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In 2 Tim 2:15 we read:


Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.


σπούδασον σεαυτὸν δόκιμον παραστῆσαι τῷ θεῷ, ἐργάτην ἀνεπαίσχυντον, ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας.

Apart from the KJV and YLT, English translations generally seem to interpret ὀρθοτομοῦντα as an idiom, translated as correctly or accurately "teaching" (NET, GNT, NIRV; NRSV "explaining") or "handling" (NIV, RSV, ESV, NASB) rather than "dividing."

Is it plausible that this is not an idiom and refers to literal division of the word? Based on a few Google searches, I thought this was a view with support among dispensationalists until I read the NET footnote (italics original; footnote mine):

Accurately (1) is a figure of speech that literally means something like “cutting a straight road.” In regard to the message of truth, it means “correctly handling” or “imparting it without deviation.”

If the NET translators do not even allow as a possible interpretation it seems less likely the view of the dispensationalist community. The Bible Knowledge Commentary (2) (also authored by Dallas Seminary faculty) also doesn't mention it. Is this just a fringe view?

If it's an idiom, what information do we have to guide us as to whether it more closely means "handle" or "teach"? ὀρθοτομέω is not used elsewhere in the NT. The two LXX uses of the word:

Proverbs 3:6


ἐν πάσαις ὁδοῖς σου γνώριζε αὐτήν, ἵνα ὀρθοτομῇ τὰς ὁδούς σου (3)

NETS translation of LXX

In all your ways make her known, that she may make straight your ways,

Proverbs 11:5


δικαιοσύνη ἀμώμους ὀρθοτομεῖ ὁδούς, ἀσέβεια δὲ περιπίπτει ἀδικίᾳ.

NETS translation of LXX

Righteousness cuts out blameless paths, but impiety is beset with injustice

Although the idea of "doing things rightly" is there in both handling the word and making straight or cutting out the (blameless) path/way, the effects of the verb on its object seem very different and not at all interchangeable.(4) In both of the Proverbs, the subject is presumed to be correct, righting in some way its object via ὀρθοτομεῖ. This doesn't seem to fit well with the exhortation to Timothy as to what he shall do with the word.

How should we understand ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθεία?

  1. I think perhaps they meant "teaching.....accurately" as the idiom seems to include that whole concept.

  2. Liftin, A. Duane. "2 Timothy." Bible Knowledge Commentary. Eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985.

  3. The subject of ὀρθοτομῇ here is σοφία from the prior verse, hence αὐτήν, a little different from the MT.

  4. I don't mean to imply that I think they need to be, only that this has not been very helpful for me to determine the meaning of 2 Tim.

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Peshitta has ܕ݁ܡܰܟ݂ܪܶܙ - "preaching". – Grzegorz Adam Kowalski Jun 2 '14 at 12:19
What do you mean by "literal division of the word" as a possible dispensationalist view? Being a dispensationalist myself, we generally see the phrase meaning "rightly handling" the Scripture. C.I. Scofield, an influential dispensationalist, in his work Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth uses the phrase as a starting point to discuss his idea of rightly handling the distinctions/divisions found in Scripture (not of Scripture). That was not all he understood 2 Tim 2:15 to mean, but rightly handling includes seeing valid distinctions. – ScottS Jun 3 '14 at 13:23
@ScottS -Fair enough. I guess I wasn't even sure exactly what I meant. I had run across the work you cited after posting this and didn't understand how this generated all of the negativity that's "out there" in critiquing this view. There was an early answer to this question along those lines, although it seems to have disappeared. Thanks for the clarification. – Susan Jun 3 '14 at 13:56
@ScottS - as an example, I think this was the link previously posted by an answerer objecting to "literally dividing up God's word"… – Susan Jun 3 '14 at 14:15
Much "negativity" is based on misunderstandings of dispensationalism (especially as developed since Scofield). It is interesting that the article you linked to quoted from this one as an example, but did so out of context, as that article clearly is using the dissection as a reference to "carefully cut," and "note the things that are similar and the things that are different." It is an illustration that the Bible needs to be read in context, keeping the distinctions and similarities contained in it, and so "rightly handling." – ScottS Jun 3 '14 at 16:54
up vote 3 down vote accepted

As already noted, the LXX is the best place to start, since the Greek word ὀρθοτομέω only occurs once in the Greek New Testament (hapax legomenon).

The below verses compare the Greek LXX with the Hebrew MT, which will point us to the Hebrew words. In turn, we will look at the Hebrew words.

Proverbs 3:6 (MT)
בְּכָל־דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ וְהוּא יְיַשֵּׁר אֹֽרְחֹתֶֽיךָ׃

Proverbs 3:6 (LXX)
ἐν πάσαις ὁδοῖς σου γνώριζε αὐτήν, ἵνα ὀρθοτομῇ τὰς ὁδούς σου, [ὁ δὲ πούς σου οὐ μὴ προσκόπτῃ.]

Please click here to see the expanded analysis.

Proverbs 11:5 (MT)
11:5 צִדְקַת תָּמִים תְּיַשֵּׁר דַּרְכֹּו וּבְרִשְׁעָתֹו יִפֹּל רָשָֽׁע׃

Proverbs 11:5 (LXX)
δικαιοσύνη ἀμώμους ὀρθοτομεῖ ὁδούς ἀσέβεια δὲ περιπίπτει ἀδικίᾳ

Please click here to see the expanded analysis.

We see that the Greek word ὀρθοτομέω was used to translate the Hebrew verb, יָשַׁר, which in its basic triliteral form means straight. In the passages above, the Hebrew verbs are in the third person singular, Piel form, imperfect tense, which the LXX translators translated into the Greek future tense (as would also be the case in the English translation).

However, the Hebrew Piel stem is "intensive," so while in the simple Qal the verb (perfect or imperfect) would be: to be, or to go straight and/or be pleasing, the intensive Piel (perfect or imperfect) conveys more intensity: to set straight, or to lead straight along. In other words, the difference is not only observing what is straight or right (Qal stem), but making or setting something out straight or right (Piel stem). The former is simple; the latter is intensive.

So in conclusion, the hapax legomenon of ὀρθοτομέω in 2 Timothy 2:15 is related to the Hebrew verb יָשַׁר, if we consult the LXX for reference. That is, Paul's use of the verb in the Greek New Testament would convey the idea of setting out straight (the teaching of the Word of God) in order to lead others straight along.

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Literally the phrase means 'straightly cutting the word of truth'. This is in opposition to vain gablers who corrupt the truth and live as hypocrites. Most commentators then therefore refer to some common trade where rightly dividing things make it work and also that this rightly dividing, or making straight ways, assumes ones personal sincerity in following the principles so as to avoid hypocrisy.

For example, the easiest and most familiar idea of 'straight ways' within an agricultural society may have been in the farming practice:

As the farmer, when he cuts crooked furrows, injures his field, so also the minister of the word, who does not rightly deal with it. That also which Paul here desires of Timothy, is just the reverse of the καπηλεύειν τὸν λόγον τοῦ Θεοῦ (Gal. 2:14; 2 Cor. 2:17) [Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 & 2 Timothy]

Or less likely maybe is was Paul's own tent-making analogy:

We must look, therefore, at the etymology of the word. Ὀρθοτόμεω must mean “to cut straight,” and, as the apostle is speaking of a good workman, he must be thinking of some work in which the workman’s skill consists in cutting straight: why not his own trade, in which it was all-important to cut the pieces straight that were afterwards to be joined to each other (see ὀρθότομος and ὀρθοτομία)? Hence, by an’ easy metaphor, “divide rightly,” or “handle rightly, the Word of truth,” preserving the true measure of the different portions of Divine truth. [Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). 2 Timothy (p. 22)]

The symbolism of a farmer making straight furrows in a field has good sense as Jesus frequently referred to agricultural metaphors. The maximum yield in a crop that a good worker would desire would requires disciplined correct preservation of true portions of truth, applied directly and under ones own self obedience in opposition to the false teachers. False teachers make a mess of everything and it must be tight well-sorted and highly defensible to the endless chaotic defamations of godless men. Straight furrows are absolutely needed.

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I translate this hapax as "correctly distinguishing". It is the opposite of "confusing". "Confusing" is when you treat more than one thing as if they were the same. "Incorrectly distinguishing" is the basis of many a joke:

What happens to a frog's car when it breaks down? It gets toad away.

In my example "toad" is not correctly distinguished from "towed".

HaHaHaHaHa. :0)

The author of To the Hebrews points out the common folly of equating "soul" and "spirit":

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow, as it judges the thoughts and purposes of the heart.

To get this long as a newbe is no shame but after you've been at it for a while it indicates that your critical faculties are undeveloped. And if you can't tell right from wrong (or right from left for that matter) then you're operating at the level of a baby:

Heb 5:11 We have much to say about this, but it is difficult to explain because you have become too lazy to understand. Heb 5:12 In fact, though by now you should be teachers, you still need someone to teach you the basic truths of God's word. You have become people who need milk instead of solid food. Heb 5:13 For everyone who lives on milk is still a baby and does not yet know the difference between right and wrong. Heb 5:14 But solid food is for mature people, whose minds are trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

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For example Jesus said:

Luke 6:25 NKJV

Woe to you who are full, For you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, For you shall mourn and weep.

This could be confused with what Jesus said:

Matthew 22:4 NKJV

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

"Incorrectly dividing" would be to assume that God would invite you to a banquet and expect you not to eat. This is why the correct perspective needs to be correctly divided.

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