“Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, etymology, and hapax legomenon

What in the world does THAT title mean?  Who ever heard of starting a blog post that way?  That’s three big beasts in there, isn’t it?  I’ll explain, don’t worry. 🙂

Let’s start with II Timothy 3:16-17:

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

The English words “given by inspiration of God” all come from a single Greek word, theopneustos (see, I’ve already explained one of those things in the title, it’s the Greek word for “inspiration by God”).  There has perhaps been more written about this one Greek word than any other word in the Bible.  Anyone who tells you the proper translation of this word is a simple matter is confused, showing off, or just wrong.

No Dictionaries

Unfortunately, the day of dictionaries hadn’t arrived when the Bible was written, so we don’t have a handy dictionary of Koine Greek (“common Greek”, the language of the Bible) to tell us the exact meaning of the words of the Greek New Testament.  In translating ancient languages, we have to look at the clues to find out what a word means.

Some Clues or Evidence as to Meaning

Among the “clues” as to a word’s meaning in a particular document are:

  1. The way the word is used in other documents written previously or at the same time.  This can help us to understand what the word meant broadly within the language at the time.
  2. The way the word is used in related documents (Scripturally, this would primarily mean other books of the Bible).  This helps even more, because a word might have different meanings in different contexts, but if we can find it in a similar context, that is likely to be a strong indicator of what it means in the context at hand.  For instance, if we want to know what a Biblical author means by a particular word, our best evidence is not how Greek philosophers used the word, but rather how other Biblical authors used it.
  3. The way the word is used elsewhere in the document, or in other documents by the same author.  This is even better, because it gives us clues as to what this particular writer meant by the word.  Scripturally, this would mean, for instance, when trying to decide what John meant by a particular word, it is always a good idea to examine how John used that word elsewhere, and that may give us even better evidence than how Luke or James used the word.  If we want to determine what John meant in I John 1:1 by “Word of life,” we need to at least consider the possibility that it is similar to what he wrote in the first few verses of John 1.
  4. The way the word is used in the particular context at which we are looking.
  5. The words from which it is derived (called etymology — now I’ve explained another word from the title).
  6. The way the word is used in later documents.  This can help us understand what the word meant later — but meanings change over time, so it is an imperfect indicator.
  7. The grammatical context in which it is used.
  8. Any known connotations to the word or its components.
  9. Sometimes similar words in other related languages give hints as to meaning.
  10. Translations of the text into another language, when available, give further evidence — not necessarily as to the intent of the author, but certainly as to how the translator understood the word.

hapax legomenon

Words that only appear once are called hapax legomena (singular hapax legomenon), which means “said once” (and that explains the last of the three monsters from the title).  The meaning of these words can be more difficult to determine — we don’t have clues #2 & 3 above.  The Greek word graphe, for instance, appears many times in the New Testament, so we have many contexts in which to examine it.  Thus, we have enough evidence to know exactly what it means — “Scripture”.  A word that only appears once gives us far fewer clues.  We have to look carefully at its single usage in Scripture, and rely more heavily on the other clues listed above.

The Greek Word for Inspiration — theopneustos

Theopneustos is particularly awkward for us, because it is not only hapax legomenon, but its usage in Koine Greek (“common Greek”, the language of the New Testament) is very limited.  There is no conclusive evidence that it was ever used before Paul used it here in II Timothy — certainly there are no indications that Paul or Timothy had any prior knowledge of the word.  Paul may have actually invented this word (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit).  We can’t assume that any other usage of the word in Greek literature really had the meaning that Paul meant to convey, or the meaning that Timothy received when he read it.  In other words, not only are we without clues #2 & 3, #1 is no help to us, either.

Clue #10 is of limited value, as well.  We don’t have any translations of the New Testament within perhaps 150 years of the writing of II Timothy.  As a result, translations only tell us what someone much later thought theopneustos means.  They may not be entirely useless, because they may reflect an accurate tradition of the meaning which was passed down by Paul and Timothy through other believers, but in general we can’t rely much on clue #10.

Does that mean we don’t know what theopneustos meant (and means)?  Certainly not.  We still have clues 4-9.  For now, I’m going to skip over clue #4 and go to #5, etymology.  I haven’t forgotten #4, I’m just deferring it to a later post.

Etymology of theopneustos

As we look at how theopneustos was derived, we find it consists of three parts:

  1. theo:  from theos, the Greek word for “God”.
  2. pneus:  from pneo, the Greek verb meaning “breathe” or “blow”.  This is also the root word for pneuma, the Greek word for “wind” and (more commonly in the NT) “spirit”.
  3. tos:  this suffix in ancient Greek, especially with theos (“God”) almost always, if not always, indicates a passive form — it is describing something which is being done by God.

If we are going to define theopneustos etymologically (by its derivation), we would say something like “breathed by God” or “God-breathed”.  This is comparable, for example, to another theo-x-tos compound word, in I Thessalonians 4:9, where theodidaktos means “taught by God”.

We need to be careful with etymology.  I’ll give you an example from English.  Water which is safe to drink is called “potable”, which comes from the Greek root potamos, meaning “river” or “stream”.  We can see the connection between the English word “potable” and its root (when away from cities, running water is usually safe to drink, standing water often isn’t), but the meaning is certainly not identical.

Sometimes, after many years, the meaning drifts very far from the etymology / derivation, so that the connection between the two has virtually disappeared.  We should not immediately assume that, once we’ve nailed the etymology, we have the meaning.  Even if meaning and derivation are related, there can be quite a range of meaning.  Another word from the same root potamos is hippopotamus (the Greek word for “horse” is hippos).  If we defined it solely on etymology, we might decide that “hippopotamus” is a horse that lives by the river, a swimming horse, a horse used to tow a ferry across a river, the horse towing the river barge in The Wind in the Willows, or maybe even one of these (that’s just what I always thought a hippopotamus looks like!).  Etymology is helpful, but it is hardly the final answer to a word’s meaning.

Nevertheless, etymology is generally the best place to start with hapax legomena, especially if it might be a “coined” word — one that Paul himself invented.  Usually, when people invent a word, the meaning is closely tied to its derivation.  For instance, “blog” came from “web log”, and that is what a “blog” is, a log that someone records on the Web.  Fifty years from now, meanings may have changed, with “blog” having different connotations (probably it will come to mean “ravings lacking either facts or logic” :)), but at this point in its history, the etymology is very close to the meaning.  Since theopneustos was probably a relatively new word, even if not invented for this text, the meaning is likely close to the etymology.

Etymology — a Starting Point for the Meaning of theopneustos

We can’t entirely trust the way a word was derived to tell us its meaning, but it probably (in this case) provides strong clues.  Based on derivation, the Greek word theopneustos (“given by inspiration of God”) has a meaning related to “breathed by God.”  It is indicating something about the divine origin of the Scriptures — they came from God.  To discover if there is more than “from God” to its meaning in II Timothy 3:16, we’ll have to look for other clues, which we’ll do in my next post.

UPDATE:  Next in series, “Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos in Context
Meaning of theopneustos.
Main article:  The Scriptures — Inspired or Expired?

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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22 Responses to “Given by Inspiration” — theopneustos, etymology, and hapax legomenon

  1. LIMAPIE says:

    I know that you are interested in “inspired by God” with this posting.
    But, maybe you could help me with a side-line here.
    “PIE REX” This is Latin, not Greek. I’m pretty sure it means “Oh Sweet King.”
    The word PIE appears in 2 Timothy 3:12
    et omnes qui volunt pie vivere in Christo Iesu persecutionem patientur
    AND Titus 2:12 erudiens nos ut abnegantes impietatem
    et saecularia desideria sobrie et iuste et pie vivamus in hoc saeculo
    AND that’s it!
    REX appears a lot, however, I’m pretty sure I should be concentrating on
    Saint Timothy
    1Timothy 6:15 quem suis temporibus ostendet beatus et solus potens rex regum et Dominus dominantium

    So, I was reading about this Hapax Legomena thing when trying to find out about
    these two Latin words. Critics use this to discount Saint Paul’s authorship of these
    three Pastorals. And even, some critics use this to exclude these letters from
    I googled pie rex up and it came to a chant recently recorded on CD
    dalla missa major di natale: kyrie rex pie rex regum
    (I wish I knew in English what this title says.)
    So, maybe you would know if there was an occurrence in any other ancient
    writings of these two words. Authors’ names I’ve come across in connection with St. Timothy
    are Polycarp and Metaphrastes. I don’t have access to any old-time recordings. Thanx

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Friend, I am certainly far from a Latin expert. In fact, I recruited my kids to help on this one. 🙂

      “pie” is a form of the Latin adjective “pius”, which means good, upright, holy, godly, etc. It is a translation of the original Greek word eusebos, an adverb, which in English means “godly” or “piously”. The Greek word also appears in the Septuagint version of the Apocrypha in IV Maccabees 7:21, according to Abbott-Smith’s Greek lexicon. The adjectival form, eusebes, occurs in Acts 10:2 & 7, Acts 22:12, and II Peter 2:9, and means “devout” or “godly”. This occurs in the Septuagint in Proverbs 12:12, Isaiah 24:16; 26:7; 32:8; Micah 7:2, and frequently (again, according to Abbott Smith) in the Wisdom of Sirach and IV Maccabbees.

      I find Abbott-Smith to be a useful, if obviously limited, source for extra-Biblical references to Greek words.

      If you have access to a Latin version of the Apocrypha, you might check it for references to “pie”/”pius”, given the above. I’m pretty sure “pie rex” would mean something like “godly king” or “holy king”. The chant (the part starting with “kyrie”) probably means something along the lines of “Lord King, Holy King Reigning” or something like that, but my Latin is close to nil.

      I would hesitate to call “eusebos” a hapax legomenon. Yes, it only occurs in the pastoral epistles, but the same word in adjective form occurs elsewhere. In fact, I would see it as supportive of Pauline authorship, because Luke clearly was quite familiar with the word (adjective form), using it three times, and Luke and Paul were closely associated, spending extended time together. I would tend to assume that it was part of their conversations and made its way into the writing of each of them.

      The reason there are more hapax legomena in the Pastoral Epistles is because they deal with somewhat different topics from others of Paul’s letters. In writing about inspiration, I have used many words that I haven’t used when I have written about Proverbs, and vice versa. They are personal letters to one individual, while the others are letters to entire churches, or even multiple churches, in the case of Galatians. My public writing to a group differs from my personal writing to an individual, especially if I am writing to a good friend. Due to different topics and different recipients, we would expect to see difference, including hapax legomena, in these letters. Ultimately, we know that the words that were written are the words which the Holy Spirit intended us to receive.

      I hope all that helps a little bit.

  2. limapie says:

    Thank you and thank your kids.

    So I went over to that jewish story about the mother of 7 martyrs. I remembered reading
    that before. To her the WORD was 1st and she taught her sons that as well in spite
    of all the torture. That is what the quote from 2 Timothy 3:12 was about.
    In my religion, recently a great teacher was talking about how in Psalm 119 (in my particular canon set that we call the Bible,) the Torah or the Word of God was the life guide.
    It is just crazy that there are so many different TRUE WORDS out there, so many different ligt guides. All the religions have what they revere as IT. This is one big huge and terrific difficulty to faith. Back in the mother of 7’s time, the Torah was the Torah, pretty straight forward. That was inspired. Now, though, oh my goodness…how on earth did this happen? And how come God stands for this?

    • Jon Gleason says:

      In the Torah, the Old Testament Law, Moses talked about God sending other prophets. He also talked about God sending one particular prophet who would be like Moses in many ways. Hebrews 1:1-2 (and other Bible passages as well) tells us that Jesus was that prophet. He worked many miracles which showed this to be the case.

      It is not surprising that there would be many “alternative” “Scriptures”. People have always wanted to be their own boss, so people have always invented alternatives to God’s Word. And there will always be those who are willing to accept alternatives, because people don’t want to come to God on His terms. As a result, they will look around for another answer besides the one He provided.

      Why does God allow this? Perhaps one hint is found in the parable of the tares, taught by Jesus in Matthew 13:24-30, and explained in Matthew 13:36-43. Maybe one of the reasons God allows error to co-exist with truth is because to root out all the error would be too damaging to those who have believed the truth.

      Ultimately, I think, the answer to that question lies in II Peter 3:9. God is patient, because to deal with the error would be to come and judge the earth, and He is patiently waiting for more people to come to Him before doing that.

      God’s judgment will be terrible, because they have rejected His Son. His love was so great that He sent His only Son to die for our sins. For someone who rejects that gift of God’s, no punishment could be too great. But it is not God’s desire to deal out that punishment unless He has to, so He patiently waits for more to come to Him.

      • limapie says:

        Here’s where your religion differs from mine:
        God’s judgment won’t be terrible FROM Him.
        God’s judgment will be terrible on the other side, for those who
        reject Him and find themselves outside of His realm of love and mercy
        by their own free choice.
        When God takes all souls into management, those that still refuse to
        know He is Lord above All won’t be able to endure among the divine.
        It takes preparation to be able to know He is Lord above All. It
        takes preparation to withstand the “forging fires” of the divine and
        be capable of allowing oneself total abandonment to the truth.
        Unfortunately, all souls are in a “land of confusion” until that
        time comes. Only those who “beg” the Holy Spirit’s aid for
        understanding the truth will have a chance at withstanding
        pure love. It certainly doesn’t help that the life guide is all
        kitty wompus with this is ok and that isn’t ok.
        All souls have the example of Jesus to follow, Jesus who
        took the land of confusion and with the simple statement of
        his death—no human words needed–gave all souls the
        ability to be counted among the heavenly realm.
        All souls need to dig very deep to access His strength.
        Like I said, it takes practice and preperation for that

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Well, my friend, I don’t know that much about your religion, but mine isn’t exactly “mine”, it is just what the Bible says.

        Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and righteousness of men, who hold (hold down or suppress) the truth in unrighteousness.” That makes it clear that the terrible judgment is indeed from God.

        Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

        If God’s wrath were not a terrible thing, there would have been no need for Him to send His Son to die for us, but He did. Romans 5:8 tells us that “God commendeth His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God, in His love, wanted to deliver us, and sent His Son so we could see just how much He loved us.

        But we don’t need to work to be delivered from wrath, for the Bible tells us in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

        I’ll pray that you’ll come to a full understanding of just how much God loves, just how great His wrath and judgment will be, and just how great is the gift of life He offers.

      • limapie says:

        So I read what you wrote and immediately my thoughts ran to what Jesus said to Pilate.
        “You say I am a king.” John 18:37
        Then following the study helps, I jumped to Matthew 26:64 “You have said so.” followed by
        Jesus quoting Daniel 7:13.
        But then jumping to Mark 14:62, where Jesus was responding to the Sanhedrin, at first
        Jesus was silent and answered nothing, then he said “I am;” then quoted Daniel again.

        So I went to Daniel 7 and read in verse 15: I, Daniel, found my spirit anguished within its sheath of flesh, and I was terrified by” ——NOT GOD—- “I was terrified by the visions of my mind. ”

        And then again, in verse 28: ” I, Daniel, was greatly terrified byMY THOUGHTS, and my face blanched, but I kept the matter to myself. ”

        How do people become “goats?” Does God cause them to be that way? How do people become
        “sheep”? Are they so fearful of God that they fall in line against their will?
        It is not by guilt people love God. It is not by fear people love God. They love God because
        God LOVES them and that love does not inclued wrath toward them. The wrath —what you say
        comes from God—comes from man.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Certainly the wrath of God comes from God. He said it (in the verse I gave and others as well), and I believe what He said. We can’t use one Bible verse to deny another.

  3. limapie says:

    In Romans you quoted that
    These men who hold down and supress the truth in (their) unrighteousness will
    be revealed to. Paul states here that the revealing will look like wrath.

    Don’t you see? The wrath that man superimposes onto the Pure Divine, the Holiest
    of All Love, the Absolute Truth, is man’s personal defense against self-incrimination.
    It is MAN who incriminates himself! It is MAN by his own free will that wishes
    to be among the goats. And, unfortunately, on that day when Jesus returns,
    those goats are going to see their own reflection up against spotless pure
    and they will be ashamed and terrified. God won’t cast them aside, it will
    be MAN running to hide! It would be as if God were dividing, but God won’t grab someone
    and pull them over to the sheep’s side. God isn’t a dictator/pupet master who is really nice.
    God is not mean. God is not harsh. God is not exclusive….ever!
    Man says God is mean. Man says God is harsh. Man says that God will slice
    humankind in half, finally releasing all this vengeful hate that’s been building up
    all these thousands of years. My question is: where on earth did Man ever get
    that idea? From Man himself, not God.

    As for the sheep, it is only Jesus that has made them able to withstand the
    divine “fires” of purification. The sheep hear His voice; they know His voice;
    they follow Him–the ultimate guide, help, advocate, savior. They will not
    fear their own thoughts because they have prepared themselves for this day.
    They have practiced. They have repented of their many, many failings, and
    are thus free, not burdened down. The sheep have taken responsibility for
    being sinful—they’ve humbled themselves down and begged forgiveness,
    because they could! They didn’t even need to cower in fear because God
    offers forgiveness without cost! God offers eternal life without cost!
    That is what Pure Love does!
    The mind set of sheep is a peaceful one, a trusting one, a faithful one
    because Jesus showed them that and they believe Him—they truly
    believe Him. They know who God is and will be spared the totality
    of their mirrored, sinful reflection.

    Don’t ever tell anyone that ‘The wrath of God will strike you down, shape up
    or you’ll be sent to hell for sure.’ This is not the truth. It never was and never
    will be. People send themselves–or shame themselves–
    to hell if they so choose because the totality
    of their unrepented sin will be internalized to the absolute, fullest extent.

    Read Mark 26-29 This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
    It is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
    and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout
    and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord
    the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear,
    then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
    for the harvest has come.

    Mark write directly before this: For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible;
    nothing is secret except to come to light. … Take care what you hear.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Man incriminates himself indeed, and we are by nature the children of wrath (Ephesians 2) until God brings us to Himself by grace through faith. Those who do not come to Him are under HIS wrath (Colossians 3:6 and Ephesians 5:6 as well as the verse from Romans I cited earlier).

      This has wandered far from the topic of this post, and will be the last post on the topic of God’s wrath on this thread. I’ll delete any others on that topic.

  4. Pingback: A Little More on The Lexical Meaning of “Inspired By God” | Pastoral Musings

  5. john says:

    What book(s) gives the explanation for what you said -“tos” this suffix in ancient Greek, especially with theos (“God”) almost always, if not always, indicates a passive form — it is describing something which is being done by God.

  6. john says:

    Thanks for your answer. Here’s another question to add to my previous question. When you say “passive form”, does that mean “Passive Voice”? And is that just within the word theopneustos or towards the “All Scripture”.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, John. Yes, it is passive voice — except….

      Theopneustos is an adjective, not a verb. Adjectives don’t have active or passive voice, technically, that’s a verb characteristic. With many adjectives, though, they implicitly describe an action, a verb (in this case, it describes what Scripture is as a result of God’s action, which is why the translators chose “is” (current quality) “given” (the act that generated the current quality) “by inspiration of God” (the result of that act) to translate it.

      The point the grammarians are making is that a theo- -tos compound adjective means that the subject (in this case the Scriptures) is the recipient (passive) of an action by God. Thus, in I Thess 4:9 Paul says that ye are theodidaktos (“taught by God”). The Thessalonians received God’s teaching. The Scriptures received God’s inspiring.

      So to answer your question about whether it is passive within theopneustos, or towards the “all Scripture,” perhaps it would be better to say that the “All Scripture” is passive in the sense that it received something from God, and the form of this word theopneustos tells us that. This is not telling us that the Scriptures inspired God, or inspire us about God. It’s the other way around, this is telling us that it all starts with God. (Which obviously means it fits perfectly well with what we see multiple other places in Scripture.)

      Hope that helps a little bit.

  7. john says:

    I just read the second link and it said it is “passive in voice” I would have to think that means “Passive Voice”.
    thanks again

  8. john says:

    Hi john again,
    i was using the Etymology to theopneustos and of course theos means “God” and according to Liddell and Scott Lexicon they define pneo as 1. “to blow, breathe,” of the wind (of which i looked up all pneo in the N.T. & O.T. LXX and they translate it as to blow referring to the wind, and John 3:8 refers it to the wind like the Spirit of God). This is telling me that in theopneustos means that God blew out, i.e. breathed out every Scripture by His Spirit. furthermore, L&S says, that pneo means 2. “to breathe, send forth an odour, exhale.” 3. of animals, “to breath hard, pant, gasp.” 4. “to draw breath, breathe: to live.” 5. metaph. “breathing” spirit, to be of a high spirit. 6. “to breath favourably” or “graciously on” one, Lat. aspirare alicui. All of these are telling me that “God breathed out and into every Scripture” making it origin from God and it writing living (Heb. 4:12) even when we believe it in our hearts and speak it with our mouth (Rom. 10:10); pass, present, and future.
    thanks for your reply of knowledge
    P.S. this is helping me to know i am getting to the bottom of things in a correct way. i read other articles and one interprets it one way and another in another way. at first it gets confusing because you’re not sure who to believe, But it seems to me that both side are half correct in their reasoning, but on this site it seems to me that you take both side and therefore can stop its confusions. Because according to (L&S) and your reasoning, it goes along with their whole definition.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, John, thanks for the comment again. It does sound like we’re on a similar page here. The etymology points to “God-breathed” which sort of implies “breathed out”. But etymology is limited, and could lead us down a wrong path entirely. I don’t think it is an entirely wrong path here, but it is also not entirely right, and the “breathed into” (with all that means) seems very clear from other evidence, which L&S at least hints at.

      So yes, I would say we do well to accept the “breathed out” concept as part of this. But I also believe the “breathed into” aspect is the stronger focus in the context of the passage (and actually, the context of all of Scripture, as it talks about the living and life-giving nature of Scripture and the way Scripture uses derivatives of pneo — as I talked about in some of the related posts on this series).

      Thank you for the discussion. Your diligence in studying this through is encouraging, and if you have any further thoughts, by all means share them!

  9. Jonathan Fung says:

    Wow is so helpful

  10. Jarkko says:

    Theopneustos is a word Paulus wrote. So the man that met and talked to Jesus means that the word Theopneustos means inspire. The word inspire sounds a lot like the authors and profets just guessed what God wanted. Did Paul guess that he met Jesus? Was he ”inspired” to tell a story that Jesus talked to him? The bible is the word of God.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      The word “inspire” does not mean anyone just guessed. It means that the very life and spirit of God is in the Book.

      The word “inspire” has been watered down in modern language but that is not what it means in the Bible.

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