Why Did John Piper Say He Hardly Needs BDAG?

man studies a Greek word with Bible Word Study in Logos on a tablet

Recently, our ears at Logos were perked up by an unsolicited shout-out from well-known writer and careful scriptural exegete John Piper. He brought up two issues I’d like to address: (1) the use of BDAG, the great Greek-English lexicon; and (2) the use of commentaries, which is bread and butter for us at Logos.

I’m going to write a two-part series on Piper’s brief comments. Today: Piper’s comments on BDAG. Is BDAG a tool you should own?

Piper said to Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman on the Pastor’s Talk podcast,

With my Logos, and the power that I have to search Greek and Hebrew, I hardly need BDAG. What do you need it for? You do the work yourself.

I have purchased BDAG—Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich—three times:

  • I bought BDAG once in paper, a copy I soon sold because I realized that having it in electronic form would be so much more useful for me.
  • I bought it once for BibleWorks, a copy I also ultimately sold after BibleWorks died.
  • I bought it once and for all for Logos, and it’s a resource I use frequently.

I use BDAG in church, I use it in sermon prep, I use it for articles. I’ve even checked it while writing emails. I can use it in a house; I can use it with a mouse. I love BDAG, and I am right.

But so is Piper. I find that, over time, I have tended to use BDAG as often as I use commentaries: as either (1) a quick and trusty crib sheet for instances in which I lack the time or need to do my own work; or (2) a validation (and/or correction!) after I’ve already done my own work on the usage of a given Greek word.

Crib sheet

Sometimes I just need a quick refresher on a straightforward word—like εἰσπηδάω (eispedao). It’s the verb Luke used to refer to the motion of the Philippian jailer who “rushed in” to see whether all his prisoners had escaped in Acts 16. This is not a common word; it occurs only once in the New Testament and once in the Septuagint. BDAG gives me a quick and authoritative definition (“a rapid motion forward into”) and two simple, clear glosses (“leap in, rush in”). I doubt I would ever need to study this rare but straightforward word in a narrative context; BDAG gives me all I need and more.

The BDAG entry for εἰσπηδάω (eispedao)
The BDAG entry for εἰσπηδάω (eispedao)

Validation and/or correction

But when I have time and interest, and when a word is more important to my interpretation, I frequently use the Logos Bible Word Study tool to write my own “dictionary entry” for a given word.

For example, I was writing a video script recently in which I examined the Greek word ὑπόστασις (hupostasis), the word translated “substance” in the KJV at Hebrews 11:1—“faith is the substance of things hoped for.” The Bible Word Study showed me, beautifully and efficiently, all the places where the word is used in the Greek New Testament and in the Septuagint, and I found it particularly interesting that the word gets translated “confidence” in most of its few occurrences in the New Testament—at least in some translations!

Bible Word Study on hupostasis
Logos Bible Word Study on ὑπόστασις (hupostasis)

This rendering, “confidence,” fits Hebrews 11:1; it also has a historic pedigree, having been used by Tyndale here; and it honors the principle of concordance: it’s kind of nice to be able to use the same English word to translate a given Greek word when possible. It aids English-only word studies.

This is the kind of thing I’m sure Piper does without BDAG: he looks for himself to see how a given Greek word is used, and using principles of linguistics—especially “usage determines meaning”—he is able to essentially be his own lexicographer. Like he said, he hardly needs BDAG.

But, that word ὑπόστασις (hupostasis) provides a good example of why and how BDAG can be helpful. And to whom. Piper has a European doctorate and extensive experience with Greek. Even I, with my not-nearly-as-august Southern US doctorate, have some facility with linguistic concepts, and I’ve done some training and reading in lexicography. I’d love to think that anyone can learn to do his own word study, but I’m just not sure how widespread are the necessary skills.

BDAG entry on ὑπόστασις (hupostasis)
BDAG entry on ὑπόστασις (hupostasis)

And, frankly, ὑπόστασις (hupostasis) is a difficult case. When I looked it up, BDAG both validated my own work on the term (as far as it went) and offered ideas that had not occurred to me. BDAG mined the long tradition of discussion of this difficult word in English and in German; and it offered four distinct senses for me to evaluate. It expressed appropriate amounts of scholarly restraint by using phrases like “a strong claim can be made for …”—that in itself was helpful for me. It also incorporated evidence from extrabiblical literature.

This last point is especially important: I don’t know how good Piper’s skills are with extrabiblical Κοινή (Koine) Greek, but my experience in the world of New Testament exegesis suggests that such skills are rare. God revealed himself in history, using an established language. It is regularly helpful and important to see how Greeks of the day used a given word. That’s why BDAG references Josephus’s use of ὑπόστασις (hupostasis), among other ancient writers’ uses. This is work Logos can help you do—the Bible Word Study has a “Textual Searches” section that found two of the same Josephus references BDAG did (plus another BDAG doesn’t list!).

The “Textual Searches” section in the Logos Bible Word Study on ὑπόστασις (hupostasis)
The “Textual Searches” section in the Logos Bible Word Study on ὑπόστασις (hupostasis)

But checking Koine Greek from outside the New Testament and Septuagint is difficult and demanding work for which I’m very glad to have assistance from Frederick W. Danker, the D in BDAG.

Upshot

Upshot: I have followed Piper’s path by preferring to do my own lexicography before appealing to BDAG. And I use Logos just as Piper does. But when I hit difficulties, BDAG is my go-to tool, always.

My late friend Rod Decker wrote a review of BDAG shortly after it came out. Decker was a linguist, a scholar, a Greek expert, and this is what he said:

You will never accomplish any serious exegesis if you remain forever with only a beginner’s lexicon (as Newman’s Dictionary must be judged; it has other limitations as well). There is no other equivalent tool. Louw and Nida’s Lexicon has a different focus altogether. Abbott-Smith is much more limited (though handy enough to carry on vacation). Thayer ought not even be considered since his work is both inaccurate and seriously out of date (it is “pre-papyri”). The only other major lexicon is Liddell and Scott, but that work focuses primarily on classical Greek even though the LXX and NT are included. So buy BDAG (sell your car if necessary!) and learn to use it. You will not regret your purchase. (Journal of Ministry and Theology 55.1 [2001]: 122.)

Can I get an “affirmation of what is stated”?

entry from a lexicon in Logos with "strong affirmation of what is stated" highlighted
Amen.
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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is the editor of Bible Study Magazine and author of its back-page column, “Word Nerd: Language and the Bible.” He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also the host of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast and is an active (read: obsessive) YouTuber.

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Written by Mark Ward