Scholars and Greek Lexicons…

This quote from William A. Johnson’s essay in Taylor, et al. (2004) Biblical Greek language and lexicography, a book definitely worth anyone’s time, really stands out for illustrating just how fraught the definitions and glosses in dictionaries and lexicons can be. It also provides an additional voice of reason, alongside John Lee’s (2003) A history of New Testament lexicography, for why new and fresh work in Greek lexicography and lexical semantics is so needed.

Incidentally, Taylor, et al. (2004) also includes a chapter from John Lee that covers in a smaller package much of the same material as his larger monograph. If you can’t afford Lee’s larger book, this volume makes a convenient and more affordable alternative.

 “But then one turns to Greek. We have not walked into a slum exactly, but the building are more closely spaced, the porch banisters often rickety, the lawns not so well kept. Approaching the dictionary, a Hellenist must remain cautious and light on the feet. Often enough none of the translations equivalents is exact for a given context; sometimes the definition is simply wrong; glosses are rather frequently wrong (at least by contemporary interpretation); information on syntax, typical expressions, orthographica, or dialectical forms is hit-or-miss; and the overview one gets of the word can be fundamentally flowed, since, lexicographical practice aside, the passages considered by the lexicographer were too few and too skewed in the types of material. And then there is the outmoded lexicographic technique itself. . . . there exists no independently conceived Greek dictionary. That is, the Diccionario is based on the LSJ, which is based on Passow, which is based on Schneider, which is based on Stephanus – we are now back to the sixteenth century – and Stephanus is itself based on the Byzantine lexica and encyclopedias, themselves complied from earlier sources. . . . It is axiomatic that certain meanings of words which do not appear until much later, or which appear only sporadically in what comes down to us, nonetheless enjoyed continuous usage. . . . This lack of a proper historical viewpoint is, in my view, the most profound deficiency in LSJ and its ancillaries” (77).

The context of this quote comes directly from a discussion expressing the amazement that one finds in the Latin Lexica.

Now, with that said, BDAG is strong lexicon and in many respects is is better than the LSJ, BUT it still have the same fault of being a dictionary based on a dictionary based on a dictionary based on a dictionary, also going back to Stephanus and thus, also back to the Byzantine lexica and encyclopedias, as Lee has showed us so clearly..

We need to read even BDAG critically. Check the texts it cites and then go back and check other texts, compare lexica with each other, how do they differ and how are they the same. And then, go check more texts that contain the word you’re studying. If you have the time, go back and study the word yourself in as many occurrences as possible.