Semantics and Lexicography – an Excerpt from Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament

The following is an excerpt from Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament, by Stanley Porter.

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Ever since James Barr’s seminal The Semantics of Biblical Language, biblical scholars have been aware of what linguists already knew: words cannot be equated with concepts nor meanings determined by word histories.

Nevertheless, it has been very difficult for biblical scholars to rid themselves of some deeply rooted preconceptions, since theological presuppositions are strong motivators. Traditional lexicography often relied upon etymologizing as an aid to establishing the theological significance of a word, and then the entire theological framework was read into a single occasion of the word’s use. This led to numerous generalizations not only about language, but also about how the Hebrew or Greek mind worked.

Cover ArtRecent developments in lexicography have the potential to free biblical scholars from these unhelpful remnants of the biblical theology movement. These developments in lexicography have gone hand in hand with developments in the field of semantic theory, which studies how words mean and how they mean in relation to each other.

Modern biblical lexicography, especially that of the New Testament, has been greatly helped by the development of semantic-field theory (in biblical studies usually called semantic-domain theory). Semantic-field theory recognizes that the vocabulary of any language is not ordered alphabetically, unlike the standard lexicon. Instead, the vocabulary of a language is organized around semantic fields or domains. Semantic-field theory notes that words are used in terms of contextual relations, not in isolation, and that the words are used by speakers and writers to divide the world of experience, feelings, and events into the various realms that words can be used to delimit.

Major difficulties with semantic-field theory are those of establishing the fields, determining and differentiating meaning components, and then quantifying the relations of the words within the fields. A major step forward in lexicography of all sorts has been the semantic-domain lexicon by J. P. Louw and Eugene Nida. This lexicon attempts to classify the entire vocabulary of the New Testament—treating this as a dialect of ancient Greek—into semantic domains. Within these domains, the various lexical items are listed and glossed.

The lexicon has been criticized for failing to encompass a wider scope than simply the Greek of the New Testament, and for failing to include syntactical information. There is also the difficulty that it tends to include all of the words on the same level, rather than realizing that they have hyponymic relations (hierarchical relations, such as “flower” being higher in a hierarchy with “tulip” and “rose” beneath). The attempt to quantify meanings has been aided by the Spanish New Testament Greek lexicon project, which attempts to provide a schematized semantic framework for each word in the lexicon. A project is currently underway that attempts to construct a similar type of semantic-domain lexicon for the Hebrew Bible.

The implications of modern lexicography for the study of the Bible are several. They include a freeing of the language from the kinds of theological strictures that have tended to envelop it in the past, whereby every word was thought to be a theological cipher. There is also the recognition of how it is that words mean in a language, both in terms of being used to refer to entities in the world and, perhaps more importantly, in terms of how they mean in relation to each other.

©2015 by Stanley E. Porter. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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