Category Archives: greek

Defining Yourself By What You’re Not


One of the anti-atheist gems that started popping up around the early 2000s (at least, when I started noticing it) was the claim that atheism has no merit because atheist define themselves by what they’re not. It’s such a negative self-identification. Why not have a positive identification?

This post is going to attempt to be the one-stop potshot to end the whole “defining-yourself-by-what-you’re-not-because-of-Greek-etymology-and-is-therefore-bad” line of reasoning. Ready?

John 14.6

λέγει αὐτῷ Ἰησοῦς Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή: οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν πατέρα εἰ μὴ δι᾽ ἐμοῦ.

Oh that wily Jesus, defining himself by what he’s not!

I suppose you didn’t notice it. Jesus, in John 14.6, calls himself the truth. How do you say truth in Greek? ἀλήθεια or aletheia. Well, there’s an alpha at the beginning of that word, just like there is for the word “atheist”. And it has the same function, too. Aletheia literally means something like “un-concealment” or “not-oblivion”.

It might not be too farfetched that the highly educated Greek-writing author of the gospel of John was aware of this etymology and purposefully had Jesus — who is supposed to be offering eternal life — declare himself to be “un-oblivion” or “un-concealment” in this gospel; the only gospel to do so. It may also be one of the reasons why this gospel had so many ties with Gnostics.

So. Defining yourself by what you’re not doesn’t seem very vacuous now, now does it?

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Posted by on October 10, 2014 in greek


With Reverence And Fear


(Fearsome sauce?)

A few studies about religious belief that I’ve read over the past couple of days.

At PsyPost: Our relationship with God changes when faced with potential romantic rejection:

New research explores a little-understood role of God in people’s lives: helping them cope with the threat of romantic rejection. In this way, God stands in for other relationships in our lives when times are tough.

Most psychological research to date has looked at people’s relationship with God as similar to a parent-child bond, says Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We wanted to push further the idea that people have a relationship with God in the same sense as they have relationships with other humans,” she says. “The idea is certainly not new in terms of cultural discourse, but it’s not something that psychologists have done a lot of empirical work to study.”

Specifically, Laurin and colleagues wanted to see how our relationship with God changes as our other relationships change. So the researchers designed a series of studies, published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that experimentally induced people to believe their romantic relationship was under threat and then tested their feelings of closeness to God. They also wanted to examine the opposite idea – how people’s romantic relationships take on different meaning when their relationship with God is threatened – and tested how this dynamic changed based on the individual’s self-esteem.


Laurin’s team found that participants sought to enhance their relationship with God when under threat of romantic rejection – but only if they had high self-esteem. This fits with past work showing that people high in self-esteem seek social connection when their relationships are threatened.


Interestingly, in one of the studies, researchers looked at how people respond to a threat to their relationship with God, and they found similar trends… “We might have thought that people expect God to already know everything about them, and therefore that the concept of a ‘secret self’ that you try to hide from God wouldn’t really make sense,” Laurin says. “But we found that using that threat on people’s relationship with God worked in much the same way as it did with people’s romantic relationships.”


While the research did not specifically aim to analyze differences in this effect between religions, it did hint at some trends. In the study that included Hindus from India and Christians from the United States, the researchers found no differences when comparing the two groups; they both reacted similarly.

At Epiphenom: Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder:

‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.

There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.


What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans…

They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.

What do these two studies have in common? Fear. Fear of the unknown, or fear of your relationship status. It seems as though we turn to our social relationships (including god) to manage how we cope with uncertainty and/or loss. What was interesting about the Epiphenom study was that awe-inspiring things seem to temper uncertainty tolerance, and uncertainty in and of itself makes people more religious. This study also might explain why people get religious experiences when seeing awe-inspiring things in nature, like a frozen waterfall.

Interestingly, the Greek word phobos means both fear and awe. Its Greek synonym deos (fear, awe; used at Hebrews 12.28 “with reverence and fear/awe”) sounds pretty close to theos (god). Probably meaning the connection between fear/awe and god-belief was well known in antiquity so much so that it affected the language.

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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in cognitive science, greek


Life From Above


I was looking through some old posts of mine, searching for the word ἄνωθεν::anothen that’s used in the double meaning in John 3 but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. The closest I had was this post on Justin Martyr’s use. I assume I must have written what I’m about to write here in an IRL letter to someone instead of on my blog.

Anyway, anothen is defined at Perseus as meaning “from above, from on high”. The author of John uses this word as a double entendre in John 3.3, 16; evidencing that the conversation must have occurred in Greek since such a double meaning doesn’t exist in any other language. Here it is, in the author’s context:

John 3

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ: ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

I had done a word search of the word anothen in the NT that returned only 13 results; and in the vast majority of instances it is used to mean “from above”. Like in Mark 15.38 // Matt 27.51, where the curtain of the temple rips in two from top to bottom (εἰς δύο [ἀπ’] ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω). Three are used in the epistle attributed to James to mean “from above” as well. Five of them are found in John, three in chapter 3 and two in chapter 19; the three in chapter 3 are used in the double meaning sense. The ones in chapter 19 are meant in the from above sense.

Paul uses anothen to mean “from the beginning” in Galatians 4.9, and Luke/Acts uses it in the same manner at Luke 1.3 and Acts 26.5. This fits the evidence that Luke and Acts were written by the same hand, and maybe even had some sort of relationship to Paul… though that would be irresponsible to conclude that just from the use of this one word.

I suppose the English metaphor “taking it from the top” fits how anothen was used in antiquity; it could mean literally taking it from somewhere really high up or starting from the beginning. The metaphor might even be due to the nature of writing itself. If you read this blog post from the top you are also reading it from the beginning, and I assume that ancient Greek playwrites also wrote from the top to the bottom and is why the word anothen has both meanings in Greek.

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Posted by on April 1, 2014 in greek


The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

So I was reading Matthew chapter 1 in Greek and I stumbled upon this little gem:

1.25 καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως [οὗ] ἔτεκεν υἱόν: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν

That reads, in my own translation “And he did not know her (Mary) until she gave birth to a son: and called him Jesus”

So it looks like the straightforward meaning of this is that Joseph had sex with (i.e. “knew”) Mary after she had given birth to Jesus. Of course, there is a ready made apologetic for the plain meaning of this sentence, since Catholics have had over a thousand years to debate and prepare it:

Till she brought forth her firstborn son… From these words Helvidius and other heretics most impiously inferred that the blessed Virgin Mary had other children besides Christ; but St. Jerome shows, by divers[e] examples, that this expression of the Evangelist was a manner of speaking usual among the Hebrews, to denote by the word until, only what is done, without any regard to the future. Thus it is said, Genesis 8:6 and 8:7, that Noe sent forth a raven, which went forth, and did not return till the waters were dried up on the earth. That is, did not return any more. Also Isaias 46:4, God says: I am till you grow old. Who dare infer that God should then cease to be: Also in the 1 Maccabees 5:54, And they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain till they had returned in peace. That is, not one was slain before or after they had returned. God saith to his divine Son: Sit on my right hand till I make thy enemies thy footstool. Shall he sit no longer after his enemies are subdued? Yea and for all eternity. St. Jerome also proves by Scripture examples, that an only begotten son, was also called firstborn, or first begotten: because according to the law, the firstborn males were to be consecrated to God; Sanctify unto me, saith the Lord, every firstborn that opens the womb among the children of Israel, etc. Exodus 13:2.

The problem is that this makes sense if you assume the Perpetual Virginity of Mary from the start. But was that what Matthew intended? Matthew wasn’t a Catholic, so we have no idea whether he subscribed to the perpetual virginity of Mary, thinking of her as though she were some sort of vestal virgin. Maybe he put that in there to cement the idea that Jesus was born before Joseph had sexual relations with her.

Catholics, having syncretized a lot of their dogmas/traditions with the mores of the (pagan) Roman Empire, would be more likely to argue for that tradition based on being Romans. They would also have had traditions of aceticism since this undercurrent was around from at least the 2nd century; the idea of flesh and sexual relations being “sinful” inherited from the Gnostics and Marcion. They did get the basic layout of their NT from Marcion anyway.

There’s also no reason why Joseph would keep Mary around, being wed with her, and break the traditional Jewish requirement to be fruitful and multiply with his young nubile wife; Mary was probably around 13 or 14 when she gave birth to Jesus (assuming a modicum of the story is true). Joseph being a celibate, also, implies proto-Orthodoxy traditions of acetisim and not any legitimate (that we know of) early 1st century CE / late 1st century BCE Judaism.

Anyway, we should take Matt’s own writing in and of itself into account to determine what he meant. Earlier in the same chapter, a couple of verses before 25, he writes:

17 Πᾶσαι οὖν αἱ γενεαὶ ἀπὸ Ἀβραὰμ ἕως Δαυὶδ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ Δαυὶδ ἕως τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος ἕως τοῦ Χριστοῦ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες.

That is, “All of the generations from Abraham until David were fourteen generations, and from David until the Babylonian Exile fourteen generations, and from the Babylonian Exile until Christ fourteen generations.”

So what is the evidence we have? For one, we don’t know whether Matt was a Catholic, so apologetics from Catholic Jerome two centuries later might not represent what Matt himself was thinking. Second, Matt doesn’t seem to use ἕως in other contexts to signify “never”. Third, the phrasing of the sentence seems to have been written to emphasize that Joseph didn’t have sex with Mary until after Jesus was born because Matt’s emphasis was on the virgin birth of Jesus, not the perpetual virginity of Mary. Mary all but disappears from Matt’s special material after this introduction, meaning that her role as the immaculate conduit for Jesus’ birth was over in Matt’s mind. If Matt had intended for Mary to be depicted as a virgin for the rest of her life, he might have mentioned it elsewhere.

Of course, none of this is intended to dialogue with Catholics. Just my own lucubration.

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Posted by on October 5, 2012 in apologetics, greek, virgin birth


Wrath of the Titans!

2 Peter 2.4

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment

You’re probably wondering what this short verse has to do with Greek mythology and/or some recent movies. It might become a bit more clear if I write it in the original language it was penned in:

εἰ γὰρ ὁ θεὸς ἀγγέλων ἁμαρτησάντων οὐκ ἐφείσατο, ἀλλὰ σειροῖς ζόφου ταρταρώσας παρέδωκεν εἰς κρίσιν τηρουμένους,

ei gar o theos aggelon amartesanton ouk efeisato, alla seirois zofou tartarosas paredoken eis krisin teroumenous

There we go, the offending word: The verb form of the word Tartarus, which the author of 2 Peter is using to mean “cast into hell”. How’s that for syncretism? Both Hades (Matt 11.23) and Tartarus are mentioned in the NT. Of course, someone might counter with the fact that many English words also derive from Greek — like hysteria (womb) or energy (en ergos:: in work) — and this doesn’t mean that we have some syncretism with Greek mythology (our Western religions have syncretism with Greek mythology for other reasons).

But the difference is that Greek mythology was still believed by a great many people when pseudo Peter wrote this epistle. If he was walking around he might have heard some Greeks explicitly talking about Tartarus as though they really believed it existed as it does in Greek mythology; he couldn’t have not known what it meant, unlike how modern speakers of English don’t know what “psycho” or “pneumonia” or “sycophant” originally meant. I imagine if more people knew what sycophant originally meant and implied, feminists would have a field day.

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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in greek


Lord and God

Quotes from Philo’s lucubrations about why the LXX has both lord and god as a description of the god of the Jews:

Questions and Answers in Genesis (57) Why God places a cherubim in front of the Paradise, and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life?. The name cherubim designates the two original virtues which belong to the Deity, namely, his creative and his royal virtues. The one of which has the title of God, the other, or the royal virtue, that of Lord

Questions and Answers In Genesis (51) Why is he said to have built an altar to God, and not to the Lord?. In passages of beneficence and regeneration, as at the creation of the world, the sacred writer only refers to the beneficent virtue of the Creator, by which he makes everything in its integrity, and he implies this by concealing the royal name of Lord, as one which bears with it supreme authority; therefore now also, since what he is describing is the beginning of the renewed generation of mankind, he borrows for his description the beneficent virtue, which bears the name of God; for he used the kingly attribute, which declares his imperial power, by which he is called Lord, when he was describing the punishment inflicted by the flood.

Who Is The Heir of Divine Things? (205) And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Word is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. (206) And the Word rejoices in the gift, and, exulting in it, announces it and boasts of it, saying, “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and You;” neither being uncreate as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties: a hostage to the Creator, as a pledge and security that the whole race would never fly off and revolt entirely, choosing disorder rather than order; and to the creature, to lead it to entertain a confident hope that the merciful God would not overlook his own work.

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Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Adonai, greek, Hashem, josephus


The Hyperbolic, Yet Parabolic, History of the Diabolic

As you might have been able to tell from the title of this post (and the title of my blog), “dia” in Greek is a prefix, just like “para” and “hyper”. This means that the root word “-bolic” must mean the same thing. Our basic English has some examples that show us what the prefixes “hyper” and “para” mean (like paranormal contrasted with the normal, or a hypothesis contrasted with a thesis; paralegal, parallel, paramilitary, paraphyly; hypertention, hypergamy, hyperinflation, hypergyny).
If you happened to be a music major or have studied music theory a bit, you might be familiar with the term diatonic. In music theory, there is something called a diatonic scale. This comes from the Greek word διατονικός::diatonikos meaning [passing] through tones. As such, “dia” means “through” (in this instance). Then again, if you knew music theory you would already know that diapente means “through five”.
Now that we know what “dia” means, what does “-bolic” derive from? The word “-βολος” is the noun form of the Greek verb βαλλω::ballo which means to throw. For example, Jesus literally “throws out” demons when he exorcises them in the gospel narratives:
Matthew 12.27
και ει εγω εν βεελζεβουλ εκ βαλλω τα δαιμονια οι υιοι υμων εν τινι εκ βαλλουσιν δια τουτο αυτοι κριται εσονται υμων
And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.
So hyperbolic could be superficially translated as “over-throw”, parabolic to “throw-next-to” and diabolic to “throw-through”. Now we arrive at a seeming connundrum: How did the modern usage of “diabolic” come from its original Greek meaning of “throw-through”? Let's look at some examples of “throw-through” or “diabolic” being used in antiquity:
Plato, Seventh Epistle:
On my arrival — I must not be tedious — I found Dionysius's kingdom all full of civil strife and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion
ἐλθὼν δέ — οὐ γὰρ δεῖ μηκύνειν — ηὗρον στάσεως τὰ περὶ Διονύσιον μεστὰ σύμπαντα καὶ διαβολῶν πρὸς τὴν τυραννίδα Δίωνος πέρι:
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.146: But Herod now fell into a distemper, and made his will, and bequeathed his kingdom to [Antipas], his youngest son; and this out of that hatred to Archclaus and Philip, which the calumnies of Antipater (των Αντιπατρου διαβολων:: ton Antipatrou diabolon) had raised against them.
Plutarch, Caius Marcius Coriolanus 16: For they surely will not say that they are getting these as a grateful return for the military services which they omitted, and the secessions by which they renounced their country, and the calumnies (των διαβολων) against the senate which they have countenanced
So if διάβoλος means “throw-through”, how did it come to mean lies or slander? That's actually pretty easy if we think of certain turns of phrases in modern English. We can talk about hurling accusations against someone; this concept of hurling accusations has a long history and goes back at least to the time of Plato, as shown above. It comes from ancient courtroom dramas where the prosecution would “throw accusations through” the courtroom. 
So how did it become that a word that simply meant lies or slander transformed into the devil? It just so happens that the Hebrew word “satan” means the same thing that the Greek word “diabol[os]” means. Look at a sort of courtroom setup in Zechariah 3.1:
English: And he showed me Jesus the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him
Greek: και εδειξεν μοι ιησουν τον ιερεα τον μεγαν εστωτα προ προσωπου αγγελου κυριου και ο διαβολος ειστηκει εκ δεξιων αυτου του αντικεισθαι αυτω
Hebrew: וַיַּרְאֵנִי, אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה; וְהַשָּׂטָן עֹמֵד עַל-יְמִינוֹ, לְשִׂטְנוֹ.
In this case, in Hebrew, we have both the personification “Satan” and the verb form “accuse him”. There are earlier examples of the Hebrew “accuser”. Look at Job 1.6:
English: Now it fell upon a day, that the sons of God came to present themselves before [the Lord] (YHWH), and [the] Satan came also among them.
Hebrew: וַיְהִי הַיּוֹם–וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, לְהִתְיַצֵּב עַל (יְהוָה); וַיָּבוֹא גַם הַשָּׂטָן, בְּתוֹכָם.
Greek: και ως εγενετο η ημερα αυτη και ιδου ηλθον οι αγγελοι* του θεου παραστηναι ενωπιον [του κυριου] και ο διαβολος ηλθεν μετ' αυτων
As can be seen reading Job, “the accuser” had a responsibility in YHWH's service: to test people to see how worthy they are. As time progressed and Judaism comes into more influence from the Greeks, this accusing angel morphs into gods enemy. This can be seen in the NT, where the authors talk about Satan but spelling it Σατανας::Satanas in Greek; changing the Hebrew word into a Greek proper name. However, the Greek form of diabolos was still in common use among the Greeks. This word was ported over into Latin by way of Jerome's Latin Vulgate, where he translated “sons of belial” (many think this means lawless men or uncircumcised men; the LXX translates sons of belial to υιοι παρανόμων::huioi paranomon, literally sons of 'those besides the law') to “filiis diaboli”.
*While the English and Hebrew say “sons of god” (b'nei elohim), the Greek says “angels/messengers of god”.
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Posted by on October 28, 2011 in greek

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