Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.10

Jesús Peláez del Rosal, Juan Mateos, David S. du Toit (ed.), New Testament Lexicography: Introduction - Theory - Method. Translated, Annotated, and Supplemented by Andrew Bowden. Fontes et Subsidia ad Bibliam pertinentes, Band 6.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2018.  Pp. xli, 331.  ISBN 9783110408133.  €129,95.  

Reviewed by Peter Montoro, University of Birmingham (


Producing a dictionary of the Greek of the New Testament (or any dictionary for that matter!) is a task often taken by outsiders to be dull and difficult, one whose final results are best taken for granted. Yet though this task is certainly difficult, the final product is always the result of a complex web of methodological decisions—decisions that have a far more significant impact on the task of interpretation than most of their users realize.

As the details of these methodological decisions all too often remain largely opaque, this volume is a rare treat. Consisting of translations of Método de análisis semántico aplicado al griego del Nuevo Testamento by Mateos (1989), and Metodología del Diccionario Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento by Peláez (1996), it explains and defends in detail the methodology used in the Diccionario Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento (DGENT). Initiated by Mateos, this project is now under the oversight of Peláez and the members of GASCO (Grupo de Análisis Semántico de Córdoba), a permanent seminar established by Mateos. The individual chapters of these two original works have been woven together into a single continuous treatise and further enriched by an introduction by du Toit; a supplement and extensive and valuable annotations by Bowden; a helpful glossary; and a full set of indices.

Du Toit’s introduction first lays out the historical context of the work of Mateos and Peláez and then briefly elucidates their core methodology. Part I of the main text, taken from Peláez’s Metodología, consists of two chapters. The first elucidates his conception of the primary task of lexicographers—“describing the meaning of each lexeme abstractly…by means of a paraphrase that may be semantically equivalent to the lexeme,” (p.5) and provides a brief orientation to the linguistic foundations of the model developed in the following chapters. Crucial to this model is the insistence that, “[t]o determine a word’s meaning one must operate at two levels: the semiotic level (which corresponds to the study of the term itself, i.e. langue) and the semantic level (the study of a term in context, i.e. parole)” (p.12).

The second chapter offers a “critical appraisal of dictionaries on the Greek of the New Testament,”(p.15) dealing in detail with the 4th edition of Zorell, the 6th (German) edition of Bauer (Bowden adds a helpful supplement discussing the 3rd English edition of Bauer, published after Peláez’s monograph), and the pioneering semantic lexicon of Louw and Nida. As the closest antecedent to the approach advocated by Peláez, the work of Louw and Nida (attention is also paid to their later monograph Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament) understandably receives by far the most extensive discussion. While expressing some appreciation for their work, Peláez complains that, “contrary to the initial claims, lexical meaning is not distinguished from contextual meanings” (p.44). Furthermore, “[o]ne has the impression of dealing with an intuitive analysis of specific groups of lexemes rather than with a method that is explained and developed step by step” (p.45). This concern to rigorously distinguish lexical and contextual meanings in accordance with a comprehensive and consistently applied method is the obvious heartbeat of all that follows.

Part II (chapters 3–7) consists of the full text of Mateos’s Método. While it would be impossible to fully elucidate the nuances of his method in a brief review, Mateos’s fundamental approach can be profitably summarized at this point, followed by a briefer overview of the contents of each chapter. “The term ‘lexeme’ refers to lexical units that have an independent semantic nucleus” (p.61). This semantic nucleus is composed of a cluster of semes which “can be defined as the elementary units of meaning into which a lexeme can be reduced” (p.63). The definition of a lexeme at the semiotic/langue level is based both on the individual semes involved and on the manner in which those semes are configured in a particular “semic nucleus”—“an abstraction based on the uses of a lexeme in a select corpus” (p.114). The “starting point for the development of the semic nucleus” (p.59) is the establishment of a “semantic formula” that identifies the semantic class(es) denoted and necessarily connoted by a particular lexeme. These fundamental semantic classes, only partially aligned with the classes of traditional grammar, are those of Entity, Attribute, Event, Relation, and Determination. Establishing the semantic formula of a lexeme before attempting to develop its semantic nucleus provides “guidance for identifying the semes” which keeps one from “haphazardly identifying” (p.103) them and also provides numerous practical advantages in the task of dictionary construction. The semic nucleus of a lexeme is derived from its semantic formula by first applying the semantic categories (which once again only partially correspond with traditional grammatical categories) of gender, number, mode, tense, aspect, and voice to each element of the semantic formula and then identifying the specific semes that differentiate between otherwise similar lexemes. “The last step… consists of the analysis of each lexeme in context” (p.60). This “contextual meaning” of a lexeme in parole is referred to as a “sememe” and is “the result of additions to the semic nucleus and/or of changes made in the lexeme’s nucleus or its nuclear configuration” (p.65) by contextual factors.

After beginning in chapter 3 by introducing and defining the foundational concepts and terminology utilized in his method, Mateos moves on in chapter 4 to an expansive illustration of the flexible manner in which his five semantic classes can work together to form a wide range of semantic formulas. With a profusion of diagrams, he shows how his method distinguishes between lexemes with a simple structure, e.g. κύων (denoting a single Entity with no necessary connotations) (p.71); those with moderately complex structure, e.g. ἰατρός, (an Entity which denotes both an Attribute [quality/knowledge] and an Event [the activity corresponding to the profession], and also connotes a secondary Entity [the recipients of the activity])(p.73); and those whose structures are far too complex to illustrate here.

After a careful delineation of the semantic categories in chapter 5, chapter 6, by far the longest in the book, works through the process of lexemic analysis of the various semantic formulas set forth in chapter 3. Throughout this chapter, Mateos works to demonstrate that this analysis can consistently lead to useable definitions, even of terms that can otherwise be relatively difficult to define. The considerably briefer chapter 7, which concluded Mateos’s original treatise, focuses on the way in which contextual factors reconfigure the nuclear configuration of lexemes, resulting in the delineation of various sememes for a particular lexeme.

Part III (chapters 8–11) returns to the text of Peláez’s Metodología. While there is considerable overlap between chapter 8, essentially an overview of Mateos’s work, and the previous section, the inherent complexity of the subject makes this “bifocal” view of the method welcome rather than simply redundant. Furthermore, while the earlier work of Mateos focused on establishing a theoretical foundation, Peláez’s monograph is more specifically concerned with the practical methodology employed in the production of DGENT.

Though chapter 9 deals with the same basic topic—the semic development of the semantic formulas of particular lexemes —as chapter 6, it illustrates this topic with a largely fresh set of examples. In addition to shedding additional clarity on what this development looks like in practice, it provides a particularly valuable discussion of the way in which the “lexical meaning” of a lexeme relates in practice to its various “contextual meanings.” Following up on this point, chapter 10 provides a slightly fuller, and in some ways considerably more satisfying, treatment of the identification and development of these contextual meanings than did the parallel treatment by Mateos in chapter 7. The final chapter of this section provides a detailed description of the method of analysis used to determine the various sememes of lexemes whose meanings are similar and/or synonymous, an aspect not covered by Mateos. This analysis is concluded by the provision of sample dictionary entries for the terms used in the discussion.

The main text is followed by an extensive section of back matter including a catalogue of the semes used in the semic development of the semantic formulas; a complete alphabetical list of every seme that appears in the book, together with their original Spanish equivalents; a helpful glossary; a general bibliography; a list of publications on semantics and lexicography by the members of GASCO; and indices of Greek words, subjects, authors, and references.1

Yet while Mateos and Peláez’s approach to semantic analysis is both stimulating and largely persuasive, and while their concern to replace the subjective “intuition” that has characterized the production of other dictionaries with a stable and predictable methodological foundation is certainly to be commended, one cannot escape the suspicion that this methodological precision has come at the cost of leaving a significant portion of the relevant data out of consideration. As valuable as it is to thoroughly analyze the lexical data found in the New Testament itself, and as important as it is to develop a solid linguistic foundation for so doing, it is also essential that we do not forget Deissmann’s call, so well elaborated by du Toit in his introduction, to situate and present “the New Testament vocabulary in its contemporary linguistic context,”(p. xxvi) a task that demands that we also give full consideration to lexical and contextual data from the broader world in which the New Testament was written. Lee’s initial words of evaluation, (also noted by du Toit), remain apt, “What it [DGENT, and by implication the method developed to produce it] offers is clearly valuable...but it confines itself to the New Testament data and does not contribute to the major task of reassessing the whole tradition in light of all the evidence.”2

Nevertheless, while Mateos and Peláez ultimately address only a portion of the puzzle that is the lexicographical study of the Greek of the New Testament, this limitation should by no means be allowed to obscure the significance of their work. While evaluation of the details will surely be ongoing, this important volume will undoubtedly remain an invaluable point of reference for many years to come. Given the technical nature of the subject matter, it is entirely understandable if it proves challenging reading for readers who are more concerned with using dictionaries than producing them. Yet the reward, for those who realize the unique influence that the methodological decisions of lexicographers have on the task of interpretation, will be well worth the difficulty. Those who read it carefully will gain insight, not only into the particular details of Mateos and Peláez’s method, but also into the unique challenges faced by all those courageous enough to attempt the construction of a dictionary. It is only to be hoped that the translation of these introductory treatises will be followed in due course by the translation of each of the published fascicles of the dictionary for which they have laid such a careful foundation.


1.   Although the main text has obviously been carefully proofread and is mercifully largely free from typos (apart from some minor formatting errors and inconsistencies too trivial to mention here), it was disappointing to note that the index of Greek words seemed to be missing even some words that received relatively extensive attention in the text—e.g. χορός (pp.228–230) and διασπορά (pp.234–236).
2.   Lee, J. A. L. A History of New Testament Lexicography. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. 166. Du Toit’s citation (p.xxi) lacks the needed ellipsis, undoubtedly an oversight.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010