Words And Things (Part 3)

When working with foreign words, we should be aware of a very important distinction: the distinction between meaning and gloss. For our purposes, a gloss is an English word substitute for a Greek word. In simple cases, a gloss is perfectly satisfactory to get the job done. For example, if I were to define Greek patēr with the gloss, “father,” akouō with “I hear,” or hagios with “holy” this would be adequate for most purposes. But not for all and maybe not for many.

To really get a handle on a Greek word (or phrase), we need to deal with meanings not glosses. If we were to do a thorough word study on a word in a particular passage, we obviously know the major glosses given by our many fine English translations, but they don’t always give us the fullest picture of what is meant in the context. Hence the word study. And the object of a word study is word meanings, which we can define here as a full description of the word’s referent.

To repeat the difference between meaning and gloss: one is a simple English translation while the other gives us a careful description of what the Greek word indicates. This distinction is so important that the latest edition of our major New Testament Greek lexicon, known as BDAG (from the last names of its editors: Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich) now gives descriptions of meanings in all of its entries rather than just glosses as before.

Let me illustrate the importance of this. For example, look at the word often rendered “scribe” (Greek grammateus). In the Gospels, men designated as scribes often show up alongside the high priests (Matt. 2:4), elders (Luke 20:1) and  Pharisees (Matt. 12:38) or even as “the scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16). The word “scribe” sounds in English as though these men copied documents or took dictation, but instead the Jewish scribes are normally taken to be biblical scholars. Compare the word “secretary” in the title, Secretary of State.

In Acts 19:35, though, the same Greek word rendered “scribe” in the Gospels is found for a man at Ephesus who quieted the demonstration against Paul and his co-workers. In the ESV, this word grammateus is now rendered as “town clerk,” not “scribe.” Again, simply providing the gloss: “scribe” or “town clerk” leaves us without a precise idea of what the word means in its various places. In fact, at Ephesus the office of grammateus of the city refers to something more like a modern mayor. The true importance of the Ephesian grammateus is not really conveyed by “town clerk.”

Let me finish with one more illustration of the value of word meanings over against glosses in word studies. Acts 19:31 reads as follows in the ESV: “And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his [i.e., of Paul], sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater.” The Greek word asiarchos is normally simply transformed directly into English as “Asiarch.” This is the only place this word appears in the Bible, but it is well known from many places in other ancient sources. Not all scholars agree on this, but the best intepretation of the evidence suggests that the Asiarchate was an annual office with duties related to the provincial cults and related festivals including oversight of games held every five years at Pergamum (much like the Olympics) and later at Ephesus and Smyrna.

Of more interest to studies of Paul is the fact that Luke mentions in Acts 19 that Paul had friends among the Asiarchs. These men represented some of the most wealthy and influential families in the province of Asia of which Ephesus was a part. Not least among evidence of their importance is this inscription found on a stone at Ephesus: “[My] great great grandfathers were Cl[audius] Zeno the Asiarch of the temples [in Ephesus] and Cl[audius] Salvius the Asiarch of the temples in Smyrna.” Claudius Zeno is known from other Ephesian inscriptions and lived about 135 A.D. and we know that he held other offices in the city, but the fact that Zeno held office as an Asiarch was remembered by a descendent five generations later. The Asiarchate must have been considered to be a very high honor to be remembered that long. That some of these men were friends of Paul shows that he was well-regarded by some of the Ephesians.

The point of our study was to highlight and to illustrate the difference between word meanings and simple glosses. A side point came out in this last example of the Asiarchs. Performing a word study often takes us back into the world of the Bible and requires us to become ancient historians, which is not a bad thing at all!

© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved. Reprinted on the Heidelblog by permission.

This article was first published on the WSC Blog in 2011.

You can find the whole series here.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

    Post authored by:

  • S. M. Baugh
    Author Image

    The Rev. Dr. S. M. Baugh is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California, where he taught Greek and New Testament from 1983–2021. He is author of two grammars of New Testament Greek, a contributor to the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, the commentary on Ephesians in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series, The Majesty of High (on the Kingdom of God), and numerous articles. He is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

    More by S. M. Baugh ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!