The historical context of theological lexicons and James Barr

This excerpt is from my chapter, “Linguistic issues in Biblical Greek,” in Lexham Methods: Linguistics & Exegsis. It’s published digitally, but it will be appearing in print later this fall. Obviously, it’s worth owning it in both formats!

This a portion from the section on semantics:

The nineteenth century represents the era in which lexical semantics began to come into its own as a field of study. Alongside it, the practice of lexicography was emerging out of glossaries culled from translations into its own scientific discipline. The approach of historical philology that developed during that time provided the basis for the majority of lexicons, combining the terminology and concepts from ancient rhetorical theory (e.g. metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, etc.) and the empirical basis of the lexicological data.32 Max Hecht helpfully summarized the state of lexical semantics toward the end of the nineteenth century:

Semantics is linguistically valuable to the extent that it chronologically classifies meanings in the interest of lexicography, and writes down the laws of semantic change in the interests of etymology. To the extent, however, that it derives these laws from the nature of the mind and that it writes a history of ideas—meanings are ideas—it falls within the realm of empirical psychology.33

While Hecht does not focus on or express an interest specifically in Biblical Greek lexicography, his statement is significant for understanding the mindset of biblical lexicographers from the nineteenth century, whose efforts have formed the foundation for the majority of Greek lexicons used today. These words represent the theoretical orientation that motivated the efforts of scholars such as Bauer, Liddell and Scott, and Thayer, for example. We can note a few specific observations here. First, lexicographers from this period viewed the classification of semantic change and etymology as central to their work. Second—and quite significantly—this quote demonstrates that these lexicographers viewed their work as involving a psychological component: The lexicographers viewed the meaning of words and the processes that drive the semantic change of the meaning of words as providing insights into the nature of the human mind. Dirk Geeraerts argues that this fact and the development of classification systems for describing semantic change “demarcate the domain of historical-philological semantics.”34

These two prongs of historical-philological semantics form the backbone for the two primary semantic traditions that arose out of this period in biblical Greek: The standard descriptive lexicons such as those of Thayer, Bauer, and Liddell and Scott arose out of the interests in semantic change and etymology of the era. Their focus was empirical in nature. This was a natural development from older glossaries and lexicons. On the other side of things, the tradition of theological lexicons also finds its origin in the methodology of historical-philological semantics.35 The secular linguists and lexicographers of this period had quite clearly recognized an important fact about the nature of language that was lost (or ignored) during much of the twentieth century: “The linguistic phenomena under study are seen as revealing characteristics of the human mind.”36 Scholars of biblical Greek picked up on the significance of this relationship between a word and the larger cultural and psychological associations with that word. Consider, for example, the following two phrases/compounds: “garage sale.” If we were to ask a group of American English speakers what a garage sale was, they would all likely respond along the following lines: a sale of unwanted used items sold from in and around the garage over the course of a day or two.

At the same time, there are significant cultural and social factors or features that correlate with garage sales. Garage sales tend to take place in the spring or the fall. Cities or local communities might establish designated weekends for garage sales. The items on sale are generally expected to be quite low in price. Bartering is acceptable, if not encouraged. Prices might be reduced toward the end of the day (or weekend), when the sale is coming to a close. There might even be a box of items being given away for free. The purpose is as much about getting rid of excess stuff as it is about making money. Perhaps most striking, linguistically speaking, the term “garage sale” has been extended such that if a sufficient number of these features are present, the term does not need to refer to a sale taking place in a garage. A youth group might do a garage sale in the parking lot of their church with items donated by the congregation. In such a case, there is not even a garage present, and yet the term is still contextually appropriate.

Scholars such as Cremer and Kittel, who produced theological dictionaries, were working within this theoretical framework. They sought to bring together and articulate the social, cultural, and theological information that is associated with individual lexemes. They recognized that words are not self-contained phonetic vessels, but complex mental representations of human knowledge.

It is important here to emphasize this methodological and theoretical background to the theological dictionaries. This is because over the past several decades the popular trend has been to degrade them, particularly since the publication of James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language.38 This is not to say that James Barr was wrong when he wrote his heavy critique of theological lexicography in general or of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament in particular.39 Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language was a criticism of theologians using poor linguistics. This was certainly an accurate criticism,40 as there were a number of significant linguistic failures here. For one, these theological dictionaries went well beyond the documentation of sociocultural assumptions implicit in biblical Greek lexemes into making significant theological claims about those particular lexemes.

They also encouraged the lexical fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer,41  making the assumption that all the associative meanings that might be evoked by a particular lexeme are always all evoked by a particular lexeme. In the case of our “garage sale” example above, a youth group garage sale fundraiser at the church would not evoke a garage or even necessarily the sale of unwanted items. A good Greek example is the noun υἱοθεσία (huiothesia, “adoption”). Would a Jew writing a letter to a group of Gentiles in the first century have a mental representation of huiothesia that was primarily Jewish in nature, as James M. Scott would argue? Or would it involve more Graeco-Roman associations, as Trevor Burke has proposed?43 Both are justifiably a part of the mental representation evoked by huiothesia in the mind of a first-century Jew. But they are also extremely distinct representations: Graeco-Roman adoption involves legal expectations and requirements for establishing an heir, while Jewish adoption is theological and political, grounded in the ot background of God adopting the king of Israel.

At its most basic level the critique leveled against TDNT was that words cannot be equated with ideas/concepts. As Silva writes in his discussion of Barr’s critique, “The confusion [of words and concepts] may be inherent in the nature of TDNT, which seeks to deal with conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) in the form of a dictionary of words.”44  This is certainly a valid criticism. And it is one with significant exegetical implications. If one is interested in studying the concept of reconciliation in Paul’s letters, for example, an exegete certainly must examine his use of the word ἀποκαταλλάσσω (apokatallassō, “I reconcile”); but if the exegete does not further examine all the various examples of reconciliation where no actual reference to the individual lexeme occurs, then the study will result in an inadequate picture of the term. Concepts are much larger than words. Moreover, the tendency to move from attempting to document the mental representation evoked by words found in biblical Greek to theologizing about the nature of biblical Greek must be viewed as highly problematic.45

At the same time, Barr’s criticisms also reflect that the structuralist linguistic ideas of the 1940s and 1950s were fundamentally at odds with the psychological perspective on language that existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the early to mid-twentieth century, lexical semantics had begun to move away from the psychological orientation that we observed above.46 If the failure of theological dictionaries was the assumption that words and concepts are identical, then the failure of the structuralist semantics that dominated the field when James Barr wrote his critique was the assumption that words and concepts are dramatically different. If words mean anything at all, then there must be a substantive relationship between them and the concepts (both associative and denotative) they evoke mentally.


32 Dirk Geeraerts, Theories of Lexical Semantics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2–9.

33 Max Hecht, Griechische Bedeutungslehre (Leipzig: Teubner, 1888), 5; cited and translated by Dirk Geeraerts, Theories of Lexical Semantics, 9.

34 Hecht, Griechische Bedeutungslehre, 10.

35 This tradition more or less began in English with Hermann Cremer’s Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, 3rd Eng. ed., trans. from the German of the 2nd ed., with additional matter and corrections by the author (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1880).

36 Geeraerts, Theories of Lexical Semantics, 10. The psychological nature of language, which has again come to be appreciated in the past few decades in linguistics, was disregarded during the reign of structuralist linguistics that lasted up to the 1960s.

38 James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

39 Kittel et al., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

40 Biblical scholars at the time were making a number of extreme claims about how much they could get into the mind of Hebrew and Greek speakers on the basis of the meaning of individual words (see Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek [New York: W. W. Norton, 1960]).

41 See Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 25–27.

42 James M. Scott, Adoption as Sons of God: An Exegetical Investigation into the Background of ΥΙΟΘΕΣΙΑ in the Corpus Paulinum (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992).

43 Trevor Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006).

44 Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 27.

45 On this front, Cremer was highly criticized. See, for example, Adolf Deissmann and Lionel Richard Mortimer Strachan, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 69–117.

46 That is to say, it is not entirely clear whether the theological dictionary actually confused words and concepts in the manner that they are accused or whether they were simply misunderstood by proponents of structuralist semantics. It is entirely possible that the accusation itself was a result of the great theoretical and methodological chasm that existed between historical-philological semantics and structuralist semantics.

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