Greek enthusiasts are always asking which theological dictionaries and lexicons are the most useful and necessary to own. The short answer is that there are certain resources that are must haves, but each resource has its own contribution. Those who evaluate these resources typically do so from an exegetical perspective, but one rarely gets a linguistic perspective.
In Lexham’s new Linguistics and Biblical Exegesis, Mike Aubrey’s chapter on linguistic issues in the study of Koine Greek gives a linguistic evaluation of the major theological dictionaries and lexicons. The folks at Lexham were kind enough to allow me to share the following excerpt straight from the book, for your benefit. If you get the book, you can read a similar evaluation of Hebrew dictionaries and lexicons in the corresponding Hebrew chapter. Buy it on Amazon or read our review of it first.
Theological Dictionaries and Lexicons
The three English theological dictionaries still used in biblical Greek Studies are TDNT, NIDNTT, and the EDNT. The latter two are more recent works that attempted to take more seriously the critique of James Barr and others, more or less successfully. EDNT is, perhaps, the most successful in this regard since it is more exegetically oriented rather than theological. We noted above that the central problem with the theological dictionaries was their tendency to confuse words and concepts and treat them as more or less identical. Whether or not this was an accurate criticism or merely a misunderstanding of the goals of historical-philological semantics as psychological in nature is less relevant to how we use them today.
If meaning is encyclopedic in the manner that cognitive linguistics suggests, then there is a gap in information when we look at the standard lexicons. Even if theological dictionaries themselves might actually be confusing words and concepts, we as users do not need to fall into that trap while using them. Rather, we can consider them repositories for the kind of encyclopedic information that words evoke: cultural, sociological, theological, and so forth. A normal dictionary does not provide the sort of associative meaning that all words have. Biblical Greek words evoke mental representations just as our English example of “garage sale” did above.
Theological dictionaries, such as TDNT, NIDNTT, and EDNT, are unique in the way they have collected similar information for us. Nevertheless, we still must use them critically, since such efforts still represent modern attempts to understand the associative meanings of ancient words and are still fraught with the historical challenges that have always made research results for biblical Greek tentative and provisional.
Louw & Nida
Louw and Nida’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains is the central structuralist contribution to biblical Greek lexicography. Its most significant contribution is its ordering of biblical Greek lexical items according to their meanings rather than the traditional alphabetical order. Despite the methodological issues with structuralist semantics, the major contribution of understanding lexical items in terms of how they relate to each other is still infinitely useful. Louw and Nida’s organizational structure allows us to easily and quickly evaluate what lexical options were available to the biblical authors. Louw and Nida’s lexicon is also the only ancient Greek lexicon that provides independent entries for Greek idiomatic expressions directly alongside individual words.
The primary practical flaw of the lexicon is its limited corpus. Since it only covers NT vocabulary, we do not have access to the full semantic relations available in Koine Greek. Synonyms, antonyms, and other related words that do not appear in the NT receive no treatment. This also makes the lexicon far less useful for examining the Septuagint and other early Christian and Jewish writers.
The most recent edition of Bauer’s lexicon, abbreviated BDAG and edited by Danker and others, is probably the most important Greek lexicon for the NT. It is unique among NT lexicons in that it covers not only the NT but also other early Christian writings. BDAG and the rest of the lexicons mentioned below technically exist within the historical-philological tradition, though in a different way from the theological dictionaries because they are all more descriptive in nature.
Since the mid-twentieth century, there has also been decreasing focus on etymology and increasing focus on synchronic description. This is a direct result of influence from structuralist linguistics. In its third edition, BDAG, following the lead of Louw and Nida, introduced full definitions in addition to the standard translation glosses that pervaded earlier editions. This was a significant methodological improvement and contributes to the lexicon’s great value.
The standard lexicon for ancient Greek in general is the ninth edition of Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ). Because of its nature as a lexicon that provides broad coverage of the language over the course of several centuries, LSJ is important for both the Septuagint and the NT. Providing citations from a much larger corpus makes it useful for understanding Greek words over their history, both before and after the period of biblical Greek.
Care must be taken, however, for using LSJ for work in the Septuagint. While the revised supplement in the 1996 edition certainly improves the situation to a large degree, LSJ continues to occasionally assume the meaning of the Hebrew words behind the Greek in their references to the Septuagint. This is methodologically problematic and occasionally results in misinterpretations of the data.
This concise lexicon of the Septuagint edited by Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie is one of only two contemporary resources devoted specifically to the Septuagint. Its primary strength lies in its bibliographic references. While LEH is an original work, occasionally its glosses are pulled directly from LSJ.
Takamitsu Muraoka’s Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint (GELS) is the most comprehensive contemporary lexicon of the Septuagint. Methodologically, Muraoka follows BDAG and Louw & Nida in providing actual definitions of lexical items rather than merely providing glosses for translation. GELS provides helpful citations and bibliographies for each entry, though unfortunately not comprehensively. LEH often has bibliographic items not available in GELS. Last, while Muraoka’s lexicon is ordered alphabetically, his work is unique in that, when relevant, the editor provides cross-references to related words, both synonyms and antonyms. This allows for the comparison of vocabulary in a way that has not been previously feasible for other Septuagint lexicons.
You can see how a little linguistic understanding will go a long way. Linguistics can be overwhelming, but if you have an accessible guide to introduce you to the various topics of linguistics and lead you toward further resources, you’re already a step ahead of the game. This book does exactly that. Grab a copy and start your linguistics journey.