The Little Words: Greek Grammar, Discourse, and Interpretation

Here’s the short version of this post: I helped write a book on Greek and biblical interpretation and it’s coming out soon. Also, you should buy it.

I have mentioned this project once or twice before, but I thought it would be sensible to bring it up again, as the book will be released soon. “What is an ‘interpretive lexicon,’ anyway?” This has been a fairly common question in my life for the past several years. Generally the question comes from family and friends who ask “what I’m up to these days.” Needless to say, “Writing a book on Greek” does not usually help explain myself.

But I should clarify. Most of my work – and that of my co-authors – was closer to compiling than writing. Although there is an introduction that explains the purpose of the book and how to use it, the vast majority of the book is a reiteration of other books.

Now, paradoxically, that is precisely the value of this lexicon. Students of biblical studies, pastors, and professors well know the vast array of resources available when it comes to studying the Greek text of the New Testament. So the point of our work in this lexicon is to condense a handful of the key texts and present them succinctly. In essence, our hope is that this lexicon is a simple but powerful exegetical tool; the fulcrum, so to speak, for the interpretive lever.

So let me attempt to answer the question by addressing the two aspects of the book: 1) the Lexicon and 2) the Interpretive.

The “Lexicon”

There are three major resources condensed into this slim volume (~96pg). They are the following:

  1. BDAG (and BAGD) – Anyone familiar with New Testament Greek will know the Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur. Okay, you may not know it by that name. But that is where this work started before Wilbur Gingrich translated and adapted it with the help of William F. Arndt in 1949. In a second edition in 1979, known as “BAGD,” Frederick W. Danker replaced Arndt to expand the work. The most recent edition in 2000 added still more material and was coined BDAG (i.e. Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich).

In our Interpretive Lexicon the word entries provide glosses keyed to both BDAG (’00) and to BAGD (’79), since they differ from one another often, so that when you go to look up a word you see a succinct chunk of information along with the page and section references to both versions of Bauer. The idea is that our entry provides the essential lexical information, with a quick link to the definitive NT lexicon should the exegete need greater detail. Naturally, this may be a frequent need, which is why we have so tenaciously included information from and about BDAG/BAGD. We encourage careful cross-referencing.

 The “Interpretive”

Thus far the “Lexicon.” Now for the “Interpretive.” As indicated by the subtitle of the book, it is focused on what linguists often call “function words.” In my experience, students usually think of these as the “annoying little words,” since there are so many of them and they are so difficult to define strictly. Unlike the more easily definable (and memorizable) “content words,” such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, “function words” are what fall in between, namely prepositions, adverbs, particles, relative pronouns, and conjunctions.

Another way to think about function words is as “connecting words,” since their job is to indicate the ways that ideas are connected in  the flow of thought of a text (spoken or written). And it is for that exact reason that these “annoying little words” are in fact stupendously important for interpreting scripture. If we are serious about understanding scripture, then we must understand how the flow of thought progresses. This is one of the tasks of interpretation, and function words are at the heart of it all. That is the rationale behind the other two resources included in our Interpretive Lexicon.

2.  Wallace’s Greek Grammar – Students of NT Greek will also well know Wallace’s Greek Grammar, a heavy-weight text that is rightly considered a standard in exegetical work. In this Grammar, Wallace focuses on syntax, which makes it perfectly suited to our lexicon, not to mention the fact that it is also published by Zondervan. For every word that we treat in the Interpretive Lexicon, if there is any discussion by Wallace we cite every page reference at the end of our entry. Again, the idea is that wherever the exegete is in need of greater detail, he or she has quick access to the industrial strength resources.

3.  Harris’s Prepositions and Theology – Finally, for even greater accuracy with one of the most significant Greek parts of speech – prepositions – we have also included Murray J. Harris’s work. In my experience, this resource is not as well known as it should be, so hopefully our lexicon will bring it to attention. Essentially, Harris discusses each Greek preposition (and even “improper” prepositions) in detail. As the book’s title implies, the meaning of a preposition can and does have profound impact upon theology. Consider, for example,  the importance of the preposition ὑπέρ (hyper), which in the genitive case connotes “for, on behalf of,” to discussions of atonement.

Discourse Matters & A Sample Entry

To give an idea of what an entry looks like, here is a sample. You may notice the boldfaced letters and symbols that occur in each numbered category. garThese boldfaced symbols and letters are extremely significant and form the backbone of the lexicon’s functionality. Some of you will be familiar with discourse analysis. Perhaps more of you will have heard of John Piper’s “Bible Arcing” (see BibleArc).

I only want to mention this here as a primer for another post coming up. There I will discuss more about discourse analysis (which goes by many names), how function words fit into it, and what the bold letters and symbols mean in our entries. Stay tuned!

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