Postgraduate Studies

Lexicography for the Church

In the bleak midwinter of England, it’s easy to start questioning everything. Roughly halfway through my first year of doctoral research at Cambridge, there have been times already that I have wondered “why am I doing this?” From what I gather at tea time with my fellow researchers at Tyndale House, this is not an uncommon experience.

At least at this point in my work, for the most part I do Greek lexicography. Yes, I am an “Old Testament guy” by disposition, but the Septuagint is in many ways a textual and historical “bridge” between the testaments, with lots of challenges all to itself. These challenges unavoidably influence the Hebrew and Greek Bible, and how we understand them. That is what makes Septuagint studies so important (and incredibly underworked, especially among conservative Biblical Scholars, but that is a post for another day).

Justifying (& Explaining) My Work

One of the most significant ways that Septuagint studies are important for understanding the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament is lexicography. Recently I was reading an article by the eminent lexicographer John A. L. Lee. In it, he makes a series of observations that I think neatly encapsulate why work like mine is, in fact, relevant not just to the academy, but also to the Church.

Lee points out that, as long as the New Testament and other ancient Greek texts are read, there will be a need for lexicons. For that reason (along with others), Lee rightly notes that the discipline of Greek lexicography is certainly far from over:

Not only will lexicography be in demand, but it will continue to carry a weighty responsibility. This is because of the special character of lexicons. Lexicons are regarded by their users as authoritative, and they put their trust in them. Lexicons are reference books presenting a compressed, seemingly final statement of fact, with an almost legal weight. The mere fact that something is printed in a book gives it authority, as far as most people are concerned. And understandably: if one does not know the meaning of a word, one is predisposed to trust the only means of rescue from ignorance.*

Lexicography & Scripture

To put it succinctly, if we wish to understand Scripture accurately, then we must understand Greek accurately. (This includes the Greek of the Septuagint since, among other things, it is a textual witness to the Hebrew Old Testament.) Greek lexicography is therefore directly connected to the practice of the Church.

But it is important to note a key phrase in Lee’s quote: “seemingly final.” Lee goes on to say that lexicographical work in Greek – especially the vocabulary of the LXX – is far from over not just in terms of demand, but in terms of accuracy. There is a huge amount of sources not yet incorporated into our understanding of Koine Greek. Undertaking exhaustive and integrative analysis of this body of language is therefore essential to interpreting Scripture rightly.

While the modifications to our current state of Greek lexical knowledge may prove to be minimal, surely there is no improvement too small to abandon the formidable lexicographical task before us, whether it be a better grasp upon a NT Greek word or phrase, or upon the sense of a text in the Greek Old Testament quoted in the NT, or upon an ancient Jewish translator’s understanding of his source text that sheds light on the Hebrew bible. Greek – even Septuagint – lexicography is foundational to the task of Biblical scholarship, and therefore of great value in the life of the Church as well.

And so, we press on.


*Lee, John A. L. “The Present State of Lexicography of Ancient Greek.” Pages 66-74 (here 66) in Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Danker. Edited by Bernard A. Taylor, et al. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004.