Lexical Semantics, Exegetical Fallacies, and the OSB (Or, "Woe Is Me, I Don’t Have BibleWorks!")

Some years ago, a well-meaning Orthodox priest, evidently concerned that no English translation of the Church’s text of the New Testament is available for liturgical use, sent out a communication in which he asked all recipients to reply with suggested corrections and changes, textual and translational, to the New Testament of the King James Version. Now, I think that an Orthodox recension of the KJV NT would be a splendid idea; some of this has already been done in the Epistle and Gospel lectionaries published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, but there certainly is room for a more thorough revision. Given my interest in such a project, I decided to pay close attention to the discussionbut I’m afraid that I was not prepared for the horrors that this proposed exchange would uncover.

Before I go any further, I should explain that I am greatly afflicted by horrible, recurrent nightmares that involve clergy penciling into their Bibles inane changes to the translation on no other grounds than a shoddy knowledge of the Biblical languages and a dilettante’s love for pop philology. (Incidentally, the geniuses over at Language Log have a wonderful word for transgressions such as this: “incorrection,” that is, “a correction that is itself incorrect.”) And as you might imagine, once the floodgates of proposed corrections were opened and people started discussing the changes they routinely make, all my blood-curdling nightmares started to come true.

One of the more grievous proposals was the following:

Romans 15:15-16: “…because of the grace that is given to me by God, that I should be a liturgist of Christ Jesus in the nations…” (KJV: …because of the grace that is given to me of God, that I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles…”)

Unable to restrain myself, I wrote (lightly abridged and edited):

It is precisely because of such dreadful examples of pop philology that I become very nervous whenever I hear about amateurish “corrections” of established Biblical translations.

To “translate” λειτουργὸν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as “liturgist of Jesus Christ” is a crass example of semantic anachronism, and in fact methodologically indistinguishable from rendering δύναμις […] θεοῦ as “the dynamite of God” (cfr. Romans 1:16), or ἱλαρὸν […] δότην as “hilarious giver” (cfr. II Corinthians 9:7)1. I suppose that while we’re at it, we might as well “translate” ἡ προσφορὰ τῶν ἐθνῶν in Romans 15:16 as “the prosphora of the nations”!

A λειτουργός is one who performs a public service or work, that is, a “public servant” or “minister.” (I should also like to note that λειτουργία is just this public service or work, and not, as pop philological myth would have it, “the work of the people.”) Thus, the KJV does not need to be corrected at this point (except, perhaps, for changing the definite article to the indefinite), but it could stand to be corrected in what follows immediately: ἱερουργοῦντα τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ should probably be rendered “ministering as a priest the Gospel of God” (cfr. NASB), or as the more idiomatic rendering of the RSV/NRSV/ESV has it, “[…] to be a minister of [Jesus Christ] to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the Gospel of God.”

The above was met with much approval by other theretofore silent and equally horrified observers, but it wasn’t too long before the anonymous soul responsible for this astonishing incorrection attempted to justify it:

“I will not argue with him that I am making some eisogetic [sic] interpolations into the Greek based on my own theological presupposition; however, I would also argue that the protestant translations do the same thing. […] [W]e as Orthodox make the claim that we have the whole truth, including our exegesis of the sacred text. Why did the Apostle not just use diaconea? [sic] Why use the word liturgy? [sic] It seems that we can say without shame that this is because of the worship setting of the early church does anyone really want to argue that Paul is not a liturgist? […] Our exegesis is the closest to the truth, so why can we not say liturgist, or anything else that aids our understanding of the sacramental depth of the sacred texts?”

To this I responded:

Simply because we cannot arbitrarily assign to a well-attested word whatever meaning suits our fancy. Again, the attempt to “translate” λειτουργός as “liturgist” is a textbook case of a lexical fallacy called “semantic anachronism,” in which an ancient word is defined by a later word etymologically derived from it. (The reverse error, called the “root fallacy,” defines a modern word by the ancient word from which it is etymologically derived: thus, the “real meaning” of the English word “nice” would be “fool,” because this is meaning of the Latin nescius.)

Of course, one would be hard pressed to deny that St Paul was a “liturgist” (that is, one who leads a liturgy), particularly in view of passages such as Acts 20:7-12; but that he was such does not depend on any rendering of λειτουργός (and much less on an incorrect one!). Further, that behind this lexical fallacy lies a logical one is clear from a question like, “Why would [St. Paul] use the word liturgy?” Evidently St Paul, who was not an English speaker, didn’t “use the [English] word liturgy” at all in the passage in question; he used the Greek word λειτουργός. To assume that this is the same as “liturgist” simply begs the question.

In any case, to make “eisegetical interpolations” of any kind into the Scriptural text is doubtless inappropriate, for as someone else has already noted, it is the words of Scripture that “spin” us, and not us them. This kind manipulation often has the purpose to pack some theological or homiletical punch into the text, as though a sensible translation of the Scriptures were lacking in riches to impart to either area. Unfortunately, these (pseudo-)exegetical “nuggets,” based as they are in a fallacious understanding of lexical semantics and translation theory, ultimately distort the text and its meaning.

And that was the end of that particular discussion. Fast forward, however, to 2008 and the release of the complete Orthodox Study Bible. Soon after I received my copy (thanks, once again, to Kevin Edgecomb‘s kindness), I was thumbing through the book when my innocent eyes fell upon this horrendous sight:

“See to it that the tribe of Levi is not numbered, nor take a census of them among the children of Israel; but you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, over all its furnishings, and over all things that belong to it; they shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they shall minister liturgically [Gk. λειτουργήσουσιν] in the tabernacle and camp around it” (Numbers 1:49-50, emphasis and parenthesis mine).

A note further elaborates:

“The Levites were ordained to minister liturgically, for divine worship is liturgical in nature; this liturgical nature is mentioned about forty-five times throughout Numbers. The word liturgy means ‘the work of the people.’ In Israel, this included the Levites and the twelve tribes, that is, all ‘the children of Israel’ (v. 49), with the Levites having their special liturgical service in the tabernacle.

“The worship of the Church is also liturgical in nature and includes both clergy and laity. The apostles were ministering liturgically in Acts 13:2 when the Holy Spirit spoke to them. The same word is used here as in the Book of Numbers. This same word is also used numerous times in Hebrews to describe the liturgical worship of the Church as the fulfillment of Israel’s liturgical worship (Heb. 1:7, 14; 8:2, 6; 9:21; 10:11).”

Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall.

Anyway, tipped off by this unfortunate discovery, I started to compile a list of all the instances in which the OSB fallaciously translates λειτουργέω and λειτουργία, but given that my copy of Hatch and Redpath’s LXX Concordance has been long stowed in a cold storage unit in Michigan, the project has been progressing at a painfully slow pace. It finally occurred to me that some of you have fancy computer gadgets that work at breakneck speeds to alleviate the toils of certain philological endeavors, and that, if asked, someone might be moved to coöperate by providing me with a list of all instances of these two words in Rahlf’s Septuaginta. So, is anyone able to do so? You help would be greatly appreciated! [UPDATE: Mike Aubrey has kindly provided a full list that he produced by searching Logos; Manuel Rojas double checked these results against those from a BibleWorks search and found one additional instance of the verb. Many thanks to both of them for their help!]


With the exception of the one taken from Romans 15:16, all examples of semantic anachronism and the root fallacy are taken from D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), pages 28-35.

21 responses to “Lexical Semantics, Exegetical Fallacies, and the OSB (Or, "Woe Is Me, I Don’t Have BibleWorks!")

  1. you’ve got your work ahead of you then…(though this is from Logos, not Bible Works)

    for λειτουργία:
    Exodus 37:19
    Numbers 4:24
    Numbers 4:27
    Numbers 4:28
    Numbers 4:33
    Numbers 7:5
    Numbers 7:7
    Numbers 7:8
    Numbers 8:22
    Numbers 8:25
    Numbers 16:9
    Numbers 18:4
    Numbers 18:6
    Numbers 18:7
    Numbers 18:21
    Numbers 18:23
    Numbers 18:31
    2 Samuel 19:19
    1 Chronicles 6:17
    1 Chronicles 6:33
    1 Chronicles 9:13
    1 Chronicles 9:19
    1 Chronicles 9:28
    1 Chronicles 23:24
    1 Chronicles 23:26
    1 Chronicles 23:28
    1 Chronicles 24:3
    1 Chronicles 24:19
    1 Chronicles 26:30
    1 Chronicles 28:13
    1 Chronicles 28:20
    1 Chronicles 28:21
    2 Chronicles 8:14
    2 Chronicles 31:2
    2 Chronicles 31:4
    2 Chronicles 31:16
    2 Chronicles 35:10
    2 Chronicles 35:15
    2 Chronicles 35:16
    Ezra 7:19
    2 Maccabees 3:3
    2 Maccabees 4:14
    Wisdom of Solomon 18:21
    Sirach 50:19
    Ezekiel 29:20

    for λειτουργέω:
    Exodus 28:35
    Exodus 28:43
    Exodus 29:30
    Exodus 30:20
    Exodus 35:19
    Exodus 36:33
    Exodus 38:27
    Exodus 39:11
    Exodus 39:12
    Numbers 1:50
    Numbers 3:6
    Numbers 3:31
    Numbers 4:3
    Numbers 4:9
    Numbers 4:12
    Numbers 4:14
    Numbers 4:23
    Numbers 4:24
    Numbers 4:26
    Numbers 4:30
    Numbers 4:35
    Numbers 4:37
    Numbers 4:39
    Numbers 4:41
    Numbers 4:43
    Numbers 8:22
    Numbers 8:26
    Numbers 16:9
    Numbers 18:2
    Numbers 18:6
    Numbers 18:7
    Numbers 18:21
    Numbers 18:23
    Deuteronomy 10:8
    Deuteronomy 17:12
    Deuteronomy 18:5
    Deuteronomy 18:7
    1 Samuel 2:11
    1 Samuel 2:18
    1 Samuel 3:1
    1 Kings 1:4
    1 Kings 1:15
    1 Kings 8:11
    1 Kings 19:21
    2 Kings 25:14
    1 Chronicles 6:17
    1 Chronicles 15:2
    1 Chronicles 16:4
    1 Chronicles 16:37
    1 Chronicles 23:13
    1 Chronicles 23:28
    1 Chronicles 23:32
    1 Chronicles 26:12
    1 Chronicles 27:1
    2 Chronicles 5:14
    2 Chronicles 8:14
    2 Chronicles 11:14
    2 Chronicles 13:10
    2 Chronicles 15:16
    2 Chronicles 17:19
    2 Chronicles 22:8
    2 Chronicles 23:6
    2 Chronicles 29:11
    2 Chronicles 31:2
    2 Chronicles 35:3
    Nehemiah 10:37
    Judith 4:14
    1 Maccabees 10:42
    Psalm 100:6
    Sirach 4:14
    Sirach 8:8
    Sirach 10:25
    Sirach 24:10
    Sirach 45:15
    Joel 1:9
    Joel 1:13
    Joel 2:17
    Jeremiah 52:18
    Ezekiel 40:46
    Ezekiel 42:14
    Ezekiel 43:19
    Ezekiel 44:11
    Ezekiel 44:12
    Ezekiel 44:15
    Ezekiel 44:16
    Ezekiel 44:17
    Ezekiel 44:19
    Ezekiel 44:27
    Ezekiel 45:4
    Ezekiel 45:5
    Ezekiel 46:24
    Daniel 7:10


  2. I’ve heard both the ‘work of the people’ etymology as well as the notion of translating the Greek words here by their English cognates. Did they possibly originate, or at least gain widespread recognition, from a passage in Fr Gillquist’s book, or something like that?


  3. Mike> Thank you so much, my friend! Much obliged. And I only mentioned BibleWorks in the title because Moisés Silva reviewed it, and as you know, one of the chief burdens of this blog is to spread the knowledge of the infallibility of Moisés Silva throughout the land. Anyway, one of these days I'm going to have to learn to deal with this "Bible software"—or, you know, maybe not?

    Aaron> This "work of the people" folk etymology became current with the liturgical "renewal" in the Latin church in the middle of the past century. It surely must have been advanced before then, but only with this movement did it become a justification of sorts for a liturgical "agenda." As for the use of semantic anachronism in the translation of _leitourgew_, yes, I'm quite certain that it has become a widespread notion in Orthodox circles in North America due to the influence of Father Peter Gillquist's book, whose apologetical chapters are, quite unfortunately, something of a repository of exegetical (and historical) fallacies, "protestorthodox" style.


  4. Excelente! También aprecio el trabajo de D.A. Carson con respecto a las falacias “exegéticas”. Sobre la lista, hice una búsqueda en BW y para λειτουργία arroja 45 vs. con 47 hits; y para λειτουργέω arroja 93 vs. con 98 hits. Revisé la lista y habían 92 vs. y sólo faltaba 2Sam. 19.19: ἐλειτούργησαν (ind. aor. act. 3p. pl.). Dios te ayude en el arduo trabajo!


  5. ¡Mil gracias por tu ayuda, Manuel!

    Con respecto a Carson, su manual de falacias exegéticas fue uno de los textos más importantes que leí en mi primer año de universidad, y sus cuidadosas explicaciones me han salvado de malos pasos en la interpretación bíblica más de una vez. Es una lástima que todavía no haya sido traducido al español; a lo mejor ese trabajo nos toca a nosotros…


  6. Desconozco si hay proyecto de traducir al español las obra de M. Silva, D.A. Carson, B. Waltke, D.B. Wallace, et al. Pero, sería muy útil tener tales obras en español!


  7. I was just informed of a book actually entitled ‘The Work of the People’, which is apparently some sort of social history of liturgy. I said nothing about it, but inside all I could think was how apropos your post was, Esteban.


  8. ¡fantástico!

    Shall we oblige ourselves to learn from Aristotle?

    who writes in his notes in the Rhetoric (2.23.17)…

    ἄλλος ἐκ τοῦ ἀνάλογον ταῦτα συμβαίνειν, οἷον ὁ Ἰφικράτης, τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, νεώτερον ὄντα τῆς ἡλικίας, ὅτι μέγας ἦν λειτουργεῖν ἀναγκαζόντων, εἶπεν ὅτι εἰ τοὺς μεγάλους τῶν παίδων ἄνδρας νομίζουσι, τοὺς μικροὺς τῶν ἀνδρῶν παῖδας εἶναι ψηφιοῦνται,

    which we might “translate” as…

    Another “topic” [or is that “topicalization”] is from consequences by “analogy” [or “analogue”?]. For example, when they tried to force his son who was underage to “minister liturgically” [as a Levite or an Orthodox clergy-man, of course!] because he was tall [or “mega” gigantic], Iphicrates said that if they consider “mega” boys men, they ought to make “micro” miniature men boys.

    (really, I’ve been looking for better arguments against this sort of “nice” stuff.)


  9. Aaron> Now you know my pain first-hand.

    Josh> Shocking, I know! To think of all of those sermons I preached with a knowing tilt of the head as I read my "translation" of this verse.

    Kurk> Now, this is why I love you! You just made my year with that quote. Who knew that the Levitical and Orthodox Christian priesthoods were referenced in Aristotle's Speakerism?

    And yes, I was aware of zhubert’s online concordance, but I found it counter-intuitive and generally difficult to use. Really, all I wanted was a list, and it wouldn’t give me one!

    PS: I find being obsessed with this blog to be totally acceptable behavior.


  10. The OSB doesn’t even use the term “bishop” anywhere but this guy wants to use “liturgist.” That’s awesome.

    I have a family to support so I don’t have the time but I see a money-making opportunity. Somebody needs to create an English Bible translation where the goal is to use the English word that sounds closest to the Greek word. The translator can market it as the only “real” English translation. Many English speakers will be duped into thinking the claims of the translator are legit and others can purchase it for laughs.


  11. Charles, that’s BRILLIANT! Let’s start right now:

    Mt 1.1: Bible of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.

    And then in the genealogy, we can have “generated” instead of “begat.” Outstanding! Since you had the idea, we’ll name you Executive Editor and give you a cut of the earnings. ;-)


  12. According to my new theory, Biblical translators have been purposefully deceiving people for years by not telling people that God’s real name is “Theo.” Maybe the Cosby show was aware of this secret information and was trying to tell us something about God.


  13. Esteban,

    You are the only person I have ever met who knows that “liturgy” does not mean “work of the people.” I wish I hated sin as much as I hate this vomitous, trite, and ubiquitous canard.

    You are my best friend in the whole world.


  14. Adam> What a pleasure to make your acquaintance! Please be assured, O long-suffering soul, that it is not you alone who haven't bowed your knee to this philological Baal: I have met an (admittedly small) number of enlightened persons, including the newly-consecrated Bishop Jerome of Manhattan, who likewise understand that this is but a "vomitous," "trite," yet horribly "ubiquitous canard."

    (By the way, what splendid rhetoric! Why, it sounds like something right out of The Voice of Stefan!)

    I resonate with your sentiments of friendship, and hereby welcome you to the club of my BFFs! Let’s get in touch via Facebook, phone, or email.


  15. Esteban,

    I am difficult to reach by phone, and I don’t use facebook. But here’s my fake email address which will lead you to my real one, eventually:


    I might even tell you my real name, which isn’t “Adam Fallenoffenbar.”


  16. Adam> What?! You mean to tell me that this is a nom de plume?! I am shocked and distressed!


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