Note: The following essay on New Testament “semasiology” (semantics) is taken from chapter one of The Riddle of the New Testament by Sir Edwyn Hoskyns and Noel Davey (Faber & Faber, 1931). I reproduce it here as an introduction to the kind of New Testament philology which emphasizes the ‘Hebraic’ or Jewish character of New Testament Greek. This development in New Testament philology was associated with the so-called ‘biblical theology’ movement which came to prominence in the 1930’s, and led to the remarkable collection of word studies published in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Gerhard Kittel. — M.D.M

Language of the New Testament:
A Problem in Semasiology

All the New Testament books were written within a period of one hundred years from the death of Jesus Christ, and men who for the most part themselves lived in a Greek-speaking society wrote them all in Greek, for Greek speaking readers. There can, then, be no accurate reconstruction of primitive Christian thought which does not rest upon an accurate study of the grammar and syntax of the Greek language during the first century A.D., and upon an accurate knowledge of the meaning that the Greek words used by the Christian writers had for their readers. Philology and lexicography form the essential groundwork of the interpretation of the New Testament.

Before, however, the specific problems presented by the Greek of the New Testament can be laid bare, it is necessary to recognize certain general problems which arise in the reconstruction of any thought from its expression in any tongue. There is an inevitable tension between the mind of a writer and the language at his disposal, which, in itself, constitutes a problem. The two are mutually creative. On the one hand, a word, or even the lack of a word, may mould thought, because men think in words; on the other hand, the evolution of thought may twist the meaning of a word, because words are means of thought. So this moulding and twisting inevitably complicate expression, since they tend to increase the versatility of words at the expense of their precision. The mere sight of a common word will conjure up all kinds of associations; associations which, once acquired, are hard to be rid of. Its etymological origin, its past use in speech and in literature, the peculiar vogue which it at present enjoys, are all liable to colour the interpretation put upon it by writer and reader alike; at any moment, indeed, it may be re-endowed with an apparently extinct association by the design of the one, or the preoccupation of the other. And so no critic can afford to neglect this potentiality in the material before him; least of all the critic of documents of which the literary affinities show their writers to have been themselves readers: men who read with a preoccupation, and wrote with a design. For New Testament study, neglect of it would be fatal.

Of all human languages, that of the Greek-speaking peoples has probably been the least static. Both their thought and their expression have been involved in a vast, and, at times, rapidly changing process, which has continued from many centuries before Christ until the present day. Now, though one stage in this process may be found to foreshadow or corroborate another, it can never fully explain it. And so no relics of Greek thought and expression can be so valuable for the understanding of the New Testament as the records of the actual age in which the writers lived. Formerly, exegesis suffered greatly through lack of such contemporary records. In their absence, the usage of the Classical period, preserved in a comparative profusion of documents, was pressed to the interpretation of writings, which originated in a later and fundamentally different society, and sometimes proved more of a hindrance than a help. Particularly was this so where grammar or syntax was in question. It was difficult, without confirmatory evidence, to realize that the nice precision of the Attic dialect was no more, and that the method of thought which had demanded and created such precision, but which was itself dependent upon a certain phase of civilization, had decayed with the city-state. But now much historical and archaeological research has made it possible to ascertain the nature of the language that bound together the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It is seen to have been pre-eminently a language of human experience, fitted to the mouths of ordinary men and women, whose logic moved in terms, not of scholarly argument, but of pictorial metaphor, and whose minds were occupied less with the meaning of life than with the living of it. This is not to deny that they were speculative. The popularity of the mystery religions, and, indeed, the spread of Christianity itself, show how deeply men were concerned with the problems of life and death, and death and life. It is rather to affirm that they did not separate speculation from the ordinary routine of living, or create a specialized vocabulary for its maintenance. As they attached superstitious importance to quite trivial actions, so they loaded the simplest words with the most far-reaching meaning, and were capable of using them diversely within the boundaries of a single sentence. Therefore, while the critic must beware of forcing a particular meaning upon every appearance of a word or phrase, he must be equally careful not to overlook an allusion because it may seem undefined. Here ‘spirit’ may be meant, there ‘breath’, for the same word serves for the two in Greek: misapprehension in either case ruins good exegesis. And so, since the writers themselves were not aware of any need to define terms, it is necessary, if they are to be rightly understood, to keep all their possible allusions constantly at hand, by tabulating examples of every diverse use. This is the object of lexicography, the tabulation of the different uses of words in the literature of a period or nation. It is an essential part of New Testament study.

During the last fifty years, the lexicography of the Greek language during the New Testament period has been made possible by the discovery of a great mass of contemporary inscriptions, records, and letters. Collation has followed collection, and it is now possible to find, in accessible form, illustrations of the contemporary use of almost every word in the New Testament. Consequently, much is now clear that was before obscure, and much certain that was hitherto in doubt. Perhaps the most significant result has been that many apparently vague expressions are now shown to have been capable of a more concrete and precise meaning.

The Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:13) did not vaguely ‘gather together’ all his share of his father’s substance: he ‘realized’ it, converted it into ready money.

St. Paul had not heard that some of the Thessalonians were ‘walking disorderly’, but that they were ‘playing truant’, not going to work, in expectation of the imminent end of the world (2 Thes. 3:11).

Judas carried the ‘money-box’, not the ‘bag’ (John 12:6), and Jesus perhaps forbade the disciples to take with them, not, ‘a leathern bag for provisions’, but a wallet such as mendicant friars of that age used for collecting alms (Mark 6:8 - AV ‘scrip’).

Important as these philological discoveries have been for the interpretation of the Greek of the New Testament, an exaggerated insistence upon them obscures its linguistic peculiarity. The New Testament documents were, no doubt, written in a language intelligible to the generality of Greek-speaking people; yet to suppose that they emerged from the background of Greek thought and experience would be to misunderstand them completely. There is a strange and awkward element in the language which not only affects the meanings of words, not only disturbs the grammar and syntax, but lurks everywhere in a maze of literary allusions which no ordinary Greek man or woman could conceivably have understood or even detected. The truth is that behind these writings there lies an intractable Hebraic, Aramaic, Palestinian material. It is this foreign matter that complicates New Testament Greek. Each writer is to a greater or lesser degree struggling to interpret into Greek a non-Greek method of thought and a non-Greek terminology. There is, moreover, not merely a problem of language, but a problem also of literary background. No single New Testament author for one moment imagines that he can interpret his material apart from a knowledge of the Jewish sacred scriptures. The tension between the Jewish heritage and the Greek world vitally affects the language of the New Testament.

Whilst, then, our new knowledge of the spoken Greek of the first century A.D. undoubtedly clears up many grammatical and philological details, and makes the background of the New Testament more vivid and more human, nevertheless in the end these discoveries are for the most part unimportant, and they signally fail to resolve those more serious philological and lexicographical problems upon which an understanding of primitive Christianity ultimately rests.

It is obviously impossible here to illustrate difficulties of grammar and syntax, which are capable of explanation only upon the background of Hebrew and Aramaic idiom. The philological problem that confronts the reader of the New Testament can be illustrated by reference to two words, both of which are important words in the New Testament - the Greek word ekklesia, translated in the English Authorized and Revised Versions by the word church, and the Greek word aletheia, which is rendered truth.


What did the New Testament writers mean when they made use of the Greek word ekklesia? In contemporary, as in classical, Greek its meaning was simple. Formed from a verb, ‘call out’, or ‘call forth’, in order to express a gathering of citizens summoned, by a herald, from their homes into some public place, it came later to be used of assemblies convoked for political purposes, and perhaps (cf. Acts 19:41), in a weakened sense, of congregations of people without reference to their purpose. On the face of it, then, it would seem that Tyndale and Cranmer rightly substituted for Wycliffe’s ‘chirche’ the more literal ‘congregacion’: yet, so unsatisfactory did their decision prove, that, before very long, it was reversed by the translators of the Authorized Version. And, indeed, the reason is not hard to find. In such a passage as:

‘And at that tyme there was a great persecucion agaynst the congregacion which was at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroade thorowout the regions of Iury and Samaria.’ (Acts 8:1)

it is evident that, if ‘congregacion’ is to fit the context, it must first be deprived of the very notion of assembling which the use of it was intended to secure, and then be read in an acquired sense as indicating a number of men and women who formed, in some way or another, a corporate body even when not assembled. For it is hardly likely that the writer meant that the persecutors swooped down upon them when they were all gathered together, any more than did St. Paul when he wrote: ‘For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the ekklesia of God’ (1 Cor. 15:9).

But these passages, which, by their meaning, show the inadequacy of rendering ekklesia ‘assembly’ or ‘congregacion’, prove, by their form, that classical and contemporary usage do not provide an interpretation of the ekklesia of the New Testament. For, that the writers refer to an ekklesia, which is by its very nature exceptional, is evident from their use of the definite article. Yet the phrase, the ekklesia, used absolutely, though consistent in the New Testament, is never once found in secular writings. To a Greek who did not recognize in it some peculiar connotation, it must have been meaningless. Then how much more meaningless the further and equally unparalleled definition of peculiarity: the ekklesia of God!

Now, although classical and contemporary usage provides no analogy, there is one collection of Greek writings that abounds in references to an ekklesia of God, or of the Lord. This is the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. This book was the Bible of the Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. It was credited with a miraculous origin, and venerated as possessing divine inspiration. Were there no other evidence, it would be natural to look for its influence in the New Testament. But there is good reason for being sure that it had such influence. For instance, because it is almost impossible to transcribe manuscripts without making a certain number of errors, variations gradually crept into the Hebrew text of the Old Testament on the one hand, and into the Greek text on the other, which produced, by the time of Christ, considerable differences between them. The marked preference, in quotation, on the part of New Testament writers, for the readings of the Greek version, makes it certain that most of them were familiar with it.

A careful analysis of the books of the New Testament shows, not only that the authors tended to quote the Jewish scriptures from the Greek and to make use of Old Testament phrases in order to evoke their Jewish theological associations, but also that the writers were so completely impregnated by the Old Testament scriptures that they fell unconsciously into a scriptural turn of language. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was of prime importance to the New Testament writers precisely because they, like the men who produced the Septuagint, were faced with the problem of giving expression in Greek to ideas that had first taken form in a Semitic idiom. It is therefore natural to inquire whether Septuagint usage may, in part at least, account for the expression, ‘the ekklesia of God.’

Two Hebrew words, which may be transliterated edhah and qahal, were used in the Old Testament to describe popular gatherings. Although by derivation far from synonymous, they were used fairly indiscriminately, and were both applied, in particular, to gatherings of all Israel. (This statement, and the quotations that follow, are taken from Dr. Hort’s survey of the word ekklesia in the first chapter of his Christian Ekklesia.) In this connexion, properly speaking, edhah referred to ‘the society itself, formed by the children of Israel or their representative heads, whether assembled or not assembled’, while qahal denoted ‘their actual meeting together’. But, after the Exile, qahal came to be used almost to the exclusion of edhah, and combined in itself the two shades of meaning that had formerly kept the words distinct. Meanwhile, Israel was becoming more and more conscious of being a peculiar nation, a chosen race, the elect people of God. And so ‘the qahal of Jehovah’ was used to signify, not an assembly of Israel upon some particular occasion, but the people of Israel as God’s people distinct from everybody else, whether assembled or unassembled, the chosen of Jehovah for his service.

The earliest translators (The Pentateuch was translated into Greek some time before the other books of the Old Testament.) rendered both edhah and qahal by the Greek word synagoge, emphasizing the notion of ‘assembling’ by a word that, etymologically, meant ‘lead together’. But later synagoge was generally reserved for edhah, and ekklesia for qahal. Probably this choice also was guided by etymology: qahal was formed from a verb meaning ‘call’ or ‘summon’ in precisely the same way as ‘ekklesia’. It is possible even that an identity of consonants enabled bilingual Jews to recognize the Hebrew qahal behind the Greek ekklesia. But, whatever the exact intention of the translators may have been, they caused ‘ekklesia of the Lord’ to become a common scriptural phrase with exactly the same allusion to Israel’s vocation as the ‘qahal of Jehovah.’ (Jehovah is rendered ‘the Lord’ in the Septuagint.)

Since Christians from a very early date regarded themselves as the ‘Israel of God’, the true elect race (e.g. Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9) and ‘holy nation’, as opposed to the Jews who had rejected the Messiah, it might seem that, for that reason alone, ekklesia came to be their designation of themselves. By use of it they certainly claimed the Old Testament phrase, with the allusions of particularity and service just noted, as rightly descriptive of their function in the world. And no doubt this claim partly accounts for their choice of the phrase. Certainly, when St. Paul writes,

‘What? Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the ekklesia of God, and shame them that have not?’(1 Cor. 11:22.)

his use of the word ekklesia would not have surprised a non-Christian Jew. But when he defines the phrase it is clear that its background has become even more complicated. For he writes to ‘the ekklesia of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that call upon the name of our Lord’ (1 Cor. 1:2). Now, when it is remembered that the root of the word ekklesia is the same as that of the Greek participles ‘called’ and ‘calling upon’, it is impossible to suppose that its force is any longer dormant, as it had probably been in the Old Testament. It is as though he had written ‘the called-out of God which is at Corinth, ... called to be saints, with all that call upon the name of our Lord’. And, moreover, these two participles not only bring out this association in the word ekklesia, but re-define the genitive, ‘of God’. They are called by God to be ‘saints’, that is, they are men who have been brought into a special relation with God. Thus the genitive, ‘of God’, implies that the ekklesia has both a subjective and an objective relation to God. All this was no doubt implicit in the Old Testament phrase. But here it is explicit, and here, too, in both respects, related to Jesus Christ. For the calling is through him, the sanctification in or by him. …

It may be noted that the reproduction of the Biblical word ekklesia by the word church is almost entirely adequate. Etymologically it is derived from the Greek kyriakon, meaning ‘that which belongs to the Lord’. The word therefore rightly emphasizes the primary significance, which originally attached to the word ekklesia, and describes the Christians as a corporate body, who are the peculiar possession of God in the world. Moreover since the word church is in English a peculiar word used to reproduce ekklesia in the Authorized and Revised Versions of the New Testament, it has acquired the proper associations from its context in the New Testament. The word is, in fact, misleading only inasmuch as it has gathered other associations from later ecclesiastical history. But these can easily be corrected by referring it afresh to its scriptural setting. Whereas the northern races have turned to some variant of the Teutonic kirika or of the Slavonic cerkov to reproduce the Greek ekklesia, the southern races have retained the Greek word, e.g. eglise, iglesia, chiesa, etc.


The examination of the word ekklesia has been comparatively simple because the word has no associations in modern thought to cloud the issue. For it is sometimes difficult to avoid reading the familiar English equivalents of the Greek in the light of their present use. Indeed, many words in common use to-day seem to mean nothing at all in their New Testament context. The very glibness of the translation baffles the reader. In particular, the Pauline and Johannine writings sometimes appear quite easy when actually read, yet fail to leave a clear impression upon the mind because the particular significance of apparently familiar words is missed.

A remarkable illustration of the subtle change in the meaning of a word familiar in English is provided by the Greek word aletheia, rendered ‘truth.’ This word cries for no particular philological investigation; and yet its use in the New Testament is strange and exceedingly awkward. Take, for example, the following passage:

‘But ye did not so learn Christ; if so be that ye heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth (A.V. the truth) is in Jesus: that ye put away as concerning your former manner of life, the old man, which waxeth corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man which after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.’ (Ephesians 4:20-24)

It is only too easy to read the phrase ‘as truth is in Jesus’ without thinking clearly what it means. Yet the whole passage, and, indeed, much of St. Paul’s teaching, depends upon a clear understanding of it. Does such an expression as ‘truth is in Jesus’ make any sense at all to the modern reader? What conception of truth therefore justifies the statement that hearing (about) Jesus Christ, and being taught in him, will have, not an intellectual but a moral and spiritual effect upon them? Is truth connected with a manner of life? Finally, what has truth to do with righteousness and holiness?

Most men and women operate contentedly with a conception of truth that is bound up with their own conception of reality. That is true which is a fact, which is real, as opposed to that which is a fiction or an illusion. This conception, strictly speaking, has no moral or spiritual significance. Moreover, the imagination of a scientific age cherishes the dogma that truth is an ultimate standard although it recognizes no ultimate standard by which truth is itself determined. For a statement is commonly held to be true if it accords with the simplest explanation of the facts, with the experience of the race or of the individual, or with the supposed nature or fitness of things. A man is said to be true to his principles, to his religion, to type, or to himself. A musical note is true or false according to its relation to another note, or to an arbitrarily determined rate of vibration. The engineer ‘trues up’ the valve-face on a cylinder block.

Before it is possible to use the word ‘true’ without explicitly relating its subject to something else, a standard of truth has to be established in the minds of men, relationship to which will henceforth be implied. Now the Greek adjective alethinos in the spoken Greek of the first century A.D. did mean very much what the English adjective true means to the ordinary Englishman to-day. It meant something genuine and not counterfeit, without emphasis on any particular standard by which a statement or a thing may be judged true or false. When, however, the Greek noun aletheia and the Greek adjective alethinos were used to reproduce the Hebrew root ‘MN, 1 the whole emphasis was changed. The standard of truth not only took complete and manifest control of the noun truth, of the adjective true, and of the verb to be true, but also dominated the whole conception of knowledge. The Hebrew mind, in its certainty of a transcendent God, fixed upon him as the standard of truth. How this came about is not certain. It may be that the idea of steadfastness, ‘truth to one’s self’, came naturally to be applied to him who was thought of, in no philosophical manner, as everlasting. It may be that the conception of a covenant relationship to which Jehovah would be true, even if Israel proved false, was actually responsible. At all events, the truth of Jehovah was regarded as an integral part of his character; in other words, he was conceived to be steadfast and consistent, in his nature, in his purpose, in his judgement, and in his dealings with men. A similar conception of steadfastness of purpose underlies the ‘plighting of troth’ in the English marriage service. The inability of the Hebrew mind to think of the character or nature of God apart from his actions in the world therefore caused them to think of his truth, not as static, but as active, or potentially active. God must, God would, manifest his truth to the world, for his nature demanded a vindication of itself. Present facts seemed to belie his consistency. He had promised to exalt the horn of David, yet Israel was in travail. He was holy and righteous, yet the righteous man was harassed and the holy man was mocked. So the truth of Jehovah came to be sighed for in exactly the same way as his mercy and his righteousness. When they were revealed, when he finally acted, the messianic age would be established.

But if the Jews looked to the future for the final realization of the truth of God, they did so the more confidently because they believed that they had already experienced it. All God’s dealings with men, all his judgements, had been true. So was his law, which he had given them through Moses. Indeed, it could itself be called the truth. God was true. And God demanded that his servants should be like him. To know the truth, therefore, is to stand under the imperative of God, and so the object of knowledge has become the subject of action. ‘Be ye holy as I am holy.’ Thus the truth of Jehovah was the type and created the standard of human truth. Men must have truth in their hearts, and keep the law of truth; so shall they be said to walk in the way of truth, and so shall they be called ‘true’. The last sentence sounds sentimental, but it is biblical throughout and in its biblical context there is no trace of sentimentality in it: it is entirely un-modern, and almost entirely un-Greek. Accordingly truth is not limited to rightness of knowledge. It is rightness of speech, of motive, and of action as well: rightness based, not upon concept nor upon convention, but upon the historical revelation of God. Hence, when this Hebraic background is recognized, the Johannine expression ‘to do the truth’, in spite of its apparent paradox to the modern reader, ought to occasion him no surprise (John 3:21; 1 John 1:6; cf. Tobit 13:6).

That such conceptions underlie the New Testament use of the word ‘truth’ is quite clear. The word embraces far more than the purely intellectual quality of modern thought. Otherwise the Pharisees and Herodians would hardly have said to Jesus: ‘Teacher, we know that thou art true’ (Mark 12:14), attributing to him truth of character as well as of speech and of doctrine. The truth that the New Testament writers are declaring is inseparable from the character and actions of God:

‘For I say that Christ hath been made a minister of the circumcision for (the sake of) the truth of God, that he might confirm the promises given to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.’ (Romans 15:8,9.) 2

This passage helps to explain the phrase ‘as truth is in Jesus’. When St. Paul wished to draw attention to the historical life of the Lord, he was accustomed to speak of Jesus without adding ‘Christ’. Consequently ‘as truth is in Jesus’ means that his life, death and resurrection are ‘truth’. This identification is confirmed by the general and frequent New Testament use of ‘the truth’, unqualified, for ‘the gospel’. The gospel, which is the truth, is not limited to the teaching of Christ, for apprehension of it consists in ‘hearing him and being taught in him’, a hearing that could not be in the flesh, since the Ephesians had never seen Jesus. This ‘hearing’ and ‘being taught’ refer not only to the witness borne in the primitive church to the historical Jesus, but also to the creative insight which proceeded from acceptance of and surrender to that witness. The Old Testament conception of truth is thus disturbed by a new historical event, in which the power and the wisdom of God are manifested and also his fidelity and mercy.

Jesus is the occurrence in which God confirmed his promises and for this reason he is also the place of understanding (locus intelligentiae). Truth, the truth of God, is in him. This is what St. Paul means when he says ‘As truth is in Jesus’, but he means more than this. The inevitable result of learning the history of Jesus Christ is a reaction upon the learners. Here is a further echo of the Old Testament conception. This truth of life, this truth in the moral and spiritual sphere, is the action of God. God creates the new man in righteousness and holiness of truth. But the agent is Christ, since the apprehension is ‘in him’ and it is he who is ‘heard’.

The conception of truth in the New Testament is therefore based on that of the Old. Truth is a quality of God, and for this reason he is less an object of inquiry than a subject of action. He is the living God. His truth is revealed in and through a particular history, and his truth must be imitated and realized not merely in the sphere of knowledge, but in every sphere of life, by those who stand in a peculiar relationship to this particular history. So far the Old and New Testaments agree. But, whereas the Old is still looking for the full revelation of the truth of God, the New sees it in the present, as an efficacious reality controlling the lives of men and women, on the basis of a new, and even more particular, series of past historical facts; for it is wholly and completely focused in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This conception of truth is not peculiar to St. Paul. It underlies the fourth Gospel in such statements as ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14.); ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6). Truth, in short, is knowledge of God through Jesus; such knowledge of God as through Jesus makes men veritably sons of God.

It remains, on the basis of the preceding illustrations, to indicate the direction in which modern New Testament philology and lexicography are moving. To discover the exact meaning and associations of New Testament words is by no means simple. Merely to collect their various uses, throughout scripture and other relevant records, is not sufficient. It is necessary to trace the evolution through which the words have passed, and to mark the important moments in this process. Mere lexicography must pass into semasiology before the remarkable features of the language of the New Testament become clear.

Although the accurate study of the implications of New Testament philology is still in its infancy, because its precise scope has not as yet been adequately defined, it is, however, even now possible to summarize in general terms certain philological conclusions. The language of the New Testament directs our attention to quite ordinary Greek-speaking men and women who lived in the great cities of the eastern Mediterranean during the first century A.D. But the particular men and women for whom the New Testament books were written were not moving in terms of Greek thought and experience. In so far as they were Christians they were being uprooted from their Greek soil by contact with a peculiarly Hebraic material, which for their benefit was being translated very inadequately into Greek forms. This inadequacy was not a failure in translation. It marked the importance of the Hebraic material, and forcibly directed the attention of the Christians to it. To escape into a Greek method of thought was to deny the truth of the Christian religion. At first sight it might seem that the Hebraic material was simply the Jewish Old Testament scriptures, and that the inadequacy of translation was simply the inadequacy of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament scriptures into Greek. But this is not the case. The peculiarity of the language of the New Testament is the result of a new Hebraic-Aramaic-Palestinian history, by which the Old Testament scriptures have emerged with a new emphasis. This whole creative process has taken place in a particular history that lies behind the Greek speaking Christians and behind the writers of the New Testament books. The radical change that has affected the language of the New Testament writers is not primarily the result of a new spiritual experience bubbling up in the Greek-speaking communities of Christians, nor does it proceed from the moral or religious experience of this or of that outstanding Christian. The highly significant twisting of the language has taken place behind all this Christian moral and spiritual experience: it has taken place in a purely Hebraic-Aramaic environment. But more than this, the actual creative element which is at work in the New Testament language is everywhere due to a vigorous recognition that the living God has acted in a particular history, and that Christian moral and spiritual experience depends entirely upon that history. Further, it is also clear that the New Testament language is unintelligible unless the events took place in the heart of Judaism and on the background of the Old Testament scriptures. Everywhere the peculiarly Christian usage of a word proceeds from a remoulding of the meaning which it had borne in the Old Testament.

So long as the modern New Testament reader is consciously or unconsciously interpreting it in terms of a humanitarian ethic or of a humanitarian spiritual experience, he is sinning against the meaning of words. If we are to understand the Greek of the New Testament we can be satisfied neither with a lexicon of Classical Greek, nor with a lexicon of the spoken Greek of the first century A.D., nor even with a lexicon of the Greek of the Septuagint, even if one could be procured which noted carefully the Hebrew words which underlie the Greek of the translation. We can be satisfied only with a lexicon devoted wholly to the New Testament itself, in which the specifically Christian associations that became attached to each word are carefully detected and set forth.

In conclusion, when the science of semasiology is applied to the New Testament in Greek, the problems which arise serve only to raise in a peculiarly acute form the problem, first, of the life and death of a single, concrete, historical, flesh-and-blood figure — Jesus of Nazareth, and, secondly, of the emergence of the church on the basis of that particular history. They also suggest that no understanding of that particular history or of the emergence of the church is possible unless the critic is prepared to pass beyond that which is most characteristic in modern thought, to think of God as the living and active God, and to move freely in terms not only of revelation in general, but of the revelation of the power of the living God in a particular history.

NOTE: When this chapter was originally written, there was in existence no comprehensive lexicon containing a scientific treatment of the changes in the meanings of words that took place as a consequence of the emergence of primitive Christianity. There was, of course, the Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek by Cremer, translated into English in 1878, 4th edition 1895, and published by T. & T. Clark. But so much has come to light since then that the work is out of date. Now, however, a lexicon is in course of publication edited by Dr. Gerhard Kittel under the title Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament and published by W. Kohlhammer at Stuttgart. The purpose of this lexicon is to define as precisely as possible the new weight, emphasis and energy that Greek words acquired as a result of the peculiar theological setting in which they were used by Christian speakers and writers. Almost every German theologian has contributed to the first four volumes, which contain many famous articles. A similar treatment in another field is evident in Verbal Scholarship and the Growth of some Abstract Terms, an inaugural lecture by Dr. A. C. Pearson, Cambridge 1922.

1. The Hebrew root ‘MN is preserved in English in the liturgical amen, in which word the confidence that God will hear the prayers of his faithful people is formally expressed, and also, curiously enough, in the word mammon, meaning that in which the men of the world falsely trust (usually riches, of course), and implying a contrast with the living God who alone is the proper object of human confidence.

2. St. Paul more often reiterates the Old Testament conception of the truth or consistency of God in the phrase, ‘God is faithful, who ...’ e.g. I Cor. 10:13; cf. I Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:18; 2 Thes. 3:3.