[K:NWTS 5/3 (Dec 1990) 39-58]

Review Article

Steven M. Baugh

Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1988; Vol. 1, 843 pp., Vol. 2 (Indices), 375 pp., $20.00 cloth, ISBN: 0-8267-0340-2 (set).

I was asked to review J. P. Louw and Eugene Nida's new Greek lexicon (L&N) in light of its use as a tool for biblical-theological exegesis. Unfortunately, I must report at the outset that I have found little in it which directly advances the biblical-theological enterprise. Nevertheless, the lexicon is well worth buying, not only because of its very affordable price, but (since biblical-theological exegesis is above all exegesis), this lexicon can often be quite useful for exegesis of a NT passage.

The introduction to L&N identifies several of its features and its differences from previous lexicons. However, there are two characteristics of L&N which appear to be the most important for understanding this new tool and how it can be used to interpret the biblical text. The first is the heavy influence of the semantic domain theory of modern linguistics. This theory has not only shaped how words are treated in the lexicon, but it has also affected the unique format of the work itself. The second key characteristic of L&N is that it was really designed to be a tool for translation of the Scriptures rather than for their interpretation.

These two characteristics of L&N are not surprising, since both editors are well-known advocates of the use of linguistic theory for Scripture translation. In addition, both have contributed significantly to the translation work of the South African (Louw) and American (Nida) Bible Societies. I will discuss the underlying linguistic theory of L&N and its features as a translation tool; then I will examine selected words in order to illustrate the use of this lexicon for exegesis, especially biblical-theological exegesis. I will offer some evaluation of the usefulness of this work in the exegetical task along the way and conclude with a summary evaluation.

Semantic Domain Theory

L&N is the first NT lexicon that is self-consciously constructed according to the theory of semantic domains. Two key assumptions of this theory are: 1) that no two words are entirely synonymous in all of their "designative or denotative meanings" (I:xvi); 2) and that a word may have more than one discrete meaning. The linguistic or historical context of a word makes clear its particular meaning in that place.

The semantic domain theory goes further in attempting to isolate the distinct meaning(s) of a word by comparing and contrasting it with words that have similar or opposite meanings. Related meanings are then grouped together into "domains."

Let me illustrate the notion of semantic domains with a NT example. The Greek word oikia has two common meanings: 1) "a building or place where one dwells—'house, home, dwelling, residence'" (L&N 1:81; sec. 7.3); and 2) "the family consisting of those related by blood and marriage, as well as slaves and servants, living in the same house or homestead—'family, household"' (L&N 1:113; sec. 10.8). Obviously, these two meanings are related. The word used to refer to a family was transferred to the building where they lived; the same word could then refer to either.

In any one context, the particular meaning of oikia that the author intends to employ should be clear. And this meaning is discrete from the other meaning in context. For instance, in Mt. 7:24, the person who acts upon Jesus' words is likened to a wise man who built his oikia upon bedrock. Here, the idea of a building is clearly in view, not the people who occupy it. In other contexts, only the people are meant, not the building; e.g., "He (a royal official) along with his whole oikia believed" in Jesus (Jn. 4:53).

To construct semantic domains for oikia requires that we have at least two domains. One of the domains which oikia occupies relates to various kinship terms: race, nation, tribe, generation, relatives (both male and female), cousin, parents, ancestor, etc. Within this domain one may even wish to consider groups with opposite meanings of various kinds; for example, monoomai "to be left without family" used of widows in 1 Tim. 5:5, or allogenes, "a person from another family, a stranger." The second domain would consist of the various meanings designating various kinds of buildings: building, residence, palace, fortress, tent, inn, auditorium, temple, tower, prison, barn, etc.

The advantage of this type of classification is that the differences between the various words that share similar meanings can be more dearly understood, and the nuances of each word can be more fully appreciated. For example, we can distinguish a hierarchical relationship between words in the "building" domain. The word oikodome means a building in general, and it can be used to refer to various kinds of buildings: houses, temples, inns, and prisons. All houses (oikia) are buildings, but not all buildings (oikodome) are houses. Hence, an oikia is a sub-category of oikodome.

Furthermore, the sub-categories within a domain have various similarities with one another. For example, a house, a palace, a tent, an inn, and a prison are all types of dwellings. The things that distinguish them from one another might vary: a tent, an inn, and a prison (usually) are distinguished from a house by being temporary dwellings, whereas a palace is different from a house because of the people who live in it (a ruler might dwell in a prison or a palace, but not a tent).

This sort of analysis—which is the basis of Louw and Nida's lexiconallows us to better understand why some words were selected by a biblical author in a particular context. It is always helpful for exegesis to ask what word could the biblical author have used in place of the word he did choose, in order to more fully understand the meaning of the word in that particular passage.

In summary, semantic domains are groupings of words with similar meanings that "relate to one another in diverse ways and involve a number of different dimensions, so that they constitute complex clusters or constellations" (I:vii). Thus, by employing semantic domain theory Louw and Nida identify words that overlap in their meanings or might even have various opposite meanings, in order to map out the choice of words available to a biblical author in a given context. Such a task has never before been attempted for all Greek words of the NT, and for this reason we should credit Louw and Nida as pioneers in a new and important task.

Format of the Lexicon

As you may imagine, since Louw and Nida are interested in mapping out semantic domains, their lexicon had to employ a completely new format. Most NT lexicons list a Greek word once in alphabetical order and provide the different meanings of the word in sub-headings. L&N lists words according to domains and sub-domains. Thus the various meanings of one Greek word are often scattered throughout volume one of the lexicon (volume two contains only indices).

Domains are grouped together according to their function on a linguistic level. There are groups of: "Object Referents" (Domains 1-12); "Events" (Domains 13-57); "Abstracts" (Domains 58-91), etc.

Examples of the "Object Referents" domains are: Geographical Objects and Features, Plants, People, Supernatural Beings and Powers, etc.

Within each domain itself are various sub-domains of related words. The sub-domain includes meanings that have shared, distinctive, and supplementary features (L&N I:vi). For example, the domain "Geographical Objects and Features" includes the sub-domains: universe or creation, regions above the earth, elevated land formation, population centers, etc. A word is thus referenced in L&N according to its domain and its sub-section; for instance, "83.25" means Domain 83, sub-section 25.

As a result, the various meanings of a word might be listed under different domains. Using the example above, the first meaning of oikia ("house") is given in Domain 7 which groups together meanings related to "Constructions" under the Sub-Domain "Buildings," section 3. The other meaning of oikia is found in Domain 10 ("Kinship Terms"), with the bulky Sub-Domain title: "Groups and Members of Groups of Persons Regarded as Related by Blood but without Special Reference to Successive Generations," section 8. These two meanings are found 31 pages apart in volume one, so you will usually not find all the meanings of a Greek word on one page as in a traditional lexicon.


The organization of L&N often makes it very time-consuming and cumbersome to use if you want to find a detailed description of the various meanings, especially if the word has numerous meanings. Fortunately, the second volume contains three indices that make the work useable; you could not even attempt to use L&N without the index volume!

The first index lists the Greek words alphabetically, gives English words that correspond to the various meanings for that word, the domain section and sub-section where the meaning is discussed. For example, the meaning of katharos as "clean" is listed in section 79.48 and as "pure" in section 53.29.

The second index is an English index used to identify the sections where various Greek words are treated in the different domains. For instance, the meaning "clean" is listed as "clean/se" and cites sections 47.8; 53.28-32; and 79.48-51. As I will indicate below, this index can be most helpful for exegesis.

The last index is a Scripture index of verses cited to illustrate the definitions in the body of the lexicon. L&N is a fairly concise lexicon and therefore is very sparing in its citation of passages in comparison with other lexicons. Usually only one or two passages are cited per meaning.

Translation Versus Exegesis

The second key characteristic of L&N, which distinguishes it from its predecessors—especially today's standard, Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, & Danker, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD), 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979)—is that it is designed with the translator in mind rather than the exegete. Hence, L&N focuses upon definitions of meanings for Greek words rather than upon English substitutes, called "glosses." Louw and Nida explain: "the definitions are based upon the distinctive features of meaning of a particular term, and the glosses only suggest ways in which such a term with a particular meaning may be represented in English, but the definitions are the significant elements" (I:vii).

For instance, the Greek word sphragizo can be glossed as "to seal" or "to close," as in the sentence, "I sealed the envelope." However, the Greek word might include the idea of affixing a mark of ownership, since letters were often sealed with wax and the imprint of a signet ring. Thus in Rev. 7:3, God's people are "sealed" on their foreheads. The English gloss "to close" does not convey the sense of the Greek word here, whereas the definition provided in L&N does:  

"to put a mark on something, primarily to indicate ownership but possibly also to mark group identity."

Therefore a better English gloss for sphragizo in Rev. 7:3 might be "to brand," since this word communicates "marking with a sign of ownership." Yet this illustrates further the problem with glosses: a modern language may not have a word that precisely duplicates the meaning of a Greek word, since "to brand" implies a more painful process than sphragizo in Rev. 7:3.

Louw and Nida intend that the definitions provided in their lexicon will help the translator choose the best possible gloss for the language in which he or she may be working. You can imagine how helpful this will be for someone translating the Greek NT into a foreign language on the mission field. A definition of a Greek word or phrase will better enable the translator to choose an appropriate word or words in the target language than would an English gloss.

As a result of this emphasis upon translation, L&N often provides tips for translators, so that it functions in part as a translator's handbook. For instance, in the article on the Greek word choiros ("pig"), L&N includes this typical observation to aid translators: "though references to pigs in the OT frequently involve very strong connotations of uncleanness and disgust, references in the NT are somewhat more neutral. However, in the story of the Prodigal Son (LK 15.15) the reference to the task of feeding swine certainly indicates the desperate condition of the younger brother. Some translators have found it necessary to indicate such a fact by a marginal note, since the language into which the translation is being made may reflect a very different cultural attitude from that which occurs in the Scriptures. For example, in certain areas of New Guinea, one who is responsible for taking care of pigs is an individual with relatively high social status" (L&N 4.36). 

A glance through the lexicon shows that this type of interest in translation concern—rather than upon the theological message of the passages where the word is found—is very common; one finds this sort of discussion in most of the articles.

Hence, one must evaluate L&N's usefulness for exegesis—or more specifically, biblical-theological exegesis—on the basis of its stated limitations and goals. However, I do not think that a focus upon the problems of translation necessarily means that their discussions are irrelevant for exegesis. For instance, in the quotation above on attitudes toward pigs, we are told that the prodigal son's association with pigs might be an indication of his desperate straights, though pigs in the NT world were not always viewed with distaste. This can aid the exegete in his task.

The translator is interested in the meaning of a word exclusively in order to choose an appropriate word or words in the target language. The main goal of the exegete, on the other hand—even though he too is interested in the meaning of individual words—is to determine the meaning of a larger linguistic unit in light of other factors beyond the linguistic context (redemptive history, systematic theology, the social values of the NT world, the genre of the document, the analogy of Scripture, etc.). The words one chooses to convey the meaning of the Greek words are important to the exegete as a means of understanding the text, but he is not limited to a concise rendering like the translator, because he has the luxury of being able to paraphrase the Greek text for his hearers or readers.

Prologue to the Examples

The following remarks on specific entries in L&N will attempt to make these points: 1) to illustrate the particular characteristics of the lexicon; 2) to evaluate how well L&N have accomplished their stated purpose, and to see if this tool is an advance upon its predecessors, primarily BAGD, as claimed; and, 3) to evaluate whether L&N can serve the purposes of an exegete, especially the biblical-theological exegete. Each example is numbered and quotes the definitions and glosses suggested in L&N minus the discussions of translational questions.

I must point out that we should grade L&N in light of the fact that the Scriptures do not usually indicate biblical-theological connections through the employment or meaning of individual words. The word "firstborn" itself does not communicate a biblical-theological message, but Paul's statement that Christ is "firstborn from the dead" (Col. 1:18), does have a biblical-theological connection (see Kerux 1 [December 1986], pp. 28-34; compare L&N 10.43; 13.79; 87.47 where three possible meanings for "firstborn over all creation" in Col. 1:15 are given).

However, I have tried to select words in the following selections which do seem clearly to carry some biblical-theological message, or at least where the theological nature of the employment of this term gives it a meaning different than that found in ordinary discourse outside the NT. As such it is a highly subjective selection of examples, and I intend it to be seen as illustrative rather than as a complete analysis.

Illustrative Examples

1. amnos, "the young of sheep—'lamb' " (4.24). This entry includes two Scripture examples and two paragraphs discussing how to translate this word into languages of peoples who have other ways of saying "lamb" ("child sheep") or in cultures where sheep are unknown. The meaning of this word in John the Baptist's statement: "Behold the amnos of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) is not discussed by L&N. This is a serious omission.

Louw and Nida might reply that they are not interested in the reference of a word but with its meaning. Indeed, they criticize BAGD for a failure to distinguish "meaning and reference" based on a "tendency to divide not along semantic lines but along theological lines" (I:ix). I am not sure that I follow their distinction here.

A word may have various references, as discussed above, but the reference and the meaning of a word (not the word itself), cannot be completely severed. L&N itself demonstrates this by defining oikia in some contexts as "the family consisting of those related by blood and marriage, as well as slaves and servants..." (10.8). The reference to which oikia points is a social group that was thought by people in the NT world to include slaves and servants; this reference determines the meaning of oikia.

Let me illustrate further. The word "lamb" in my culture has different associations than those in the NT world. If I were to say of a football player, "He's a tiger on the field, but a lamb off the field," I mean by this analogy to communicate that the person has a gentle or perhaps even a timid personality. The reason that this meaning is conveyed is because the reference to "lamb" normally is to an animal that is perceived in my culture to be gentle and timid in nature. The reference of a word does affect what meaning it might have.

Hence, the Greek word amnos means "the young of sheep" in some contexts, but because of its use in John 1:29 it also means "a person compared to a Passover or sacrificial-atoning lamb" or even "a title for Christ," because it is used to refer to Christ who took away sins like a Passover or sacrificial lamb.

The motivation for my (modest) tirade here is that I feel that Louw and Nida are often treating the NT words as if they were merely neutral, atheological "semantic" entities. (Note Louw and Nida's distinction between semantic lines versus theological lines made in the quote above.) Every word in the NT is part of a distinctly theological work. As such, the connection between the (theological) reference of NT words and their (theological) meanings is stronger than Louw and Nida appear to believe.

What is most interesting about the example of amnos, is that the compilers of L&N do recognize the meaning of one of its synonyms, arnion, as a title for Christ: "the supplementary components of meaning in arnion involve the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross" (4.26). Perhaps they unintentionally missed this meaning for amnos conveyed in John 1:29, in which case we would hope to see it included in a future revision of their lexicon. 

2. phos, "light, in contrast with darkness usually in relationship to some source of light such as the sun, moon, fire, lamp, etc. 'light' " (14.36). There follows another discussion of potential translational difficulties; e.g., "In a number of languages there is no noun for 'light,' but only verbs are employed . . ." (I:173).

Other meanings for phos provided in other places in L&N are: "fire, bonfire" (2.5) and "torch" (6.102), including idiomatic uses of the phrases tekna photos and huioi tou photos meaning "people of God" (11.14). The systematic treatment of such idiomatic phrases is one of the distinctive features of L&N, and is considered by the authors to be one of its advances beyond its predecessors (I:ix). I agree!

Do the meanings given in L&N for phos help us to understand the use of this word in John 8:12ff. where Jesus says that he is "the light of the world"? Louw and Nida might respond that the semantic meaning of phos in that passage is "light, in contrast to darkness," whereas the metaphorical reference is to Jesus. And so they have fulfilled their stated purpose to define only the meaning of the word, rather than to discuss its theological references.

My objection is that phos does not mean "light, in contrast to darkness" in John 8:12, but is probably explained later in the verse when Jesus says that his followers will not walk in darkness but that they will acquire "the light of life." We should take "of life" as an appositive genitive; thus "life" explains the meaning of "light": "the light which is life." As such, phos refers to "eternal life" in this passage, so it should be referenced under the appropriate semantic domain in L&N along with other terms referring to life (23.88-128, "Physiological Processes and States").

Another possible, distinctively Johannine, meaning of phos is also not found in L&N. In 1 John 2:8 we are told that "the darkness is passing away, because (kai) the true light is already shining." Here, in this eschatologically charged passage, John uses phos metaphorically to refer to the life-giving power of God which is destroying the current world order (cf. 1 John 2:17; 3:8;1 Cor. 2:6; Heb. 2:14; etc.).

Hence, phos means something closer to "power" than "light" in 1 John 2:8. Why didn't John simply write dynamis ("power") here? A linguistic analysis alone will not be able to answer this question, while a biblical-theological analysis understands the New Creation association for "light" (going back to Gen. 1) especially in light of the obvious New Creation use of phos in the Prologue to John's Gospel. Such an association is part of the meaning of phos in this context, so it should have been included in Louw and Nida's lexicon.

3. petra, "bedrock (possibly covered with a thin layer of soil), rocky crags, or mountain ledges, in contrast with separate pieces of rock normally referred to as lithos (see 2.23)—'rock, bedrock' " (2.21). For some passages, this definition of petra and its distinction from lithos is quite helpful. For instance, the disciple of Christ is like a wise man who builds his home upon "bedrock" (Mt. 7:24), i.e., a large, immovable sheet of rock in contrast with a "rock" or "boulder" (lithos) which might not be a stable foundation for a house.

Yet there is one occurrence of petra in a passage that I consider a sort of "proof text," showing that the NT authors are biblical-theologians (if that were needed). In 1 Cor. 10:1-4, Paul interprets the experience of the Israelites in the Exodus as a real, though anticipatory contact with the spiritual benefits of the redemption to be accomplished by Christ, when "they were all baptized into Moses," "they all ate the spiritual food," and "they all drank from the same spiritual drink." Why? "Because they were drinking from the spiritual rock (petra) that accompanied (them); indeed, that rock was Christ" (v. 4).

The allusion is obviously to the rock at Meribah in the Wilderness of Sin. The Septuagint uses petra for the rock in both the OT texts that report this incident (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:1-13). The exegete will ask what Paul means by calling Christ the "rock" here. L&N supplies no answer. BAGD says: "The rock at various places in the desert from which Moses drew water by striking it...Paul calls it pneumatike petra 1 Cor 10:4a and identifies it with the preexistent Christ vs. 4b" (p. 654). As such, BAGD helps us to better understand this text; characteristically, L&N is more concerned with what words one will choose for translation purposes.

4. exodos, "motion from or out of a region...—'departure, the Exodus, the departure (of Israel from Egypt)' " (15.42); and "...(a figurative extension of meaning of exodos 'departure,' 15.42) . . . to depart from life, as a euphemistic expression for death—'to leave this life, to die, death, departure' " (23.101). 

This Greek word occurs three times in the NT: Heb. 11:22 as a clear reference to the Exodus from Egypt; 2 Pet. 1:15 as a euphemistic reference by Peter to his own death; and in Luke 9:31 where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah "were discussing his exodos which he would have to fulfill in Jerusalem" on the Mount of Transfiguration. L&N translates and interprets the latter text as an example of the second meaning of exodus: "they talked about his dying...in Jerusalem" (23.101; emphasis added).

The biblical-theologian would look at Luke 9:31 differently. Only Luke's version of the Mount of Transfiguration includes this detail about the subject of discussion between Jesus and the two prophets (cf. Mt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8). Why does he say they were talking about Jesus' exodos? Why not simply use the ordinary Greek word thanatos if he meant "death"? In the 2 Peter passage it is understandable that Peter would use a euphemistic expression to refer to his own death, but why would Luke use a euphemistic expression here if he meant "death"? And why did he use this word when other euphemistic expressions for death were available (as L&N conveniently lists in section 23.101).

The answer is that Luke is making a biblical-theological point; the exodus that Jesus had to fulfill in Jerusalem was the true Exodus for God's people. The OT Exodus pointed to this event as a shadow in God's organically connected revelation. Luke makes this clear by saying that Jesus 'had to fulfill this event (pleroo), not that it 'had to happen,' (ginomai) as one would expect if "death" were the intended meaning. Thus this event was a fulfillment of the earlier revelation in the Exodus of Israel. Jesus is the New Moses, who revealed God and his redemption in these last days more fully than Moses ever could—"This is my Chosen Son; listen evermore to him" (Luke 9:35; cf. John 1:17; Heb. 1:1-2).

In this instance also, Louw and Nida have failed to appreciate the biblica1-theological significance of a word. Nevertheless, they have provided an important service for our understanding of the biblical text by grouping together other words signifying "death" (23.99), including euphemistic expressions (23.101-105), and signifying "departure" (15.37), so that we can better understand the range of possible expressions Luke could have used in Luke 9:31 to communicate "death" or "departure" if he had wished.

5. hemera, "an indefinite unit of time (whether grammatically singular or plural), but not particularly long . . .—'time, period' " (67.142); "day" (67.178); "the daylight period between sunrise and sunset" (67.186); "daylight" (14.40); and, "a court of justice for determining guilt or innocence—'court, court of justice' " (56.1).

L&N helpfully identifies the meaning of hemera in texts like 1 Cor. 4:3, where Paul shows his lack of concern to be judged by any human hemera, i.e., court. However, the question which L&N does not address, is why should hemera have this meaning, especially since this word never meant "court" outside the NT. The answer appears to be the association of hemera with the common OT phrases "day of the Lord," "day of vengeance," etc. (Joel 2:1; Is. 13:6; et al; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5). Paul clearly has such an association in mind in 1 Cor. 3:3 where "the day" will reveal the character of a man's ministry (cf. Heb. 10:25). BAGD does refer to "the day of God's final judgment" in their article on hemera, so their lexicon seems to be more useful for exegesis on this particular point than L&N.

The lack of any discussion about the significance of such phrases as "the day of the Lord" in L&N is curious, since the editors consider it one of the strengths of their work that they systematically treat idiomatic phrases (I:ix). (They do interpret eight phrases that include hemera such as "sons of the day" [11.14], but not "day of the Lord.") Perhaps they have unintentionally overlooked this important NT phrase, or they somehow do not regard it as an idiom, although this omission does not follow necessarily from their linguistic method. See, in comparison, Geerhardus Vos's discussion of the phrase, "last of the days," especially "the last of these days" (Heb. 1:2) in The Pauline Eschatology, pp. 1ff.

6. skenoo, "to come to dwell in a place defined psychologically or spiritually (with the possible implication in some contexts of a temporary arrangement)—'to take up residence, to come to reside, to come to dwell' " (85.75). L&N cites John 1:14, 2 Cor. 12:9, and Rev. 21:3, then adds another paragraph stating: "in all of these contexts, skenoo and episkenoo are essentially figurative in meaning, for they deal with spiritual existence and residence rather than human residence or dwelling. In translating one should, in so far as possible, try to preserve this important figurative relationship, since it expresses one of the most significant ways in which spiritual and human existence can be combined..." (I:732).

I must confess that after many readings of this passage, I do not understand exactly what Louw and Nida mean. They render John 1:14 as: "The Word became a human being and dwelt among us." How is this "spiritual existence" rather than "human residence or dwelling"? Or how is this a "figurative relationship"? Perhaps they simply mean that this is a different sort of action than that meant in the statement "The Word dwelt in a house." The theological point that the editors are making is not very clear, and I differ with their interpretation of John 1:14.

Modern linguistic treatments, beginning with James Barr's famous Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), have repeatedly warned us against relying upon etymologies to determine the meaning of a word. This is indeed a good reminder, but there certainly are times in all languages when the etymological background of a word is still a prominent element in its meaning (e.g., "he camped out in the house"). In John 1:14, hasn't John chosen the unusual term skenoo (5 NT occurrences; 4 in Rev.) because of its reference to the skene, the tabernacle, in which God dwelt with his people in the OT (e.g., Num. 35:34; 1 Kg. 8:12)?

I hesitate to guess at Louw and Nida's motive in avoiding the etymological and OT connection of skenoo, however I suspect that they might be overly cautious in their efforts to avoid the so-called "etymological fallacy." As such, their lexicon fails to steer one to what is, at least, a possible meaning for the word, whereas BAGD (p. 754) includes it.

On the other hand, L&N, once again, does help the exegete deal with a passage like John 1:14, because it lists skenoo in the same domain with more common terms for "dwelling" such as katoikeo (44 occurrences) and oikeo (9 occurrences). Hence, we can show that John chose skenoo for its OT connection, whereas more common terms could have been chosen otherwise.

7. philos, "a male person with whom one associates and for whom there is affection or personal regard—'friend' " (34.11). This definition is useful for most occurrences of philos, although L&N seems to have missed the recognized idiomatic phrase, philos kaisaros, "friend of Caesar," as a quasi-official title for the Emperor Tiberius's political cronies.

This usage is reported in BAGD as an "official title." As such, it makes the narrative of the trial of Jesus come alive in John 19, when the Jews charged Pontius Pilate with failing to be a "friend of Caesar" if he would release Jesus. Pilate's patron, L. Aelius Sejanus, had once rivaled even Tiberius in power, but his fall from imperial favor and execution put Pilate in a sticky position with the emperor as well. He could not afford to let word of his possible disloyalty get back to Tiberius.

8. hilasmos, hilasterion,"the means by which sins are forgiven—'the means of forgiveness, expiation' " (40.12; cf. 40.13). This (exegetical) observation follows: "though some traditional translations render hilasterion as 'propitiation,' this involves a wrong interpretation of the term in question. Propitiation is essentially a process by which one does a favor to a person in order to make him or her favorably disposed, but in the NT God is never the object of propitiation since he is already on the side of people" (I:504).

The following observations should be made:

1) Louw and Nida do not avoid discussion, though this might be assumed from what was said above and from their criticism of BAGD for concentrating on the theological versus the linguistic division of NT word meanings.

2) The editors of L&N mis-represent the meaning of the traditional, theological concept that the word "propitiation" designates, by failing to refer to God's wrath (e.g., Rom. 1:18-31). The biblical notion of propitiation involves, in part, the placation of God's righteous, judicial anger toward sinners.

3) Louw and Nida base their interpretation of the meaning of hilasterion upon the universal, theological proposition that God is "already on the side of people." Beyond the question of the verity of this assumption, it indicates that the authors' theological position does influence their interpretation of word meanings, despite their emphasis on linguistic rather than theological factors.

4) The editors have chosen a definition and glosses for hilasmos/hilasterion that are so generic as to be devoid of clear meaning. How has Christ become a "means by which sins are forgiven," and what does "expiation" mean? Why do sins need to be forgiven if God is on everyone's side? In context, and in light of the OT background of the concept to which the Greek words refer, the idea is clearly "propitiation" (cf. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [1955], pp. 125-85).

Summary Evaluation

All of the examples above tend to show the theological shortcomings of this new lexicon. I did not go out of my way to find these shortcomings—most of the words I chose to examine were ones that I think obviously carry biblical-theological significance. The editors of L&N do not seem to grasp the implications of biblical-theology for the meaning of these words and others that I have not mentioned ("mountain," "garden," "bread," "tree of life" [cf. L&N 3.4], etc.).

This is not to say that all the articles in L&N are theologically unreliable. For instance, I noted that the article on arnion ("lamb") does refer to the atonement of Christ (4.26), although what Louw and Nida mean by "atonement" in light of their understanding of hilasmos is not clear. In addition, the editors helpfully explain that arrabon "down payment" only refers to "the Holy Spirit as a pledge or guarantee of the blessings promised by God" in the NT (57.170). They also point out the messianic implications of the phrase "Son of Man" and warn that renderings of the phrase in some languages might imply a denial of the virgin birth (9.3). We can readily agree with their interpretations on these points.

Let me emphasize that my critique of L&N should not obscure the fact that this lexicon does represent a real advance upon its predecessors. It accomplishes this in several ways: by attempting to apply the idea of semantic domains consistently; by providing definitions of words as well as English glosses; by listing and interpreting NT idiomatic phrases; and by organizing the lexicon so that the synonyms of a Greek word can be easily compared with a word in question. It is an important and invaluable work because of these features.

The organization of L&N especially makes this lexicon a must for NT exegetes. No other tool that I know provides an English-to-Greek index and an organization that helps one to find the synonyms of a given Greek word in order to precisely understand its meaning. An analysis of the range of lexical choices available to the biblical authors is an important part of exegesis.

Furthermore, the Greek-to-English index will quickly give the NT exegete an idea of the range of meanings for a Greek word. Bios can refer to "daily life" or "possessions" (II:46); katalambano can mean "acquire," "attack," "seize," "overpower," or "understand" (II:133-34), and so on. This makes the index volume very handy as a quick source for English glosses.

The fact that L&N provides definitions rather than glosses for Greek words is another of its major strengths. A definition will usually bring out nuances of a Greek word that are not communicated by a gloss alone. Yet one should not assume that other lexicons provide only glosses as Louw and Nida intimate (L&N I:viii-ix). BAGD does often give definitions every bit as illuminating as L&N; in addition, one can often deduce the nuances of meaning by reading a series of possible glosses for a word. However, L&N has the advantage of giving a definition and one or more glosses for every meaning listed in the lexicon.


I have argued above that the editors have missed meanings for certain terms that are revealed through biblical-theological analysis. These meanings are consistent with semantic domain theory, so we could reasonably have expected their inclusion in the lexicon.

It appears to me that Louw and Nida have avoided theological analysis of some words, such as amnos or skenoo. This is unwarranted, especially since they do engage in theological analysis for words such as hilasmos. I do not claim to be an expert in linguistics, but it is my impression that linguistic analyses of NT words tend to treat them as if they were phenomena belonging to ordinary discourse, or even belonging to spoken discourse, rather than to a unique kind of theological literature.

Isn't it obvious that the NT writings are at the very least literature? If John 3:1-15 were ordinary discourse, we could maintain that the phrase gennao anothen must mean either "to be born again" or "to be born from above" as L&N assumes (41.53). But as a writer of literature, John can intend both meanings to be understood (one can also do this in "ordinary discourse" by the way).

But because the NT is also part of the only book written not only by human authors, but under the inspiration of a divine, primary author, it has a certain theological cohesion with all of God's revelation (OT and NT) not found in other types of speech or writings. This unity is often reflected through the choice of individual words with OT echoes. Thus, biblical-theology as a task of tracing the development of revelation is integral to understanding the meaning of many NT words.

Louw and Nida's new lexicon is designed primarily as a tool for translation of the Scriptures, but it should be found on the exegete's desk as well. It does not directly reflect the insights of biblical-theology, but it certainly can help us gain insights into God's progressive revelation of his Son.

Additional Note

The sketch I have given of the semantic domain theory is simplified. For a more complete description see: David Alan Black, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988); Moises Silva, Biblical Words & their Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983); or, J. P. Louw, Semantics of New Testament Greek (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982).


Westminster Theological Seminary in California
Escondido, California