Troubles in Post-classical Greek Lexicography

A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG)

There are few things that really drive home the reality that there is no general post-Classical Greek dictionary better than comparing entries for words that appear in BDAG, but are not New Testament vocabulary. These are the “Other Early Christian Literature” in BDAG’s title. Yes, they get mentioned in the lexicon, but BDAG’s entry is hardly useful and primarily functions to drive one to search elsewhere for more information. How do other dictionaries/lexicons compare in providing us with all the information we need for understanding how a word is used? Consider the noun συμπλοκή. This is a word that does not appear in the New Testament. It occurs a single time in the corpus documented by BDAG.

BDAG’s entry provides the following information about the word:

συμπλοκή, ῆς, (Pla. et al.; ins; Philo, Rer. Div. Her. 198; Jos., Bell. 4, 423) gener. ‘intertwining’; in our lit. only in the sexual sense intimate embrace, intercourse (Pla., Symp. 191c; Aristot., HA 5, 5; Cornutus 24 p. 45, 9) μιαραὶ κ. ἄναγναι συμπλοκαί 1 Cl 30:1 (cp. Achilles Tat. 7, 5, 4 μεμιασμένας συμπλοκάς).—DELG s.v. πλέκω. Sv.

This is a fascinating entry, perhaps especially for the reason that BDAG’s nature as a lexicon of a specific corpus so profoundly constrains the information provided. The reader is informed that the general sense is something like “intertwining”, which is true enough, while also being just enough information to be dangerous. The lexicon provides no information as to how the “general” sense is related to the sense that occurs “in our literature”, i.e. the New Testament and other early Christian literature. This entry is also fascinating in that only one citation for “our literature” is provided: 1 Clement 30:1. And indeed, this is the only occurrence of the word at all in the corpus of early Christian literature that BDAG covers. Yet this is not explicitly communicated. Combine this with the lexicon’s strict adherence to conventional phraseology, and the incautious reader might mistake, “in our lit. only in the sexual sense intimate embrace, intercourse” as implying a larger number of occurrences than there actually are. The reader must know and understand the rules and conventions of dictionary reading, something that schools usually do not teach.

It is relatively simple to intuit from the general gloss and the sense documented in 1 Clement 30:1 a specific metaphorical extension to understand the relationship between the two, but even a cursory look at more general dictionaries quickly signals that the semantic relationship and development of the sexual sense of this noun is far more complicated. There is much that can be said about this word and its semantics. For the present, I would simply like to look at what information we are able to glean from other dictionaries.

First up in this comparison is the 9th edition of LSJ from the Perseus Project. This is arguably the most accessible dictionary available. It’s free and online. The entry is provided below (or view it via Logeion):

συμπλοκή, ἡ,

intertwining, complication, combination, τῇ [τῶν ἀτόμων] συμπλοκῇ . . πάντα γεννᾶσθαι Democr. ap. Arist. Cael. 303a7, cf. Thphr. Sens. 66, Sor. 2.4; used by Pl. as a generic term for weaving and its kindred arts, Plt. 281a, cf. 306a, al.; ἡ ἁπάντων πρὸς ἄλληλα σ. Plb. 1.4.11, cf. Phld. Sign. 37, D. 3.8 (pl.); συνέχεια καὶ σ. Plot. 3.1.4; εἱμαρμένη defined as σ. αἰτιῶν, Stoic. 2.284.

struggle, esp. of wrestlers, ἡ ἐν ταῖς σ. μάχη a close struggle, Pl. Lg. 833a, cf. Plb. 1.15.3, Gal. 15.126,197; of ships, close engagement, Plb. 1.27.12, 1.28.11, SIG 567.11 (Calymna, iii B.C.); of cavalry, Onos. 10.6.

embrace, sexual intercourse, Pl. Smp. 191c, Arist. HA 540b21, Corn. ND 24, Sor. 1.31, al.

combination of letters to form a word or of words to form a proposition, Pl. Plt. 278b sq.; λόγος ἐγένετο . . ἡ πρώτη σ. Id. Sph. 262c, cf. Tht. 202b, D.H. Pomp. 6; σ. τῶν ὀνομάτων Demetr.Lac. Herc. 1113.2, cf. Phld. Po. 2.33, al.; also combination of mental acts so as to form one entity, οὐδὲ σ. δόξης καὶ αἰσθήσεως φαντασία ἂν εἴη Arist. de An. 428a25, cf. PA 643b16; combination of subject and predicate, σ. γὰρ νοημάτων ἐστὶ τὸ ἀληθὲς ἢ ψεῦδος Id. de An. 432a11, cf. Top. 113a1; κατὰ συμπλοκὴν λέγεσθαι, opp. ἄνευ συμπλοκῆς, Id. Cat. 1a16, cf. Stoic. 2.69, etc.

Gramm., the copula, D.H. Dem. 9.

Medic., of ingredients, μετὰ τῆς πρὸς τοὺς φοίνικας σ. in combination with . . , Sor. 1.50, cf. 115.

Here we find a larger collection of context and usages than BDAG, which is certainly what we expect: weaving, combination, struggle, close hostile engagement, sexual intercourse, grammatical linking, the mixing of medicines, rhetoric. There are a fuller and much more complicated structure of usages and semantic relationships. In LSJ, you find another possible means of extension than merely:

  1. “intertwining” > “intimate embrace, intercourse”

Another derivation is possible as another path of semantic development

  1. “intertwining” > “struggle, esp. of wrestlers” > “embrace” > “intimate embrace” > “sexual intercourse”

LSJ does not provide any guidance as to what the development actually is, but the difference between the direct path and the more complex one matters when we want to consider how the 1st or 2nd century readers would have interpreted broader connotations that συμπλοκή would evoke in the their minds.

To complicate matters further, no one Greek dictionary provides the full extent of usages and patterns. If you compare the 1946 edition of the LSJ, which is the one provided by the Perseus Project above with the edition digitized by Logos Bible Software that incorporated the 1996 Supplement back into the main body, you find a variety of additional usages and contexts.

The 9th Supplement includes four additional citations from a variety of sources that help flesh out more detail about the usage of συμπλοκή: scaled armor, intermarriage, fights between bandits and, in the documentary papyri, quarrels.

Brill’s G-E provides additional context. Much of the entry overlaps, though it is also shorter than that of LSJ.

συμπλοκή, -ῆς, ἡ [συμπλέκω]

A. intertwining, weaving, combination, connection Plat. Pol. 281a, al. Aristot. Cael. 303a 7 Thphr. Sens. 66 etc. ἡ ἁπάντων πρὸς ἄλληλα σ. The interrelation of everything Pol. 1.4.11

|| log. and gramm. combination, of letters and words Plat. Soph. 262c, al. Dion. Pomp. 6.10 etc.; of subj. and pred. Aristot. Cat. 1 16, al. etc.

| coordination Dion. Dem. 9.5

|| rhet. weaving together, of styles Dion. Rh. 8.8

| name of a rhet. figure Al.1 Fig. 30

B. of pers. embrace Plat. Symp. 191c Aristot. H.A. 540b 21 etc.

||host. fight, fray Plat. Leg. 833a Pol. 1.15.3 Gal. 15.126., 197

| also of ships Pol. 1.27.12, al. ISyill3. 567.11 (IIIBCE); of cavalry Onasan, 10.6.

G-E’s editors adds one more grammatical use of συμπλοκή, for coordination with a citation from Dionysius of Haricarnassus. This is helpful for reading Palestinian Greek texts, since we also find a parallel of this usage in Philo, in example (3).

  1. εἶτα ἀφʼ ἑτέρας ἀρχῆς μετὰ συμπλοκῆς “καὶ χαλβάνην ἡδυσμοῦ καὶ λίβανον διαφανῆ”, ταῦτα πάλιν καθʼ ἑαυτά, τῶν κούφων, ἀέρος καὶ πυρός, τὰ σημεῖα. Then he makes a fresh beginning using the conjunction,
    “and galbanum of sweetness and clear gum of frankincense,” and these two, which indicate the light elements, air and fire, are also joined by an “and” (Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things 198).

They also provide the direction to the related verb: συμπλέκω, which is particularly helpful to the more novice dictionary user who might not otherwise think to look for such a verb.

The new Cambridge Greek Lexicon (CGL) is, as expected, much more concise in the information provided, but it effectively parallels the rest of what we have already seen:

σύμπλοκή ῆς f. [σύμπλέκω] 1 intertwining (as a generic term for weaving and associated arts) Pl.

2 combination (of letters to form words, or of words to form a proposition) Pl.; (of concepts, in thought) Arist.

3 connection, interrelationship (of things w. each other) Plb.

4 close engagement (of soldiers, ships) Pl. Plb. Plu.; (gener.) military engagement Plb.

5 sexual embrace Pl.

To add one more, we’ll check Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon. This lexicon builds on LSJ entries to add patristic material. In effect, it skips over all the documentary and literary texts after the classical period right to the Church Fathers and only the Church Fathers. Still, it functions as an additional source of citations and evidence for filling in our knowledge gaps.

συμπλοκή, ἡ,

1. interweaving; met., of the thread binding together all creation, connexion, Dion.Ar.d.n.11.2(M.3.949d) cit. s. ἀσυγχύτως;

2. combination τὴν εὐχαριστίαν καὶ τὴν εὐλογίαν ἀγαλλίασίν τε καὶ εὐφροσύνην, ἔτι τε ὑπομονὴν συνεργοῦσαν, καὶ τὴν τούτων σ., τὴν ἐκκλησίαν Clem.paed.1.5(p.103.21; M.8.277a);

3. between persons, association, close connexion, Gr.Thaum.pan.Or.5(p.13.13; M.10.1065d); σ. τὴν πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐμπορεύσομαι, ἣν ἡ πίστις συνδεῖ τοὺς ὁμόφρονας Sophr.H.ep.syn.(M.87.3149c); denied of Son’s relation to Father ὁ υἱὸς ἁπλῶς καὶ χωρὶς σ. τινός ἐστιν ἐν τῷ πατρί· φύσει γὰρ ὑπάρχει τοῦτʼ αὐτῷ Ath.Ar.3.23(M.26.372a);

4. union of soul and body in man, †; M.6.1585b); τὸ διττὸν καὶ ἑτερογενὲς τῆς ἐν ἡμῖν σ. … καὶ ψυχῆς καὶ σώματος Eus.p.e.6.6(247a; M.21.420c);

5. Christol., union of natures in Christ, Cyr.hom.pasch.17.2(52.226e); τὴν δευτέραν ἑαυτοῦ … ἐνεργῆσαι γέννησιν ἐν τῇ σ. τοῦ καθʼ ἡμᾶς ἀνθρώπου ὁμολογοῦμεν Leont.H.Nest.4.9(M.86.1669b); ib.6.8(1757a); οὐσιώδους σ. ib.1.19(1476d); id.monoph.testimonia(M.86.1809d); πρὸς τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην φύσιν ἕνωσιν τοῦ λόγου καὶ σ. καὶ συνάφειαν ἀληθεστάτην ‡Gr.Nyss.hom.3.44 in Jo.(p.147.6);

6. embrace (of sexual intercourse); met., of death, Eus.theoph.3(p.6.13);

In addition to the theological usages in the majority of sub-senses listed, the use of συμπλοκή for the embrace of death is a very striking addition.

The central point is this: Those of us working in post-classical Greek are largely reliant upon dictionaries not designed for us and our texts. Arguably, in this particular case, the Logos edition of LSJ with the integrated supplement provides the most representation of the post-Classical period, but the reality is that for any given word the best general dictionary might be a completely different one every single time. Or it might be all the dictionaries. Or none of them.

We should not be satisfied with this state-of-affairs.


Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Diggle, James. 2021. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lampe, G. W. H. and Mary B. Grosvenor. 1961. A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford: At The Clarendon Press.

Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones, and Roderick McKenzie. 1946. A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones, and Roderick McKenzie. 1996. A Greek-English Lexicon with Revised Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Montanari, Franco, Madeleine Goh, and Chad Schroeder. 2015. The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek. Leiden; Boston: Brill.