10 things I wish students would understand about exegesis - #8
#8 Lexicons are limited in their usefulness
LN, LSJ, or BDAG, even if only occasionally. But young exegetes and students of Greek—and, frankly, even some scholars—must come to understand that lexicons are limited in their usefulness and, although generally helpful, their value should not be overestimated. If they are used uncritically they can contribute to poor exegesis and misinterpretation.Lexicons (i.e., dictionaries) are an indispensable tool in exegesis. Even seasoned scholars reach for their
How does this thing work?
Some of the lexicon's limitations result from the mechanics of the tool itself. Consider, for example, the BDAG entry for διακρίνω (click image to the right for larger view). Note that two main definitions are provided for the word (identified with 1 and 2, respectively). Each of these has several subentries. In fact, the first entry has four subentries (a, b, c, and d), and subentry c has three further subentries of its own (α, β, and γ)! Although this framework may be useful for indexing and looking up words, because the work's introduction does not provide a detailed explanation of the system, it is potentially misleading. For example, an exegete might uncritically claim that the "fundamental" or "primary" or "basic" meaning of διακρίνω is "to separate," where the assertion of "fundamental/primary/basic" is based solely on the fact that BDAG has numbered it "1" rather than basing that claim on any real lexicographical footwork (there's an additional significantly faulty sociolinguistic assumption at play here, which I will discuss below).
Others may uncritically assume that the numbers somehow correlate with a word's frequency of use, which may lead some to claim that the "most common" sense of διακρίνω is "to separate." Using the BDAG entry for γίνομαι as an illustration, Stanley Porter has demonstrated that this assumption, too, is incorrect, by showing that the first entry for that word is actually "one of the lowest frequencies of use" for that term (cf. Porter, Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament, 68). Again, doing the sometimes tedious lexicographical work would make this clear.
I raise these two perhaps banal examples simply to point out that a person doesn't even use the lexicon/dictionary without some set of assumptions influencing her or his use—some valid, some not. So with that in mind, exegetes, when you crack open a lexicon, check those assumptions—even the ones that have to do with the presumably simple mechanics of the tool.
A more serious problem
Not long ago, I was asked by a student taking a course in exegesis to help think through the text that student was investigating for the course (Gal. 5:13–26). At one point in our conversation, as we were talking about the possible meanings of a particular word in the text, the student responded, "But that's not one of the options listed in the lexicon." This not only betrayed the student's uncritical use of the lexicon, but it also pointed out what is, perhaps, the most insidious shortcoming of lexicons in general. Let me use an illustration to describe what I mean.
In v. 13 of the aforementioned stretch of text, Paul writes, Ὑμεῖς γὰρ ἐπ᾽ ἐλευθερίᾳ ἐκλήθητε, ἀδελφοί (For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters [as glossed by NRSV, NET]). This clause offers a fair number of exegetical and interpretive questions that need to be answered, including:
- What is the significance of the use of ὑμεῖς and its appearance in the prime position of the clause? On Prime and Subsequernt analysis, see Dvorak, "Thematization, Topic, and Information Flow"; Dvorak and Walton, "Clause as Message."
- How ought one interpret the use of ἐπί + the dative in this clause? On this construction, see Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 161–62; Moule, Idiom Book of the Greek New Testament, 50.
- What is the semantic impact of the passive voice? On the use of passive voice, see Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 64–66.
The importance of these things and their contribution to the meaning of the text notwithstanding, for the sake of our illustration let's focus our attention on the lexical semantic question, "What does ἐλευθερία (typically glossed to English as "freedom") mean?" Most people think that once a Greek word (or Hebrew or Coptic or Spanish or French or German) has been glossed to English or other receptor language the question of meaning has been settled. This is simply not true. Why? Because, like other linguistic units, the meanings of words are context dependent and context constrained. With regard to lexical meaning, I often say to students, "Words have no meaning apart from context." From a functional linguistic perspective, there are at least two levels of context for which exegetes must account when trying to determine what a particular word might mean.The first level is context of culture. In the broadest sense, culture refers to
A system of collectively shared interpretations of persons, and events. It involves symbolism persons, things, and events, endowing them with distinctive functions and statuses, and situating them within specific time and space frames. The ways in which persons, things and events are symbolic, endowed with functions and statuses, and situated in time and place result in socially appreciable meaning plus emotional anchorage focused on that meaning. Meaning freighted with feeling results in the meaningful (Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology, 9).
One of the problems that consistently plagues North American exegetes with regard to this particular term is that the meaning of "freedom" is informed by American cultural/societal values and tends thus to mean, "an individual's freedom from any constraint, hinderance, or obstacle—personal or impersonal—that may keep her or him from achieving her or his personal pursuits in life." This understanding of "freedom" is concerned primarily with being a free, autonomous self—which is, in the language of the definition of culture just given, "socially appreciable" and "freighted with feeling" in contemporary US culture. Obviously, however, it was not contemporary US culture that informed and constrained the term ἐλευθερία as used in the New Testament (see #9 of the 10 Things). Instead, it was informed and constrained by first century circum-Mediterranean culture/society in which being and living without some form of order and constraint—i.e., functioning as an autonomous individual—was neither socially appreciable nor desired; rather, it was considered precarious if not downright dangerous. There are many reasons for this, which, for reasons of space, we will not unpack here (see the fine work done by Malina and other social-scientific critics on this). My point here is that most lexicons do not bring cultural considerations to bear explicitly when they list possible senses of a term.
The second level of context is context of situation. Any given context of situation consists of three features (cf. Dvorak, "Interpersonal Metafunction," 23):
- Field – what is happening, the nature of the social action that is taking place: what it is the participants (not necessarily human) are engaged in, in which language figures as some essential component
- Tenor – who is taking part, the nature of the participants, their statuses, and roles: what kinds of role relationship obtain, including permanent and temporary relationships of one kind or another, both the types of speech roles they are taking on in the dialogue and the whole cluster of socially significant relationships in which they are involved
- Mode – what part language is playing, what it is that the
participants are expecting language to do for them in the situation: the
symbolic organization of the text, the status it has, and its function in the
Each of these variables of context gets realized—"translated," so to speak—into a corresponding kind of meaning/semantic ("—>" means "realized as" in the following scheme) (the descriptions I give here are based on Lemke, Textual Politics, 34):
- Field —> Ideational or (re-)presentational – the construction of how things are in the natural and social worlds with respect to natural and social actions, participants in those actions, and the circumstances of those actions across meaningful stretches of text and from text to text
- Tenor —> Interpersonal or orientational – the construction of orientational stance toward past, present, and potential addressees and audiences, toward (re-)presentational content of discourse, with respect to social relations and evaluations from a particular point of view across meaningful stretches of text and from text to text
- Mode —> Textual or organizational – the construction of relations between elements of discourse such that it is interpretable as having structure, texture, information flow, and relative prominence as the discourse unfolds across meaningful stretches of text and from text to text
So, what does this have to do with lexical semantics? Let me give you a very simple example in English: Compare Bill was grilling burgers out back with Bill was grilling a burglar in the interrogation room. The meaning of "grilling" is different in each case; in the first example, "grilling" is a material process (a form of cooking), but in the second it is a verbal process (a form of asking questions). How do you know they are different? Because of the context cues that got encoded in each text. Consider the changes (or lack thereof) in Field and Tenor and their corresponding kinds of meaning in these simple analyses (note that the analysis of Greek and Hebrew will look slightly different than an analysis of English; not all things done here apply to the biblical languages, but the idea is essentially the same):
- Participants: Bill (Actor); burgers (Goal)
- Process: was grilling (Material)
- Circumstances: out back (Circ.: place)
- Participants: Bill (Sayer); burglar (Receiver)
- Process: grilling (Verbal)
- Circumstances: in the interrogation room (Circ.: place)
Let's start with the tenor/interpersonal analysis first. The analysis describes the Mood structure of each clause. In this instance, each clause has a Subject (a thing by reference to which the proposition can be affirmed or denied), a finite (the element that anchors the proposition in a way that one can argue about it), a Predicator (the process/action that is being discussed), a Complement (participant that is somehow affected by the main argument of the proposition), and an Adjunct (elements that contribute additional non-essential information about the process). Mood consists of the Subject and Finite; Residue consists of the Predicator and everything else. Mood is the "nub" of the proposition, that which carries the argument; Residue is what is actually argued about the Mood. The important thing to note here is that both of our example clauses have the exact same Mood structure. Both are propositions that argue that Bill was grilling. The significant changes are in Complement and Adjunct. In the first example, grilling (whatever that is) is affecting burgers and it is doing so in a specified location, viz. out back. In the second example, grilling is affecting a burglar in a different location, viz., in the interrogation room. So, interpersonally, in both cases, it is argued that Bill is someone who has the status (power) to enact the process of grilling (and is, indeed, doing so presumably legitimately), to do so in order to affect burgers or a burglar, and to do the grilling either out back or in the interrogation room. But this doesn't go a very long ways in helping us define grilling, except to say that there must be some difference in the process between the two instances given that the Complements are very different and the Circumstances (locations) are different. This at least sends us off in the right direction.
An analysis of Field helps us to confirm that there is a difference in meaning between grilling and grilling. Whereas Tenor/Interpersonal analysis is concerned with propositions and proposals (what is being exchanged/argued), Field/Ideational analysis focuses on (re-)presenting experience or reality. It's concerned with what's going on, with who is doing what to whom, and under what circumstances. It's the linguistic metafunction of "painting a portrait" with language. The analysis above points out that there is a difference in participants and in circumstance that constrains the meaning of grilling. In the first example, grilling is a material process; it is a reference to cooking meat on an outdoor cooking device commonly called a "grill." These grills are commonly located out back on the patio/deck or in the back yard of people's houses, so the circumstance out back helps to constrain the meaning of grilling. Further, burgers (colloquial reference to hamburger patties) are a typical food item to be cooked on a grill. In the second example, however, grilling is a verbal process and, again, the circumstance (location), in the interrogation room, helps to constrain this meaning. One does not typically cook on a grill in an interrogation room, and, furthermore, one does not cook a burglar. Our semantic domain has been limited, and we can determine that grilling here is metaphorical and means something like "questioning in an intense manner."
Ok, that was a lot. Let me close with the main point—and it is true when studying biblical texts as well—lexical meaning is constrained by both context of culture and context of situation (register: field, tenor, mode variables). If either of these contexts are changed, the meanings of words change. Lexical work involves much, much more than simply looking up a word in the dictionary and selecting a meaning as if choosing toppings for a salad from a salad bar. It involves contextual analysis. And remember, too, that dictionaries typically list possible meanings of words outside of context, and sometimes they do not list all possible meanings (because they can't describe all possible contexts). Take care when using the lexicon.