I just finished reading a book that I would highly recommend to those interested in Greek studies beyond an intermediate level:
John A. L. Lee. A History of New Testament Lexicography. Edited by D. A. Carson. Studies in Biblical Greek 8. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. 414 pages. $39.99.
- For more information on the SBG series, click here and then click the PDF icon near the top of the page; this PDF gives a description of each book in the series as you’d find on each book’s back cover. (BTW, Dan Wallace has a stellar forthcoming contribution to the series on the Granville Sharp rule.)
- After paying $40 for this tome, I’d place this book in the category of pricey books that you should obtain from a library rather than purchase yourself. After all, that’s partially what libraries are for, right?
Have you ever become embroiled in a theological debate that turned at least in part of the meaning of a Greek word? Let me suggest a few: βαπτίζω, ἀτάκτως (2 Thes 3:6, 11), προορίζω, μετανοέω. You get the idea. What fascinates me is this phenomenon: some people who do not hesitate to question the validity of a theology book, commentary, or even a Greek grammar never even consider to do the same with a Greek lexicon. It’s almost as if a Greek lexicon is the ultimate (human) appeal of authority. If it’s in the lexicon, it can’t be wrong. Or can it?
Enter John Lee. The book’s back cover says, “Lee recently retired from the University of Sydney, Australia, where he taught Classical and Koine Greek for thirty years in the Classics Department. His main publication was A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch (1983), a standard work on the language of the Septuagint. He is now affiliated with Macquarie University, where he continues to work with G. H. R. Horsley on A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament with Documentary Parallels, a book to update and replace Moulton and Milligan’s classic Vocabulary of the Greek Testament.”
I thought that this might be a boring book that I would trudge through dutifully. I was wrong. It is fascinating and even hard to put down once you get into it. It is thoughtful, well written, and engaging. It demonstrates that scholarship and literary grace are not mutually exclusive!
Lee divides the work into two parts: historical survey and case studies. Part 1 is more significant. Here are some interesting highlights:
- “After five centuries of accumulation and refinement, the content of the major lexicons of our day might be expected to be highly reliable. It is not. . . . [U]nderstanding the mistakes of the past is necessary to promote improvement. Lexicons play a pivotal role in all other subjects, yet they are commonly taken for granted and trusted as though they had no faults. Greater awareness of what still needs to be done is desirable” (xi).
- “The production of lexicons is remarkably slow work. The Oxford English Dictionary took seventy years, counting twenty years of preliminary collection of data” (3).
- After doing a mini-test case of what it would take to prepare a lexical entry for ἀναγκάζω, Lee notes, “At least a day has gone by. At this rate, that is if all the words are as ‘easy’ as ἀναγκάζω and we can do one every day, the whole task will take 13.7 years. That is, of course, working 365 days a year without any days off. But what will happen when we come to a word like λέγω, with 2,262 occurrences in the New Testament, all of which will have to be checked and re-analysed?” (6)
- Lee convincingly argues throughout the work that Greek lexicons need to be “based on an entirely fresh assessment of all the data available at the time,” and he bemoans that this is not the case. Rather, they “have depended on their predecessors: they simply take over most, or even all, of the material of an earlier lexicon. Additions and a large number of minor changes may of course be made, but the foundation is usually a previous work” (6).
- “[A]ll entries in today’s lexicons should be regarded with suspicion until proved reliable. It is not that everything in them is likely to be wrong, but that they may contain faulty material that has been simply handed on and not adequately tested” (9).
- The marketplace governs the production of lexicons. “A turnover in names is a noticeable characteristic of the tradition. The names of earlier authors tend to recede and be supplanted by those of revisers. The author of a ‘new’ or ‘revised’ edition naturally wants his contribution recognised. But commercial needs are also well served: the old work, now obsolete, is gone and a fresh start has been made; a new lexicon is on the market and everyone needs to buy it. The old author’s name may be kept on the title page–not too prominently–but it has a good change of being dropped altogether, especially in later editions” (9-10). Lee documents how this shocking phenomenon happened repeatedly in the history of NT lexicography.
- Lexicons should define words–not simply provide a gloss for them (15-29). The former is much more tedious and rewarding. For example, which is a more helpful lexicon entry for τρέχω: a gloss (“run“) or definition (e.g., “to move at a rapid pace across the surface of the ground by use of the legs“) (17)? Writing definitions “is the harder path, because it forces the lexicographer to spell out precisely what the word means, and this takes some doing; definition by gloss is child’s play by comparison. And the lexicographer learns a strange paradox: we can easily translate words, but we often cannot say just what they mean” (21).
- The most interesting part (for me, at least) of Lee’s historical survey provides details on Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Bauer’s lexicon. The lineage of the latter is fascinating: Preuschen (1910), Preuschen and Bauer (1928), Bauer (1937), BAG (1957), BAGD (1979), and BDAG (2000). Lee appreciates BDAG, but he is convinced that more needs to be done for two main reasons:
- (1) “BDAG continues to rest on Bauer’s analysis. Definitions have been introduced, but they have been generated out of and grafted on to the existing glosses. They thus reflect Bauer’s–or more often Preuschen’s–lexical analysis of the New Testament occurrences. This was dependent on the faulty gloss method, as well as subject to other shortcomings. The number of meanings, the glosses or headings assigned to them, and the criteria of analysis remain by and large as before. Likewise the state of the evidence from parallels remains virtually unchanged, along with the conclusions drawn from that evidence long ago (cf. chapter 8). There has not been a fresh re-examination of all the data” (167).
- (2) “The definition method is a hard taskmaster. As was remarked earlier, it is easy to find fault with others’ efforts; the question always to be faced is whether one could do better. But even with every precaution against hubris, the quality of the definitions in BDAG can be seen to be uneven. Some are as good as one could hope for, but many call out for improvement” (169).
- Another weakness: “BDAG is showing its age. The constant trend of the Bauer series, with the exception of BRAA (1988), has been to grow. Now with a century of accumulation behind it, a state of severe overload and overlay has been reached. . . . It is not just that some entries have reached massive proportions (e.g., ὄνομα, with over six columns and twenty subdivisions), or that some incorporate mini-essays (e.g., σύζυγος, φοβέω), but that all the entries have gathered too much information of too many different types, of varying degrees of reliability and usefulness. It is painful indeed to jettison good material, but at some point growth must stop or cease to have value” (170).
- Chapter 11 (177-90) is entitled “The Way Ahead.” Lee asserts, “Today we have reached a turning-point. All the work of the twentieth century, and with it all the previous centuries, may be regarded as summed up and encapsulated in the major lexicon just published, BDAG (2000). Now is the opportune time to pause and rethink how to tackle New Testament lexicography in the future. If events follow their usual pattern, we are likely to see a stripped-down revision of BDAG, with piecemeal updating, and no fundamental improvement. On past form this is likely to be called for and produced within twenty years . . . . But instead of following the old pattern, let us see if a better direction can be found” (178). Lee’s proposals are thought-provoking (182-88).
- 1. Produce “an electronic database” that includes “all the data relevant to the lexicography of the New Testament,” and make it “accessible online to all who wished to use it. It could also form a clearing-house for direct contributions. The question of control would follow in that case.”
- 2. Recognize that this is “an ongoing, cumulative task” that “will never be completed. Stages of it certainly could be, but the whole purpose is to provide not a static entity but one that can keep on incorporating and reacting to new material that becomes available.”
- 3. Recognize that this is “a co-operative effort.” “The time has passed when one person could sit alone, working for decades, shouldering the entire burden of compiling a lexicon of the New Testament. The benefit of sharing the work is twofold: not only can the sheer labour be spread by parcelling out portions to different persons; there is also much to be gained from a second opinion or perspective.”
- 4. State “the lexical meaning of each word (or meanings, suitably classified).” That “is the heart of the lexicon.” Give precedence to definitions and over glosses.
- 5. Collect “a reliable collection of data, especially of evidence and opinion.”
- 6. Widen the circle to include more than “lexical-structural data.” Include “everything else of relevance to determining meaning. This could include (in no particular order) syntagmatics, connotation, register, context of situation, stylistics. All this could be provided by means of links from any given word to other areas of the database.” “Etymology and morphology” could be included as well.
- 7. Make “the primary repository of information” be “an electronic database available online to all. While it would be a user’s tool, it would be much more: a repository of all data and a record of progress of research. As such it might well be daunting and impractical for many ordinary users and might remain used only by specialists. Handy tools targeted to specific users’ needs would still be desideratum. All, or selected parts, of the content could be made available via CD ROM (or whatever future technology offers). That some printed form of the material would also be desirable seems certain. The question is what form it might or ought to take.”
- Conclusion: “All this may seem to be an unattainable ideal. There is no reason why it must be, given sufficient time and application. Development along these lines seems to me inevitable in any case, though it will be slow and require many interim stages. At this juncture, it seems important to be aware of what has gone wrong in the past and how it might be fixed, rather than to continue in trustful ignorance and perpetuate the same mistakes.”
Lee’s historical survey is stunningly detailed and quite convincing. I’m excited to see the future of NT lexicography unfold.
On an applicational note, Lee’s scholarly work is also convicting. I’ve taken lexicons for granted. I knew they must have been a lot of work to create, but I did not appreciate them like I should. Furthermore, we have multiple lexicons available electronically, and they are fully searchable. What a treasure! Thank God for lexicons, lexicographers, and the embarrassment of GNT riches that we have today. I find myself praying this often: “Lord, help me to be a good steward of your manifold grace.”