The “Annoying Little Words” & Exegesis – An Interpretive Lexicon

This is the second post out of two (see the first here) describing my recent, co-authored publication An Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek (here). In the first I described the “interpretive” and “lexicon” aspects of the book. Here I want to focus on what I think is the best feature of it, and why it’s an exegetical golden goose. Let me preface much of this by saying that our “Introduction” in the Lexicon covers more detailed material that will also be helpful.

This post is a bit technical and won’t have many pictures, so strap on your thinking cap.

The Significance of the “Annoying Little Words”

I began to talk about function words in the first post. These are the words that students usually think of as quite annoying. For the most part, that is correct, since these words rarely have a neat definition that can be slapped on the back of a flashcard. The reason is that their whole raison d’être is to connect larger ideas (typically clauses but also paragraphs and other larger units of text). This basically means that the annoying little words are “multivalent” or “polysemous”. That is to say, they often take one of two or more possible meanings, depending on their context. And of course, since they are “function” words after all, the meaning they take in context will greatly affect what they doOkay, so that was abstract. Let’s get textual. Look at the fancy graphic above that I made. It shows a ‘cloud’ of the most frequently used words in the book of Romans. Notice how the obvious candidates like χάρις (‘grace’) or δικαιοσύνη (‘righteousness’) or νόμος (‘law’) are not immediately visible. The most prominent words are … you guessed it, the annoying little words. You get a gigantic καί and a δέ, a γάρ, a few definite article forms, and a few prepositions (διά, εἰς, ἐν). In fact, the one and only content word that is fairly visible is the genitive form of θεός (‘of God’).

My point is that you can only get to the “big ideas” of a book like Romans – or any text – by first going through the little words. They are absolutely indispensable to communication, slippery as they are to pin down to a single definition. Fortunately, we use function words automatically in our everyday speech and never give it a second thought. Unfortunately, this can make it all too easy to overlook their incredible importance in the task of interpretation.

Discourse Analysis

An English Example

To do some of the heavy lifting of dealing with function words in interpretation, some undertake a process that many call ‘discourse analysis,’ although it goes by other names as well (e.g. ‘text linguistics’). What this process aims to do is discern the larger structures and connectedness of a text. Remember that function words are sometimes called “connecting” words. They connect two (or more) larger chunks of text. As a result, if you want to determine the connection between Thought ‘A’ and Thought ‘B’ then you need to understand the function words that relate them.

Take the previous sentence for instance. It is made up of two main clauses:

1) you want to determine

and

2) you need to understand

Somehow, the two actions – 1. determining and 2. understanding – are related logically in that sentence. And the way they are related is by the two function words if and then. The first clause (wanting to determine) is conditional upon the second clause (needing to understand). This may seem obvious, but the point is that the words ‘if’ and ‘then’ manifest the conditional relationship between these two clauses, and therefore help the reader or listener ‘exegete’ this bit of communication.

But there is another important part of that sentence: The very first part, “As a result ” What we have here is a phrase – a syntactical construction – that serves as a road sign to the logic of the larger text. Linguists sometimes call this a ‘discourse marker’ (among other things). What the ‘as a result‘ phrase does is link that sentence to the one that precedes it logically. In essence, the idea is “A is such, therefore B is such.” The ‘B’ aspect is a result of the A aspect.

Getting Greeky

Let’s have a look at Romans 11:23:

And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again” (NASB).

κἀκεῖνοι δέ, ἐὰν μὴ ἐπιμένωσιν τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ, ἐγκεντρισθήσονται· δυνατὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θεὸς πάλιν ἐγκεντρίσαι αὐτούς.

I have boldfaced the (main) function words in the sentence. Note that the first one, ‘and’ is a conjunction that ties this sentence to the one that precedes as a coordinate idea. Then there is a(n implicit) conditional clause with the ‘if’ statement, so that the notion is ‘if they do not continue in their unbelief, then they will be grafted in.’ Finally, the rationale that grounds this statement is provided in the next clause and introduced by the word for: “for God is able …”

The Logical Main Point

All of this may seem pedantic. But there is a payoff. Language has what scholars call ‘semantic structure.’ That is to say, there is an ‘architecture,’ to so speak, of any communication (written or otherwise) that makes it understandable. As with a building, a well-constructed piece of writing or speech has a solid frame. Instead of steel beams, however, language uses what we might call semantic logic. It is important to realize that the presence of function words like ‘because’ or ‘therefore’ does not produce logical structure, but manifests it. In other words, the connecting words are there because language has semantic structure, not the other way around.

Here’s proof. In the Rom. 11:23 example above I mentioned that there was an implicit conditional clause. That is because the “second half” of a conditional – the word then – does not actually appear in the text. It is implied. And yet as readers or hearers the conditional sense is understood nevertheless. This applies to other logical relationships as well. For example, I can say “I’m not going outside. It’s cold” and you understand perfectly that the second statement is the reason for the first, and could be connected by the word because for the same effect. The logical structure is there whether or not the words are there to point to them. (Also note that one could not put a ‘therefore’ between those two clauses without producing nonsense; only some logical relationships are possible in a given context).

The Interpretive of the Lexicon (Again)

Bringing this all the way back around to the Interpretive Lexicon, as I alluded to in my first post, we use a system of letters and symbols to key the reader into the logical relationship – the discourse-level function – of the word being discussed. Again, these words are often multivalent and can be taken in several ways depending on context. That is where our lexicon comes in, to help the reader swiftly narrow down the possible logical relationships of a word (or phrase) in Greek, and therefore to better (and more quickly) understand the text.

To conclude, here is the set of our relationships included in the Lexicon. We also include an extended section carefully defining each one and providing an example. We have also aligned our own logical relationships with those used at John Piper’s online site BibleArc.com in order to maximize their compatibility. It is our great hope that it can be used to help pastors, students, and scholars as well as each one reads and interprets the Greek scriptures.

abbrev

G. K. Beale, Daniel J. Brendsel, and William A. Ross, An Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek (Zondervan, 2014), 23.

 

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Well said (again), Will!

    Joseph Grimes refers to function words as “pesky little particles”, with a view to both determining their discourse-level function and their translation.

    And (as you well know) this discussion merely highlights the question of any word’s semantic “load” or “weight” : the relationship between how much of “its own” meaning a word “brings to” its context and how much of that meaning or function derives from (is determined by) that context.

    Thanks again!

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