An Attempt at Theo-semiotics

This is a paper I submitted for a New Testament exegesis class, my first attempt at theo-semiotics. Not sure if the Greek font will translate well but I think you will get the gist of it.

A Theological-Literary Analysis of e;rgon in James

Thoughts and intents

“…word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence will not remain unaffected and untainted.”  – Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power[1]

In contemporary culture, we find that communicating religious meaning is becoming increasingly difficult both with the confines of Christianity and within that of other religions. The world struggles to define things clearly when speaking on matters of importance as the world has moved into a place of autonomous self-definition. Linguistic philosophy has given birth to relativistic culture that proclaims it no longer feels the need for a unified standard of meaning. Where Webster once gave us the meanings for the words our language, the internet now allows for a steady stream of culturally redefined, repurposed terminology. Language is reduced to text-speak (LOL, OMG) and language evolves seemingly away from a sense of permanency to an uneasy collection of colloquial dialectical expression.

This makes the expression of theological ideas in relation to the general populace difficult to translate. We use terms like “save” or “redeem” to mean something from a soteriological context and the general public sees them as expression for financial responsibility or an exchange of goods or services based resulting from direct marketing. The language that once allowed us the precision to convey exact thought now id reduced to sound bites that become slang euphemisms. The question becomes, how do we translate an ancient language tied to a culture that no longer exists, to a modern world where the use of certain words may only last part of a generation (anyone “feelin’ jake” these days)?

There may be, however, a means of translation that can perhaps reach beyond this verbal milieu to offer a sliding definition that has the ability to be attached to new language as it develops. The means would involve the use of basic exegetical principles seen through the lens semiotic analysis. This analysis would bring about the synthesis of new words relevant to the contemporary language and vernacular used in a culture. For the purpose of this project we are limiting the examination to a single word that has been a bane to theologians for centuries, the Greek word e;rgon as found in the Epistle of James.

An exegetical analysis of e;rgon in James

E;rgon is used fifteen times beginning in James 1:4 and going through James 3:13 and usually in the form of a noun (the verbal form is ργζομαι used once in James 1:20). The predominate usage of e;rgon is reserved for James 2, where the word is used thirteen times. The word e;rgon can be used in variety of ways to illustrate the concept of doing something either physically or mentally and these meanings have some minor, in some sense technical variance from the use in ancient or classical Greek through the development period of biblical literature.

Ancient Greek meanings

Kittel notes the most basic, most common used definition is that of activity or active zeal[2]. While e;rgon can it can mean any kind of active work[3], it most often denotes useful activity in contrast to useless busyness[4]. It also speaks to work in the social or ethical sense either as a burden laid on man of as a necessary means of life and support[5] and can be used in the sphere of moral action[6] to which Kittel writes, “Honest work is the basis and meaning of life…man is judged by his works, his achievement, his deeds, his total conduct.”[7]

Biblical meanings

BDAG references this most basic Greek definition saying it is that which displays itself in activity of any kind, deed, action (in contrast to word). [8] However, it is used as well for the Creation acts of God[9] as recorded in the Septuagint. The second noted use biblically is that of fulfilling the Law as a Holy Work undertaken by the righteous[10] and work done as a divinely given task (God instructing man to do certain deeds on His behalf)[11]. It is frequently used in the above manner to describe people of exceptional merit, especially benefactors. This is exemplified in the author of James usage in vv.21-25, making the deeds performed by Ἀβραὰμ and Ῥαὰβ actions or works of faith done on behalf of or in the name and purposes of God.

The Pauline understanding of works is often seen as a negative in relation to the Jewish stress on works “to which there is an intellectualistic misunderstanding of faith.”[12] This however, should not be taken out of its context as the purpose of Paul’s writing and the audience it was intended for differ from that of James lending an emphasis that differs from The Epistle of James. The author of James has a view of works as a complimentary aspect of the salvific / sanctification experience (James 2), in relation to that which is a divinely given task, for God’s glory and man’s edification. This is found in the contrast between e;rga and pi.stij where the second amounts to nothing more than a verbal statement if not exemplified by action, a concept that would be echoed in the writing of Paul when read in the proper context.[13]

Exegetical thoughts in relation to e;rgon

To understand the meaning of e;rgon in relation to the Epistle of James, we must of course take into consideration the socio-historical circumstances under which was written. It is difficult to set the text historically as the epistle may have been written as early as the mid first century or as late as the year 200 CE. As such, we can only say definitively that it was written in the early Christian period and to the pre-Roman Church. If it is early, the text may be taken as a collection of admonitions in aphoristic form for the Jewish Christian church scattered outside of Jerusalem. If later, the text could be an expression of wisdom literature intended for the Christians spread across the Roman Empire.

The structure of the pericope where the predominant usage of e;rgon is found and where the most specific meaning is derived relates to James 2:14-26. This is a continuation of 2:1-13 based on the discussion of partiality in those verse and how they connect to the idea of acting on that lack of partiality by taking care of those we come in contact with who are in need.

The structure is that of rhetorical argument as noted by Blaz and Schneider who state, “The argument in Jas. 2:14-26 takes over the juxtaposition of pi,stij and dikaio,w from the Abraham tradition and explains that faith and works necessarily belong together (2:26)”[14]  Patrick Hartin constructs the argument after this fashion:

a)    Theme (proposito) – Faith without works cannot save you (14)

b)    Reason (ratio) – Example of faith without works in the community (15-17)

c)     Proof (rationis confirmation) – Argument against imaginary opponent (18-19)

d)    Embellishment (exornatio) – Argument from Scripture: Abraham and Rahab (20-25)

e)    Conclusion (conplexio) – Faith without works is dead (26) [15]

Hartin sees the argument as defining the idea of e;rgon in relation to the most classical definition in Greek, good deeds, not to be understood in the same fashion as one might understand the Pauline criticism mentioned previously. The argument, as presented above, shows how the writer of James clearly makes the case that faith needs works as an expression for proof of its existence while not falling into the trap of righteousness based, legalistic faith. Ralph Martin agrees, writing, “The thrust of James’ argument is that indeed there is no profit (i.e. salvation-bringing efficacy) for anyone exhibiting the type of faith exhibited in vv.15-16a.”[16] Hartin states, “The erga (“works”) to which James refers are understood as “good deeds”…and are not erga nomou (“works of the law”).”[17] These works are works born of recognizing the need to ‘give feet to our faith’ (2:15-16) and show that there is truly no partiality in us as we have both pi,stij and e;rgon, a balanced expression of being a Follower in the Way. Luke Timothy Johnson expresses the idea of acting out faith by consistent deeds by calling it “the theme implicit from the first.”[18] Therefore the ‘good deeds’ definition is an accurate one but must be qualified in context so that it is properly juxtaposed to be the physical expression of a sincere faith/belief.

A semiotic analysis of e;rgon

Semiotics is in essence the study of everything that can be taken as a sign or in a broader sense of anything that can stand for something else.[19] It is concerned with what can be termed meaning making and usually refers either to finding this meaning in relation to ‘text’ and ‘media.’[20] Two schools of thought in relation to semiotics have arisen with respect to the two figures responsible for birthing the modern understanding of this practice: Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914).[21] Semiology or semiotics as a term was coined by Saussure in his posthumously published work Course in General Linguistics.[22] For the purpose of this examination we will use the Saussurean method.

The principle methodology described by Saussure is based on the idea of understanding the sign in relation to the two parts that make up the sign, the signifier and signified. Chandler defines the Saussurean terms by saying, “The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified…The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’”[23] The signifier and signified were to Saussure pure psychological constructs[24], making the exercise of understanding signs well suited to a literary or philosophical pursuit. The signifier is considered the material or physical form of the sign, where the signified is defined as a concept in the mind, a “notion of the signifier.”[25] When the signifier is given / gives meaning to the signified, the process (called signification) creates a sign. By way of example we might consider it this way:

Signifier: write

Signified: write on the paper

The following image might help to illustrate the concept:


This process ‘makes meaning’ in the sense that there are many signifiers that could be used to give meaning to the signified in this case (write=scribble, jot, pen, etc.). In the case of literature and literary pursuits, the signifier is invariably a word which is intended to cause the psychological response of giving meaning to the concept in the signified. This process, signification, is something we as human beings do unconsciously, based on our experience of language and defined by the cultural constructs we associate with that language. Signs make sense only in relation to other signs and therefore need to be interpreted with/in relation to other signs as both signifier and signified are relational entities.[26] With these concepts in mind, we will attempt to apply this methodology to an arena ripe with signs and meaning: theology.

qeoshmei/on: a synthesis (theo-semiotics)

The purpose of applying semiotics to theology is to (1) find a means of translating theological concepts into modern context and (2) giving greater meaning to these concepts by that translation. Building on this concept of signs being understood in relation to other signs, we can make a linguistic analysis of theological signs in relation to their secular counterparts and in doing so not only define a biblical idea for someone outside the religious arena but also find greater meaning within the biblical context.

In this examination, we have considered the meaning of the Greek term e;rgon with respect to its meaning in James 2:14-26. According to our resultant exegesis of the term, we have derived a definition for e;rgon as being “good deeds performed in relation to a sincere faith.” If it were to be represented in the fashion of a Saussurean diagram, it would look something like this:


In the above, we see the signifier e;rgon in relation to the signified phrase good deeds performed in relation to faith. From this we see the complete sign formed in the psychological construct we consider to be: e;rgon. If we apply the semiotic process in a theological vein, it creates a comparative between the sacred (biblical) and profane (secular) which can be used to understand a sign greater than either individual sign. Combined they might be illustrated thus:

The sign above illustrates the process of comparative signification between biblical and secular where the terms e;rgon and deeds/works are equivalent terms acting as signifiers for the signified phrases “good deeds performed in relation to sincere faith” and “religious acts performed philanthropically for others on God’s behalf.” As none of the secular terms are privileged in the sense that they are completely static (as the biblical term is), they can be manipulated to form a sign that relates to any culture into which the sign is introduced.

The value of this in being able to constructs signs that have equivalent relationships across differing systems or expressions. In the theological-literary sphere, this would allow for terms which have specific biblical meaning to be constantly updated as signs with value to the current socio-historical or cultural circumstance into which they are introduced. In doing so, religious speak is no longer a privileged mode of communication but simply a static sign to be understood in relation to the variable, evolving signs of the emerging culture of the world.

Works Cited

Bauer, W., Danker, W. F., Arndt, W. F., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, Il, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Blaz, H., & Schneider, G. (Eds.). (1994). Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. II). Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics: The Basics. London; New York: Routledge.

Hartin, P. (2003). James (Vol. 14). (S. D. Harrington, Ed.) Collegeville, MN, USA: Liturgical Press.

Johnson, L. T. (1995). The Leeter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Kittel, G. (1964). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 2). (G. Bromiley, Trans.) Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Louw, J. (1982). Semantic of New Testament Greek. Atlanta, GA, USA: Scholars Press.

Martin, R. P. (1988). James (Vol. 48). Waco, TX, USA: Word Books.

McCartney, D. G. (2009). James. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic.

McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Pieper, J. (1992). Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power. (L. Krauth, Trans.) San Francisco, CA, USA: Ignatius

[1] (Pieper, 1992), p. 15

[2] (Kittel, 1964) p. 635

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] (Kittel, 1964), p. 636

[8] (Bauer, Danker, Arndt, & Gingrich, 2000), p. 390-391

[9] (Kittel, 1964), p.637-638

[10] (Kittel, 1964), p. 644-645

[11] (Kittel, 1964), p. 648-649

[12] (Kittel, 1964), p. 651

[13] (McCartney, 2009), p.53-56

[14] (Blaz & Schneider, 1994), p. 51

[15] (Hartin, 2003), p. 156-157

[16] (Martin, 1988), p. 80

[17] (Hartin, 2003), p. 156

[18] (Johnson, 1995), p. 245-246

[19] (Chandler, 2002), p. 2

[20] ibid

[21] (Chandler, 2002), p. 5

[22] ibid

[23] (Chandler, 2002), p. 18-20

[24] (Chandler, 2002), p. 18

[25] ibid

[26] (Chandler, 2002), p. 22

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