Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek

I have uploaded my paper, “Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek” to two places. You can read it here at at the following location:

You can also view it at

This paper is an updated version of one I presented at a national meeting of the SBL in the late 1990s. A slightly updated version was published by Forum, the journal of the Westar Institute in 1999 under the title “From the Lexicon to the Sentence: Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek.”

This latest version lays out my proposals for information that should be included in an electronic lexicon of Hellenistic Greek.  Serious advances in digital technology have made it possible to include information about syntactic and semantic relationships that would have been impractical only a few years ago, and in the context of the work that Jonathan Robie and I are doing on using XML to structure and query databases, I decided it was time to make my most recent proposals easier to locate.

μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

I had the privilege this Sunday of hearing a spectacular sermon by Rev. Stephanie Ford on the Magnificat. When the text was read before the sermon I noticed something that raised for me a question about translation and cultural assumptions.

The translation being read rendered Luke 1:48 as

God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

It is the second of these lines that concerns me. The Greek text reads:

ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

Does the verb μακαρίζω really mean “call blessed” here? In the ancient world one did not “call” someone blessed, but simply bless that person. It was a speech act. That act of making a positive statement about someone’s future was to bless that person (μακαρίζω).

The interpretive difference this raises has to do with who is doing the blessing. To translate μακαρίζω as “call [someone] blessed” suggests that it is not the speaker who is doing the blessing. The speaker is simply reporting the fact of “blessedness.” In both Classical and Hellenistic Greek, though, it appears to me that the subject of μακαρίζω is the person doing the blessing, not someone else reporting about the blessing.

This issue did not come up in the sermon, which addressed more pressing matters and related the Magnificat fabulously to issues of justice that still should concern us in the 21st century.

Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος

Our current lexica for Hellenistic Greek fall into two categories on the basis of their approach. The more traditional ones offer suggested translations (not real definitions) and examples of usage. The UBS lexicon classifies words on the basis of perceived semantic domains, grouping words with overlapping meaning into sense categories.

What I envision for a future lexicon is one that does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. It would provide examples of usage, of course, but it would provide a definition along the lines of modern dictionaries such as, and the discussion of examples should be different from what we currently find. Entries for nouns, for example, would also include information on the types of predicates for which the noun may function as an argument.

Let’s look at ἔλεος as an example. As something to be thought of (desired, neglected, remembered), ἔλεος functions as an argument of verbs like θέλω, ἀφίημι, and μιμνῄσκομαι:

1. ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν· (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7)
2. ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· (Matthew 23:23)
3. μνησθῆναι ἐλέους (Luke 1:54)

When used to speak specifically of something that transpires between two people (where an English translation might speak of showing mercy), though, ἔλεος may serve as an argument of ποιέω. It is not an attitude to be shown or demonstrated, but an action to be  done.

4. ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν (Luke 1:72)
5. ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. (Luke 10:37)

Notice the usage of a prepositional phrase μετά + genitive to modify ἔλεος in this sense.

In the catholic epistles we find ἔλεος used as an argument of δίδωμι and λαμβάνω in  contexts where it involves an interaction between two parties. Ἔλεος is presented as being transferred from a giver to a recipient:

6. δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ (2 Timothy 1:16)

Two verses later what is given (δίδωμι) is not ἔλεος, but the ability to find (εὐρίσκω) ἔλεος.

7. δῴη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος εὑρεῖν ἔλεος (2 Timothy 1:18)

Here, ἔλεος functions directly as an argument of εὑρεῖν.

8. ἵνα λάβωμεν ἔλεος (Hebrews 4:16)

Here the focus is on the receiver rather than the giver, but ἔλεος remains a thing to be transferred from an actor to a recipient.

Still, in James 2:13 we find ἔλεος again as an argument of ποιέω:

9. ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος·

A lexical entry that takes these examples seriously might define ἔλεος as an action to be done for the benefit of another, despite that other’s lack of merit—an action that can be viewed as a gift in appropriate contexts. But the entry would also need to specify that ἔλεος is never presented as a quality to be demonstrated. In this sense, it is unlike the English word mercy.

This does not mean of course, that we should avoid translating ποιεῖν ἔλεος as show mercy, but it does mean that commentators and even casual readers of the Greek text should recognize that such a translation, while necessary, is required because of the peculiar demands of English, and the image that would come to mind for a speaker of Ancient Greek at hearing ἔλεος was different in important ways from the one that comes to mind for English speakers who hear mercy.

A Little More on the LMPG, the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri

While the DGE (Diccionario Griego-Español) announced a few days ago is still quite limited, its counterpart, the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri (LMGP for its initials in Spanish) is well worth visiting. It is a fully functioning model of what the full DGE will be when completed.

LexicoDeMagiaYReligionBookCoverThe LMGP offers electronic access not only to lexical entries, but to a wide range of Greek texts that were previously unavailable online. The image below shows the interface. Notice that the column on the left has four tabs at the top. By selecting “Textos” you get a list of the texts that contain the word you are working with. By clicking on a word in the list, the column on the right updates to show that word, a Spanish gloss, a line of text from the papyrus identified beside the word you clicked on the left, and a Spanish translation of that line of Greek text.


Even if you are unable to read the Spanish translation and gloss, you can see the Greek text! It’s pretty cool.

For those of us who can read Spanish, it’s a real boon!

Reflections on τηρέω

Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains lists τηρέω in more than one semantic domain, one of which groups it with φυλάσσω (section 36.19) and explains the meaning as “to continue to obey orders or commandments — ‘to obey, to keep commandments, obedience.’”

The more I read Greek from the same period as the New Testament, the more I doubt that τηρέω actually had that meaning as a real possibility. LEH (Septuagint lexicon) does not list “obey” as a possible meaning of τηρέω. I don’t have access right now to BDAG, so I can’t check that one. What leads me to the conclusion that Louw and Nida have made a faulty connection here, though, is not other lexica. It is the contexts in which I find this word outside the New Testament.

The fields of meaning for τηρέω center around notions of maintaining, safeguarding, caring for… not right and wrong conduct. Τηρέω is in an important sense an opposite of λείπω (leave, abandon, forsake).

Take John 14:21, for example.

ὁ ἔχων τὰς ἐντολάς μου καὶ τηρῶν αὐτὰς ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαπῶν με

The sense here is probably, “The one who has my commandments and does not abandon them is the one who loves me.” Keeping the commandments in this sense implies remembering them, being aware of them, not forgetting or ignoring them, etc. While this clearly implies following the commandments, the emphasis is not on obedience—something that can be forced—but on willing faithfulness.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but I think it is an important one. There were other ways to talk about “obedience,” the kind of thing a servant does in relationship to a master, and this was clearly an accepted model for talking about the relationship between a person and God in early Christianity. Paul referred to himself as a δοῦλος Χρισττοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10), for example.

I am not arguing that this is a foreign image to early Christianity, but that the word τηρέω was not used for this purpose. When τηρέω was used in relation to commandments, the emphasis was on remembering them, being aware of them, safeguarding them, etc. It is a positive image, not one of dominance.

El Diccionario Griego Español

An article by Elvira Gangutia explaining the origin and progress of the Diccionario Griego Español, the largest diccionary of Ancient Greek produced to date, appeared in 2007 in Arbor: Ciencia, Pensamiento y Cultura. You can download a PDF version of the article at It’s written in Spanish, of course, but there’s a (very rough) translation of the abstract at the beginning of the article. If you can read Spanish, the article can be quite informative.

Here’s my own abstract and comments:

There was a significant revival of Classical studies in Spain in the 1960s. A part of that revival was the recognition of a need for a Greek lexicon directed at university students and faculty. Under the direction of professor Rodriguez Andrados a small group of researchers began work on the project. They quickly realized that the volume of Greek documents available had increased considerably since the most recent lexica were produced. The job was simply too massive for such a small team.

They broadened their objectives, embracing new fields of study and new methods. The research team was expanded, and the first few volumes of the dictionary began to appear. As computer resources began to emerge, these were incorporated, allowing both faster processing and greater reliability. The web has proved a vital tool in recent work on the lexicon.

The enormous scope of the work has not permitted a quick conclusion to the project, although it has received considerable acclaim. So far, seven volumes have appeared (one since the writing of Gangutia’s article).

The latest volume covers ἐκπελλεύω—ἔξαυος. There’s an enormous amount left to be done, but what’s available now is a significant advance over previous efforts. When will a similar project get underway in English? We can only hope.

Argument Structure of ἀγαπάω

Simon Wong’s A Classification of Semanti Case-Relations in the Pauline Epistles lists the Case Frame (Argument Structure) of ἀγαπάω as [Event: EXPERIENCER, COMPLEMENT/PATIENT]. I think this argument structure is quite appropriate for the English word “love,” but I’m not sure it really fits ἀγαπάω.

My disagreement is with the designation of first argument as EXPERIENCER. In English we think of love as an emotion, in which case it is quite appropriate to think of the first agument (the subject of an active verb) as EXPERIENCER rather than AGENT. Love is something we experience more than do.

In Hellenistic Greek, though, ἀγαπάω represents a way of acting more than an emotion. Jesus commands his disciples ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27 and 35). He is not commanding them to feel warm and fuzzy toward their enemies, but to treat their enemies with good will.

Does it even make sense to command an emotion? If I tell you, “Be angry!” will you be able to simply decide to do so? In Hellenistic Greek, ἀγαπάω represents something that can be commanded. It represents something that a person can decide to do.

I propose the following revision to Wong’s case frame (argument structure) for ἀγαπάω: [Event: AGENT, COMPLEMENT/PATIENT]. The verb implies an actor/AGENT (the person who acts with good will) and a PATIENT (the person who is treated with good will).

Feel free to disagree. Please offer examples that you think demonstrate whether the first argument (the subject of ἀγαπάω when it is active voice) represents a person who experiences the emotion we call love or a person who acts in a way characterized by good will. Does ἀγαπάω function like the English word “love,” or do you also think it is different?