Reflections on Lexicography: Explorations in Ancient Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek Sources

ReflectionsOnLexicographySix articles from the recent Gorgias Press release of Reflections on Lexicography: Explorations in Ancient Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek Sources deal specifically with Hellenistic Greek Lexicography. This volume was produced for the International Syriac Language Project. Here is a list of the papers in the section entitled “Reflections on Greek Lexicography.”

  • A Linguistic-Cultural Approach to Alleged Pauline and Lukan Christological Disparity (Frederick William Danker) (page 267)
  • Contextual Factors in the Greek-Spanish Dictionary of the New Testament (DGENT) (Jesús Peláez) (page 289)
  • The Greek-Spanish Dictionary of the New Testament (DGENT): Meaning and Translation of the Lexemes; Some Practical Examples (Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta) (page 301)
  • The Genitive Absolute in Discourse: More Than a Change of Subject (Margaret G. Sim) (page 313)
  • Now and Then: Clarifying the Role of Temporal Adverbs as Discourse Markers (Steven E. Runge) (page 327)
  • ‘Therefore’ or ‘Wherefore’: What’s the Difference? (Stephen H. Levinsohn) (page 349)

This volume is number 4 in Gorgias Press’ series, Perspectives on Linguistics and Ancient Languages.

I have added these articles to the online bibliography.

Structural Lexicology and the Greek New Testament

I have added Todd Price’s Structural Lexicology and the Greek New Testament: Applying Corpus Linguistics for Word Sense Possibility Delimitation Using Collocational Indicators to the bibliography.

The book was published in 2015 by Gorgias Press and sells for $180 at

I do not own a copy of the book (due to the price!), but here’s what I’ve gleaned from the abstract provided by the publisher and available in the Library of Congress online catalog. If you own a copy of the book, feel free to tell me how far off I am!


Price’s book addresses both lexical meaning and phrase-level meaning in context. After introducing the concept of structural lexicology as developed through the use of computational linguistics, computational lexicography and corpus linguistics, Price explains his method for determining the contextual meaning of New Testament Greek words and phrases through an analysis of their collocations (with what other words does word x tend to appear?), colligations (in its various contexts, with what kinds of words does word x tend to hold grammatical relationships?) and semantic preferences (with what words does word x share key elements of meaning?). His approach emphasizes defining words in context by disambiguating their possible meanings.

He argues, uncontroversially, that an analysis of large (digital) corpora of Hellenistic Greek can advance our understanding of lexical semantics, and he includes numerous case studies in the Greek New Testament applying his method to exegetically problematic texts.

Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek

I have uploaded my paper, “Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek” to two places. You can read it here at at the following location:

You can also view it at

This paper is an updated version of one I presented at a national meeting of the SBL in the late 1990s. A slightly updated version was published by Forum, the journal of the Westar Institute in 1999 under the title “From the Lexicon to the Sentence: Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek.”

This latest version lays out my proposals for information that should be included in an electronic lexicon of Hellenistic Greek.  Serious advances in digital technology have made it possible to include information about syntactic and semantic relationships that would have been impractical only a few years ago, and in the context of the work that Jonathan Robie and I are doing on using XML to structure and query databases, I decided it was time to make my most recent proposals easier to locate.

μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

I had the privilege this Sunday of hearing a spectacular sermon by Rev. Stephanie Ford on the Magnificat. When the text was read before the sermon I noticed something that raised for me a question about translation and cultural assumptions.

The translation being read rendered Luke 1:48 as

God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

It is the second of these lines that concerns me. The Greek text reads:

ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

Does the verb μακαρίζω really mean “call blessed” here? In the ancient world one did not “call” someone blessed, but simply bless that person. It was a speech act. That act of making a positive statement about someone’s future was to bless that person (μακαρίζω).

The interpretive difference this raises has to do with who is doing the blessing. To translate μακαρίζω as “call [someone] blessed” suggests that it is not the speaker who is doing the blessing. The speaker is simply reporting the fact of “blessedness.” In both Classical and Hellenistic Greek, though, it appears to me that the subject of μακαρίζω is the person doing the blessing, not someone else reporting about the blessing.

This issue did not come up in the sermon, which addressed more pressing matters and related the Magnificat fabulously to issues of justice that still should concern us in the 21st century.

Lexicography/Dictionaries Page

I have made a number of changes to the Lexicography and Dictionaries page at Here are the main ones:

I hope you find these additions helpful.

Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος

Our current lexica for Hellenistic Greek fall into two categories on the basis of their approach. The more traditional ones offer suggested translations (not real definitions) and examples of usage. The UBS lexicon classifies words on the basis of perceived semantic domains, grouping words with overlapping meaning into sense categories.

What I envision for a future lexicon is one that does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. It would provide examples of usage, of course, but it would provide a definition along the lines of modern dictionaries such as, and the discussion of examples should be different from what we currently find. Entries for nouns, for example, would also include information on the types of predicates for which the noun may function as an argument.

Let’s look at ἔλεος as an example. As something to be thought of (desired, neglected, remembered), ἔλεος functions as an argument of verbs like θέλω, ἀφίημι, and μιμνῄσκομαι:

1. ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν· (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7)
2. ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· (Matthew 23:23)
3. μνησθῆναι ἐλέους (Luke 1:54)

When used to speak specifically of something that transpires between two people (where an English translation might speak of showing mercy), though, ἔλεος may serve as an argument of ποιέω. It is not an attitude to be shown or demonstrated, but an action to be  done.

4. ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν (Luke 1:72)
5. ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. (Luke 10:37)

Notice the usage of a prepositional phrase μετά + genitive to modify ἔλεος in this sense.

In the catholic epistles we find ἔλεος used as an argument of δίδωμι and λαμβάνω in  contexts where it involves an interaction between two parties. Ἔλεος is presented as being transferred from a giver to a recipient:

6. δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ (2 Timothy 1:16)

Two verses later what is given (δίδωμι) is not ἔλεος, but the ability to find (εὐρίσκω) ἔλεος.

7. δῴη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος εὑρεῖν ἔλεος (2 Timothy 1:18)

Here, ἔλεος functions directly as an argument of εὑρεῖν.

8. ἵνα λάβωμεν ἔλεος (Hebrews 4:16)

Here the focus is on the receiver rather than the giver, but ἔλεος remains a thing to be transferred from an actor to a recipient.

Still, in James 2:13 we find ἔλεος again as an argument of ποιέω:

9. ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος·

A lexical entry that takes these examples seriously might define ἔλεος as an action to be done for the benefit of another, despite that other’s lack of merit—an action that can be viewed as a gift in appropriate contexts. But the entry would also need to specify that ἔλεος is never presented as a quality to be demonstrated. In this sense, it is unlike the English word mercy.

This does not mean of course, that we should avoid translating ποιεῖν ἔλεος as show mercy, but it does mean that commentators and even casual readers of the Greek text should recognize that such a translation, while necessary, is required because of the peculiar demands of English, and the image that would come to mind for a speaker of Ancient Greek at hearing ἔλεος was different in important ways from the one that comes to mind for English speakers who hear mercy.

Κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7

Check out Stephen Carlson’s article on Κατάλυμα. You can download the article as a PDF file here. He (along with other influential New Testament scholars) argues that κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7 does not refer to an Inn. How does this change our understanding of Luke’s birth story?

Stephen maintains a blog at

Reflections on τηρέω

Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains lists τηρέω in more than one semantic domain, one of which groups it with φυλάσσω (section 36.19) and explains the meaning as “to continue to obey orders or commandments — ‘to obey, to keep commandments, obedience.’”

The more I read Greek from the same period as the New Testament, the more I doubt that τηρέω actually had that meaning as a real possibility. LEH (Septuagint lexicon) does not list “obey” as a possible meaning of τηρέω. I don’t have access right now to BDAG, so I can’t check that one. What leads me to the conclusion that Louw and Nida have made a faulty connection here, though, is not other lexica. It is the contexts in which I find this word outside the New Testament.

The fields of meaning for τηρέω center around notions of maintaining, safeguarding, caring for… not right and wrong conduct. Τηρέω is in an important sense an opposite of λείπω (leave, abandon, forsake).

Take John 14:21, for example.

ὁ ἔχων τὰς ἐντολάς μου καὶ τηρῶν αὐτὰς ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαπῶν με

The sense here is probably, “The one who has my commandments and does not abandon them is the one who loves me.” Keeping the commandments in this sense implies remembering them, being aware of them, not forgetting or ignoring them, etc. While this clearly implies following the commandments, the emphasis is not on obedience—something that can be forced—but on willing faithfulness.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but I think it is an important one. There were other ways to talk about “obedience,” the kind of thing a servant does in relationship to a master, and this was clearly an accepted model for talking about the relationship between a person and God in early Christianity. Paul referred to himself as a δοῦλος Χρισττοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10), for example.

I am not arguing that this is a foreign image to early Christianity, but that the word τηρέω was not used for this purpose. When τηρέω was used in relation to commandments, the emphasis was on remembering them, being aware of them, safeguarding them, etc. It is a positive image, not one of dominance.

El Diccionario Griego Español

An article by Elvira Gangutia explaining the origin and progress of the Diccionario Griego Español, the largest diccionary of Ancient Greek produced to date, appeared in 2007 in Arbor: Ciencia, Pensamiento y Cultura. You can download a PDF version of the article at It’s written in Spanish, of course, but there’s a (very rough) translation of the abstract at the beginning of the article. If you can read Spanish, the article can be quite informative.

Here’s my own abstract and comments:

There was a significant revival of Classical studies in Spain in the 1960s. A part of that revival was the recognition of a need for a Greek lexicon directed at university students and faculty. Under the direction of professor Rodriguez Andrados a small group of researchers began work on the project. They quickly realized that the volume of Greek documents available had increased considerably since the most recent lexica were produced. The job was simply too massive for such a small team.

They broadened their objectives, embracing new fields of study and new methods. The research team was expanded, and the first few volumes of the dictionary began to appear. As computer resources began to emerge, these were incorporated, allowing both faster processing and greater reliability. The web has proved a vital tool in recent work on the lexicon.

The enormous scope of the work has not permitted a quick conclusion to the project, although it has received considerable acclaim. So far, seven volumes have appeared (one since the writing of Gangutia’s article).

The latest volume covers ἐκπελλεύω—ἔξαυος. There’s an enormous amount left to be done, but what’s available now is a significant advance over previous efforts. When will a similar project get underway in English? We can only hope.

Deponency and Greek Lexicography, by Bernard Taylor

I just finished reading “Deponency and Greek Lexicography” by Bernard A. Taylor, in Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography. He works slowly up to the argument that we should dispense with the notion of “deponent” verbs altogether, arguing that this designation comes from Latin rather than Greek and no ancient Greek grammarian ever mentioned a similar notion.

He also argues for basing lexical entries on the aorist rather than the present. This is a notion we have kicked around here as well. Using the aorist infinitive would emphasize the “default” form of the verb. It’s nice to see a discussion already in print as of 2004 making this argument.

In the conclusion to his article, Taylor proposes a need to broaden the textual base for a lexicon of the Septuagint. Pointing to the work Frederick Danker has done in including non-Christian and non-Jewish works in the new version of BDAG (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition), Taylor urges a similarly broad base for a new lexicon of the LXX.

I hope to someday see that kind of broad base both for a new lexicon of the LXX and for a new Hellenistic Greek lexicon more broadly.