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 previous post, “Greek Vocabulary – Definitions“, I discussed the important of and difficulty in determining definitions of Greek words, even given the definitions supplied by standard lexicons. But what about glosses?
Most people who study Greek are first associated with glosses. A gloss is a word or phrase in English that is associated with a word or phrase in another language, such as Greek (i.e. á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± or ekklÄ“sia = “church”, “assembly”, “legislative body”). The gloss does not define the original word, but the two words should share some overlap in their semantic domain.
Here, I must talk briefly about semantic domain. A word’s definitions does not give us its meaning. Instead, definitions give us ranges of meaning, that is, its semantic domain.
So, students must be careful when they study Greek vocabulary not to mistakenly learn that “á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia)” means “church”. Very few words mean the same thing, especially words in the different language. Instead, the best that we can say with any Greek term and its glosses is that the glosses overlap the allowed meanings of the Greek term in some instances.
For example, we could say that the Greek term á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) can be translated with the English term “church,” given certain usages of the word á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) and certain definitions of the word “church.” However, we cannot say that á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) and “church” mean the same thing. Instead, we must pay attention to the usage and definitions and even the referents of both words in each context.
Of course, since Greek writers often use the same words with different meanings and referents, and since English readers often read English words with different meanings and referents, the use of glosses (while necessary) can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
Interpreters often try to use different glosses to designate different meanings and referents for certain words. German translators did this for the Greek term á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) by using different glosses: kirche (organizational?) and gemeinde (community?). While this can be beneficial, it can also add to the confusion… since both kirche and gemeinde also have ranges of meanings.
Consider an English example for the Greek verb Ï€Î±ÏÎ±ÎºÎ±Î»ÎÏ‰ (parakaleÅ). This verb is variously glossed as “I summon,” “I encourage,” “I exhort,” or “I comfort.” Now, the gloss “I summon” is often used when translating a different range of meanings than the other translations. But the last three glosses (“I encourage,” “I exhort,” and “I comfort”) can all be used somewhat interchangeably, although they have different ranges of meanings in English.
So, why did I go into all this? Students of Greek (or any other language) must recognize from the beginning that the English word written on the back of their Greek vocabulary card does not represent the definition of the Greek term, nor does it generally represent all the possible translation options for that particular Greek term. Translation and interpretation are much more complicated than exchanging a Greek word for an English gloss.