Friday, April 30, 2021

Cambridge Greek Lexicon 4 – Do We Need It?


This is the fourth and final post on my week with the Cambridge Greek Lexicon (first, second, third).

So do we (we, as in students of the Greek New Testament – and LXX [with different frustrations]) need the Cambridge Greek Lexicon?

No, we don’t. Not in the sense that we need it.

It is an informative lexicon, it is well set up, but it does not offer the depth of data needed for a ‘research lexicon’. Authors are referred to, but without a reference. Sometimes we get snippets of English translation but without the underlying Greek. Also, the corpus covered is not nearly wide enough to be satisfactory. So, no. I would not advise my students to use this lexicon for any in-depth work.

That being said, it is an original lexicographical work. It can help us see things we had not seen before (remember the example of δόξα in an earlier post). But in the end, this lexicon is what it is, an intermediate lexicon on the main body of literature that students would read when doing classics. And frankly, this is exactly what I will be using it for privately (and I will peek into it whenever working on the New Testament, just to see if there is something interesting in there).

Let me give you some examples.

The word ἁγνισμός receives both a definition ‘process of purifying’ and a translation / gloss, ‘purification’. The only author reference is NT, so I assume it doesn’t occur in the rest of the covered corpus. This is confirmed by BDAG, which gives a slightly better, but wordier definition as it adds a relevant adverb, ‘the process of making sthng cultically acceptable’, and adds the same gloss ‘purification’. This is the type of word where you will find nothing new in the Cambridge Greek Lexicon, and I would guess that even its fresh and independent reading will not come near to the intensity with which New Testament scholarship has pored itself over every word.

A word which is helpful to look up in the Cambridge Greek Lexicon is ἀγωγή. It is found in 2 Tim 3:10, so its NT reference is not covered by the CGL (it has only the Gospels and Acts). However, the range of senses for ἀγωγή gives a good feel for the word. In comparison, the entry in BDAG looks muddled and is in need of improvement. We all know that BDAG is far from perfect and I wish it was created using the same approach as the CGL. Instead BDAG is the result of repeatedly working over an existing lexicon, making some changes that happen to interest yet another editor, and, in its most recent outfit, adding definitions to the glosses. However, note that the entries were not rewritten or reimagined, it was simply that a definition was added which was based on the existing glosses. That leads to some toe-curling situations (see e.g. BDAG on ἀγαπάω). In that sense the CGL feels so much cleaner.

Even with simple words such as ἄγγος I thought the CGL did a better job than BDAG.

Many of the unique or just rarer words used in the letters of the New Testament will not show up in the dictionary, or only as used in the Gospels. An interesting example is γαμίζω, which is taken widely and correctly as ‘to give in marriage’, and as such also shows up in the CGL. However, the word is contested in 1 Cor 7:38, where many want to translate with ‘marry’. Because of the corpus limitation of the CGL one will not find a mention of that possibility (one will look also in vain for the variant reading ἐκγαμίζω).

 An issue where I think that the CGL is raising helpful questions is with the word ἀγενής, which in 1 Cor. 1:28 is taken as ‘not of noble birth’. This seems completely justified, also in light of its antonym εὐγενής. In the CGL ἀγενής has as its only gloss ‘not created’, because of its use in Plato. The word that covers our meaning found in 1 Corinthians is ἀγεννής. Did the first simply take the place of the second? There may be a story to tell.

 In the end, the Cambridge Greek Lexicon is a good lexicon for what it is. Do not judge it because it is not what you want it to be. And since we all ought to read lots of Greek, it is a great help. And, going full book lover again, I like the feel of the lexicon, the clarity of the lay-out. It is calling out to me to be used, it does not want to stay on the shelf. It is stirring up ζῆλος, perhaps more than φθόνος.


But should you tell your New Testament Greek students to get this? No, not really. The opportunity cost is considerable (money, shelf-space), and the immediate pay back relatively low.

There is a moral to the story, though. Despite many projects (most of which were never completed), promises, and false rumours, I am still waiting for a lexicon of the Greek Bible. A lexicon that covers the Greek Old and New Testament, that does a good job in using classical and koine literature, that mines the papyri and inscriptions, and - in an ideal world - gives some attention to Hebrew and Aramaic lexicography too. If this Cambridge Greek Lexicon took such an enormous effort over several decades and barely scraped through, I am not expecting that my lexicon will see the light of day in my life time. But wait, isn’t it about time we start talking about the Diccionario Griego–Español


  1. Thanks Dirk, appreciate your review.

  2. Thanks Dirk, lots to think about. I especially appreciate your reference to DGE & it’s English version.

  3. Got my copy this morning. Got a good deal.

    1. The Canadian price has shot up to $220 since I last posted. Think I'll pass for now.

  4. Maybe you could produce some kind of NT supplement.

  5. One thing I've discovered that I don't need is the box the two volumes come in. It is nice, but it is so tight that I have found it impossible to take out just the volume I need. So I've dumped the box and just keep the two volumes on the shelf.

    1. Alexander Thomson5/26/2021 2:10 pm

      The boxing problem is a very annoying modern thing!