Numismatics and Greek Lexicography

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Michael P. Theophilos
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael P. Theophilos’s Numismatics and Greek Lexicography should not be ground-breaking, but it is. One would assume post-classical Greek lexicographers would have already considered all lexicographical evidence, so it is shocking they have ignored a mass of potential evidence the size of over 20,000 Greek inscriptions on Roman provincial coins. As Theophilos shows, the evidence found on ancient contemporary coinage is sorely lacking in the trusted lexicons. A telling example of this is the gold standard of Greek New Testament lexicons A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), which only makes five substantive references to numismatics and each is problematic. Numismatics and Greek Lexicography seeks to correct this weakness in New Testament studies by presenting a convincing case that including such evidence will enrich our understanding of Greek word meanings in the New Testament. 

Chapter 1, the introduction, offers a short survey of lexicons commonly consulted by those working in the Greek New Testament. All these have in common a virtual exclusion of numismatic evidence. The second chapter (“The History of Coinage“) touches on the concept and origins of money. Chapter 3 (“The Study of Coinage“) introduces readers to consulting and using primary and secondary sources on coinage to include bibliographies, surveys, and published collections in both print and digital form. Chapter 4 (“Critical Issues in the Appeal to Coinage“) answers potential objections to incorporating numismatic evidence into lexicography while also championing the strengths of such evidence. One example of just how prevalent our collective ignorance of coinage goes is the author’s discussion of the denarius. The reader will be surprised to learn that the denarius was not the standard compensation for a day’s work. And BDAG is guilty for perpetuating this fallacy. Compensation for a day’s work fell along a broad spectrum and only a “highly skilled labourer” would have been paid a denarius (99). 

The remaining seven chapters that make up the book’s second part are all devoted to case studies. The author demonstrates through at least ten Greek words how the evidence on coins can benefit our understanding of the New Testament. The first of these words is philos, “friend.” Citing the occurrence of this word in John 15, the author appeals to the evidence on coins to answer the question of whether this word occurrence communicates a relationship of intimacy and emotion or obligation. Each of these case studies considers a lexeme in a specific New Testament context and evaluates the numismatic material to determine what light it sheds on the lexeme. Another one of the case studies cites coinage to boldly argue that “king of kings” in Rev 17:14 and 19:16 depict Jesus Christ as the feared enemy of Rome—the Parthians. Part 2 serves the reader well as a pattern for using numismatics in lexicography. 

The conclusion thoroughly summarizes the contents of the book and suggests where to go from here. Numismatic evidence should also be incorporated into Septuagint studies and Hellenistic Greek in general. Because coins have been virtually ignored the possibilities for more case studies abound. The back matter includes a lengthy bibliography along with an “Index of Scripture References and Other Ancient Sources.” There is no subject index.  

My mellow critique of the book falls upon the case studies. Each is an excellent presentation in its own right, but they are disuniform and uneven in their contributions to lexicography. The reader may suspect many of these case studies had a life as papers before they became chapters in this book. One chapter even calls itself a paper (126). A more uniform approach to ordering the chapters with headings, New Testament context, literary evidence, and numismatics evidence, would make the author’s goals evident to the reader. There are even occasions where the author seems to lose sight of his overall goal by resorting to the iconographic dimension rather than lexicographical. An example of this is Kabeiros a lexeme that does not appear in the New Testament. Theophilos relates the imagery of Kabeiros wielding a hammer to illuminate Paul’s instructions to work in 1 Thess 4:9–12. While this is an exegetical contribution from numismatics, it is not lexicographical. 

The author seems to help the reader at every opportunity when it comes to presenting data. He includes an image of every coin he discusses. There is a helpful glossary of terms specific to the field of numismatics. The reader unfamiliar with numismatics would benefit from a longer glossary as some terms that appear in the book in reference to coins (e.g., intaglio and retrograde) are not included. The many tables are also valuable. These are generally well placed, but there are several that invade at unexpected moments such as Table 6, Electronic resources for numismatics, which appears several pages before electronic resources are discussed (66–67, 70). There are many lengthy Greek citations throughout the book. Their accessibility would have been improved if the author could have found a way to set these in bold font to help readers quickly identify which word the author is drawing attention to within a block of Greek text. The lexeme under discussion could also be set in bold font within the English translation. Translations of ancient languages are usually provided, but there are several instances where they are not. 

Significant ground-breaking books such as this are rare and the importance of this book cannot be overstated. It is clear, detailed, and correct in pointing out an unquestionable deficiency in New Testament lexicography making it an excellent book for anyone interested in biblical Greek. I hope it will be a catalyst for scholarly action to better our lexicons.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent Niedergall is associate pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
February 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael P. Theophilos is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University, Australia.


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