RE: b-greek digest: March 19, 2000

From: BillGarrison (
Date: Mon Mar 20 2000 - 09:21:39 EST

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Subject: A question from a novice!
Date; Monday March 20, 2000
In our discussion of the question of the definition of AGAPH it may be
helpful to distinguish between its synchronic and diachronic meaning(s). The
synchronic meaning of a word is the range in which is employed during a
particular narrow time band, e.g. the New Testament. The diachronic meaning
of a word is a description of the range in which the word is employed during
a broad time band. A determination of diachronic meaning requires we trace
the evolution of a word's meaning through the historical development of the
Greek language: from pre-Homeric, to classical, to the LXX and finally in
the New Testament. Some words exhibit very little change through time while
others undergo a substantial shift in meaning. Therefore, the LXX usage may
be highly informative for some words, but may prove misleading for others.
A diachronic study of AGAPH reveals the word has underwent a substantial
evolution of meaning. Comparative philology has linked this evolution to a
shift in the meaning for several Greek verbs relating to "love", sparked by
a decline in the usage of KUNEW (to kiss) and leading a increase in the
usage of PHILEW, which in turn bumped the meaning of AGAPAW. During the 1998
W.H. Griffith Thomas Lecture Series held February 3-6, 1998 at Dallas
Theological Seminary, Donald A. Carson, delivered a series on the subject
"God Is Love," in which he addressed this very issue. The full text of the
lectures has been published in four parts in the journal BibliothecaSacra
volume 156; Numbers 621-624. The brief excerpt below is taken from that
journal (156:633; p.3.)
"First, careful diachronic work has been done on Greek words for love. In
the preclassical tradition, there was a homonymic clash between two words,
KUNEW, (to kiss), and KUNW (to impregnate). Certain forms of the two words
were identical (e.g., the aorist EKUSA). Inevitably this gave rise to many
salacious puns, which forced KUNEW into obsolescence, replaced by PHILEW
(which is used, for instance, to say that Judas kissed Jesus, Luke 22:47).
This meant, of course, that PHILEW could be taken to mean "to kiss" or "to
love," which in the Attic period encouraged the rise of other words for "to
love." By the end of that period and the beginning of the Hellenistic era,
the verb AGAPAW was one of those verbs, although there is not yet evidence
of the cognate noun AGAPH. In other words, there are excellent diachronic
reasons in Greek philology to explain the rise of the AGAPAW word group, so
that one should not rush too quickly towards theological explanations."
In light of this, perhaps we should:
1. Be careful to distinguish between the meaning of these word groups in LXX
and NT Greek.
2. Make a distinction between the meanings of the verbal (AGAPAW) and
nominal (AGAPH) forms.
Bill Garrison


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