Re: The Use of Ancient References

From: Christopher Hutson (
Date: Thu Apr 23 1998 - 11:35:28 EDT

Ted Mann poses a useful question:

> As a more-or-less beginning Greek student (self-taught), and
>subscriber to B-Greek, I have noticed over the months how often OT
>(Hebrew and the LXX) and ancient non-biblical materials are used as
>of the process of determining the meaning of a NT term. I wonder,
>however, how helpful this really is. It occurs to me that, due to
>constant changes in any language, finding out what a word means in
>LXX, or other pre-NT manuscripts, may have little to do with the
>of the term by the time it appears in the NT hundreds of years later.

>How can it be determined that the meanings of terms used in
>antecedent to the NT are still valid by the first century? Is this
>function of the etymologist?

Hmmm, let's think about plotting a grid of meanings for a word we want
to study. On the vertical, we could view the word diachronically--how
the word was used over time from Linear B and Archaic Greek through
Classical, Hellenistic, and Patristic eras. On the horizontal axis we
could view the word synchronically--how the word word was used in
various cultures, subcultures and specific texts in the same era,
comparing, for example, usage in the first century in Hellenistic
Palestine, among Jews in the Hellenistic diaspora, among non-Jews in
various Hellenistic cities, usage among various Greek philosophical
writers, various non-literary papyri, burial inscriptions and so

While the old etymologists emphasized the diachronic perspective and
the newfangled Semantic Domain linguists emphasize the synchronic
perspective, it seems to me that our best studies will view a word
from both perspectives. We need to find the intersection of axes for
our target text. Synchronically, we will want to know how a word was
generally used by contemporaries of the writer we are studying,
including the prevailing usage and any esoteric usages of particular
groups, especially of groups related to our writer. Diachronically,
we will want to examine especially the stream of literary/cultural
tradition in which our target writer stands, however that is defined
for the target text.

The validity of this diachronic examination seems to be the real force
of your question. I would say offhand that this is study is very
important, since religious communities tend to be conservative,
especially in the use of their religious terminology and especially
where they have a body of traditional literature such as the Hebrew
Bible/LXX. There is no doubt that the rabbis in the Tannaitic and
Amoraic periods were reading the ancient Hebrew texts and thinking
about word meanings and paying attention to how usage might vary in
their own day. For example, in Genesis Rabbah 84.7.1, when they come
to Gen 37:1 and read that Joseph was a "youth," they have to stop and
think about the relative age range of the Hebrew word NaYaR in the
ancient text as well as the common social understanding of such a term
in their own era in terms of a Greco-Roman stereotype of youth.

The diachronic evidence is more pertinent to the extent that it
illustrates how a word was used within the same literary and cultural
tradition as the writer. For example, in our recent thread on OINOS,
Ward Powers drew numerous examples from the LXX, which is certainly in
the literary tradition that influence the gospel writers. I, on the
other hand, suggested an example from Homer. While the force of my
illustration was similar, my example was less relevant to
understanding what OINOS means in the NT, since Homer does not stand
in the primary literary/cultural tradition that the NT writers are
drawing on (except insofar as they are writing in Greek and are
therefore part of a broadly Hellenistic culture).

Likewise, the synchronic evidence is more pertinent to the extent that
it illustrates how other groups known to or related to the target
writer typically used a word. If a word is used in an idiosyncratic
sense in a text that comes from the same time period but from a
totally unrelated body of literature in a distant geographical
location, its is less pertinent to our understanding of what our
target writer meant.

Thus, I would suggest that as we discover word usages that are farther
from the syncrhonic/diachronic intersection of our target text, such
evidence becomes increasingly less relevant. On the other hand, to
the extent that word usage appears generally consistent as we move
farther from this intersection, then we can make a stronger case for
how a word was generally used in most times and places and so this
usage becomes increasingly pertinent for our target text.

Now perhaps some other listers can help me clarify my thinking on

Regards to all,


Christopher R. Hutson
          Hood Theological Seminary
          Salisbury, NC 28144

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