the weblog of Alan Knox

Greek Vocabulary – Referents

Posted by on Jan 13, 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 first post of this series, “Greek Vocabulary – Definitions“, I discussed the importance of and difficulty in determining definitions of Greek words, even given the definitions supplied by standard lexicons. In the next post (“Greek Vocabulary – Glosses“), I discussed Greek glosses. But what about referents?

In linguistics, as the name implies, a “referent” is the object or idea referred to by a word or phrase. Given a word or phrase, the referent can be very general to very specific. In fact, it is possible for a word or phrase to refer to only one possible object.

For example, if I were to write the phrase, “I am typing a post on a computer,” the phrase “a computer” can only refer to a specific computer. It doesn’t matter that other computers could be referred to by the phrase “a computer,” because in my sentence the phrase refers to only one computer that exists or that has ever existed.

How do we determine what a word or phrase refers to? While the definition of a word or words can help, in fact the context is extremely important in determining the referent.

Consider the passages from the first post in which we found the Greek terms ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia) in Acts 19:32, Acts 19:39, and Acts 19:40. The same word is used in each verse, but from the context it is clear that Acts 19:32 and Acts 19:40 refer to the same group of people, while Acts 19:39 refers to a different group of people.

When interpreting or translating, it is extremely important to determine referents. In fact, it would probably be better to translate based on referent instead of on the specific term or even the definition of the word used.

As an extreme example, consider idioms. An idiom is a word or phrase that is used in certain contexts in which the meaning is not related to the definitions of the word or words used. One English idiom is “raining cats and dogs.” When translating or interpreting this phrase, it is not important to translate the words “cats” and “dogs” correctly. Instead, the entire phrase should be translated together and then translated in a way that conveys the meaning “raining very hard.”

So, when we run across the word ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia) in the Greek text of the New Testament, we must determine the referent by examining the context, then interpret/translate the term in context in a way that we express the meaning/referent with as little ambiguity as possible.

The problem with translating the word ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) as “church” is that we end up with double ambiguity – the ambiguity found in the word ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) and the ambiguity found in the modern term “church.” Since there are so many definitions of the English term “church” that do not overlap the definitions of the Greek term ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) the ambiguity and confusion is usually multiplied.

Thus, in the end, determining referents may be the most important step in the translating / interpreting process.

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 | The referents for ekklesia in the New Testament - [...] Vocabulary – Definitions“, “Greek Vocabulary – Glosses“, and “Greek Vocabulary – Referents“), I discussed the differences between definitions, glosses, …