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.

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.

Database Design and the Hellenistic Greek Lexicon

Over the last few days I have had some interesting conversations with people who design databases (including my eldest son) regarding what would be involved in designing a database to allow lexical information for Ancient Greek to be presented in an extremely flexible manner so that the user of the lexicon could use any form of a given Greek word as the lemma under which to organize the lexicon.

If you are familiar with database design, I would love to hear your comments on this issue. If you are not, I’d be glad to address any questions I’m competent to answer.

How do you think the database should be structured to support the kind of lexicon I have proposed?

What should a lexicon include?

Carl Conrad has raised a valid objection to calling the cumulative vocabulary list for my online grammar a “lexicon,” and I would like to address the reasons he is right. That will also give me the opportunity to lay out my long range plan for what I have called my “online lexicon.”

What is listed in the table of contents of my online grammar as the “lexicon” is not yet truly a lexicon in the correct sense of the word. This is true for at least two reasons. First, it is merely the cumulative list of the words presented in the vocabulary lists for the lessons in my grammar. It is nowhere near a complete presentation of Hellenistic Greek vocabulary. Second, what is given for each entry in the “lexicon” is not what should be included in a work that properly deserves that title. What I have included so far is nothing more than a list of English glosses for each Greek word—a list of possible ways to translate the word into English. A proper lexicon would include discussions of the meanings of each Greek word. Traditionally, Greek lexica for English speakers have also included citations of the literature upon which the lexicon is based, and I have not done this yet.

So why have I called it a “lexicon.” Well… the truth is that I have given it an ambitious title based on what I intend for it to become over time. I didn’t want to call it a “glossary” or “word list”—which might better describe its present state—because I would have to change the title later and possibly some file names, which would complicate links within the grammar. Looking back, I realize I could have made the file names conform to the “lexicon” designation while not calling it that in my blog posts, but I didn’t think of that at the time.

Here’s what I envision the “lexicon” becoming over the next few years. First, it will become a more complete list of Hellenistic vocabulary as the grammar expands. When the last chapter of the introductory grammar is uploaded, I will not stop expanding the “lexicon.” I will begin to add words not included in the grammar.

Second, I will add proper definitions—explanations of the various meanings of each word—over time, but I will not introduce these into the current document until I have completed all or virtually all of them. Writing proper lexical entries takes time and much reading of Hellenistic Greek texts. I do not want the definitions to appear piecemeal.

Third, I will add descriptions of the argument structure of all verbs, prepositions, and deverbal nouns. By “argument structure” I mean the semantic roles these words necessitate in their complements, and the relationships between those roles.

If and when that process is completed, I hope to move on to discussions of the syntactic and semantic properties of other word types.

This will likely be a life-long project. If you have input you would like to offer on particular words or on the structure of an appropriate lexicon, I would love to hear it.

I want the lexicon, eventually, to serve the interests of beginning students, readers of ancient Greek texts who need to quickly find the meaning of a particular word that has them stumped, and exegetes engaged in serious study of Hellenistic Greek vocabulary. It clearly does not meet these goals now. They are targets for the future.

Please offer feedback. I would love to hear it.

Online Lexicon

The lexicon accompanying my online Hellenistic Greek Grammar is limited in certain ways because of its purpose. Here’s what I have to say in the introduction to the lexicon:

This brief lexicon is designed to accompany my Introduction to Hellenistic Greek course. It is not intended as a complete dictionary. It does not offer definitions of the Greek words, for example. Instead, it offers example translations, comments on English words derived from a given Greek word, and occasional comments on usage. For serious study of specific Greek texts, you should invest in a more complete lexicon.

The numbers on the left indicate the number of times the accompanying word appears in the Greek New Testament. The numbers on the right indicate the lesson(s) in whose vocabulary list the word appears in this course.

For each word, I give a variety of English glosses (translation hints) that correlate loosely with the variety of meanings that would need to be defined in a more complete work. It is my goal to one day add such definitions, but I simply don’t have the time right now. Perhaps I’ll get started on that next Summer.

Course Lexicon

Along with the Hellenistic Greek Grammar I am developing, I am compiling a course lexicon. I update it as I finish each lesson in the grammar.

You can check out the lexicon at