Dated lexical resources result in error

thayers-greek-english-lexicon-of-the-new-testamentNote: In two separate emails Stephen Lord shared the following information about lexical pitfalls when studying the original languages of the Bible. He has generously allow us to reproduce them here.

Just a couple examples I recently stumbled across showing, in a small way, why using dated lexical resources can result in some error.

I’ve mentioned before that Thayer’s is popular because it is cheap; the copyright is expired and it has been coded to Strong’s numbering system, making for a tempting shortcut in language studies.

The last time Thayer’s lexicon was “updated” was actually 1889, nearly two decades before it was discovered that the LXX and the NT were not written in the older and more formal Attic Greek, but in Koine (common) Greek.

In 1 Cor. 16:1-2 Paul employs the word logeiafor “collection”.  It is the only place in the Greek Bible (LXX and NT) that the word is used.  At the time of Thayer’s last update, the word was unknown outside of Paul.  Likewise, the etymology of the rare word was wrongly understood. Witness Thayer’s entry:

“logia (from Lego to collect, (Vulg. collecta), a collection:  of money gathered for the relief of the poor, 1 Co. xvi.1 sq. (Not found in profane authors).”

[Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969 printing): 379.]

However, since 1889, logeia has turned up in a number of papyri, inscriptions, and ostraca. These occurrences are documented in James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930), 377, as well as BDAG and Kittel.

The term is not derived from the verb lego as Thayer and others of his day believed, but from logeuo a verb not as yet attested in Greek prior to the Hellenistic period, i.e., a Koine verb not found in Attic Greek.

One of the distinctions of this term as discovered from the papyri is that it refers, not to a regular tax or collection but to an extraordinary or irregular collection in civic and religious contexts.

Interestingly, Vine’s, first published in 1940, well after the above discoveries, simply parroted Thayer in the entry on “Collection”.  This illustrates that Vine wasn’t current with discoveries and refined lexical work done decades before he first published.  Vine’s is also noted for contributing to the etymological fallacy — often breaking words into their component parts to get at a meaning.

The above should be a caution about trying to do ancient languages “by the numbers” and relying too heavily on dated resources that don’t reflect the discoveries of thousands of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts in the last 75 years that have impacted lexicography.

When Thayer last updated his lexicon in 1889, he listed over 700 words in an appendix that were, at the time, hapax legomena — words that were used only once in the Greek Bible and not found outside of the Bible.  Thousands of Greek papyri, ostraca, inscriptions, and manuscripts have been found since then that have reduced the number of Greek words supposedly unique to the Bible to less than 50.  (In a touch of irony, Strong’s lexicon was completed in 1890. When modern publishers “updated” and “enhanced” the Strong’s definitions, particularly in software programs, they used Thayer’s 1889 lexicon!)

Words are defined by how they are used. Lexicographers gather as many examples as they can find of a word being used in various contexts to get at the range of meaning. A good source for how dictionaries are put together and arrive at their definitions is S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action.  If I recall correctly, chapter 4, I think it is, deals with how dictionaries are actually made (there are several editions/revisions of Hayakawa’s work).

Obviously, if a word is rare or unique, showing up in only one place, for example, it is much harder to nail down its semantic range with any degree of confidence.

One example from the Hebrew Old Testament illustrates the challenge well.  First Samuel 13:21 has a hapax legomena, the Hebrew word pim shows up nowhere else in the Bible or Hebrew literature.  The KJV and ASV assumed the word was related to another similar root (peh) meaning “mouth” or “edge” so they concluded pim was the plural for peh, “edges,” referring to something with “teeth,” and therefore rendered it “file” in the text.

However, within the last century, many small, fairly uniform weight stones have been found at sites all over Palestine.  They weigh around 0.268 of an ounce, or 2/3 shekel.  Inscribed on each one is the Hebrew term pim.  Thus, pim is a unit of weight, not something with a mouth or edge.  19th century translations and lexicons (Brown-Driver-Briggs was published in 1906/7) have the wrong root and wrong meaning for the word.  BDB was made before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the libraries of Ugarit and Ebla that expanded our database of cognate languages and examples of words in various contexts many times over, helping to refine the semantic ranges of various terms.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the study of Hebrew and Greek was in its infancy in Europe and their translations and lexicons reflect that rudimentary stage of the growing interest in the original languages of the Bible while faced with limited resources.

#biblical-languages, #biblical-studies, #greek-lexicons