Semantic Anachronism: An Example from Acts 7:58

Most of you are likely familiar with Carson’s work Exegetical Fallacies. If you are not, then please become acquainted with it. Within Exegetical Fallacies, Carson talks about the fallacy of “semantic anachronism.” Carson writes:

This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read into earlier literature. At the simplest level, it occurs within the same language, as when the Greek early church fathers use a word in a manner not demonstrably envisaged by the New Testament writers (33).

Carson offers a number of examples: the later ecclesiological meaning of ἐπίσκοπος as bishop, the claim that δύναμις is the explosive power of God, etc.

At any rate, I was reading through Acs 7:58 and found another example to add to the list. The text reads:

καὶ ἐκβαλόντες ἔξω τῆς πόλεως ἐλιθοβόλουν. καὶ οἱ μάρτυρες ἀπέθεντο τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτῶν παρὰ τοὺς πόδας νεανίου καλουμένου Σαύλου.

And casting [Stephen] outside of the city, they began stoning [him]. And the μάρτυρες laid their garments by the feet of a young man who was called Saul.

The word in question is μάρτυρες from μάρτυς. In English, we are familiar with the word, as the word martyr is a simple transliteration of the Greek term. As we know, the term developed in later Greek literature—and into English usage—to denote one that dies on account of his or her witness, or religious beliefs.

The term, however, was used in earlier eras simply as one who gave a witness, or one who witnessed an event: i.e., a witness.

If we read the later definition of μάρτυς (martyr) into this passage, we find that the men stoning Stephen are martyrs. Quite an odd turn of events, I would think.

[Disclaimer: Carson goes on to discuss the development of the word μάρτυς throughout time in his discussion of “Semantic Obsolescence” noting 5 different stages through which the word went. He notes also that the development through these stages was not smooth and that the same author might use the word with multiple nuances, and that it is incumbent on the interpreter/translator to render according to the context.

The example I give above is simply an illustration of what it would look like to project a definition on this word that is often associated with the word’s later development. That does not at all mean that Luke uses the word μάρτυς in only one specific way or that the NT authors in general only used it in one way.]

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