Logos and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon (updated)

NOTE: I speak in strong terms in this blog; let me clarify that I am a huge fan of Logos and constantly promote its software in English and (to my grad students in Latin America) in Spanish.

How strange it is, that I, a student and professor of the Greek New Testament, would object to the electronic publication of a classic Greek-English dictionary! Yet object I must.

When a software company issues a new book, it does so based on many factors. Is it useful? Will it sell? Is there something unique about this book over others of its kind?

Nevertheless, Logos has also announced that it plans to publish the 1889 edition of Joseph Thayer’s Lexicon, in addition to the current international standard, the 3rd edition of Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (BDAG, 2000). Apart from Bauer, the New Testament student can (and must) draw from the complete Liddell, Scott and Jones Greek-English Lexicon (or LSJ; the unabridged edition is integrated with the 1996 supplement). We won’t even mention the very useful Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint by Lust, Hauspie and Eynikel (2003 edition), plus Kittel’s TDNT and other tools. These tools are not cheap, but given their versatility in electronic form, and in comparison with the printed form, the prices are more than reasonable.

This brings to light another question that an electronic publisher considers: will we have to pay royalties to the author or to a publisher? The fact that Joseph Thayer is long dead means that his lexicon will cost only $39.95, as opposed to $135 for the unabridged LSJ or $150 for Bauer. Why is this? Because, dead Greek scholars are no longer collecting their royalty checks, and living Greek scholars need to put food on the table, and so the prices for newer works are higher.

Someone might ask the question – if two lexicons are good, then wouldn’t three be better? The answer is a firm no. Using Thayer, LSJ, and BDAG on equal footing would be like using three yardsticks, one of which is known to be frequently off; or using three road maps, one of which was written before the new road was put in in 1920 and before the river washed out the old bridge in 1950.

As a second endnote to this entry, we use as a test case the well-known term agapē and compare Thayer with Bauer and LSJ, also adding in data of my own from electronic searches. Using the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae software, I was able disprove Thayer in great detail, demonstrating that agapē was known and used in pagan Greek – although not frequently – long before the translation of the Septuagint and after its publication, yet in works that show no Jewish or Christian influence.

Was Thayer mistaken? Probably not, given the data that were available when he wrote. But 130 years’ worth of new data have come to light since then, invalidating his work. This is why we must take exception to the way in which Logos promotes Thayer:

Joseph Henry Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament is one of the greatest achievements in biblical scholarship at the turn of the last century. As the culmination of nearly three decades of work, it contains more than 5,000 entries, references to hundreds of grammatical and exegetical works, detailed etymology, and complete summaries of both biblical and extra-biblical word usage. The publication of the revised edition of Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon in 1889 represents a watershed event in nineteenth-century Greek lexicography, and it remains an important tool for students and scholars of the Greek New Testament more than a century after its first appearance.

How could a student refute – or resist – such a claim? Somehow we have the idea that Thayer, being a classic, will provide a fresh and perhaps more spiritual perspective. This is not the case. The person who reads Thayer cannot simply weigh his/her opinion against Bauer’s and decide which he or she prefers. LSJ and Bauer, whose conclusions are not fallible and are sometimes debated, will always have a decisive edge over an older lexicon simply by having publication dates of 1997 and 2000 respectively.

Why deny the world Thayer’s lexicon? Because the typical pastor or student does not have the wherewithal to sift through papyri, inscriptions or ancient books and make an objective judgment. Let me offer an example, which turned up immediately when I googled “Thayer agape”: it comes from a sermon at http://www.logon.org/english/S/p160.html, entitled “The Purpose of the Creation and the Sacrifice of Christ” —

Agape is a Hebrew concept conveyed from ‘ahab (SHD 157) or ’ahabah (SHD 160) in the Song of Songs. The word agape does not appear in the Greek language until the Septuagint (LXX) was translated in Egypt. The LXX uses Agape for Ahabah in Song of Songs 2:4,5,7; 3:5,10; 5:8; 7:6; 8:4,6,7. Thayer (quoting Zezschwitz Profangraec. u. bibl. Sprachgeist, p. 63), says of this that: “It is noticeable that the word first makes its appearance as a current term in the song of Sol.; – certainly no undesigned evidence respecting the idea which the Alex. translators had of the love in this Song”.

The author then bases his theology of divine love upon Thayer’s entry. Now, this sermon was written not in 1920 or 1940…but in 1996! But the preacher used an inferior tool, and his theology suffered as a result. When a student looks at Thayer’s and says, “Wow, what fresh, new definitions! You don’t find this material anywhere else!”, he or she might want to ask why! The reason is because the material in Thayer’s has since been invalidated.

I own a copy of Thayer’s, but do not usually use it. And so it grieves me to see an advertisement for the book that says: “The publication of the revised edition of Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon in 1889 represents a watershed event in nineteenth-century Greek lexicography…” In all honesty, that is the equivalent of saying “Doctors, you should buy Acme Brand Dentistry Equipment, the technical marvel of late 19th century dental technology!” Patients, clamp your mouths shut! Doctors, get serious, and invest in the right equipment!

If you think I’m exaggerating, do as I did and spend some time googling “thayer lexicon” or “thayer strong’s”. I was inundated with websites that blithely quoted him as the authority; the problem is that Thayer is already available in print and also gratis online. From the look of the websites, one only has to know the Strong’s number in order to key into Thayer, but does not have to understand Greek or linguistics. We’re not speaking of a few people on the fringe – this is the level of study done every day. That which is accessible to the many, becomes authoritative to the many. [I might add that this is the argument I offered to Logos publishing in an exchange of emails concerning their release of Thayer]

We must use the very best tools that are available, and we must be prepared to pay the appropriate cost in order to make use of recent research, even the $150 for Bauer. As in all of life, with lexicons, you get what you pay for. Or, we must commit ourselves to seek out the best tools where we can find them – in a library, or using Liddell, Scott and Jones (gratis!) from the Perseus website (www.perseus.tufts.edu).


ENDNOTE 1: Some selling points from Logos:

  • Complete, unabridged text of the 1889 edition

Gary: or to put it another way, it is 130+ years out of date. The period from about 1880 to the present has been THE greatest epoch of Greek investigation since the Renaissance. Thayer totally missed out on it.

  • Documentation of the historical change of a word’s significance

Gary: the documentation is in part inaccurate – which is to say, not reliable

  • Detailed discussion of synonyms in the Greek text of the New Testament

Gary: His discussions are totally unreliable: for example he “proves” that the meaning of agapē does not overlap with philē.

  • References to hundreds of grammatical works, commentaries, and exegetical works

Gary: yeah, but not works you and I could ever access! They’re from 1889 and earlier, invalidated and out of print.

  • Etymology

Gary: he commits the basic fallacy of defining words by their etymology. Today every seminary student knows better.

  • Appendices containing borrowed words, individual words exclusive to individual New Testament writers, helpful compilation of verbs, and more

Gary: these data are completely out of date; for example, he “proves” that agapē was invented by the Biblical writers. Not so! (see ENDNOTE 2)

ENDNOTE 2: Thayer’s Definition of agapē

The authoritative Liddell, Scott and Jones Lexicon summarizes the use of agapē thus: “love, orig. in non-sexual sense, but later w. some erotic connotation…esp. love of God for man and of man for God.” For the latter special use, LSJ quotes Jewish and Christian material.

The entry in Thayer’s Lexicon puts his left foot forward from the very beginning – “agapē…a purely bibl[ical] and eccl[iastical] word.”

That is, according to Thayer, it is found in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and in post-biblical Christian writers but not before. Thayer later quotes with approval G. von Zezschwitz, Profangraecitaet und biblischer Sprachgeist (1853), p. 63 – “It is noticeable that the word first makes its appearance as a current term in the Song of Solomon; – certainly no undesigned evidence respecting the idea which the Alexandrian translators had of love in this Song.” agapē appears 11 times in the Song of Solomon; the first reference, mentioned by Zezschwitz, is verse 2:4, “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love” (KJV). This verse was given christological significance in a chorus from some decades ago. [Note by Shogren: I do not know why Zezschwitz calls this the first appearance of the word, given that it appears in 2 Sam 13:15; it likewise appears in Eccl 9:1, 6 and Jer 2:2.]

Zezschwitz’s statement, approved by Thayer, unpacks as: the translators of the Septuagint of Song of Solomon self-consciously coined the word agapē in order to express that the divine love described in that book and thenceforth in the Bible and Christian literature. They invented the noun as a fresh term, but one based on common words such as the verb agapaō, the adjective agapētos (“beloved”), and the less-frequent adverbial form agapētōs (“with acquiescence, gladly,” etc.) plus a handful of other cognates. Apparently a new word was needed to describe the divine love of the God of Scripture.

Zezschwitz’s idea that biblical Greek was directly created by the Spirit has long been discredited, ever since it was discovered that it was koinē Greek and not a unique dialect (see the analysis of Zezschwitz in G. Kittel, TDNT X: 639-40).

Thayer mentions that agapē also appears in other Jewish literature; we note its appearance for example in the Wisdom of Solomon, the Psalms of Solomon, many times in the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs. By the way, this invalidates Ceslas Spicq’s odd comment that “the noun agapē did not enter literary usage, except in the LXX, before the first century” (Ceslas Spicq and J. D. Ernest. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994, 1:11; he then goes on to contradict himself by referring to its use in pre-Christian Hellenistic Judaism, 1:14-15). In the first century, Philo and Josephus both used it.

The facts as we now know them include: agapē appears as early as the 6th cent. BC in Aesop’s Fables 1 and 209. Agapē is found in Pseudo-Hippocrates in the 5th century BC; the poet Empedocles (5th BC). Chrysippus the Stoic philosopher (3rd BC) wrote in the Fragmenta moralia 723 (known from Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata 2.19, ANF 2:369) – “We are taught that there are three kinds of friendship: and that of these the first and the best is that which results from virtue, for the love that is founded on reason is firm.” It is found in the Metopus and Phintys in the 3rd cent. BC. In short, it was a rare but known word in Classical and koinē Greek, and a popular word in Christian Greek. In later references, the Greeks continue to use it, infrequently, and without apparent Christian influence. Ptolemaeus used it of marital love in the 2nd cent. AD (Sch.Ptol. Tetr. 52). Baur mentions “a sepulchral ins[cription], prob. honoring a polytheistic army officer, who is held in ‘high esteem’ by his country [SEG VIII, 11, 6 (III a.d.)].”

LSJ mentions that Agapē was the name of a woman in a 6th cent. BC inscription (SEG 19.422). As a  proper name Agapē is not found in extant Greek literature, according to TLG.  The Libronix version of LSJ also claims that the 6th-cent. Aristeas used the word, wrongly attributing to him a quote that actually comes from the 3rd-cent. Jewish work, the Epistle of Aristeas

Thayer’s data were wrong in his day (Aesop was available in Greek) but completely off-track in our day. The above information took me about 3-5 hours to dig up and systematize. What Greek students would want to use a book like Thayer’s, which requires that kind of useless investment of time, when they can have a newer lexicon that does it for them?

Additional note, added 7/10/10. Kudos to B. B. Warfield, in his 1918 essay “The Terminology of Love in the New Testament” (http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_lovent.html). He used Thayer and studied Trench and Zezschwitz. Although he possessed no data beyond what the others had, he added to the mix a good dose of common sense (emphasis added):

A very careless manner of speaking of agapē is current, as if it were in some way a gift of revealed religion to the world, not to say a direct product of divine inspiration. When Trench says that “It should never be forgotten that the substantive agapē is a purely Christian word, no example of its use occurring in any heathen writer whatever,” he has no doubt by a mere slip of the pen said “Christian” when the historical revelation of God in its entirety was what was in his mind [Shogren: Warfield means to say that, the word also appears in the pre-Christian Septuagint]. That correction, however, will not save his remark from being misleading. It is not true that “the word was born within the bosom of revealed religion”; it is true only that it has hitherto been found in the use only of adherents of revealed religion…The plain fact about the word is that, as it appears in the pages of the Septuagint, it bears all the marks of being already an old word with a settled general usage.

“Logos and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon (updated),” by Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

One thought on “Logos and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon (updated)

  1. I just ran into a blog on 1 Cor 13; unfortunately the thread was closed, but I’ll respond here. The author said: “A standard work that explains these two words is New Testament Synonyms by Archbishop Trench, first published around 1870. Trench suggests that philia is the standard word for affection, whilst agape, seldom found outside the NT, is that love which is less emotional, but rather seeks the good of its object…
    More recently, Don Carson, in his Exegetical Fallacies, suggests that the two words actually mean exactly the same thing…What do I think? I’m with Trench. ‘The old is better.'”

    I could weep… The older resource by definition is less helpful if we are speaking of a field in which new discoveries have all been made relatively recently. Using Trench as the final authority is like using an astronomy textbook from 1870 that says there are only seven planets.

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