the weblog of Alan Knox

Greek Vocabulary – Definitions

Posted by on Jan 11, 2010 in NT Greek | Comments Off

A few days ago, in a post called “Question about Greek Vocabulary,” I asked the following question: What is the difference between a definition, a gloss, and a referent? While this question is important concerning any language (even English), I’m asking this question in the context of New Testament (or Koine) Greek. In the next few posts, I’m going to begin answering my question and begin considering the implications for translation and interpretation.

What is a definition?

a concise explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase or symbol –

a statement of the meaning of a word or phrase –

a statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol –

the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc. –

So, we see that a definition describes the meaning of a word or phrase. The difficulty is that most words (almost all words) have more than one definition. And, a definition is never a precise statement. Instead, a definition may set the boundaries of possible meanings, but a definition alone can never convey precise meaning.

Another problem with definitions is that most words (almost all words) have more than one definition. Considering, for example, the English word “board.” There are many definitions for this word, and for each definition, the word can be used with different meanings. (The board will board the ship on a board.) This is not a peculiarity of English. Instead, words from all languages can carry many definitions, sometimes drastically different definitions.

However, even though a definition does not provide a precise meaning, knowing a word’s definitions is very helpful in determining meaning. Interestingly, it has only been in the past few decades that Greek lexicons began including the definitions for a world. Before that, only glosses were included. (I’ll talk about glosses in the next past in this series.)

Even the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) does not include the definitions of all of the words in the lexicon. However, it does include definitions for most of the Greek words.

Even when a lexicon does include definitions of a word, we must deal with the fact that a definition is made up of other words, each of which has various definitions of its own. So, when a word in one language is defined using ambiguous or difficult words in another language, confusion or misunderstanding can ensue.

For example, consider the Greek term ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia). According to BDAG, the word has three definitions:

  1. a regularly summoned legislative body
  2. a casual gathering of people
  3. people with shared belief

The difficulty lies in the fact that the editors of BDAG can only find one use of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in the NT that corresponds to definition #1 – Acts 19:39. Similarly, the editors only find two uses of the term that correspond with definition #2 – Acts 19:32 and Acts 19:40. According to the editors, these two uses are different than one in Acts 19:39 because of the use of the term “lawful.” This raises the question, can an adjective change the definition of a word, or does it simply narrow the meaning within the same definition, or perhaps even clarify the referent?

Another problem occurs when we consider definition #3. As an example of a use of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) outside of the NT with the definition “people with shared belief,” the editors say, “Orpheus forms for himself τὴν ἐκκλησίαν (tÄ“n ekklÄ“sian), a group of wild animals, who listen to him, in the Thracian mountains where there are no people.” Thus, for definition #3, the editors use an example that contradicts that very definition because Orpheus’ group is composed of animals (not people) which do not have shared beliefs.

So, why would the editors choose the definition “people with shared belief” to cover the majority of the uses of the term ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in the NT? They say that in the NT it specifically indicates a people with common interest in the God of Israel. It is very possible that in the NT the word ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) refers to groups of people who together have a common interested in the God of Israel, but it seems the editors have confused definition with referent again. While the word may be used to “refer” to a group of people with a specific belief or interest, that does not mean the word is “defined” as a group of people with a specific belief or interest.

In both instances (all three definitions), the editors seems to have allowed the term’s referent to control the term’s definition.

If we do not allow the referent to control the definition, we find that ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) would be defined very similarly to the English word “assembly”: a group gathered together for a purpose. The identity of the group and the purpose can only be determined by the context. But – and a very important point – neither the identity of the group nor the purpose of the group is carried in the definition of the word ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia).

No Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.


  1. The Assembling of the Church | Greek Vocabulary – Glosses - [...] asking this question in the context of New Testament (or Koine) Greek. In the previous post, “Greek Vocabulary – …
  2. The Assembling of the Church | The referents for ekklesia in the New Testament - [...] my previous three posts (“Greek Vocabulary – Definitions“, “Greek Vocabulary – Glosses“, and “Greek Vocabulary – [...]