Why so many Greek and Hebrew Lexicons?
Ever wonder why there are so many Greek and Hebrew lexicons? I mean, how many resources do we need to tell us what a given Greek or Hebrew word means?
We tend to think of lexicons as objective references telling us what words mean with scientific precision, but lexicons can be created for different purposes, by different authors, writing at different times, for different audiences. They can be organized in different ways, driven by different theories of how languages work, or focused on different tasks. Different approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses, so it's important to consider what you want out of a lexicon before you commit your hard-earned dollars to purchasing one.
On the odd chance that the coming week might be a really good time to purchase Greek and Hebrew lexicons (hint, hint), here are a few things to consider when choosing a good lexicon:
1. Its coverage. Does a given lexicon actually define all the words you might want to look up? For biblical studies, the recognized standards are BDAG for Greek and HALOT for Hebrew. BDAG defines every word in the Greek New Testament, and HALOT does the same for the Hebrew Bible. But what if you occasionally need to look up words in the Greek Septuagint, rabbinic Hebrew, or even the History of Herodotus? Those bodies of literature are not covered by BDAG and HALOT, so you would want to consider lexicons with a broader coverage, such as the unabridged Liddell & Scott (LSJ) for classical Greek, LEH for the Greek Septuagint, or the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (DCH) for extra-biblical Hebrew.
On the other end of the spectrum, many theological lexicons only cover the theologically significant words in the Hebrew Bible or Greek New Testament. Their coverage is not as broad as BDAG and HALOT, and certainly much narrower than LSJ and DCH, but what they lack in breadth they usually make up for in depth.
2. Its accessibility. Some lexicons are aimed at readers who are fairly strong in the languages, with lots of Greek or Hebrew text which is not transliterated. Such lexicons may also be quite dense, meaning that the information is given in a very concise, highly abbreviated form which may not be easily understandable to non-academics. Other lexicons, such as TDNT and TDOT, are more accessible to people like ministry professionals who may have some knowledge of the languages, but who could use a little transliteration and a less technical presentation.
3. Its emphasis. BDAG and HALOT are the scholarly standards in part because they seek to give the meanings of words with as little embellishment and opinion as possible (though no lexicon is completely without them). Theological lexicons like TDNT and TDOT actually delve into theological questions and controversies. Lexicons like Louw & Nida emphasize the importance of word usage by organizing words into semantic domains, while offering very little etymological information. Older lexicons like BDB Complete contain a wealth of etymological info. These lexicons’ differing emphases affect how the entries are laid out and the kind of information they provide.
When shopping for lexicons, make sure you know their coverage, accessibility, and emphases. Most people start with BDAG and HALOT because they cover all the words in the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Bible and they are the current scholarly standards. On the other hand, they’re fairly dense and not really aimed at those who need a little hand-holding when it comes to Greek and Hebrew. For something more accessible, TDNT and TDOT are great options which contain a wealth of information. Just be aware that they don’t cover every word of the biblical texts. Finally, if you need even broader coverage, consider adding LSJ and DCH.
Although there are dozens of Greek and Hebrew lexicons available in Accordance, no one needs that many. Two or three lexicons with varying coverage and emphases are usually sufficient, and you want to make sure at least one of those offers the accessibility you need.
As I hinted above, you may find this information particularly helpful next week!