Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
Many distinctive Greek and Latin kur- and cur- words derive from an ancient root that has to do with probably a javelin kind of weapon, which was carried as a mark of authority. A cluster of these spear-carrying men would have formed the earliest forms of government of a tribe or village. These people were to care for their people and to cure any ails, and had the right to interrogate others by being curious.
The Christ and the Spear
The tribes of ancient Rome were ruled by a proto-senate called curia, and it's probably no coincidence that Jesus was made to wear a "crown of thorns" and that His death was demonstrated by a spear. The word Christ means Person Without Earthly Superior, and much of humanity's trouble began when certain folks took it upon themselves to rule others. The proverbial first to do so was Cain, and his name indeed means Spear.
This verbal pattern also lies at the base of ethnonyms like Saxons and Franks; a seax was a kind of knife and a franca was a javelin that demonstrated a person's social eminence. A person whose social status was annulled had "lost his spear" and was thus disenfranchised. Was his social status uncompromised, he could be frank and free, and speak frankly to whoever he wanted without scruples.
The verb κυρος (kuros) means to be powerful, but with the important nuance of political or collective power. This verb does not express physical potency but social, consensual power; it describes the kind of power that requires a society to exist, and is commonly asserted not by the odd demonstration of superiority but with a continuous display of symbols and regalia. Our verb κυρος (kuros) is probably closely related to another obvious kur-word, namely the verb κυρεω (kureo), which expresses agreement or resonance and can mostly be translated as to meet with, fall in with, to reach [a mark], to attain or obtain, to be right or successful.
Neither of the previous two verbs made it into the Bible, but a handful of derivations of κυρεω (kureo) did:
- The noun κυριος (kurios), meaning lord or master; see below for a discussion of this noun and its derivatives.
- The verb κυροω (kuroo), meaning to give authority to someone or to validate, prove or confirm something so that it can be believed or accepted by more people (1 Corinthians 2:8 and Galatians 3:15 only). From this verb come:
- Prefixed with the particle of negation α (a): the verb ακυροω (akuroo), meaning to de-authorize, make void or deflate. Jesus uses this verb to state what the Pharisees did with the Word of God (Matthew 15:6, Mark 7:13). In Galatians 3:17 this verb occurs in tandem with the next.
- Together with the preposition προ (pro), meaning before: the verb προκυροω (prokuroo), meaning to ratify earlier (Galatians 3:17 only).
From the verb κυρεω (kureo) derives the important noun κυριος (kurios), which reflects the same spear-carrying and social sense as the parent verb. The social power structures of the ancient world obviously worked different than our modern ones, but the noun κυριος (kurios) is actually surprisingly parallel with our words "sir" (which is short for "sire", which in turn is short for "senior" and means "elder" in the honorary and governmental sense) and "mister" (which is the same as "master", which comes from the Latin term of authority magister, which in turn comes from the same root as the familiar prefix mega-).
Our noun may be used as an appellation and then generally expresses natural respect for one's social status. But it may also be used as a regular noun, in which case it means authorized (the plural, κυρια, kuria, means the authorities), or validated, legitimate, ratified when it's applied to a statement or something like that.
The folks who wrote the Septuagint used our word to replace God's personal name YHWH, which is why our English Bibles speak of "Lord". This is really quite unfortunate, since YHWH refers to natural reality and the Way Things Are rather than to a social structure or human government — Hebrew theology was never a religion but rather a form of proto-science. The literary character of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is much more politically charged, also because the epithet Christ belonged to the king of Israel, and early Christianity, with its many responses to Roman imperial theology, was as much a political movement as a theological one.
Still, our translations speak of "Lord", which in modern English defines a category of dignity nearly wholly reserved for the divine, and which forces a distinction between human and divine dignity which may not exist. It's probably prudent to note that the Bible uses the same term of respect for the divinity and human beings. Or in other words: the people who wrote the Bible spoke of mister God and mister Jesus in the same way as they would mention a mister Bob or mister Mike.
In the New Testament, the noun κυριος (kurios) is applied to:
- YHWH (Matthew 1:22, Acts 7:49, James 4:15), sometimes in conjunction with familiar epithets such as Sabaoth (Romans 9:29, James 5:4), Pantokrator (2 Corinthians 6:18), and in the familiar phrase Lord of lords (Kurios ton kurieuonton; 1 Timothy 6:15).
- Jesus Christ (Matthew 17:4, John 4:1, 1 Corinthians 9:5, and of course many more locations).
- The Roman emperor (Acts 25:26).
- Certain real but not further specified powers or else cultural manifestations, known by some as gods (1 Corinthians 8:5).
- People with a high social rank: a property owner (Matthew 20:8, Galatians 4:1), a slave owner (Matthew 10:24, Acts 16:16), the head of a household (Matthew 15:27), a husband (1 Peter 3:6). In this sense our noun may be used to describe the manager of a process (manager of the harvesting process; Matthew 9:38) or the master of a ceremony or host of a feast (of the Sabbath; Matthew 12:8).
- Anyone who required to be addressed with the respect due to one's status: a servant his master (Matthew 13:27), a son his father (Matthew 21:30), a pupil his teacher (Matthew 8:25), dignitaries among each other (Matthew 27:63), or a stranger in conversation (Mark 7:28, John 4:11).
From our noun κυριος (kurios) come the following derivatives:
- The feminine κυρια (kuria), meaning mistress (2 John 1:1 and 1:5 only).
- The adjective κυριακος (kuriakos), meaning of or belonging to a kurios; lordly or masterly (1 Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10 only).
- The verb κυριευω (kurieuo), meaning to have or exercise authority over (Luke 22:25, Romans 14:9, 2 Corinthians 1:24). This word is also used to describe the dominion of death (Romans 6:9) or sin (6:14) or law (7:1). From this word derives:
- Together with the prefix κατα (kata), meaning down: the verb κατακυριευω (katakurieuo), meaning to overpower or subdue (Matthew 20:25, Acts 19:16, 1 Peter 5:3).
- The noun κυριοτης (kuriotes), meaning authority or dominion (Ephesians 1:21, Colossians 1:16, 2 Peter 2:10, Jude 1:8). This word appears to have been associated with a certain level of civil authority (perhaps comparable to our words "captain" or "chief"). Some commentators demand that this word denotes some kind of angelic genus, but that is with very little merit.