The Cambridge Greek Lexicon

Written by James Diggle, ed. Reviewed By Robert W. Yarbrough

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon (CGL): should you buy it? Before I answer that question, I want to alert readers to the expert observations and judgments regarding these two handsome volumes by Dirk Jongkind, Vice Principal at Tyndale House, Cambridge, who is a manuscript and ancient Greek specialist, which I am not. At the website for Evangelical Textual Criticism he offers four brief posts, each valuable for stirring interest and providing initial if informal guidance for assessing this landmark publication (http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2021/04/).

Now my answer: yes, and no.

First, some reasons to answer yes. You should buy it, under the following conditions.

(1) You have some interest and facility in ancient Greek, and money is no object, or at least not a large one where your book budget is concerned. The list price is not chicken feed.

(2) You are learning classical Greek and your program prescribes CGL rather than An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon by H. G. Liddell and R. Scott (Oxford: Clarendon, 1889). That is the outdated book which CGL was explicitly designed to replace.

(3) You are a bibliophile (which most academics are), have shelf space (which most academics don’t), and want to honor the 23-year effort by a distinguished team of scholars in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge University, where the study of Latin and Greek has been a staple for centuries. According to the University website, study of the Greek and Latin classics “came to the fore” in the Cambridge academic community (dating back to the 1200s) in 1536 (https://www.cam.ac.uk/about-the-university/history/sixteenth-century). These two volumes are the result of that 23-year effort and millions of pounds of investment.

(4) You need a classical Greek lexicon but not one as exhaustive and expensive as the granddaddy in this genre, Greek-English Lexicon by H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), commonly referred to as LSJ (for Liddell-Scott-Jones), costing close to $300 new, and weighing 9.33 pounds (Amazon says). CGL weighs in at only 7.28 pounds (with each volume weighing half that).

(5) You are a biblical Greek student (or scholar who doesn’t own LSJ), but you sometimes consult classical Greek texts. If you own the standard Greek lexicon for the New Testament, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by W. Bauer, F. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), commonly referred to as BDAG, you will not find entries for innumerable classical Greek words, because the classical period (roughly 500–330 BC) predates the era in which Koine Greek emerged, and the New Testament is written in Koine not classical Greek. (BDAG is not to be confused with Franco Montanari, ed., The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek [Leiden: Brill, 2015].) So you will benefit from a pre-Koine guide. CGL fills the bill. It does not replace LSJ, and for research purposes does not rival it, since it is intermediate and lacks many of the words and features that mark LSJ as advanced. These would include the exact references (and not just authors’ names) and sometimes the phrases in which Greek words are found. These are omitted, to save space and because beginning and intermediate students do not require them at their stage of learning the language.

(6) You read the New Testament (or the Septuagint, or the Old Testament Apocrypha, or the Apostolic Fathers) and are curious how a word was used in the earlier history of the Greek language. LSJ is still the standard and authoritative work (if that expression may be used in lexicography). But CGL is a fresh, neatly formatted, helpfully organized, and accurate entry point for surveying the background of words used in the New Testament’s own era. And since the purview of CGL extends as far as the early second century AD (covering Plutarch’s Lives; Plutarch lived AD 46–119), some New Testament uses are alluded to (though only in the Gospels and Acts). Or words are covered that are found not only in the Gospels and Acts but elsewhere in the New Testament, like κεφαλή.

Here are a few brief examples of what you find in CGL compared to BDAG. In some cases you’ll find disappointment. For αὐθεντέω (1 Tim 2:12) there is nothing in CGL, because the verb apparently does not occur in the corpus it covers. For κεφαλή there twelve meanings offered (“source” not among them), none of them referring to one of the definitions found in BDAG: “a being of high status, head.” This is mystifying, because this usage is found in the LXX (see the lexica by Muraoka and Lust-Eynikel-Hauspie) and the New Testament epistles. But the LXX and much of the New Testament are not taken into account.

In other cases you’ll find striking contrast: words associated with boasting (καυχάομαι, καύχημα, καύχησις) are found 59 times in the NT. BDAG offers numerous references and meanings. CGL contains a sparse seven lines referring to καυχάομαι, καύχημα, and nothing more. There is also a seeming miscue here: CGL lists καυχάομαι as found in the NT, which should mean in the Gospels or Acts. But it is not found in either place. It is found in Paul, 30 times, and James, twice. But if CGL cannot acknowledge the meaning “a being of high status, head” for κεφαλή because it is found in the NT epistles, not the Gospels or Acts, it is inconsistent to list καυχάομαι as occurring in the NT when that is not true of the Gospels and Acts.

In plenty of cases one will find copious reference to words or word groups that may be rare in the NT. James 4:16 and 1 John 2:16 contain the two sole NT appearances of ἀλαζονεία (boastfulness, arrogance). CGL points to the word as meaning “pretence to superior knowledge or skill, charlatanism, imposture, quackery” (emphasis original) and directs the reader to Aristophanes, Isocrates, and Xenophon. Cognates of ἀλαζονεία are also numerous in CGL. It would be interesting to pursue the wealth of ἀλαζ– words in classical sources and the relative infrequency of the καυχ– word group, with the opposite emphases in the New Testament.

For ἔνι in Galatians 3:28 or Colossians 3:11, one can look to six lines and one meaning under that entry in BDAG, or seven lines and two meanings under ἔνειμι. CGL is richer here: 15 lines and four meanings for ἔνι, 27 lines and six meanings under ἔνειμι. In such cases CGL may give a better sense for the morphology and possible usage of a word.

So what possible reasons could there be for saying no to the question of whether to buy CGL?

(1) If you are learning Koine (or Hellenistic) Greek for biblical studies purposes, you may be strapped for cash and just beginning to build a library. Use precious funds for standard published works (whether book or digital) like BDAG or F. W. Danker’s The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(2) If you are learning Koine Greek for biblical studies purposes, or even if you are beyond that stage, you can’t trust the definitions given in CGL without verifying them either inductively in the NT writings (or contemporary sources) or by consulting lexica (like BDAG or J. P. Louw and E. Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. [New York: UBS, 1988]) that treat the New Testament corpus comprehensively and with attention to the nuance of individual passages. BDAG is not perfect, but it is generally reliable for those practiced in using it. CGL does not purport to take the NT into account in a full and disciplined fashion, so it should not be relied on for first-stop guidance in defining words found in NT passages.

(3) It is somehow troubling to think of a project as well-conceived, highly publicized, and prestigious … and then to realize that among the some 90 authors canvassed by the lexicographers, covering hundreds of works from the fifth century BC to the early second century AD, all Jewish and almost all Christian sources have been omitted. One can always plead lack of space, lack of time, lack of resources, and so on. Or one could say, “We are covering only classical Greek writings.” But the dust jacket (and other publicity resources) claims, “Its coverage extends from Homer to the early second century AD. Most of the major authors who fall within that period are included.” With apologies to Alasdair MacIntyre, one may ask, “Whose ‘most’? Which ‘major’?” Why leave out the apostle Paul but include Patrinas and Praxilla, whom fairly educated persons may never have heard of?

One could also say that the meaning of words in the LXX and the NT are already covered in works devoted specifically to those bodies of writings. But then why does CGL bring the NT (i.e., the Gospels and Acts) into the picture at all, and claim coverage into the second century AD? Moreover, BDAG, Muraoka, and Lust-Eynikel-Hauspie do not imply that they are relevant to “most of the major authors” of all the centuries from which their authors hail (CGL’s claim for itself) but rather just the New Testament (BDAG) and the LXX. CGL’s omission of all Jewish and the majority of Christian writings is a lexicographical loss, because the best synchronic understanding of words (how a word is used in a given era, say the first century AD, rather than across several centuries, which would be diachronic) requires consideration of all the extant uses of those words. CGL robs itself of rich and telling input. It is hard to see how this is of benefit to CGL users.

When one thinks of the increasing cultural importance of Judaism in the Roman empire in the Second Temple period, and the millions of Greek-speaking Jews using the LXX in synagogues across the empire, and the wealth of lexicographic evidence represented not just by the LXX considered as an OT translation but also as the repository of the Second Temple creations we call the OT Apocrypha, and many other sectarian or apocalyptic or epistolary Jewish writings extant (e.g., Letter of Aristeas)—when we consider that this entire corpus is ignored, what possible linguistic justification can be offered? And what about the fairly vast corpora of Philo and Josephus?

Viewed this way, the frame of reference constructed for users of CGL is decidedly skewed. It is as if the Jewish world did not exist, or is in any case irrelevant to the concerns of teachers and learners of Greek of that era. This strikes me as a dubious and dangerous lacuna in both lexicographical and educational philosophy, because it gives a false impression of who used the language and how they did so in the period purportedly represented.

This goes as well for the limited attention given to the NT writings. It is understandable that a classics faculty will be zealous for their primary subject matter, which I take to be the ca. 90 authors that the CGL team decided to focus on. But from the standpoint of cultural history and impact, the meanings of δίκαιος (39 times in the Gospels and Acts) and δικαιοσύνη (14 times in the Gospels and Acts) found in the New Testament are at least as important as the ways those words are understood and used in the sources mined by CGL—which, by the way, sloppily neglects to note that either δίκαιος or δικαιοσύνη is even found in the NT, where they occur over 50 times. I admit that I have not pored over all the lines in both volumes, so perhaps this failure to note NT occurrences is an anomaly. But if it points to piecemeal reference to the Gospels and Acts, which CGL says it takes into account, that is an unbecoming lack of rigor.

In sum, I love new, beautiful, and learned books. I will be using these volumes to raise interest in learning Greek when I begin teaching it again this fall term. For the price, it is a worthwhile acquisition for many libraries. But for reasons given above, beginning and intermediate students of Greek in the NT should not rely on it as a sole or primary source in their understanding of NT words and texts.


Robert W. Yarbrough

Bob Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, an editorial board member of Themelios, co-editor of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament as well as the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Broadman & Holman), and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Other Articles in this Issue

This paper will outline the canon-conscious worldview of Ben Sira, highlight the major contents of his authoritative corpus of Jewish Writings, and describe his hermeneutical strategies...

Scholarly discussions concerning the nature of OT hope are arguably most passionate and divisive when the figure of the anointed one (often designated the messiah) is in view...

The book of Esther presents a challenge for many modern interpreters, since the book does not mention the name of God or his direct action...

Christians have long wrestled with how to read the Law in light of the work of Christ...