Saturday, February 14, 2015

Review: The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE; 5 vols) by Moisés Silva

"Two steps forward and one step backwards..." is not new dance move but my succinct way of reviewing the 2nd edition of the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology andExegesis (henceforth NIDNTTE). Revised by Moisés Silva (click for an interview with him on the lexicon over at Matthew Montonini's NT Perspective blog), this 2014 five-volume update published by Zondervan is, in many ways, a marked improvement of its previous 1975-78 four-volume predecessor edited by Colin Brown.
The impressive 5 vol. NIDNTTE by Moisés Silva
   Let me comment on the two advances which the NIDNTTE makes. First, in terms of its lexical information, it is a thorough revision of how a particular word is used in its Greek, Jewish, and New Testament literary and historical contexts. In fact, each entry (alphabetized according to the Greek) begins with the history of early Greek meanings and ends with how a word is deployed in the secular discourse of the Roman period. Then the entry defines the unique uses of a word in the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint as it translates the Hebrew. Finally, the entry describes how the New Testament writers, given the range of meanings for a particular word, often depend on the Septuagint for its definitions. 
    The second advance is the dependency of NIDNTTE upon the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and other Jewish literature to draw out the meanings for New Testament words. This is biblical theology at its best. Silva demonstrates a linguistic savvy when he traces the theological continuity between the Old Testament and the New without committing the mistake of confusing Gundbegriff (or the larger concept to which a word points) with its basic definition (what the word means) in context. 
     I do wish, however, the dictionary would explore more thoroughly how the everyday use of Greek words contributes to the vocabulary of the New Testament. When, for example, Paul talks about hilastērion in Romans 3:25, the dictionary unsurprisingly defines the term as "atonement" in parallel with the Old Testament use of the Hebrew kippur as an "expiation" or "covering over" of sin. But hilastērion in Greco-Roman discourse can also mean "propitiate." Defined in this way, New Testament writers could be employing the word hilastērion to help explain how the death of Christ propitiates or satisfies the justice of God. To be fair, the NIDNTTE does describe the Koiné or common uses of hilastērion in its entry, but I fault the dictionary for not drawing out the theological implications of such usage. For a theological dictionary aimed at aiding exegesis and interpretation, the dictionary, at times, demonstrates too narrow a focus on Jewish backgrounds without due consideration to how Greek discourse might also inform the lexical choices of the New Testament authors.
    But my largest criticism concerns the format of the dictionary. The decision to partially abandon the original organization of the entries by semantic field in favor of an alphabetized listing is a step backward in my opinion. It is also a lost opportunity. 
    Take, for example, the concept of power
The older NIDNT by Colin Brown (1975-78)
Notice that the dictionary is organized by concept, with a very short beginning
paragraph describing how the different words in a semantic field relate before
giving a detailed definition/discussion of each word as with βία and its cognates
In the older edition (above), the dictionary listed out the definitions of kratos ("might"), ischys ("strength" or "power"), bia ("force"), and other lexemes all under the category: Strength, Force, Horn, Violence, Power (see above). This format immediately informs the reader that no one word can encompass an entire concept. One needs to identify an entire constellation of words and their meanings (what linguists call a "semantic field"), and then examine the discourse in which these words are found, to provide a comprehensive treatment of how New Testament authors understood the concept of power. A study on just a single word would leave out too much information and be misleading. Yet the new edition reverts back to single word, alphabetized entries. 
    Silva does provide a concise list of concepts at the beginning of the first volume (below), but it is a poor substitute for a more technical treatment of semantic fields. 
The new NIDNTTE by Moisés Silva (2014)
A list of concepts with English glosses
is given in the beginning of vol. 1
but missing is an needed analysis on
how the words relate in a semantic field
Let me explain. The older edition provided little discussion on how the different words in a semantic field relate to each other. What is the difference between kratos ("might"), for example, and ischys ("strength")? I have my suspicions on how to answer this question, but I would like to have seen the new edition provide an updated analysis. To date, we only have one lexicon that does this in any systemic way: that is, Louw's and Nida's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. This new NIDNTTE edition could have taken the material of the older dictionary, incorporated the contributions made from Louw and Nida, and created a lexicon based on semantic fields that surpassed any of its predecessors or competitors. But alas, it does not. 
    So, at the end of the day, I would strongly recommend pastors, seminary students, and theologically trained leaders alike to purchase the NIDNTTE. I can imagine someone preparing for a sermon or Bible study, reading about a particular Greek word of importance that is highlighted by a commentary, and wanting to learn more about the word, then turn to the NIDNTTE to look up more information. I would suggest to also check the list of concepts with English glosses to see what other words belong to the same semantic field. As a lexicion, it is an excellent resource. 
    While I myself will likely refer to the NIDNTTE on a regular basis, and undoubtedly learn much from its volumous pages, a part of me also laments at what it could have been. I can only hope that a future third edition might dare explore the still uncharted territory of semantic field lexicography.

Postscript: the above review will be published in the next edition of the Covenant Quarterly

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