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Interesting words in the Bible

Interesting words in the Bible

On Sunday 13 October 2013 I led the evening meeting at City of Edinburgh Methodist Church on the above title. This is my script. Square brackets [ ] in the script enclose International Phonetic Alphabet symbols showing my intended pronunciations. I also used a slide presentation, which does not add any further content.

Opening prayer

Let us open with prayer.

Lord God, your Word is profound. Be with us as we look this evening at a handful of words within the Word. Where these words are central to your Word, guide our thoughts and make us always aware of your awesome presence. Where these words are peripheral to your Word, forgive us as we have fun with them. In every case do not let our thoughts wander far from you. Amen.

The name יהוה

The first word that I should like to look at is a profound one. It is the name of the God of Israel. In Hebrew it looks like this:


Let me say at the outset that I don’t know any Hebrew. I hope I know enough about Hebrew for the purpose of this talk. The four Hebrew letters, reading from right to left as always in Hebrew, are Yodh, He, Waw, He [jod he wɔ he]. In our own familiar Latin script that the English language is written in, they are transliterated as YHWH or JHWH. This four‐letter biblical name for the God of Israel, whether in Hebrew lettering or in our Latin script, is known as the tetragrammaton, which is just a fancy Greek word meaning four letters. I will pronounce it as ‘Yahweh’ [ˈja⁠ˌhwe] but you won’t find out why it’s pronounced like that for a few minutes yet. It may be written ⟨Yahweh⟩ or ⟨Jahweh⟩ also.

Now, the God of Israel is referred to by many different terms in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. One term is El [ɛl], which is a generic word for a god. Another is Elohim [ɛlo⁠ˈhiːm], which can mean a god or gods in general, or a specific god. A third is El Shaddai [ɛl ʃa⁠ˈdai], which is usually translated “God Almighty”. That is the how God was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A fourth is Adonai [⁠ˈʔado⁠ˈnai], which means “the Lord”. But Yahweh is special. The reason is that El, Elohim, El Shaddai and Adonai are merely ways of referring to God; whereas Yahweh, by contrast, is God’s name. It’s rather like the way we can refer to Jesus as Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, and in many other ways: but his name is Jesus. So God can be referred to in many different ways, but in Hebrew thinking his name is Yahweh.

It used to be supposed that the religion of the Israelites was monotheistic from the outset, but scholarship of the last hundred years or so has cast doubt on that. Early Israelite religion was influenced by Canaanite religion, and the Canaanites worshipped dozens of deities. Many scholars consider that ancient Israelite religion was at first not so much monotheistic as monolatristic, which means “one‐worshipping”[Note 1]: it recognised the existence of many gods, but worshipped only one of them, Yahweh, as the God of Israel. Many Biblical texts suggest this: I’ll mention just two of them. Psalm 86 says: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord.[Note 2] The question for the psalmist was not whether there is only one elohim, but whether there is any elohim like Yahweh. Deuteronomy 32 verse 8 reads: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humanity, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”[Note 3] I find it fascinating to think that when the early Israelites said El Shaddai – God Almighty – Almighty wasn’t just a courtesy title: it was a necessary defining adjective to distinguish the god who was almighty from all the other gods. It is only from the time of the second part of Isaiah, written in the 6th century BC, that there is any clear and unambiguous denial of the existence of gods other than Yahweh. Yahweh became the only god in the cosmos.

God is not consistently called Yahweh throughout the Old Testament. The Old Testament is compiled from a number of different sources. In one early source, known as the Elohist source, God is consistently called Elohim. In a later source known as the Yahwist (or Jahwist) source, God is called Yahweh. We can see the contrast in the two creation myths in Genesis. In the story in Genesis 1 where God made the cosmos in 6 days, God is consistently called Elohim. In the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2, God is consistently called Yahweh.

Yahweh can come across as more of a personal God than Elohim. Yahweh walks with Adam in the Garden of Eden in a way that Elohim could not have done.

We are now going to look at the opening of the 23rd Psalm, and Joe has kindly agreed to read the first three verses for us.

Pslm twntthr. Th Lrd s m shprd, ‌ shll nt wnt. H mks m l dn n grn pstrs; h lds m bsd stll wtrs; h rstrs m sl. H lds m n rght pths fr hs nm’s sk.[Note 4]

The English text looks very odd when we leave out the vowels, doesn’t it? And yet all the ancient Hebrew texts do that. Here are the first two words of the psalm as they appear in the ancient texts:

יהוה רעי

Reading from right to left, you may recognise the first word as the tetragrammaton, the name of the God of Israel, spelled Yodh, He, Waw, He:

YHWH [ˈja⁠ˌhwe] (is) my shepherd.

Now there are several things to notice here. The Hebrew text consists of the consonants only, as all the ancient Hebrew texts did: the vowels are omitted. The Hebrew text uses God’s name, which I pronounced as ‘Yahweh’. But most English translations don’t say “Yahweh is my shepherd”: they say “The Lord is my shepherd.” And they mostly print the word Lord in that peculiar way, with a full‐size capital ⟨L⟩ followed by small capitals. There are good reasons for this. Let’s look at them now.

When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon around 539 BC, they began to revere the name Yahweh so greatly that they outlawed the very saying of it, first for the common people, later for the priests. Finally, only the High Priest was allowed to say it, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement when he was alone in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple. The last High Priest permitted to say it was Simon, who died in 270 BC. From that moment on, no Jew has been allowed to say it. Right up to the present day. Whenever Jews come across the name YHWH, they pronounce it as ‘Adonai’ (the Lord) or ‘Elohim’ (the God). So when Jews are reading the first two words of the 23rd Psalm for example, they see יהוה רעי (YHWH roʿi) but they say Adonai roʿi.

What has that to do with us? Well, when the Bible came to be translated into English in the 16th and 17th Centuries, translators by and large followed the Jewish tradition and translated the tetragrammaton as “the Lord”. To indicate that they’d done this special thing with the translation, they printed Lord in that peculiar way. And the convention has continued to the present day: most modern translations still use these special small capitals.

Although the early translators of the Bible into English generally avoided using God’s name where it refers to God, they couldn’t avoid using it where the purpose of the text is to say what God’s name is. If for example the Hebrew text reports God as saying, “Tell the Israelites that my name is Yahweh”, then it wouldn’t make sense to translate it as “Tell the Israelites that my name is the Lord.” And this gave the translators a problem. Since only Jews used the Hebrew text and Jews never said God’s name, knowledge of how to say it had been lost. Nobody knew what the vowels were. It wasn’t even clear whether the name had two syllables or three syllables, as the four consonants were consistent with either.

The early translators thought they had the answer. They had access to a Hebrew text known as the Masoretic Text, produced in the 10th century AD by a group of middle‐Eastern Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes. The Masoretic text was filled out with marks known as Niqqud marks, invented by the Masoretes, that indicated the vowels. Sometimes they are known as vowel pointing. Niqqud marks are designed to be small compared with consonants, so that they can be added to existing texts without copying the whole thing out afresh. Here again are the first two words of the 23rd Psalm as they appear in the ancient texts:

יהוה רעי

And here they are as they appear in the Masoretic text, with vowel pointing:

יְהוָה רֹעִי

So the early translators looked at the vowel pointing of God’s name and they said, “We understand. It has three syllables, and the vowels are [ə], [o] and [a]. [⁠ˈjə⁠ˈho⁠ˈva].” And they printed it accordingly, with a variety of spellings.[Note 5] The [dʒə] sound at the beginning of Jehovah in modern English is much more recent, nineteenth‐century in fact. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, initial ⟨J⟩ was pronounced as we pronounce initial ⟨Y⟩.

Unfortunately the translators made two mistakes. They made one small mistake, and one big mistake. The small mistake is that they thought that the Hebrew letter Waw was pronounced [və], as it is in Modern Hebrew. Actually in ancient Hebrew it was pronounced [wə]. If they had known that, they would have chosen a spelling based on the pronunciation [⁠ˈjə⁠ˈho⁠ˈwa] instead of [⁠ˈjə⁠ˈho⁠ˈva].

But their other mistake was a whopper. They didn’t realise that the vowels placed on God’s name by the Masoretes aren’t the vowels of God’s name at all. They are the vowels of the word Adonai. The Masoretes had taken the tetragrammaton and filled it out with the vowels of Adonai, as a reminder to the reader to say Adonai. The consonants are the consonants of the tetragrammaton, and the vowels are the vowels of Adonai.

Origin of the word Jehovah JHWH JEHOVAH ADONAY
Figure 1: Origin of the word Jehovah[Note 6]

By reading it literally, the early translators of the Bible into English inadvertently shuffled two words together and made a nonsense. The [o] sound in the second syllable of [⁠ˈjə⁠ˈho⁠ˈva] comes from the [o] sound in the second syllable of Adonai. The [a] sound in the third syllable of [⁠ˈjə⁠ˈho⁠ˈva] comes from the [a] sound in the third syllable of Adonai. The vowels in the first syllables don’t match exactly, but I am told that they correspond in an important sense and that the difference between them has to do with the question of what vowels can go with what consonants.

Since Jews do not pronounce the tetragrammaton, the form Jehovah actually has little significance to them. It is ironic that Christians tend to think of Jehovah as a Jewish name, while Jews tend to think of it as a Christian one.

So if God’s name was not pronounced [⁠ˈjə⁠ˈho⁠ˈva], on what basis have modern scholars concluded that it was pronounced [ˈja⁠ˌhwe]? Well, first let me say that the conclusion is not a firm one. Debate continues. But it probably had two syllables not three, and [ˈja⁠ˌhwe] seems to be the best guess. There are two kinds of evidence.

The first kind of evidence is the meaning of the name. In the ancient Hebrew world, names always have a meaning, and a name communicates a person’s character. God chose to reveal himself to Moses in the name Yahweh, and so we should expect this name to communicate something about the character of God. Scholars tell us that the name means “he exists” or “he is eternal”, and that suggests, they tell us, that it was pronounced either [ˈja⁠ˌhwe] or [ˈji⁠ˌhwe].

The second kind of evidence is that there are surviving early Greek transliterations of the Hebrew text, and these suggest the pronunciation [ˈja⁠ˌhwe].

Perhaps it doesn’t matter much. The important thing about God’s name is not the pronunciation: it is that it reveals his character as the one who is eternal. It may be that we will never know for certain how the ancient Hebrews pronounced it. Unless we are lucky enough to find Moses’s audio recorder.

We will now sing a hymn that reminds us of God’s name: StF 465, Guide me, O thou great Jehovah.

Not all the words we will be looking at this evening are profound ones. The one we will look at now is distinctly lightweight.


Locusts, the swarming insects, have been known since ancient times. They appear in several places in the Bible. The eighth plague of Egypt was a plague of locusts. The Book of Revelation features an army of locusts, in appearance like horses equipped for battle, with scales like iron breastplates.

But the interesting feature of locust as a word lies in John the Baptist’s diet. Mark’s Gospel tells us[Note 7]:

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us the same thing.[Note 8]

As the centuries passed, the Church had difficulty with these words. The problem was not that locusts are nasty or that they were thought to be unfit for human consumption. The problem was that they are meat. As monasticism spread, John the Baptist was taken as a model for the ascetic life, and eating meat was regarded as an indulgence. Reading in the Holy Scriptures that John ate meat was an embarrassment. So what was the Church going to do about it?

In the second century, a Jewish Christian movement called the Ebionites, who were vegetarian, took the rather crude step of changing the word in their Gospels from ἀκρίς (akris), a locust, to ἐγκρίς (engkris), a cake.

In the fif‌th century Isidore of Pelusium, an Alexandrian ascetic monk, was more subtle. The word ἀκρίς, a locust, derives from ἄκρᾱ, a pointed end, perhaps because the locust has a pointed end or perhaps because it rests on the pointed end of plants. Isidore suggested that the ἀκρίς that John the Baptist ate was actually the pointed end of a plant. This explanation was widely accepted for many centuries.

A further explanation took hold in medieval Europe and still has its adherents. There is a tree native to the Mediterranean region known as the carob tree. Carob pods are a traditional food of the poor. The Greek word translated as “locust”, ἀκρίς, was also used colloquially to mean carob pod.

Figure 2: Locust
Figure 3: Carob pods

You can see the resemblance in Figures 2 and 3. Even in English, carob pods were historically referred to as locusts. Saintly men subsisting on nothing but carob pods are a documented motif in early rabbinic literature. If you visit Greece, the people will show you their carob trees, and they will explain to you with pride that its pods are what John the Baptist ate, and that they are known as St John’s Bread. They may even pour scorn on what they see as the misguided Western European belief that John the Baptist ate insects.

By the 12th century the Syriac author Jacob Bar‐Salibi was able to collect and record in his Commentary on the Gospels no fewer than eleven different explanations of this sort, all of them making John into a vegetarian.

Modern scholarship assures us that none of these explanations are necessary. The word ἀκρίς, locust, appears 26 further times in the Greek scriptures[Note 9] and every time it plainly means the insect. There is no reason to suppose that John the Baptist was vegetarian. Locusts are deemed clean for eating by the book of Leviticus. They were eaten by the poor in the Middle East in the first century, and they still are. You pull off the legs, the wings and the head. With the head, there come out the internal organs. What is left is pure muscle and very nutritious.

Two thousand years on we perhaps cannot know for certain what John the Baptist ate, but we can know what the Gospels say he ate. And modern scholarly consensus is that the Gospels say he ate the insects that we call locusts.

That tells a story of biblical interpretation that repeats again and again over the centuries. People read words in the Bible that have a plain meaning, they don’t like the meaning, and they jump through all sorts of hoops in an effort to change the meaning rather than accept what the Bible says. I’d like us to split into groups now for five minutes or so, and I’d like you to discuss within your group: what things do you read in the Bible that you don’t like, and in what ways do you manipulate the meaning so that it suits you? Is that always a bad thing to do, or are there times when it may be legitimate? You may consider for example things that Jesus said, or things that he did, or things that are said about him. I suspect that we all do it; so don’t be shy about it. For example, what about Jesus’s words, “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”? I’m sure you have examples of your own. Take five minutes.

Our next word is one of those that are central to the Word of God.


The name Jesus has a long and varied history. Let us trace it from its roots in the Old Testament.

The Book of Numbers tells us[Note 10]:

The Lord said to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan…”

So Moses sent them…

(I’m missing bits out so that we come quickly to the point.)

These were their names:

…from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea [ho⁠ˈʃea] son of Nun;…

Hoshea is the earliest form in the Bible of the Hebrew name that eventually became Jesus.

A few verses later[Note 11] we learn, in the words of the New Revised Standard Version:

And Moses changed the name of Hoshea son of Nun to Joshua [⁠ˈdʒɒʃʊa].

Here it is in the different transliteration of the King James Version:

And Moses called Oshea [o⁠ˈʃea] the son of Nun Jehoshua [⁠ˈjəho⁠ˈʃua].

As we have seen, ancient Hebrew names always have a meaning, and scholars tell us that the change of name instigated by Moses involves a change of meaning. Hoshea means “he saves”. The longer form Jehoshua [⁠ˈjəho⁠ˈʃua], Joshua [⁠ˈdʒɒʃʊa] in modern English, is probably Jeho‑shua [⁠ˈjəho‑⁠ˈʃua] or “Yahweh saves”.

There is a later Biblical character also called Hoshea: the last king of Israel, who lived in the 8th century BC.

The prophet of Israel whom in English we call Hosea, also in the 8th century BC, is again called Hoshea in the Hebrew Scriptures.

When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BC, one of the most pressing tasks was to reconstruct the temple in Jerusalem. The first person chosen as High Priest to oversee that task is named sometimes as Joshua [ˈ⁠dʒɒʃʊa] the High Priest, and sometimes as Jeshua [je⁠ˈʃua] the High Priest. This is the first appearance in the Bible of the form Jeshua. From that point in history, the name appears increasingly often in the form Jeshua and there are several other characters of that name.

The common language of Judea in the first century AD was Aramaic, and the Aramaic form of the name was also Jeshua [je⁠ˈʃuəʕ]. That is probably how Jesus of Nazareth was known to those around him. It is unimportant whether we spell it with a ⟨J⟩ or a ⟨Y⟩: these are merely different Western transliterations of the same Aramaic name.

The Greek form of the name is Ἰησοῦς [je⁠ˈsus], and that is how it appears throughout the Greek New Testament.

In English the form Jesus [⁠ˈdʒiːzəs] is of course used by most mainstream Christian denominations when referring to Jesus of Nazareth. The [dʒə] sound is peculiar to English. Some smaller Christian denominations, as well as Messianic Jews, use the form Yeshua [je⁠ˈʃuəʕ] on the grounds that that represents more closely the Aramaic form by which Jesus was known in his lifetime.

Throughout the Bible, the meaning of the name, “He saves” or “God saves”, remains paramount. In Matthew’s Gospel an angel of the Lord instructs Joseph:

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”[Note 12]

There are so many versions of the same name that we ought not to be surprised to find some confusion. In the King James Version of the Acts of the Apostles[Note 13] we encounter the bizarre statement that Jesus escorted the Tabernacle of the Covenant into the Promised Land. Jesus? The truth of the matter is that the Greek New Testament uses the name Ἰησοῦς both for Jesus of Nazareth and for Joshua the son of Nun, and the King James Version confusingly translates the name as “Jesus” for both men. It was of course the man we know as Joshua that escorted the Ark of the Covenant, and all modern translations call him Joshua to avoid confusion.

Apart from Jesus of Nazareth and Joshua son of Nun, the name Ἰησοῦς appears three further times in the New Testament. It’s the name of an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth in Luke’s genealogy, translated as “Jose” in the King James Version and “Joshua” in the New Revised Standard Version. There is a Jewish Christian in the letter to the Colossians, Jesus who is called Justus. And, notoriously, there is Jesus Barabbas, the bandit whom Pilate released. Jesus Bar‑abbas – Jesus, son of the father.

Jesus, Son of the Father? It makes you think, doesn’t it?

Cue for a hymn. StF 322: How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.


ἰχθύς [ix⁠ˈθys], ichthus [ɪx⁠ˈθus] in our Latin script, is the Greek word for fish.

Fish have a prominent position in the Gospels. Much of the Gospel narrative is set in the fishing village of Capernaum. Simon, Andrew, James and John were fishermen before Jesus called them and made them fishers of men. Jesus fed a crowd of thousands with the help of five loaves and two small fishes offered by a child. On one occasion Jesus instructed Simon and his fishing partners where to let down the nets, and they caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. Jesus in his post‐resurrection body ate fish.

Jesus used fish in his preaching too. He likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that is let down into a lake and catches all kinds of fish. He observed that no good father would give his son a serpent when asked for a fish.

The early Christians used both the fish and the word ἰχθύς as symbols of their faith. Figure 4 shows an early Christian inscription carved into marble in the ruins of Ephesus with the word ΙΧΘΥΣ in upper‐case letters.

Figure 4: Early Christian ἰχθύς inscription

Figure 5 shows an early 3rd‐century tombstone of a Christian who lived near Rome.

Figure 5: 3rd‐century Christian tombstone

It shows pictures of fish along with the Greek Christian slogan ΙΧΘΥΣ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ – Fish of the Living – in uncial script. The inscription above it may come as a shock to modern Christian eyes. The letters DM stand for Dis Manibus or Diis Manibus – to the gods known as the Manēs, Roman gods of the underworld who represented souls of the departed. These letters coexisted with Christian content on Roman graves well into the Christian era[Note 14].

Early Christian art frequently shows the Lord’s Supper with fish alongside the bread and wine. Figure 6, for example, is a 3rd‐century fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome:

Figure 6: 3rd‐century Christian fresco showing the
Lord’s Supper with fish alongside the bread and wine

Christians also used the word ἰχθύς in a pattern known as an acrostic, using its letters as the first letters of the phrase Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ – Jesus Christ, Son of God, (our) Saviour.

Figure 7: Modern cushion with ἰχθύς acrostic

Discovery of that acrostic is attributed to the Erythraean Sibyl, the prophetess who presided over the Oracle of Apollo at the city of Erythrae in what is now Turkey. It may be that this Christian slogan was intended in part as a protest against the claims of the Roman emperors to be sons of God.

Persecuted Christians who were forced to take shelter in caves frequently came across inscriptions of the ἰχθύς, telling them that other Christians had preceded them. It is said that when a Christian met a stranger, he would draw the top half of a stylised fish in the ground: if the stranger was a Christian, he would respond by drawing the bottom half to complete the fish.

Stylised fish
Figure 8: Stylised fish

In 1973 a countercultural festival known as the Aquarius Festival was held in the town of Nimbin, New South Wales. It was the birthplace of the Australian hippy movement. A group of young Americans brought to the festival what they called the Jesus fish. This sparked a modern revival of the symbol. Today it may be seen as an emblem on the back of cars or on clothing or jewellery as a sign that the owner is a Christian.

Figure 9: Modern uses of the Christian ἰχθύς

There were other secret signs used by the early Christians. A striking one is the word square in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Rotas Square

This is found scratched on walls and columns from very early Christian times, and has become known as the Rotas Square. Four of the five words are Latin: AREPO is not a Latin word, but may be read as a person’s name. Then the square can be read, with a bit of imagination, as meaning “Arepo, the sower, guides the wheels at work.” It’s not particularly good Latin. It reads the same from top left along the rows, from top left down the columns, from bottom right backwards along the rows, and from bottom right up the columns. The meaning of a Latin sentence is broadly independent of word order, and so we can also read SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS in four ways starting from the top right and bottom left corners. From its context it appeared to be a Christian symbol, but its full significance was only discovered in 1924 when a scholar named Christian Frank found that the letters could be rearranged as in Figure 11.

Rearrangement of ROTAS Square P A T E R O S T E R PATERNOSTER A O O A
Figure 11: Rearrangement of Rotas Square

Pater Noster – Our Father – is the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, and is often used as a name or a title for the Lord’s Prayer. In the corners we have Alpha and Omega, Omega and Alpha: God the first and the last. The probability that there should exist by chance such a meaningful rearrangement of the letters in a 5 × 5 square is negligible, and plainly therefore the Rotas Square must have been designed with this rearrangement in mind.

The ones that got away

Before we look at our final word, I want to mention brief‌ly three words that got away. I started my preparation with a list of eight words. The following three I had to abandon.

I was going to explain that the word sincere derives from the Latin words sine cera meaning “without wax”. Apparently sculptors in marble, when they made a mistake, used to fill in the hole with wax. When a client wanted to insist that his sculpture was not to be adulterated in that way, he would specify that it was to be “without wax”. Unfortunately this turns out to be an urban myth. The word sincere does indeed come from Latin sincerus meaning clean or pure, but that Latin word is much more likely to derive from Indo‐European words meaning “one growth”.[Note 15]

The book of Genesis tells us that, following the great flood, a united humanity speaking a single language resolved to build a tower in the city of Babel whose top would reach heaven. God was displeased and confounded their speech. I was going to explain that this was the origin of the verb babble in English. Sadly however, that is another urban myth. English babble is merely a frequentative based on the repeated syllable “ba”, typical of a child’s early speech.

Hocus‑pocus? Surely the word hocus‑pocus doesn’t appear in the Bible? Well, I was taught that it derives from the Latin words of the Catholic priests at mass, Hoc est corpus, “This is my body.” There is some evidence of this, but not enough for me to assert its truth. So that’s another one that I have to quietly drop.

Instead I now move on to the final word on my list. And it is a heavyweight.


When the writers of the New Testament put pen to paper, the Greek they were writing in was for them a foreign language. It was a Gentile language, with none of the rich vocabulary about God that they were used to in Hebrew or Aramaic. The Greek word θεός, theos in our Latin script, is a common noun, meaning “a god”. In Greek culture there were many gods. As the notion that there was one and only one God was foreign to the Greeks, there was no word in their language to denote such a being: there was no proper name for God answering to Elohim or Yahweh in Hebrew. So the writers had to fall back on referring to the Judeo‐Christian God as ὁ θεός, ho theos, “the god”. In Greek, proper names often take the definite article: ὁ Σωκράτης, ho Sokrates, “Socrates”.

From the Greek word θεός we of course get the English word theism. In its broadest sense, theism means belief in at least one god. But it has come to have the narrower meaning of the belief that there is one God only, and that God is distinct from the universe but takes a personal, present and active part in its governance. In that sense theism is distinguished from atheism, the belief that there is no god; it is distinguished from polytheism, the belief that there is more than one god; it is distinguished from pantheism, the belief that everything is part of an all‐encompassing God who remains wholly within the universe; and it is distinguished from deism, which is the belief in an impersonal God who started the universe and now leaves it to run by itself. It seems odd that the words theism and deism have come to have such contrasting meanings, when they derive respectively from the Greek word θεός and the Latin word deus, words which simply mean a god.

Because θεός is a common noun and not a proper name, the way is open for it to be used in the New Testament of entities other than the Judeo‐Christian God. Indeed it is used in that way at least three times in the New Testament. It is used of Herod[Note 16], and it is used of Satan[Note 17]. But for me the most fascinating use is a difficult passage in John’s Gospel Chapter 10. Jesus stands accused of making himself out to be God, or making himself out to be a god (θεός)[Note 18]. He answers:[Note 19]

Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods (θεοί)’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

Jesus is referring to Psalm 82:[Note 20]

I say, “You are gods (elohim), children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

The psalmist does not make explicit who is speaking or who is being addressed, but the rabbinic interpretation at the time of Jesus was that God is addressing human judges in Israel and Judah. That ties in well with what Jesus said, and it means that Jesus was approving of calling human judges gods. It seems clear that it was customary to use the word θεός of any great authority, especially any representative of God.

Closing prayer

Well, we’ve come full circle now. We started with the Old Testament name of God, Yahweh, and we’ve ended with the New Testament word for God, θεός. Let us finish with prayer.

God of Israel, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you that through your Word you have made your character known to us. We pray that we may never take your name or your character in vain. Send us out into the world to make your name and character known to all people. We ask it through Jesus Christ, Son of God, our Saviour. Amen.


  1. Greek λατρεύω, I worship
  2. Psalm 86:8, NRSV
  3. NRSV
  4. Psalm 23:1–3, NRSV, with the vowels omitted
  5. Iehouah, Jehouah, Iehovah, Jehovah
  6. In Figure 1, I spell ADONAY with a ⟨Y⟩ because for this purpose the Yodh was treated as a consonant.
  7. Mark 1:6, NRSV
  8. Matthew 3:4
  9. Twice in the New Testament, and 24 times in the Septuagint (the primary Greek trans­lation of the Old Testament)
  10. Numbers 13:1–8, NRSV
  11. Numbers 13:16
  12. Matthew 1:21, NRSV
  13. Acts 7:45
  14. The inscription underneath is:
    Liciniae Amiati – to Licinia Amias (the name of the deceased)
    bene merenti – well deserving
    vixit – she lived…
    and her dates will have been underneath that.
  15. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Latin word sincerus derives from the Indo‐European root *sm̥kēros, itself derived from the zero‐grade of *sem (one) and the suffixed, lengthened e‑grade of *ker (grow), generating the underlying meaning of one growth, hence pure, clean.
  16. Acts 12:22, NRSV: “The people kept shouting ‘The voice of a god (θεός), and not of a mortal! Immediately an angel strikes Herod dead, but the account tells us that this was because he had not given the glory to God: it seems it was not because of what the people shouted.
  17. From 2 Corinthians 4:4, NRSV: “In their case the god (θεός) of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
  18. John 10:33. NB: θεός, not ὁ θεός. This may mean that Jesus stood accused of making himself out to be a god, or to have the attributes of a god or the attributes of God. It does not necessarily mean that he stood accused of making himself out to be God.
  19. John 10:34, NRSV
  20. Psalm 82:6, NRSV