Friday, March 17, 2006

The enduring interest of Greek lexicons like Strong's and Thayer's for ordinary students of the Bible is a testimony to our general desire to deepen our understanding of God's word. Maybe that helps explain why these tools are still so widely used, despite their many limitations. Suppose we were to put aside our existing conceptions and experience, and design a new Greek lexicon from scratch: what characteristics would it have?

For starters, it ought to be written for the web: the tools we use now obviously started life as print editions, and in many instances have only barely crossed over. The electronic versions of Thayers, for example, uses typography and indentation to indicate multiple senses: these should be distinguished structurally, both to enable clear separation of content and presentation, and also to allow applications to select which information they use. Entries should have unique URIs to support web-based retrieval. Hyperlinks should be authored in entries, not added after the fact by program (since that's an imperfect process).

One of the great advantages of Strong's lexicon for people who don't know Greek is the numeric key for each entry (assuming you have a resource keyed to Strong's system). This approach has some flaws: for one thing, Strong missed a few numbers in his scheme (i've always wondered if he just fell asleep at one point, and then, by the time he realized his error, couldn't bear to go back and redo the scheme). More problematic, the New American Standard concordance (NASEC), while keyed to Strongs, has a slightly different set of entries. For example, #3587 (xurao, 'to shave') is #3587a in NASEC. Other instances of this verb linked from the KJV turn out to be #3587b (xureo, also glossed as 'to shave') in NASEC. Of course, we've gotten much better manuscripts in the 350+ years between the KJV and the NASB, so it's not surprising. But this seemingly minor difference breaks the system: now the numbering system is stovepiped, because it doesn't work across resources any more (at least for these alternately-numbered cases, which are actually quite common). For example, the tool tips in eSword don't work for #3587 if you don't have the right dictionary selected. It would be better to consolidate these schemes and make them genuinely cross-functional.

You might wonder, why not just use the Greek words themselves? But the Web, while providing increasing support for non-ASCII character sets, is still strongly tilted that way. Zack Hubert's site takes this root: but it's just hard for me to stomach URLs like;root=%E1%BC%94%CF%81%CF%87%CE%BF%CE%BC%CE%B1%CE%B9&number=666946.

Along with an identifier, there should be a full orthographic representation, including accents and breath marks, in Unicode: other encodings only bring trouble with them. For those who can't read the Greek character set, a pronunciation guide and an ASCII transliteration are helpful: the BGreek transliteration scheme may not be very aesthetically appealing, but it's consistent and probably the best candidate for a current standard, at least among Greek scholars. Ulrik Petersen's version of Strong's is keyed to both the traditional numbers and BGreek transliteration, e.g. you can find 'logos' at Most decent transliterations could be generated automatically from the Greek (if it can't, that suggests some irregularies that might cause you to question whether it's really a good transliteration!).

Thayer's lexicon includes part of speech and gender (some tools make this more helpful by expanding out abbreviations). It also includes a few kinds of proper nouns (personal names, locations, ethnicities like Scythian [though interestingly not Greek used in the same way]), though not others (religious festivals like Passover). And there are some minor inconsistencies: "Stoic" is capitalized in Thayer's, but not indicated as a proper noun. NASEC indicates names by capitalization of the term in the entry: correct, but why be subtle when you can be explicit? Of course, some of these are judgment calls, since the originals weren't capitalized to indicate names. But all this information belongs in a good lexicon.

Several lexicons including derivational information describing the etymological roots of a given term. Like all lexical information in a language you don't know, this can be abused, because derivational history doesn't necessarily translate into current meaning. I can't remember how many times i've heard some pastor talk about the Greek word 'dunamis' ("power") being the root from which we get our word dynamite! It's true, but it doesn't tell you anything about what it meant to Greek speakers 2000 years ago. But all this is no reason not to include derivational history, when it's available (and reliable!).

Given the huge amount of study that's already gone into the Greek lexicon, it's also critical to cross-reference existing lexicons: Thayer's, but also Louw-Nida, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, etc. Of course, to the extent these are also referencable web-based resources, you can provide a hyperlink, which is vastly more useful than a pointer to paper, or a link in a proprietary system. It doesn't seem productive to try to overlay one master reference scheme on top of all these existing works, but it would be nice to at least provide the mapping. In other words, 'logos' ("word", "expression", etc.) maps to G3056 for Strongs/Thayers/NASEC, 4:69, 505 in TDNT, various entries in Louw-Nida (statement: 33.98; speech: 33.99; gospel: 33.260; treatise: 33.15; etc.), and so forth.

Last of course are the definitions themselves. This is by far the hardest part, since it requires some sense of who the audience is and what kind of definition they need. Strongs and Thayers have long served as lexicons for the common person: something like TDNT is too extensive and too expensive for this purpose, though critical for more detailed study. Louw-Nida is specifically aimed at the needs of translators (one of the things i find makes it particularly helpful). Theologians have different needs from students learning Greek.

Several lexicons include a list of the ways a particular word is used in a given translation: KJV for Strongs and Thayers, NASB for NASEC. This is something i'd argue really doesn't belong in a dictionary: that the task of a concordance, and in the information age we ought to be able to generate these pretty easily, as seems to be the case with the Greek lexicons at Some Bible study applications apparently filter these out in creating their resources: they don't seem to be in e-Sword, for example, and i don't miss them.

It's a long list: i compiled it in part to help myself realize just what a huge undertaking such a lexicon might be. But given the wealth of information on-line today, and how much knowledge we have about the Greek lexicon, it's definitely time we move beyond the simplistic approaches that are current today to something more powerful, more ubiquitously available, and more re-usable and re-purposable.

My own personal inclination at present is to get started on a semantically-organized lexicon along the lines of Wordnet: also a huge undertaking. 

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