Δεσπότης and the New International Dictionar(ies) of New Testament Theology

content1Are there significant differences between the first edition of the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology edited by Colin Brown and the revision by Moisés Silva? In doing some preliminary study of δεσπότης, I’ve pulled up various theological dictionaries and decided to see if there are any significant developments or changes within the newest revision of NIDNT.

For δεσπότης, at least, the answer is a resounding yes. Significant changes have taken place. I will only point out one  here:

Having defined the word, Bietenhard—the author of the original entry—turns to look at its usage within the Greek Old Testament. He writes:

OT despotēs occurs only about 60 times in the LXX. Where there is a Heb. original it mostly translates ’āḏôn, lord, master. The word is used less than kyrios. This was no doubt because despotēs expresses the arbitrary, unlimited exercise of power without any real conditions, which must have been foreign to Israel’s concept of God. For Israel had experienced the Lordship of God in his gracious, saving actions in history. . . . The retreat of the term despotēs in the face of kyrios is theologically significant.

This is a rather sweeping statement that has significant implications for theology or, rather, is highly influenced by a specific theological orientation. Bientenhard is not the only one that draws these conclusions about the word’s usage within the Greek OT, however. As a matter of fact, he has most likely gotten the idea from TDNT and has simply reworked it for this volume (see Rengstorf’s comments in TDNT 2:44–49).

Does the newest edition of NIDNT maintain this analysis? No. Instead, Silva completely revises this material, refutes it, and provides an alternative suggestion for the paucity of usage in the Greek OT:

The infreq. of δεσπότης in the canonical books may reflect a concern that this term expresses an arbitrary, unrestrained exercise of power, something foreign to Israel’s concept of God (cf. K. H. Rengstorf in TDNT 2:47). This consideration, however, fails to explain why the term is seldom used of human beings as well. Moreover, the fact that it is used at all with ref. to God (incl. many instances in the Apoc., e.g., 2 Macc 5:20; 3 Macc 2:2; Wis 6:7; Sir 23:1) suggests that Gk.-speaking Jews did not regard δεσπότης as a negative term. Because the word is used with greater relative freq. in the Apoc., Rengstorf states that “the term is not really at home in the biblical world and only comes to be more closely linked with it as the years pass” (TDNT 2:46), but it must be remembered that many of the OT books were transl. from Heb. into Gk. in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, i.e., about the same time as the books of the Apoc. were produced. Perhaps a better explanation is the simple fact that the Heb. language does not have a close equivalent to δεσπότης. Once the obvious correspondence between ָאדוֹן and κύριος had been established, no other Heb. term would have motivated the translators to use δεσπότης.

In view of contemporaneous or even later Hellenistic Jewish writings, Silva’s corrective here is of great importance. One particular author I have recently read has taken up the idea from Rengstorf that the use of δεσπότης for God is a more remote, abstract concept that, while present within the biblical texts is not really at home in them. As we read later Hellenized, Jewish authors, we see a more Hellenistic picture of God, one that depicts him as an abstract power that is not intimately involved within human affairs or the course of history. While it is not my intent to challenge the idea of Hellenization or even the idea that the word became more acceptable as a title for the Jewish (and Christian) God, it is important to not base that idea on faulty assumptions.

As a closing remark, I remind those working in the original languages not to be overly reliant on secondary literature. Even Silva’s revision must be tested and evaluated in light of the primary source evidence, to which I now return.

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Epistle vs. Letter

contentI found Deissmann’s comments in Light from the Ancient East concerning the differences between and epistle and a letter to be very insightful. This quote is taken within the context of a discussion of the non-literary papyri that contains a host of non-literary letters versus the genre of epistle, which takes on the form of a letter but is written not between two individuals within the context of a private exchange, but rather is written for the general public and possesses artistic qualities.

What is an epistle? An epistle is an artistic literary form, a species of literature, just like the dialogue, the oration, or the drama. It has nothing in common with the letter except its form; apart from that one might venture the paradox that the epistle is the opposite of a real letter. The contents of an epistle are intended for publicity—they aim at interesting “the public.” If the letter is a secret, the epistle is cried in the market; every one may read it, and is expected to read it: the more readers it obtains, the better its purpose will be fulfilled. The main feature of the letter, viz. the address and the detail peculiar to the letter, becomes in the epistle mere external ornament, intended to keep up the illusion of “epistolary” form. Most letters are, partly at least, unintelligible unless we know the addressees and the situation of the sender. Most epistles are intelligible even without our knowing the supposed addressee and the author. To attempt to fathom the soul of a letter-writer is always venturesome; to understand what an epistolographer has written is apprentice-work by comparison. The epistle differs from a letter as the dialogue from a conversation, as the historical drama does from history, as the carefully turned funeral oration does from the halting words of consolation spoken by a father to his motherless child—as art differs from nature. The letter is a piece of life, the epistle is a product of literary art.

Adolf Deissmann and Lionel Richard Mortimer Strachan, Light from the Ancient East the New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 220–221.

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Logos and German Translation

Lately, I have been translating a lot of German. I have a number of tools that I use when trying to understand tricky passages or unfamiliar vocabulary. You might think that discovering the meaning of a German word used within biblical studies would be as easy as searching an online German-English dictionary. And in many instances you’d be right. For instance, http://www.linguee.com is an indispensable tool that I regularly use. But, it doesn’t have close to everything.

That’s when I look for help elsewhere. And my Logos library, which includes a good number of German and English resources, is a big help. Searching my entire library for the word I’m struggling to define often produces results in the footnote of an English commentary that proceeds to talk about that term. If the definition isn’t outright given within the discussion, the context helps to make things clearer.

Other times, however, the search will produce a result in the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, better known in the English-speaking world as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Having these volumes in both English and German means I have a massive work that functions much like a diglot.

Let me give you an example. Today I was translating the following passage:

Nach seiner Interpretation der Grabungsbefunde ist die Anlage von Qumran insgesamt das Zentrum einer hochgradig organisierten religiösen ‚Sekte‘, der Essener, deren Mitglieder nicht nur dort, sondern auch verstreut in der Umgebung lebten und in der Anlage zu gemeinschaftlichen Begängnissen zusammenkamen, in den Werkstätten in Qumran oder der Landwirtschaft in ῾Ein Feshkha arbeiteten und schließlich auf den sehr großen Friedhöfen begraben wurden.

-J. Frey, Qumran und die Archäologie, 3

I couldn’t find the word “Begängnissen” in my German-English dictionary, my Langenscheidt’s DaF dictionary, on https://dict.tu-chemnitz.de, and the definition of “celebrations” from linguee.de didn’t quite seem right. So, I searched for it in my Logos library. Sure enough, THWAT (TDOT) produced two results:

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Clicking on the word opened the resource to the right page. Then opening TDOT from my library took me to the correct article.

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All I needed to do from here was navigate to the proper section in TDOT to discover that the translator uses the word “procedures” for Begängnissen.

Repeating this process for the second result, I found that the phrase “kultischen Begängnissen”  was translated as “cultic rites,” an expression that correlates nicely to the “cultic” or “sectarian” environment addressed in the passage I’m translating.

While neither of the uses of the word in these results dictates that it will be the same usage/nuance in my passage, it gives me a much better idea of the word’s meaning and allows me to make a better decision about how to translate it.

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German Theological Vocabulary

Since I have been doing a considerable amount of translation lately, I thought it was time to start working on a toolkit of my own in the fashion of the Wayne Coppins’ German-English Dictionary. As I have been translating, I have encountered a number of technical terms or compound words that aren’t in any of the German-English dictionaries I have and aren’t in any of the online German-English dictionaries either.

To help me in my future translation and perhaps others that translate on a regular basis or need help reading through a work, I have provided the terms with the best English approximation I have come up with. I’ve also included some notes, a broader context of the word’s usage, the source of the quote, and—where necessary—a citation of whomever may have helped me provide a definition for the term when I was unable to come up with a solution myself. Although I only have about 30 terms in the spreadsheet at the moment, I hope to add to it on a daily/weekly basis. I only wish I had started earlier.

You can access the dictionary HERE. Feel free to contact me if you would like to add entries yourself and I will enable the spreadsheet for editing instead of just viewing.

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Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories

imagesIf you’re a student of Biblical Hebrew, there’s not much more to say than buy this book! There’s no way around it: learning a new language requires regular vocabulary acquisition and practice. Otherwise, as the authors rightly note, “beginners who master the basics soon realize that their limited word stock stands in the way of fluid reading and an intuitive grasp of the biblical text” (16).

Traditionally, students learn the basics of Hebrew Grammar and then move on to an exegetical course that requires students to memorize lists words according to frequency. Such an approach is reasonable and, one might say, necessary. The broad range of vocabulary usage in the Old Testament and the disparate nature of the literature necessitates that readers have a basic ability to translate the most frequently used terms within the corpus of literature she studies.

However, frequency based approaches—which the authors themselves encourage (16)—can be just as tedious and frustrating to memorize as constantly looking up unknown words in a lexicon as the student plods her way through the biblical text. There is no conceptual framework in which to place the new words. New vocabulary is entirely detached from the already existing memory bank; there is no interconnectivity, which makes long term memory all the more difficult.

Pleins and Homrighausen’s guide for nouns—yes, it unfortunately only includes nouns—seeks to provide a solution to this problem. Terms are conceptually arranged so that all the nouns found in the Hebrew Old Testament related to the body, cosmology, food, drink, etc. are grouped together. Each entry contains glosses, a biblical reference that clearly illustrates the selected gloss, and reference to important dictionaries when the provided gloss may be questionable. The volume also includes essential indices: one for each word and where to find them in the guide and another that provides further reading on the categories used within the volume. Those who create appendices don’t get enough credit for the tedious nature of task they must accomplish and I, for one, am impressed by the particularly arduous nature of creating the appendices for this volume. They will serve users well!

As a concluding note, what I find to be most significant about this volume is the fact that it is one of the closest things we have for Hebrew—that I’m aware of[1]—that resembles Louw and Nida’s watershed dictionary for New Testament Greek, making it not just helpful for students looking to expand their Wortschatz, but also for those seeking to gain a better understanding of a biblical Hebrew word’s semantic domain. My only complaint about the guide  is that I didn’t have it at my disposal almost a decade ago when I started learning Hebrew. I will, however, be regularly using it when I look to refresh my own vocabulary and whenever I have the opportunity to teach Hebrew in the years to come.

Kudos to Pleins and Homrighausen for providing us with an essential tool for learning biblical Hebrew.

[1] Thank you to Andrew for pointing out the existence of the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, available online. I will be making regular usage of it in the future.

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Lexham Discourse Handbooks

135990The Lexham Discourse Handbooks have just been published. This project was a collaborative effort between Steve Runge, Kris Lyle, Rick Brannon, James Lanier, and myself. My contribution was to write—most of—the 1 Thessalonians volume.

You can learn more about the project and what sets these volumes apart from other handbooks or commentaries over at Old School Script, where Kris Lyle details the and provides examples of the benefits they bring to the table.

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Afternoon Workspace

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