Words And Things: “Semantic Range” (Part 9)

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 words 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. We have 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 to 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).

©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.


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One comment

  1. Don’t all those meanings for John 1:5 you’ve pointed out, though differing somewhat, still present the same picture or thought that John, actually the Holy Spirit wants to covey.
    To overthrow, or overpower, or comprehend seems to say the darkness cannot overcome, overthrow, comprehend the light, light being on a whole other scale, darkness submitted to it. ???!

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