Lexicons Can Be Wrong

By Hugo McCord

All Bible lovers recognize an unpayable debt to expert scholars whose years of close study have given us the meaning of the Spirit’s Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in our own language. According to Professor Arndt, Joseph Henry Thayer spent “twenty-two years of arduous labor” to prepare a revision of the Grimm Lexicon. However, those scholars are not “inspired” (2 Tim. 3:16, theopneustos, ‘God-breathed’), and none of them would claim to be error-free.

Since worship directed to the heavenly Father “must” (said Jesus, John 4:24) be done in a certain way, conscientious Christians will leave “no stone unturned,” no word unstudied, that will tell them what God will accept.

One of the words that the Holy Spirit has used to let us know how to worship God acceptably is psallo. In 1957 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich brought Walter Bauer’s German lexicon of the Greek New Testament into English. Bauer had translated psallo to mean “sing.” Arndt and Gingrich, on their own, added a phrase, “to the accompaniment of a harp.”

The new lexicon was considered to be “first rank in its field” (J.W. Roberts), and it gave welcome assurance to instrumentalists that the New Testament commands mechanical music in Christian worship. Previous lexicons (Grimm-Thayer, Green, Abbott-Smith, etc.) had limited the New Testament meaning of psallo to “sing,” but now that a lexicon with scholarly credentials had added the words, “to the accompaniment of a harp,” the matter was considered settled once for all in favor of the instrument.

However, since scholars had now lately determined that psallo requires the accompaniment of a harp, then no longer could instrumentalists say that mechanical music is optional. Further, not only must Christians use instrumental music, but each one must have his own instrument, just as each one does his own singing. The command in Ephesians 5:19 is to each Christian to “sing” (aido) and to “play” (psallo). So a Christian who sings but does not play is doing only half of what the Lord commanded. Is a person personally worshiping if a choir does the singing and an organist does the playing? Is proxy worship acceptable?

The A-G Lexicon Made A Mistake

Was the addition of a harp in the A-G lexicon really the end of the matter? Why had previous scholarly lexicons limited the New Testament meaning of psallo to “sing”? After the death of Dr. Arndt in 1957, Dr. Frederick W. Danker was appointed to work under the direction of Dr. Gingrich for a revision of the A-G Lexicon.

Under the date of September 28, 1962, I wrote to Dr. Danker:

On the word psallo, since Thayer, Green, Abbott-Smith, etc., limit the New Testament meaning to sing praises, I would appreciate the reasoning that brought Doctors Arndt and Gingrich to insert “to the accompaniment of a harp” in relationship to Romans 15:9; Ephesians 5:19; and 1 Corinthians 14:15. Further, why is this phrase excluded in relationship to James 5:13?

Under date of October 2, 1962, Dr. Danker replied:

It was so kind of you to take the time to make your inquiry regarding the word psallo. I see by comparison with Bauer’s first edition that the editors of the A-G have incorporated the obvious Old Testament meaning into the metaphorical usage of the New Testament. Bauer did not make this mistake, and we will be sure to correct it in the revision. I doubt whether the archaeologists can establish the use of the harp in early Christian services.

Dr. Danker consulted with the senior editor, Dr. Gingrich, and copy was sent to the University of Chicago Press omitting the phrase “to the accompaniment of a harp.” Dr. Danker wrote to Bruce Curd in 1964 that in a new printing, the phrase had been omitted. When Bruce inquired of the University of Chicago Press why the phrase was still in the new printing, he

Professor Gingrich feels that the comment makes valuable contributory information, and he prefers to leave this expression in.

So Professor Gingrich overruled Professor Danker.

However, Dr. Danker did not give up. When I wrote to Dr. Danker again (May 23, 1964), apparently he did not want to have a public disagreement with Dr. Gingrich, and only briefly replied that I would “see the results” of his “research” in “the scholarly channels.” But finally Dr. Danker prevailed, and the phrase was omitted in the 1979 printing, with an added explanation that those who favor “`play’… may be relying too much on the earliest meaning of psallo.”

However, Professor Gingrich’s prejudice for the instrument, not his scholarship, caused him to insert in the corrected B-G-D that “the NT does not voice opposition to instrumental music.” Similarly, the NT does not voice opposition to holy water, images, vestments, prayer candles, dancing in the worship, incense, the papacy, gambling, and ham in the Lord’s Supper. But the absence of “voice opposition” is not permission. When God is quiet, should a human being speak?

The Corrected B-G-D Has a Mistake

Though the B-G-D lexicon has removed Professor Gingrich’s phrase, “to the accompaniment of a harp,” it has gone too far in saying that psallo in modem Greek [that is, since the Old Testament] means `sing’ exclusively … with no reference to instrumental accompaniment” (p. 891).

On the contrary, in the very century in which the New Testament was written, psallo could mean “sing” or “play,” depending on what the writer had in mind. Josephus, in the first century A.D., wrote of some who “psalloed on the harp” (Antiq., 6, 8, 2), in which example psallo could not mean “sing.” Psallo with the meaning “play” is in the first century Strabo (Geography, 1, 23; 14, 2, 26) and in the first century Plutarch (Life of Pericles, 1, 5), and in the second century Lucian (The Parasite, 17). A second century inscription is cited by Moulton and Milligan (Vocabulary, psalmos) in which psalmos signifies a song sung with a harp being played by the fingers.

Likewise, Paul commanded Christians to do two things: aido and psallo (Eph. 5:19). If in Paul’s timepsallo meant “`sing’ exclusively” (B-G-D, 891) and aido meant the same thing, then Paul was commanding “singing and singing. ” Apparently then, Paul was commanding “singing and playing.”

But on what was the playing to be done? He did not command that it be done on a harp (as David did, Ps. 33:3; 68:25; 71:22), but on the “heart” (Eph. 5:19). If the instrument was a harp, then the playing necessarily would be literal, with each Christian having his own harp (as David). But the instrument was the heart, on which literal playing was impossible.

Therefore, psallo in Ephesians 5:19 must be figurative, that is, “plucking the strings of the heart.”

Professor Danker calls this a “metaphorical usage.” Of-ten the phrase is translated “making melody with your heart.”

So the apostle commanded two things: (1) singing (external as “the fruit of the lips,” Hebrews 13:15), and (2) playing (internal, on the “heart”). Since the earliest meaning of psallo (strengthened from psao, to touch) is to strike, pull, twang, or pluck, the translation of Ephesians 5:19 becomes:

… speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing [aido] and plucking [psallo] the strings of your heart to the Lord.

But in the other four occurrences of psallo in the New Testament, the renowned B-G-D lexicon says the word “means `sing’ exclusively . . . with no reference to instrumental accompaniment”:

… I will acknowledge you among the Gentiles, and I will sing [psallo] to your name (Rom. 15:9).

… I will sing [psallo] with the spirit, and I will also sing [psallo] with the understanding (1 Cor. 14:15)

… Is any happy? Let him sing praise [psallo] (James 5:13).

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 16, p. 8-9
August 15, 1996