ἀφίημι ὑμῖν — I forgive you?

Yesterday in church, a friend leaned over and pointed to the verb ἄφετε in Luke 18:16 with a puzzled look on his face. (Yes. He and I both read the Greek text in church while the English translation is being read. We’re incurable geeks.) In introductory Greek classes, students often learn to associate ἀφίημι with the act of forgiving someone for something, but that’s clearly not its meaning in this text. Any decent Hellenistic Greek dictionary will present a range of different options for translating this verb into English, including, forgive, release, permit/allow, etc, but they do little to help you understand the implications of the verb in Greek.

This brief interchange in church began a thought process that did not interfere too much with the sermon, which was an awesome excursion through the Jacob cycle of stories in Genesis, but led me to want to write something about ἀφίημι. It’s a great example of how shifting worldviews can make ancient texts seem strange to us. How is it that a single verb can be used with such divergent senses in the biblical texts?

In today’s world we think of forgiving as something that has to do with emotions. “You did something thoughtless (hurtful, etc.),” we might think, “but I’m going to forgive you.” That is, “I’m going to overlook what you did and feel okay about you in spite of it.” This way of thinking about forgiveness is a very long way from the ancient Greek notion of ἄφεσις (the noun associated with the verb ἀφίημι).

In the ancient world these words were associated with release (release from obligation, release from imprisonment, release from ownership, release from impeded movement, release from limits imposed by someone else). Emotion might be associated with these things—and almost certainly was—but it’s not part of the meaning of these words. Both the verb ἀφίημι and the noun ἄφεσις had much more practical import.

In John 14:27 we are told that Jesus said to his disciples, Εἰρήνην ἀφίημι ὑμῖν. In this scene Jesus is not forgiving his disciples for anything they have done. He is handing over peace to them. Peace (εἰρήνη) is his to give, and he is releasing it to them. In Luke 18:16, Jesus is not asking his disciples to forgive the children for anything, he is demanding that they release them to come to him (ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρός με).

In Hebrews 10:18 we find the aphorism, ὅπου δὲ ἄφεσις τούτων, οὐκέτι προσφορὰ περὶ ἁμαρτίας. The pronoun τούτων refers to sins and “lawless deeds” mentioned in the previous verse. Where there is ἄφεσις of these, the offenders are released from their obligation to bring offerings.

None of this implied anything about God’s feelings or the feelings of the disciples toward the children in Luke, or the feelings between Jesus and his disciples. But in our modern world this is precisely what we associate with forgiveness. I think we miss something fundamentally important when we make this mistake. Forgiveness (ἄφεσις) is not about present emotions. It’s about the advent of freedom.

Today, may you be released from whatever is holding you down!

Reflections on Lexicography: Explorations in Ancient Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek Sources

ReflectionsOnLexicographySix articles from the recent Gorgias Press release of Reflections on Lexicography: Explorations in Ancient Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek Sources deal specifically with Hellenistic Greek Lexicography. This volume was produced for the International Syriac Language Project. Here is a list of the papers in the section entitled “Reflections on Greek Lexicography.”

  • A Linguistic-Cultural Approach to Alleged Pauline and Lukan Christological Disparity (Frederick William Danker) (page 267)
  • Contextual Factors in the Greek-Spanish Dictionary of the New Testament (DGENT) (Jesús Peláez) (page 289)
  • The Greek-Spanish Dictionary of the New Testament (DGENT): Meaning and Translation of the Lexemes; Some Practical Examples (Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta) (page 301)
  • The Genitive Absolute in Discourse: More Than a Change of Subject (Margaret G. Sim) (page 313)
  • Now and Then: Clarifying the Role of Temporal Adverbs as Discourse Markers (Steven E. Runge) (page 327)
  • ‘Therefore’ or ‘Wherefore’: What’s the Difference? (Stephen H. Levinsohn) (page 349)

This volume is number 4 in Gorgias Press’ series, Perspectives on Linguistics and Ancient Languages.

I have added these articles to the online bibliography.

Structural Lexicology and the Greek New Testament

I have added Todd Price’s Structural Lexicology and the Greek New Testament: Applying Corpus Linguistics for Word Sense Possibility Delimitation Using Collocational Indicators to the bibliography.

The book was published in 2015 by Gorgias Press and sells for $180 at Amazon.com.

I do not own a copy of the book (due to the price!), but here’s what I’ve gleaned from the abstract provided by the publisher and available in the Library of Congress online catalog. If you own a copy of the book, feel free to tell me how far off I am!


Price’s book addresses both lexical meaning and phrase-level meaning in context. After introducing the concept of structural lexicology as developed through the use of computational linguistics, computational lexicography and corpus linguistics, Price explains his method for determining the contextual meaning of New Testament Greek words and phrases through an analysis of their collocations (with what other words does word x tend to appear?), colligations (in its various contexts, with what kinds of words does word x tend to hold grammatical relationships?) and semantic preferences (with what words does word x share key elements of meaning?). His approach emphasizes defining words in context by disambiguating their possible meanings.

He argues, uncontroversially, that an analysis of large (digital) corpora of Hellenistic Greek can advance our understanding of lexical semantics, and he includes numerous case studies in the Greek New Testament applying his method to exegetically problematic texts.

Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek

I have uploaded my paper, “Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek” to two places. You can read it here at Greek-Language.com at the following location:

You can also view it at Academia.edu.

This paper is an updated version of one I presented at a national meeting of the SBL in the late 1990s. A slightly updated version was published by Forum, the journal of the Westar Institute in 1999 under the title “From the Lexicon to the Sentence: Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek.”

This latest version lays out my proposals for information that should be included in an electronic lexicon of Hellenistic Greek.  Serious advances in digital technology have made it possible to include information about syntactic and semantic relationships that would have been impractical only a few years ago, and in the context of the work that Jonathan Robie and I are doing on using XML to structure and query databases, I decided it was time to make my most recent proposals easier to locate.

Lexicography/Dictionaries Page

I have made a number of changes to the Lexicography and Dictionaries page at Greek-Language.com. Here are the main ones:

I hope you find these additions helpful.

Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος

Our current lexica for Hellenistic Greek fall into two categories on the basis of their approach. The more traditional ones offer suggested translations (not real definitions) and examples of usage. The UBS lexicon classifies words on the basis of perceived semantic domains, grouping words with overlapping meaning into sense categories.

What I envision for a future lexicon is one that does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. It would provide examples of usage, of course, but it would provide a definition along the lines of modern dictionaries such as http://www.merriam-webster.com, and the discussion of examples should be different from what we currently find. Entries for nouns, for example, would also include information on the types of predicates for which the noun may function as an argument.

Let’s look at ἔλεος as an example. As something to be thought of (desired, neglected, remembered), ἔλεος functions as an argument of verbs like θέλω, ἀφίημι, and μιμνῄσκομαι:

1. ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν· (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7)
2. ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· (Matthew 23:23)
3. μνησθῆναι ἐλέους (Luke 1:54)

When used to speak specifically of something that transpires between two people (where an English translation might speak of showing mercy), though, ἔλεος may serve as an argument of ποιέω. It is not an attitude to be shown or demonstrated, but an action to be  done.

4. ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν (Luke 1:72)
5. ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. (Luke 10:37)

Notice the usage of a prepositional phrase μετά + genitive to modify ἔλεος in this sense.

In the catholic epistles we find ἔλεος used as an argument of δίδωμι and λαμβάνω in  contexts where it involves an interaction between two parties. Ἔλεος is presented as being transferred from a giver to a recipient:

6. δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ (2 Timothy 1:16)

Two verses later what is given (δίδωμι) is not ἔλεος, but the ability to find (εὐρίσκω) ἔλεος.

7. δῴη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος εὑρεῖν ἔλεος (2 Timothy 1:18)

Here, ἔλεος functions directly as an argument of εὑρεῖν.

8. ἵνα λάβωμεν ἔλεος (Hebrews 4:16)

Here the focus is on the receiver rather than the giver, but ἔλεος remains a thing to be transferred from an actor to a recipient.

Still, in James 2:13 we find ἔλεος again as an argument of ποιέω:

9. ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος·

A lexical entry that takes these examples seriously might define ἔλεος as an action to be done for the benefit of another, despite that other’s lack of merit—an action that can be viewed as a gift in appropriate contexts. But the entry would also need to specify that ἔλεος is never presented as a quality to be demonstrated. In this sense, it is unlike the English word mercy.

This does not mean of course, that we should avoid translating ποιεῖν ἔλεος as show mercy, but it does mean that commentators and even casual readers of the Greek text should recognize that such a translation, while necessary, is required because of the peculiar demands of English, and the image that would come to mind for a speaker of Ancient Greek at hearing ἔλεος was different in important ways from the one that comes to mind for English speakers who hear mercy.

A Little More on the LMPG, the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri

While the DGE (Diccionario Griego-Español) announced a few days ago is still quite limited, its counterpart, the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri (LMGP for its initials in Spanish) is well worth visiting. It is a fully functioning model of what the full DGE will be when completed.

LexicoDeMagiaYReligionBookCoverThe LMGP offers electronic access not only to lexical entries, but to a wide range of Greek texts that were previously unavailable online. The image below shows the interface. Notice that the column on the left has four tabs at the top. By selecting “Textos” you get a list of the texts that contain the word you are working with. By clicking on a word in the list, the column on the right updates to show that word, a Spanish gloss, a line of text from the papyrus identified beside the word you clicked on the left, and a Spanish translation of that line of Greek text.


Even if you are unable to read the Spanish translation and gloss, you can see the Greek text! It’s pretty cool.

For those of us who can read Spanish, it’s a real boon!

Greek-Spanish Lexicon and LMPG Online: new digital resources

On Dec. 19, Juan Rodríguez Somolinos notified me of the online publication of a small part of the new Diccionario Griego-Español (DGE). Here’s what he had to say:

The members of the Diccionario Griego-Español project (DGE, CSIC, Madrid) are pleased to announce the release of ‘DGE online’ (http://dge.cchs.csic.es/xdge/), first digital edition of the published section (α-ἔξαυος) of our Lexicon. Although still in progress, the DGE, written under the direction of Prof. F.R. Adrados, is currently becoming the largest bilingual dictionary of ancient Greek: it already includes about 60,000 entries and 370,000 citations of ancient authors and texts. Simultaneously, we are releasing the edition of ‘LMPG online’ (http://dge.cchs.csic.es/lmpg/), the digital version of the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri, written by Luis Muñoz Delgado (Supplement V of DGE). The digitization of this smaller Lexicon is considered as a successful prototype of this ambitious digitization initiative: further on DGE online will be improved with similar advanced features, such as the implementation of a customized search engine. Any critics and suggestions on that matter will be very welcome. We hope these new open access dictionaries will be of your interest and will become, to some extent, valuable tools for Ancient Greek studies.

What is available right now is limited, but the project should eventually provide a very valuable resource for students of Ancient Greek who are able to read Spanish.

Κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7

Check out Stephen Carlson’s article on Κατάλυμα. You can download the article as a PDF file here. He (along with other influential New Testament scholars) argues that κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7 does not refer to an Inn. How does this change our understanding of Luke’s birth story?

Stephen maintains a blog at http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/.