Studying Words


When you’re doing a word study semantic analysis (I can’t stand that name by the way, “word study”), how many occurrences of the word is “enough”?  50? 100? 400?

If a word occurs 150 times in the New Testament, how necessary is it to cover the literature of the surrounding period? The LXX? Papyri?

Any ideas?

8 thoughts on “Studying Words

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  1. Mike,
    As few as two or three examples can be sufficient if the contexts fall just right, or conversely 100 can be insufficient.

    On average fifteen to twenty are likely to provide a good picture. Check out my study of ἐπιτιμάω, which occurs 28 times (29 if you include a variant reading). (That’s the last link. You can work your way back to the beginning from there.)

    One of the key things to remember is that it is just as important to know what could have been said but wasn’t. And also take into account the social context (who is speaking to whom). Most Biblical word studies leave these two crucial aspects out. (Remember the meaning is not in the words. The words only point to and frame the meaning. See a post on that point here.)

    As to referring to other literature, the issue is in how far is that literature removed from Scripture. So Roman era Egyptian papyri are gold. As are contemporary Greek writers including the Church Fathers, if you triangulate for genre differences.

    The LXX has to be used with care. It is a translation and the language is up to 300 years old relative to the NT. (That’s like reading 17th or early 18th century English. Mostly comprehensible, but there are plenty of words whose meaning or usage has changed just enough to make a difference for a semantic study. Cf. Sense and Sensibility, where sensibility means ‘sensitivity’ not ‘common sense’, and that’s only 200 years — OK 197 years old.)

  2. Thanks for the comments. Not exactly what I was looking for, but definitely thoughtful and helpful. But then, I intentionally left the question very open ended, hoping for a variety of responses. I appreciate it.

  3. I think both sides of the coin are critical and matter. The occurence of the word and the manner which it is used in a particular book or in the whole Scripture are equally valid and should be taken in consideration . Mike, do you own a copy of Kubo’s “A Reader’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.” It is a good research tool, “a verse-by-verse arrangement, with definitions, of all words appearing fewer than 50 times, as well as appendices which give summaries of major points in Greek grammar.” Check it out!

  4. Thanks Lou, I’ve thought about picking up a copy a few times now, but it hasn’t been as high of a priority than some other books…and now, I’m a bit strapped for cash these days.

    I also wish I could have been at the SBL meeting.

  5. Oh yes! I remember that post – I enjoyed it. To let you in on a little secret, Rich, the reason I asked this question is because at the beginning of the month, I began a project to analyze the New Testament under a Lexical-Functional framework (completing Ephesians will be a sort of pilot for it). As I’ve worked through the argument structure of διδωμι, I’ve become rather irritated by dictionaries. I feel as if the meanings given by BDAG and even L&N say more about how we would translation διδωμι into English than about the meaning of the word in Greek.

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