What does that word mean? – an intro to semantics for Bible students 1: Context

Posted: January 1, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Well, it’s a new year, what could be better than to start the year with a new series on a vital topic. Vital for bible students, that is.

As long as we read the Bible in translation, it all makes good sense. But as soon as a student attempts to look the original text in Greek or Hebrew, she is faced with strings of unfamiliar words, and with the question ‘What do these words mean?’ For most students the answer begins and ends with consulting a kind of dictionary called a lexicon.

For New Testament Greek, the lexicon called BDAG has gained such widespread acceptance that it is often treated as authoritative. Most of us assume that scholarly works like lexicons will maintain the highest standard of rigour. We imagine teams of German scholars in thick-lensed glasses, poring over each word, checking and re-checking meanings, striving to make each entry as up-to-date as possible. A reputable lexicon is surely reliable, yes?

Sadly this is not the case. World authority John Lee warns us that ‘this trust is misplaced’ (2004, 66). Lee cites ‘dependance on predecessors over several centuries’ as a serious problem with our best NT lexicons (2003, 9): ‘…even the latest lexicons derive their material from their predecessors, and a great deal of it has been passed on uncritically over the course of centuries.’ (69) When another prominent Bible scholar, Moises Silva asks the question, ‘How did Bauer [author of BDAG]  come up with his meanings?’ the answer is disturbing: ‘By and large he got them from previous dictionaries’ (Silva 1994, 137). Gulp!

It seems the lexicons are not as rigorous as we’d believed. In many cases, no one has checked the meaning of the word for centuries. It is highly likely they are passing on errors made long ago when language studies were considerably more primitive. Sadly, we cannot rely on the lexicons.

How then can we ‘get behind’ the lexicons, and check the meanings of words for ourselves?

Over the coming days, we will examine the problem and principles of determining word meaning. The technical name for this is lexical semantics. This discipline is normally conducted in academic jargon terms, making it inaccessible to the people who need it most: Bible students and teachers. I am setting myself the challenge of explaining lexical semantics in plain English – a Dummies Guide, if you like. In particular, we will introduce the category agreed on by linguists as most important for word meaning: the category of context.

Prominent linguistic scholars such as James Barr and Silva claim that these principles are not well understood or applied by Bible scholars. We will attempt to assess this claim, taking as our test case the work of Leon Morris in his famous The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Morris was the most influential evangelical scholar of his generation, so this test case should be quite significant.

Let’s dive straight in:

A word has no meaning independently of the way it is connected to other words.’ (J C Nyfri 1971, cited in Louw Semantics 67).

Wow. That’s a big claim. Everyone knows that a word’s meaning changes a bit in different settings. But most of us assume a word has a core meaning. You can tinker at the edges, but it retains its basic definition. Context might stretch that meaning a little to the left or the right, but leaves the core intact. If you take the word out of that context and look at it in isolation (say, in a dictionary), it still retains its essential meaning. Like a butterfly retains its colours if you catch it and pin it in your display case.

But if Nyfri is right, there’s a question mark over the whole dictionary thing. Because a word needs other words, needs context, to give it meaning. In fact, context would be key: the very idea of a word’s ‘core’ meaning is threatened. What if words are more elastic than we thought, and also more porous – absorbing meaning from the words they hang out with?

Nyfri’s claim, though strongly worded, reflects the consensus of modern scholarship in the realm of lexical semantics (the study of word meanings).

In fact, since studying lexical semantics at college, I have become cautious about using lexicons and dictionaries of word studies like the TDNT. They are a useful quick guide or rule-of-thumb for a word’s meaning. But they can be wildly inaccurate – especially because they generally don’t reflect this modern insight into the way word meaning is generated: the insight about the primacy of context. If you want a reliable definition for a word, you’re going to have to do some work yourself.

Over the next few days we’ll try to describe how to go about that work.

Tomorrow: Context

  1. Mike W says:

    Hi Jono (will call soon)
    I see the value of TDNT in giving stinking great big lists of where the words turn up, more than the commentary per se.

    Also, are you going to weave in ideas about HOW we learn ancient languages.
    I’ve been tinkering with Randall Buth’s immersion greek stuff.

    So, so excited to hear the Morris stuff. I missed the class where you presented

    • Jonathan says:

      Hi Wellsie,

      I think I know why you’re busy at the moment!

      I love stinking great lists of occurrences. Just don’t like what TDNT does with the lists.

      As for how we learn languages, alas no, it won’t be touched on in this series. But I can see how it might be extremely relevant, so maybe you could write something up for us?

      I have sad news for anyone excited about Morris. 🙂 But it’ll have to wait a week.

  2. […] We are going to employ some of the basic tools of lexical semantics, nothing too technical, and see what we can learn about this term. (For a brief Dummies Guide to the tools we’ll be using, see here.) […]

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