said the origin of dynamite comes from a Greek word translated as dynamis meaning power or miracle. But taken out of its origin of meaning, some translate it as dynamite. He recounts hearing preachers quoting Romans 1: 16 as being, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” (Carson, 1996, pp. 33-34). Tongue-in-cheek, Carson commented that he did not know if Paul planned on blowing up the gospel since dynamite was used for destruction. And there is the point that dynamite was not invented until the 19th century A.D. Points made and taken: the original meaning of power should have been used (Carson, 1996, p. 34).

The fourth semantic fallacy is the illegitimate totality transfer. This is where the importance of knowing the context of the Scriptures is apparent when you are studying. This error occurs when an exegete disregards the context as determining the meaning. The context almost always pinpoints the meaning of a particular word or phrase. Carson (1996), uses the example of Abraham to demonstrate this error by using Hebrews 11:17 – “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son . . .”

   “Most of us know that Abraham had more than one son. He had Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaiden and more by Keturah (Gen. 25: 1-2). But, he had only one special son, the one God promised by his wife, Sarah. If the exegete did not know Abraham’s story and that it foreshadowed God’s only begotten son, the exegete would assume that Abraham had only one begotten son. The writer of Hebrews was trying to point out the importance of the specialness of the Son (Son of God and His sacrifice). Had the exegete, read the full context of the passage, he would have known that “his one and only son” had more than one meaning” (p. 31).

In Acts 13:2, the Holy Spirit’s command appears as “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (NASB,  KJV, NKJV, ESV, NRSV, NIV). All of these translations ignore the little word, δή (Barrick, n.d.).  The short meaning of the word is: so, then, indeed, truly. The longer meaning when it is used in a clause expressing demand is: (a) so, then, (b) indeed, (c) truly. The word “then” should be inserted following “set apart” then (or so, indeed) for me, Barnabas and Saul to do the work for which I have called them.” Barrick (n.d.) commented that combined with the imperative “set apart” there is a concept of urgency.


In the words of W. D. Barrick, “Every student of the Bible must attempt to interpret the text as objectively as possible. In order to maintain accuracy, the student must avoid taking shortcuts that result in committing the fallacies described in this session. Correct interpretation is the result of careful attention to details, to context, and to what the text says. Above all, the attitude of the interpreter is extremely important. We must not approach the text with academic swagger, a feeling of superiority to the ancient writers, or an unteachable spirit. Hubris can have no home in the heart of the hermeneut. We dare not make the Word “lordless” (avkurow) by our human understanding” (Matt 15:6).


Barrick, W.D. (n.d.). Common mistakes every student of the Bible must avoid.            http://www.ntslibrary.com/Exegetical_Fallacies.pdf

Carson, D.A. (1996). Exegeting Fallacies (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Academics.

The NIV Study Bible (NIV). (1995). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House

 Scofield, C.I. (ed.). (1967). The new Scofield reference Bible: King James Version (KJV). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Shepherd, B. (2006) Exegetical fallacies conference. www.ntslibrary.com/Exegetical_Fallacies.pdf

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