Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis (Lexham Methods Series) in Print

The introductory volume on linguistics and exegesis to which I contributed two chapters is finally in print.

Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis (Lexham Methods Series) edited by Douglas Mangum & Josh Westbury (Amazon)

If I can whet your appetite at all, here’s a bit of an excerpt from my discussion of semantics and Greek lexicons/dictionaries:

“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. 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.” 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.

We might call this type of cultural, social, and contextual information associative meaning. Linguists at the turn of the nineteenth century viewed associative meaning as highly valuable for developing an understanding of language, semantic change in language, and the human mind. In our example here, “garage sale” does not mean all this corollary information in a denotative sense. However, in our minds, this information, either in whole or in part, is evoked by “garage sale.” It is cultural baggage. 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. 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. Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language was a criticism of theologians using poor linguistics. This was certainly an accurate criticism, 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, 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.”

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