ElAnt v6n1 - Reviews: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature

Volume 6, Number 1
July 2001

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (BDAG). Revised and Edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-226-03933-1. Pp.lxxx + 1,108.

Reviewed by Kim Haines-Eitzen
Department of Near Eastern Studies, Cornell University

F. W. Danker's publication of the Third English Edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature is based upon previous English editions (the 1957 edition by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingerich and the 1979 edition by F. W. Gingerich and f. W. Danker) as well as the sixth edition of Walter Bauer's Griechisch-deutsches W├Ârterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der ├╝brigen urchristlichen Literatur (published in 1988 and edited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann). BDAG (Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingerich)-as it is now to be known-offers entries for additional words not found in previous editions and includes over 15,000 additional references to classical and early Christian and Jewish literature. But by far the most significant contribution of this new edition is the expanded use of extended definitions, helpfully marked off in a boldface roman font, followed by formal equivalents, in boldface italic font. Such expansions and modifications insure the continuance of BDAG as the major lexical tool for New Testament Greek studies.

A few examples will suffice to illustrate how Danker (building upon Bauer's work) uses extended definitions followed by formal equivalents: biblos, which BAGD 2ND edition defines as "book" and further as "sacred, venerable book," is here explained as "a specific composition or class of composition, book" and "a book of accounts, record-book" (176); brosis goes from "eating," "corrosion," and "food" to "the act of partaking of food, eating," "the process of causing deterioration by consuming, consuming" and "that which one eats, food" (184-185); gameo goes from "marry" to "to take another person as spouse, marry" (187). Even a cursory glance at such modifications highlights Danker's desire for more clarity. At times, however, this clarity borders on the absurd. For example, oinos now is "a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine" (701); elaia is "a tree that produces olives, olive tree" (313); elaion, the "oil extracted from the fruit of the olive tree, olive oil" (313). In each of these cases what does the extended definition really add to the formal equivalent? In each of these instances, Danker has apparently relied heavily upon (he himself acknowledges the debt in the Foreward [xi]) Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988, 1989). Here, of course, extended definitions highlight semantic links. The use of certain extended definitions in BDAG can seem redundant and unnecessary.

A few selected criticisms of BDAG will encourage critical and careful use of this lexicon. First, some words definitions seem to be (at least in part) driven by modern ideological or religious concerns (Danker himself acknowledges this in his Foreward). A case in point is Ioudaios, which in BAGD is defined in its most common sense: "Jewish," "Jews," and/or "a Jew." In BDAG, quite surprisingly, this most common definition has been relegated to a secondary position and only appears within parentheses: "Pertaining to being Judean (Jewish), with a focus on adherence to Mosaic traditions, Judean"; "one who is Judean (Jewish), with a focus on adherence to Mosaic tradition, Judean"; and further as "Judean with respect to birth, nationality, or cult" and "a Mosaic adherent who identifies with Jesus Christ" (479). The scholarly debate on the appropriate translation of Ioudaios notwithstanding, one wonders what motivates such a radical shift. Moreover, the implications if this substitution of Judean for Jew in much early Christian literature will simultaneously render both the use of the term meaningless and absolve this literature of its increasingly antagonistic view of Jews and Judaism. Danker acknowledges in the final paragraph of the entry the various scholarly disputes about the use of this term in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, but argues that "there is no indication that John uses the term in the general ethnic sense suggested in modern use of the word 'Jew', which covers diversities of belief and practice that were not envisaged by biblical writers, who concern themselves with intra-Judean (intra-Israelite) differences and conflicts" (479). Such a claim begs several questions: are we to imagine that the writer of the Gospel of John has in mind all those who derive in some way from Judea when he/she uses the term Ioudaios? If an ancient writer reduces diversity within a community, tradition, or movement for the purposes of rhetorical persuasiveness, what happens if we offer a translation that eliminates the force of the argument? Precisely because ancient writers do not share our modern world, we must find translations that make sense for their world and their rhetorical, political, and religious aims, however distasteful it may seem to us today. Recognizing the contrast between the ancient and modern worlds is part of what it means to read critically and carefully.

At certain points, one wishes for more acknowledgement of scholarly debates about various terms: for example, grammateus is identified here as "chief executive officer of a governmental entity, secretary (of state), clerk"; "an expert in matters relating to diving revelation" and "specialists in the law of Moses, experts in the law, scholars versed in the law, scribes" (206). However, such definitions will be highly problematic if one uses this lexicon to articulate the roles of scribes in antiquity, particularly Jewish scribes. Here is a rather clear instance when the New Testament materials stereotyped and constructed an image of Jewish "scribes" that is at odds with other kinds of contemporaneous evidence (see most recently, Christine Schams, Jewish Scribes in the Second-Temple Period [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998] 323). Similarly, the term agrammatos (here glossed as "unable to write"; "uneducated, illiterate" [15]) offers no hint of the enormous amount of recent scholarly literature on literacy in antiquity. Such complaints may be unwarranted since this is a lexicon rather than a encyclopedia, but the spotty incorporation of scholarly debates calls again for critical and careful use of this work.

Finally, one could argue that a lexicon that claims in its subtitle to include "other early Christian literature," might do well to incorporate this literature further. There are cases where apocryphal literature, for example, could and should be included to illustrate how the meaning and connotation of certain words changes over time (or from text to text). Take the word egkrateia, here defined quite mildly as "restraint of one's emotions, impulses, or desires, self-control" (274). Such a definition is reasonable for much of classical literature as well as the New Testament and Danker includes the gloss on Polycarp 4:2 ("chastity") from previous editions. However, when one turns to the early Christian texts pertaining to the rise of asceticism, one finds here a far more specific understanding of egkrateia as "celibacy." Given the significance and spread of early Christian asceticism and Danker's desire to include more early Christian literature in this edition, it seems surprising that such a definition is not mentioned here.

These comments in no way lessen the value of this resource; rather, they should simply encourage us to read lexica as we do other texts, both ancient and modern: critically, carefully, and comparatively. Furthermore, a close reading of a lexicon can remind us of the complex theoretical and practical problems involved in the act of ascribing meaning to words, to phrases, and to texts. BDAG will remain the standard reference tool for students and scholars of the New Testament and other early Christian literature for the foreseeable future.

by Kaavya Giridhar