Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.

Another Biblical Scholar is No More

David Martinez (Associate Professor in both the Classics and Divinity departments at the University of Chicago), one of Francis Gignac’s students a long time ago, once told me that Gignac was far and away the best Hellenistic Greek grammarian alive today. All of us waited for the third volume, Syntax, of his projected trilogy on Roman and Byzantine Greek (volumes 1 and 2 were on Phonology and Morphology, respectively). But the third volume never was published. Perhaps an alumnus of Catholic University of America could locate his files, edit the volume, and publish it for Gignac posthumously.

My friend and former intern, Chris Skinner, recently blogged about the passing of Father Francis Gignac earlier this month. Here’s the link: http://cruxsolablog.com/2014/06/04/francis-t-gignac-s-j-1933-2014-skinner/


What Does “We are God’s fellow-workers” in 1 Corinthians 3.9 Really Mean?

Translations and Commentaries

The King James Version in 1 Cor 3.9 reads, “we are labourers together with God…” This unambiguously suggests that Paul and Apollos were considered in some sense on the same level with God. Of course, ‘in some sense’ covers a multitude of possibilities, but there nevertheless seems to be an underlying tone of synergism and mutual credit. (A similar translation is in the French Nouvelle Version2: “nous sommes ouvriers avec Dieu,” and in La Sacra Bibbia: “Noi siamo infatti collaboratori di Dio.”)

Most modern translations take a more neutral stance, translating 1 Cor 3.9a as “we are God’s fellow workers” (ASV [‘fellow-workers’], RSV, NASB and NASB 1995, NKJV, ESV, NIV), “we are God’s coworkers (HCSB, TNIV, and NAB2 [‘co-workers’; 2010]), “we do share in God’s work” (NJB), “wir sind Gottes Mitarbeiter” (Luther 1985), or “nosotros somos colaboradores de Dios” (Reina Valera2).

But some translations take a different interpretation. The NET Bible has, “we are coworkers belonging to God”; the REB says, “we are fellow-workers in God’s service”; the NIV 2011 reads, “we are coworkers in God’s service”; the TEV has, “we are partners together working for God”; the NRSV reads, “we are God’s servants, working together”; and “we are both God’s workers” is in the NLT2.

Thus, we see in the translations three different views: (1) Paul and Apollos are co-workers with God; (2) the statement is ambiguous, though tending toward the first view; and (3) Paul and Apollos are co-workers with each other in service to God.

Commentaries overwhelmingly fall into the third group, with some supporting the first interpretation. In the first group belong Theodore of Mopsuestia, Calvin, and Robertson and Plummer (ICC). In the third are Findlay (Expositors), Moffatt (Moffatt NTC), Barrett (BNT), Héring, Fee (NICNT), Kistemaker, Furnish (JBL 80 [1961]), Wolff (THKNT), Horsley (Abingdon), Collins (SP), Thiselton (NIGTC), and Keener (NCBC).

Significantly, if we were to chart out the translations and commentaries chronologically, we would see a tendency toward the neutral view (translations) and especially toward the third view (commentaries).

Table of Interpretations and Translations of 1 Cor 3.9


with God

God’s co-workers


for God

Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428)

Calvin (1546)

KJV (1611, 1769)

Findlay (1900)

ASV (1901)

Robertson and Plummer (19142)

Moffatt (1938)

RSV (1952, 1971; slight variation)

Reina Valera (19602)

NASB (1960–1977)

Furnish (1961)

Héring (1962)

TEV (1968–1992)

Barrett (19712)

Nouvelle Version2 (1978)

NKJV (1982)

NIV (1984)

Luther2 (1985)

Fee (1987)

NRSV (1989)

REB (1989)

NJB (1990)

Kistemaker (1993)

La Sacra Bibbia (1994)

NASB 1995

Wolff (1996)

Horsley (1998)

HCSB (1999)

Collins (1999)

Thiselton (2000)

ESV (2001)

TNIV (2001)

NLT2 (2004)

NET (2005)

Keener (2005)

NAB2 (2010)





Thus, of the 38 works perused, half see Paul and Apollos as co-servants only with each other, both working for God. The latest authority that sees them as co-workers with God was in 1978, a French translation of the Bible. The latest source for this view in English was the ICC commentary by Robertson and Plummer in 1914. From 1938 on, every commentary consulted regarded Paul and Apollos to be in the service of God. To be sure, this is hardly a representative sampling; it represents only the works I have at hand in my personal library. I understand that Weiss (1910), Davies (1972), and H. D. Betz (1986) all adopted the first view (according to John G. Lewis [DPhil, Oxford, 2003] who also takes this position), but I have not verified it yet. See also Victor Paul Furnish, “Fellow Workers in God’s Service,” JBL 80 (1961) 364 (whole article, 364–70), who adds Lightfoot and Wendland as supporters of the first interpretation, and Heinrici and Parry as supporters of the third.

Issues in Greek Grammar

Fee, Thiselton, and Furnish give some of the strongest arguments for taking the genitive θεοῦ as possessive or purpose (‘for God’) here, which center on the flow of argument in the context. But not one of the works examined gives any grammatical parallels to this understanding of the text. The normal Greek rule is that a genitive attached to a συν-prefixed noun/substantive will be a genitive of association, and thus translated ‘with.’ In order for the third view to gain some traction, at least some clear examples need to be produced of a genitive dependent on a συν-prefixed noun which is other than associative. Otherwise, it is just wishful thinking. So, are there any instances of such a genitive?

(Excursus: The Role of Syntax in Exegesis)

The role that Greek syntax plays in exegesis is often neglected in exegetical literature. I would say, in fact, that for most exegetes, any meaningful discussion of syntax seems to be wrenched out of them, if discussed at all. Too frequently, commentators will appeal to the “context,” almost as though just uttering that word magically settles all issues. It’s as if the first one to utter this incantation wins the argument! But context is not a given; it must be construed. And if no syntactical parallels can be found to support an interpretation which may seem probable from the context, then the interpretation cannot be certain. Exegetes have long seen this when it comes to lexical studies. They know they can’t simply invent a meaning for a word that it never has elsewhere just because the context seems to favor it. They know they are on much more solid footing if they can find some parallels lexically, especially if they are in Hellenistic Greek. It would seem that syntax should play the same role, but curiously it almost never does. In this brief paper, my purpose is to illustrate, with parallels as close as I can determine, of συν-prefixed substantives with non-associative genitive modifiers. Only if such parallels can be produced can one then bring in the contextual arguments for 1 Cor 3.9.

Genitive of Association in Hellenistic Greek

New Testament

(All parallel references are in bold for ease in locating them.) In Rom 11.17, Paul speaks of the Gentiles as συγκοινωνὸς τῆς ῥίζης (“fellow-partakers of the root”). The Gentiles are seen as fellow-partaker with their Jewish counterparts of the root. The genitive is objective (‘partake of the root’). In 1 Cor 1.20 we read ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου; (“where is the debater of this age?”). The word ‘debater’ means, loosely, dialogue partner. The genitive is temporal. In 1 Cor 9.23 we read ἵνα συγκοινωνὸς αὐτοῦ γένωμαι (“so that I may become a participant in [the gospel]”). Again, an objective genitive. In 2 Cor 1.24 again the associative genitive is implied (συνεργοί ἐσμεν τῆς χαρᾶς ὑμῶν: “we are fellow-workers [with you] for your joy”). In Eph 3.6 the head noun takes an objective genitive once again: εἶναι τὰ ἔθνη … συμμέτοχα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας (“in order that the Gentiles might become … fellow partakers [with the Jewish believers] of the gospel”). In Acts 21.30 we read that the whole town was in an uproar and ἐγένετο συνδρομὴ τοῦ λαοῦ (lit., “there became a rushing together of the people”). The idea here is most likely subjective (“the people rushed together”). In 1 Peter 3.7 the men are instructed to treat their wives with all due respect because they are “fellow-heirs [with their wives] of the grace of life” (συγκληρονόμοις χάριτος ζωῆς).

In 1 Thess 3.2 we have a very interesting illustration. There Paul declares that Timothy is τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἡμῶν καὶ συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ. This passage, like 1 Cor 3.9, has been understood in two different ways. Some take τοῦ θεοῦ as a genitive of association (“fellow-worker with God”), while others see it as possessive/purpose (“fellow-worker [with us], belonging to God/for God”). Many important witnesses read διάκονον τοῦ θεοῦ (“servant of God”) instead of συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ; others have διάκονον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ συνεργὸν ἡμῶν (“servant of God and our fellow-worker”); both of these would eliminate the possibility of θεοῦ being an associative genitive. Assuming that the Nestle-Aland28’s text is autographic (in spite of it being poorly attested), the variants may have come about because of a desire to clarify the meaning while simultaneously eliminating one possible interpretation. In spite of the argument of some exegetes, it seems to be saying too much to argue that the variants arose because scribes were offended at the idea that Paul put himself and his colleagues on the same plane with God. An equally plausible interpretation is that here the scribes wanted to clarify that this was not Paul’s meaning, since the context was more ambiguous than 1 Cor 3.9’s context, and the scribes there saw clearly that Paul did not see a synergism between God and men. Since there are no variants listed there in the NA28 apparatus, scribes may well have seen Paul’s meaning here, as well, to be clearly against a divine-associative view.

Now, except for Acts 21.30 and 1 Thess 3.2 (both of which could possibly be construed otherwise), none of these is an illustration of a συν-prefixed noun with a personal dependent genitive. Yet this is precisely what we see in 1 Cor 3.9, which begs the question as to whether θεοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν συνεργοί really can mean “we are fellow-workers [with each other] for God.” But at least what the parallels have shown is that the genitive of association may, at times, be implied rather than stated, even when another genitive is related to the συν-prefixed noun. And this would be in line with seeing θεοῦ in 1 Cor 3.9 as non-associative. But are there any unambiguous illustrations of a συν-prefixed noun with a non-associative personal dependent genitive? Most of the illustrations used in the previous paragraph are all found in my book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (130). But more are needed, especially those that are closer parallels.

Consider the following:


Antiquities of the Jews 8.133 (8.5.2): σύνοδον ἀνθρώπων (“a gathering of people”). σύνοδος is translated ‘fellow-traveler’ or ‘traveling companion’ in Ignatius, Ephesians 9.2, but such a meaning will not work here. The genitive ἀνθρώπων probably is a genitive of apposition/content (“a gathering made up of people”).

Antiquities of the Jews 16.351 (16.10.9): συνθῆκαι τῶν δανείων (“covenant [between the two men] concerning the debt”). Here the implied genitive is personal, while the genitive stated is a genitive of reference.

Antiquities of the Jews 17.51 (17.3.1): εἰς τὴν σύνοδον τῆς Ἀντιπάτρου μητρός (“for the meeting [arranged] by Antipater’s mother”). One might normally assume that after σύνοδος the genitive would indicate association. In this instance, however, Antipater’s mother arranged the meeting between others. Similarly, Josephus, Vita 311 (60), and Josephus, Vita 368 (66).

Antiquities of the Jews 19.107 (19.1.14): τοῖς συνωμόταις κινδύνων (“to [his] co-conspirators in the risk”). The implied genitive is personal while the stated genitive is a genitive of reference.

Jewish War 4.148 (4.3.6): συνεργοὺς τῶν ἀσεβημάτων (“fellow-workers for their ungodly acts”). The implied genitive is personal while the stated genitive is a genitive of purpose.

Jewish War 4.240 (4.4.3): τὴν σύνταξιν ὑμῶν (“your army” in the sense of “the army in service to you”).


Philo, Somniis 1.193: πρὸς τὸ τῶν φίλων ἔλθῃ συνέδριον (“when he comes into the assembly of friends”).

Philo, Specialibus 1.29: συνεργοὺς τῆς ἀπάτης (“co-workers [with each other] in deception”). Same word as is found in 1 Cor 3.9. The implied genitive is personal and associative, while the stated genitive is reference.

Philo, Contemplativa 40: τὰς κοινὰς συνόδους αὐτῶν (“their common assemblies”). The common assemblies which consists of them; thus, a genitive of apposition or content.

Greek Pseudepigrapha:

Rechabites 11.7: συνηθείᾳ τοῦ γάμου (“companionship [between them] of marriage”). Not personal, but the personal is implied.

Psalms of Solomon 4.1: συνεδρίῳ ὁσίων (“council of holy men”—that is, council comprising holy men, not a council in association with holy men).

Justin Martyr:

1.63 (27): τοῖς Μωσέως συντάγμασι (“the collected writings of Moses”—i.e., Moses wrote these collected writings).


It seems to be sufficiently established that a genitive dependent on a συν-prefixed substantive can indeed be other than a genitive of association in Hellenistic Greek. And this is even found in some instances in which (a) either a genitive of association is not stated or in which (b) the genitive that is present is personal. In the first category are the following texts: Rom 11.17; 1 Cor 1.20 (possibly); 1 Cor 9.23; 2 Cor 1.24; Eph 3.6; 1 Peter 3.7; Josephus, Ant. 16.351; Josephus, Ant. 17.51; Josephus, Ant. 19.107; Josephus, Jewish War 4.148; Philo, Specialibus 1.29; and Rechabites 11.7. (Both 1 Cor 3.9 and 1 Thess 3.2 may belong here, too, but since the former is our target passage and the latter is equally disputed, they should not be counted.) In the second category are Acts 21.30; Josephus, Ant. 8.133; Josephus, Ant. 17.51; Josephus, Jewish War 4.240; Philo, Somniis 1.193; Philo, Contemplativa 40; Psalms of Solomon 4.1; and Justin Martyr 1.63. One text in particular is doubly parallel: Josephus, Ant. 17.51. All of this paves the way for both 1 Cor 3.9 and 1 Thess 3.2 to indicate association between men in the service of God.

Having established the syntactical parallels, we now need to proceed to look at the context of 1 Cor 3.9. Fee succinctly states the argument: “In the Greek text, the emphasis is altogether on God: ‘God’s we are, being fellow workers; God’s field, God’s building, you are.’ Some have suggested that Paul here intends, as the KJV has it, ‘we are laborers together with God.’ But everything in the context speaks against it: the emphatic position of the genitive (‘God’s’) suggests possession, as do the following, equally emphatic, genitives, which are unambiguously possessive; the argument of the whole paragraph emphasizes their unity in fellow labor under God, an argument that would be undercut considerably if he were now emphasizing that they worked with God in Corinth; and finally, these new ‘slogans’ serve as the climax of the whole paragraph, in which the emphasis is decidedly on God’s ownership, not on Paul’s and Apollos’s working with him in Corinth” (G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987] 134).

To sum up, the translation of 1 Cor 3.9 as “we are co-workers belonging to God” (NET) or the like is strongly justified in light of the most probable construal of the context, and is legitimate in light of the syntactical parallels.