Did you know that there are approximately 3414 words that appear only once in the Bible? These rare words are called “hapax legomena” and their meanings are a seriously neglected area in Bible studies, despite making up nearly 25% of the Bible’s total vocabulary! Research has begun to shed some light on these singular words, but today we’ll take a look at just five of them – what they mean and why you should care.
Φάρμακον (pronounced phar-ma-con) is a word found in Revelation 9:21 in a list of terrible sins (including murder). If you’ve noticed that pharmacon sounds a lot like “pharmaceuticals”, you’re right! These words came from this same family of words. Homer himself used it in the Odyssey mean “healing”.
But does this mean that the Bible condemns the use of medicine? No way! In ancient times, medicine and healing were often very closely linked to the invocation of divine powers. This word, in particular, referred to the use of concoctions or drugs whose production had involved the worship of the gods. Therefore, the use of this word in the Bible tells people not to rely on magic potions or healing based on the powers of other gods. In short: do not idolize, children. As far as the Bible is concerned, you are free, and even encouraged, to go to the pharmacy, see your doctor, and get vaccinated as you see fit.
Today we could translate it as “he walked the plank!”
In Philippians 2 we find a beautiful poem about Jesus, describing his humility and power. The first line is: “Who, being God by nature, has not regarded equality with God as something ἁρπαγμός (pronounced har-pag-mos)which generally seems to refer to robbery or robbery (although it is interesting to note that the Old Latin translation uses the word rapina, which, in addition to referring to robbery, could also refer to a field of turnips).
So does this mean that Jesus needed to steal equality from God? That he didn’t already have it? Does this verse say that Jesus really wasn’t God? Not so! This word is actually part of an idiom that refers to grabbing something for one’s own benefit. When taken with the next line in the poem, “but rather he emptied himself”, it becomes clear that Jesus already possessed equality with God, but he did not seek to exploit it or “get out of it”. fill, but rather it emptied itself.”
ἀπορίπτω (pronounced apo-ripto) appears in a story in Acts 27:43 about people jumping overboard during a shipwreck, to describe the action of jumping. However, this word usually means “throw”. Out of 3780 occurrences of this word in the ancient Greek language, it only means “to jump” three times, so what gives? The two other cases are: the first in Lucian 1.30 when he jumps from a ship to go for a leisurely swim and the second in Chariton 3.5.6 when he jumps from a ship to save a suicidal Chaereas. This shows us a very interesting pattern of aporipto with a special meaning “jumping off a ship”. Maybe today we could translate it as “he walked the plank!”
James uses this word to introduce his single-minded versus double-minded theme.
In James 1:5, each and his dog translate ἁπλῶς (pronounced hap-los) as “generously”. However, it seems to appear much less frequently with words for “give” than one would expect for that meaning. If we go back to Plato and Xenophon we find it is used in the sense of “singularity” and then over time people have used it in metaphors for “simplicity”, “openness” and “sincerity”, while maintaining the idea of ”celibacy” in his heart. Perhaps then, James uses this word to introduce his theme of single or double mindedness, which is present throughout the letter. Perhaps he is saying that God gives wisdom with one mind, without any conditions. So maybe we can stop hearing about how God is going to make us rich by giving so generously?
εὐπρέπεια (pronounced e-prep-ia) is used in James 1:11 to describe the beauty of a flower fading in the hot sun. This is part of a metaphor where the flower represents wealthy people who seem to hold a high position in the world but will lose that high position in heaven. The primary meaning of this word is indeed physical beauty, but it also refers to the visible appearance of things. And over time, that increasingly meant a visible good appearance that didn’t match a negative reality. Plutarch and Appian, writing in New Testament times, are particularly fond of this sense of “pretext” or “specificity”, using it almost exclusively. Therefore, this verse can say that the rich will simply lose their pretense of good reputation, that they never really had true beauty in the first place.
So there you have it, five words from the Bible that might mean something a little different than what you’ve heard. How many other nuggets of nuance are hidden among the many hapax legomena of the Bible? We will have to wait for further research to find out!
Sarah Lawson received her Master of Divinity from the Bible College of South Australia and is currently working on a PhD in Biblical Linguistics from Charles Sturt University. She is also a regular preacher, board member and youth leader at Mount Barker Baptist Church in the Adelaide Hills.