According to the Cambridge dictionary, when one “makes hay” in reference to something said, one uses the “opportunity to get the most benefit” out of the occasion, so the expression is often used in a “competitive situation.” Small wonder, then, theologians can “make hay” with their interpretation of some (perhaps most) passages in the Bible.

I used the “exegetical hay” expression in our men’s Bible study some time ago and at least one of the participants didn’t know what I meant, not simply the phrase, but the word “exegetical” in particular. I wasn’t tying to be cute: we were studying John, Chapter 21 and I noted that in reference to the exchange between Jesus and Peter where many preachers make “exegetical hay” out of it. They take the two Greek words for “love” and determine that Jesus was querying the degree of love that Peter had for him. It is a great chapter to make hay in: the difference between sheep and lambs, and whether Peter should feed, tend or care for them, give the theological farmer something to fuss about.

Our pastor, who leads the study, pointed out that agapaō and pileō both do indeed refer to degrees or types of ‘love”, but carry overlapping meanings between them in the NT.

In preparation for the Bible study I had read D.A. Carson’s comments on the passage in his book “Exegetical Fallacies.” He points out (1996:53) that “if we decide contextually specific questions of synonymy on the basis of the total semantic range of each word, any synonymy in any context is virtually impossible”. This portrays a fallacy of what he calls “illegitimate totality transfer.” Saying this more simply, the two Greek words for love cannot always mean exactly the same thing in every context.

I spoke to my friend after the study and tried to explain (briefly) why exegesis is so crucial and important in Bible translation. I noted that we do not want to simply translate our favorite interpretation or explanation of a passage. We need to carefully examine what the experts say the passage means in reference to how the word or expression occurs in the original languages.

Over the years I have found that a number of my favorite interpretations did not hold water. A favorite was the Greek word dynamis “power/miracle”, which I (and many others) related to the word dynamite as an explanation of the power of the word of God (as in Romans 1:16). It turns out, and as Carson explains (p. 34), that this is an appeal to “reverse etymology”. Paul obviously didn’t have dynamite, which blows things up or destroys them, in mind when he wrote Romans 16:1. He was referring to the power of the empty tomb of Jesus.

Greek experts have studied the New Testament for almost 2000 years. It is unlikely that I can add anything original or of value to their discussions and interpretations. I can, however, reason with a native speaker on how a particular word and passage might best be translated into a language that I am familiar with, but which is not my native tongue. I do this by making sure that the native speaker understands the exegesis of the passage, discussing the historical setting, the language structure and how the transfer of cultural information comes into play. It is no simple task and not one to make “exegetical hay” with.

Here is an example from Tok Pisin, a lingua franca of Papua New Guinea, found in Hebrews 4:12. First of all, here is the verse in the Contemporary English Version (used widely in PNG):

“What God has said isn’t only alive and active! It is sharper than any double-edged sword. His word can cut through our spirits and souls and through our joints and marrow, until it discovers the desires and thoughts of our hearts.”

Here is the verse in Tok Pisin, with an interlinear translation and notes:

Tok      bilong God     em       i gat     laip(A),
talk      of         God     it          has      life
“God’s talk has life [it is alive],”

na        em       i wok strong i stap.              Em       i sap    moa,
and      it          works  hard    making.           It          sharp   more
“and it keeps working hard [keeps on working]. It is very sharp,”

na        i          winim(B)         bainat             i gat    tupelo                        sap.
and      it          wins                bayonet          having two                  sharp
“and it is sharper than a bayonet with both sides sharpened.”

Dispela                        tok       i           save     sutim(C)                      man
this.kind                     talk      it          goes    penetrate                  person

Na       i           go        insait   hap      tewel(D)     na        spirit(E)           i bruk
and      it        goes    inside  part   shadow       and      spirit               divides
“and it goes inside [the body] and divides the shadow [soul] and the spirit [where the soul and spirit divide] break apart,”

na        long    ol dispela   hap      skru(F) na        kru(G)     bilong bun(H)
now     at        these           places  joints   and      muscle        of      bone
“and [divides it] at this place where the joints and muscle of the bone [meet]”

bilong yumi
of           us

i           pas      long     olgeta  tingting           na        laik      bilong  bel(I)
it          holds   at         all        thoughts         and      desire  of         stomach
“it retains all of our thoughts and desires we have in our stomach [hearts].”

Some of the translation doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know something about Tok Pisin. For example, it is essential to note: 1) it is God’s talk; 2) it is somehow “alive” and has “work” to do; 3) it is “sharp,” so sharp that it can be compared with a double-edged sword; 4) the talk penetrates to the very extremes of a person; 5) where the soul and spirit split/join; 6) where the joints and muscle come together in the bone; 7) where the thoughts and desires of a person are; 8) the center of emotions is the stomach; 9) the actions includes everyone: yumi “you and all of us,”rather than mipela “us, excluding you.”

Some key words and concepts to note and that should be discussed further (in light of how they are used in Tok Pisin):

  • laip “life,” i.e., when something is “alive”
  • winim “to overcome,” as in a contest or game; often used to show superiority
  • sutim “penetrate,” when used with bel; even to “tease” or “challenge”
  • tewel “ghost/soul”; very broad in its meaning and can refer to a departed ancestor or even to the devil; also to one’s “shadow”
  • spirit “spirit”; often used with tewel to refer to the “essence” of a person or being
  • pas “hold” or “be stuck”; it is homophonous with “a letter” or “to go first,” as in I go pas
  • skru “joint”; as a verb (skruim) it means “to connect”
  • kru “shoot/seedling”; the most common referent is to “the brain”
  • bun “bone”; it can also signal strength, as in “em i gat bun” (he is strong) or weakness “em i bun nating” (he is skin and bones)
  • bel “stomach,” as the center of emotions; for a woman to be pregnant, the phrase “i gat bel” is used

When there seems to be information missing, I have supplied it in [brackets]. Of course, some of the words used in the translation have different primary meanings than those expected—at least when comparing it with the English upon which it is based. In addition, the Tok Pisin translation and exegesis follow the Greek manner of thinking about the body, not the indigenous culture or language. This is a common feature (and error) in translation, but is discovered by doing proper exegesis. One sure way to ensure that the proper (best)meaning is determined and conveyed by the exegesis is to have native speakers rephrase the verse and passage (perhaps in several ways), including having them tell it “like they would to a child.”


Carson, D.A. 1996. Exegetical fallacies (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.