Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Book Review of Silva's Biblical Word and Their Meaning

Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Semantics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Pp. 8-211.

Silva is well-known for his work in hermeneutics and lexicography and this book is part of the reason why.

This book is divided into two sections, Historical Semantics and then Descriptive Semantics. The first section is largely devote to word use in history (as one might surmise), in terms of diachronic vs. synchronic linguistics. While recognizing a role for a diachronic method, Silva follows Saussare’s methodology in preferring synchronic linguistics while noting that the two are not mutually exclusive (p.38). For Silva, diachronic linguistics is of less value because people rarely use words based on their history (except in rare and often technical cases) but rather use words on the basis of the contemporary usage. His discussion of etymology provides a good caution in this regard, quoting Vendryes that, “Words are not used according to their historical value. The mind forgets—assuming it ever knew—the semantic evolutions through which the words have passed” (p. 46). With this, Silva does not dismiss historical usage or etymological derivation, but rightly cautions against loading them with too much freight, particularly in the case of common words. His historical section closes with two sections (pp. 55-93) on Semantic Change and the Septuagint and Semantic Change and the New Testament where he illustrates and further explicates his previous position, showing both the difficulty and value of trying to determine how and why particular words were used.

His section on descriptive semantics (part 2) is devoted to examining words in their context, and in comparison with other words that may have been used. He illustrates the various ways of relating words to one another (e.g., overlapping relations, contiguous relations), ultimately arguing that the meaning of words are determined by their context including their syntactical combinations

This book has a number of examples from several different language (including Greek, Hebrew, French, and English). These examples are well-placed illustrations of the various points under discussions. In addition, his work is sprinkled with comments about the relative strengths and weaknesses of various works, including a short annotated bibliography. It concludes with an appendix that serves as a case study for the words for worship in the NT. While this appendix was not written by Silva, it admirably illustrates the lexical and exegetical process defended by the book.

This book is probably not written for a beginner, in spite of being called An Introduction. It seems that some parts are made harder to understand than they have to be. It almost seems that an introduction to the introduction is in order, particularly when it comes to the meaning of particular words that are used throughout the book (e.g. homonymy, hyponymy, acceptation, phoneme, lexeme, etc.). These are all important concepts, but keeping them straight will be yeoman’s work for those unfamiliar with them.

Overall, this is a work that should be read—two or three times in order to begin to grasp the ideas in it. It should, however, be preceded by Silva’s God, Language, and Scripture as well as several other works on hermeneutics and language.

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