Re: How to find the meaning of words (was: A question about tombs)

From: Perry L. Stepp (
Date: Tue Apr 06 1999 - 20:28:48 EDT

From: Bill Ross <>

>Since I offered the post extracting flavor (not "meaning") from the
>*origins* of the two words for tomb, I think I'll throw in a couple more

This is neither a cooking class nor a list for homiletical suggestions
("sermon starters" or whatever). This list deals with understanding the
Greek text of the New Testament and related documents. The distinction in
flavor, shading, meaning, nuance, whatever, that you wished to draw between
TAFOS and MNHMEION depends on etymologies and assumptions that have little
or nothing to do with any flavor, shade, meaning, or nuance Matthew wanted
to communicate. What you offered was a "sermon starter" couched in Greek,
which had nothing to do with the Greek of the passage, in my opinion.

>* your "steps to understanding" below *completely excludes* etymology,
>which I consider a huge error;

The classic example of the folly of depending on etymology is hUPHRETHS in
1 Cor 4.1. In that passage, Paul tells the Corinthians that people should
regard Peter and Apollos and him as "servants (hUPHRETAS) of Christ and
stewards (OIKONOMOUS) of the mysteries of God" (RSV)..

Some expositors, including rather famous ones, have looked to the etymology
of hUPHRETHS in approaching the passage. The word derives from ERETHS, "a
rower", someone who rows a boat. Noting the prepositional prefix, and
menial pictures it and the word conjure, some expositors have suggested that
Paul is here referring to the lowest of servants on a ship, the slaves who
row the thing.

If we take the approach I suggested earlier, however, we find that in Paul's
time this word was most often used, in NT *and* extra-NT Greek literature,
to simply refer to servants, with no necessary implications of lowliness or
seaworthiness or any of that.

1. None of the NT uses of the word outside of 1 Cor carry these
implications (concordance courtesy of Bible Windows):
Mt 5.25; 26.58
Mk 14.54, 65; (Mark uses the word to refer to the guards at the high
priest's palace)
Lk 1.2, 4.20
Jn 7.32, 45, 46; 18.3, 12, 18, 22, 36; 19.6 (John uses the word to refer to
the soldiers/guards who arrest Jesus)
Acts 5.22, 26; 13.5; 26.16.

Since none of the other NT occurrences carry implications of special
subservience or meniality, we should be careful about reading that meaning
into 1 Cor 4.1.

2. Shall I go on? The LXX (Bible Windows) only has five occurrences of
hUPHRETHS, none of them implying special subservience or meniality.

3. Shall I go on? I have LSJ in front of me. The range of meanings under
the cluster of words hUPHRETHS belongs to include: serving on board a ship,
serving in a general sense, shop employees, religious acolytes, helpers of
various types, armor-carriers, army officers subordinate to generals, etc.
These include works by dozens of Greek authors across the first few
centuries BC.

===> My conclusion: to imply that hUPHRETHS in 1 Cor 4.1 carries
implications of special subservience or meniality is folly, based on
etymological wishfulness. In fact, our survey of the contexts suggests a
different possible avenue: the facts that
1. Paul uses the word,
2. Paul at times favors military metaphors,
3. hUPHRETHS could be used in military contexts both in and out of the NT

are far more suggestive of what Paul might have meant and how that
verse should be preached than anything etymology could generate.

>* your methodology is somewhat impractical because one has to assume too
>much about our understanding (*interpretation*) of the *intended meaning*
>of various authors, which in the end can have words meaning just about

If we aren't searching for the meaning the author intended, or the
understanding that an ancient reader/listener (based on our best
reconstructions) would likely have reached, then why are we bothering with
the Greek at all? (Dr. A.K.M. Adam probably has a response for that! But
this isn't the list for asking if "there's a text in this class.") Your
methodology is a marionette puppet with the strings cut loose--it
spiritualizes the text without regard for any context or historical referent
at all!

>Words themselves have meaning, much or most of which is
>conveyed in their etymology and historic usage.

I don't believe words have meaning apart from context, but that's a
philosophical discussion, again probably not for this list. Otherwise,
you're half-right. "Historic usage" is exactly what I have in view. Let me
close by quoting my original post on this topic: "Etymology and word origins
are secondary resources for finding a word's meaning, and can often be
misleading." Just ask William Barclay et. al. about hUPHRETHS.


Perry L. Stepp

Pastor, DeSoto Christian Church, DeSoto TX
DCC's webpage:
Ph.D. Candidate in Religion, Baylor University
#1 Cowboy Fan

Some ideas are so absurd that only an intellectual could
believe them
                          --attributed to George Orwell


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