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Words and Things Part 8

June 3, 2011

S. M. Baugh

Linguists have provided significant help to biblical scholars, not the least in the area of lexical semantics. “Lexical” here means words and phrases and “semantics” deals with meanings, so that “lexical semantics” is the study of how words mean. One area of particular help is that linguists posit that individual words often have what is called a “semantic range,” which will be explained and illustrated below.

To fully appreciate the value of the “semantic range” idea, one should realize that older students of biblical words in particular often held that an individual word had a “core” meaning, and that any other meanings of that word were somehow tied to that core. The result of that study often yielded flights of fanciful exegesis, especially when that supposed central meaning was dependent on the word’s historical background or etymology.

As an instance of this danger, let me take an English example to show how this works. Take our word “professor” which refers to someone with a distinctive vocation in higher education. Now imagine that someone 2,000 years from now studying English in America were to read “professor” in light of its Latin etymology from a verb (profiteor) “to publicly acknowledge or avow”; i.e., to “profess.” Our hypothetical future word-scholar can then be imagined to say that we must have taken our “professors” to somehow be engaged in public testimonies of some kind because the core meaning of “professor” is one who “professes,” etc. etc. We’ve all heard this kind of approach to biblical words, but when we do this with our own language, it yields transparent nonsense. This is where “semantic range” for biblical words comes in.

With “semantic range,” we recognize that any one word may have distinctive and different meanings that arise through usage over time and may have no relation with each other. Take another English example. The word “ball” can be either an object used in sports or a formal dance; one cannot see a “core meaning” uniting these two quite different referents.

So the accurate study of a Greek word in a certain passage often begins by studying the various meanings of the term. Once we have a clear idea of these meanings, we then look at the word’s use in context to see which meaning is clearly being communicated. But in some cases it could be that more than one of these meanings can be made to fit into that context. This is sometimes why our versions differ widely in some passages. Let me illustrate with one in particular.

In John 1:5 we read in the ESV: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The word rendered here as “overcome” (Greek, katalambanō) is an interesting one. John uses a different Greek word (nikaō) quite frequently that is rendered “overcome” (or better, “conquer” as John 16:33). The word used in John 1:5, though, has an interesting range of meanings, one of which is an intellectual grasp of something and may be rendered “comprehend” (as ESV on Eph. 3:18). This is how the NASB renders it in John 1:5: “the darkness did not comprehend it” with a footnote in the margin: “Or, overpower.”

So there are two possible meanings at work in our passage for katalambanō. The first implies some sort of hostility or force at work: to overpower, overthrow, or seize someone. Hence, it could be that John is saying that the darkness was at war with the light, yet it did not win the battle; it did not “overthrow” the light. This makes excellent sense.

On the other hand, John could be using the term with its intellectual meaning: to grasp or process information after inquiry. This too makes sense in John 1:5: “the darkness could not comprehend the light.” This is particularly played out in Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels because the Jewish leaders did not understand him, who he was, and his mission (cf. 1 Cor. 2:8).

So what do we do with John 1:5? Flip a coin? Fortunately we are dealing with John, and one of the more remarkable characteristics of his book is several ironic uses of terms and giving some of them double meanings. The most obvious of these are when Jesus is “exalted” on the cross (John 12:32) or when he says that we must be born again with a word that can (and does here) mean both “again” and “from above” in John 3:3-8. Therefore, it is quite possible that we have another double meaning in John 1:5: The darkness has neither overthrown nor comprehended the light.