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 (hence our word "curator"). These people were to care for their people and to cure any ails, and had the right to interrogate matters 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 or military potency but social and mostly 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 and of course the compliance of the people ruled. Mere ruling by merit of being powerful is mostly expressed by the noun κρατος (kratos; hence the familiar name Pantokrator), but our verb κυρος (kuros) has to do with the kind of government that finds itself naturally produced by the wider desires of a society that's becoming increasingly complex: a government from the people, for the people and by the people. Our verb κυρος (kuros) is closely akin another obvious kur-word, namely the verb κυρεω (kureo), which expresses agreement or social resonance, and carries a subtone of achieving social success and status.
Neither of the previous two verbs made it into the Bible, but a handful of derivations of κυρεω (kureo) did:
- The ubiquitous noun κυριος (kurios), meaning sir, mister, master, lord or Lord; see below for a discussion of this noun and its derivatives.
- The verb κυροω (kuroo), meaning to acknowledge or demonstrate the inherent authority of someone or something; to validate, prove or confirm something so that it can be believed or accepted by more people. In that sense this verb means to substantiate (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 actual or implied social status (on a par with our "sir" or "mister"). But it may also be used as a substantive, in which case it means something like "gentleman". Our word denotes, or implies to denote, someone authorized or something validated, legitimated, ratified or substantiated when it's applied to a statement or something like that.
But the key point is that this word expresses inherent authority rather than assigned or forcibly wrought authority — it originally described the alpha male of a small tribe or household (and as such is on a par with the Hebrew word אב, ab, or "father") and although an alpha status must obviously be acquired by demonstration, once that is done this status remains in place by the merit of social consensus. Obviously, in more complex societies, the alpha male is the wiser one rather than the stronger one, but wisdom is demonstrated by results just the same (Luke 7:35).
It's precisely this natural selective principle that is referred to when Jesus amazed the people, teaching, not alike the scribes but having authority (Matthew 7:29) and although the word used here is εξουσιαζω (exousiazo), it actually illustrates our word kurios' second important nuance, namely that the kurios is an intimate part of the society he so fatherly governs. The kurios is the alpha male of the group he himself grew up in, or whose members are all his closest family or offspring. He's the kind of leader who loves his people because they are his own, and his people love him for the same reason. The word kurios does not refer to a distant windbag who does little beyond appropriating "his" people's tax money but carries the spirit that make people say abba, father (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6), or pant it in the ear of the husband they are crazy about (1 Peter 3:6). It's the kind of authority that comes from love and admiration, the kind that takes a people places, that brings about offspring, prosperity and great joy.
Our word kurios, significantly, refers to someone who's just one or two rungs higher up on the social ladder. It's what a private would say to a sergeant or a colonel to a general, but it is not what a private would say to a general.
Kurios Theos — mister God
In Greek mythology the word kurios was only very sporadically applied to the deity, simply because the Greek gods were far removed from humanity and interfered rather than co-existed with them. And when it was applied to Zeus, it referred to him being the Olympian alpha rather than humanity's. Judaic Christianity, with its baffling epithet Kurios Theos caused such a global revolution because it proclaimed the Almighty to also be humanity's kurios: one of us, and intimately involved with humanity because He is human! His government is one of the natural laws upon which we were designed to operate and He is our kurios not because He pummels us into submission but because we have the maturity to freely recognize His alpha qualities and subsequently ask Him to govern our lives (Romans 1:20, Isaiah 9:6).
The folks who wrote the Septuagint replaced God's personal name YHWH first with the Hebrew name Adonai (from the word אדן, adon, meaning sir) and subsequently with the Greek kurios and that is why our English Bibles speak of "Lord" all over the Old Testament. This is really quite unfortunate, since the name 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 in the modern sense of the word 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. 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. This may seem a bit blasphemous to the English ear but in many languages the Almighty is addressed with the common word for mister or sir (to mention a few: Dutch: Heer; German: Herr, Spanish: Senor; Serbian: Gospodin; Polish: Pan). It's not always overly emphasized what a miraculous and revolutionary thing that is, but it is. It's like calling outer space your back yard, and it demonstrates a level of theological maturity that is virtually unique in the mythological world. It's the kind of maturity that allows a person to see himself as a capable, authorized and responsible co-regent of reality together with the Creator (John 15:15, 2 Timothy 2:12, Ephesians 2:6).
The Greek authors of the Bible addressed the deity with the word with which anybody would address anybody else out of general sense of manners, but also the word that expresses active and involved leadership of any kind, from your local shift supervisor to (on rare occasions) a distant emperor. Hence our word has no equivalent in English, but overlaps with words like sir, gentleman, mister, master, boss, manager, employer, leader and even governor. Here at Abarim Publications we try to maintain some degree of consistency by translating the single forms of our word mostly with "lord", the plural with "masters" and the vocative forms with "sir" and "gentlemen". The feminine forms of our word we dub "mistress" and the vocative "lady".
In the New Testament, our noun is applied to:
- YHWH (Matthew 4:7, 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, but note that he was called kurios by procurator Festus whilst speaking to king Agrippa (Acts 25:26).
- Certain real but not further specified powers or else cultural manifestations, known by some as gods (1 Corinthians 8:5).
- People whose social rank allowed them to direct or instruct others: 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).
- A curiously plural bunch of owners or exploiters (kurioi), for instance of the one donkey foal upon which Jesus entered Jerusalem (Luke 19:33), or of the Philippian slave girl Paul was forced to deal with (Acts 16:19).
- 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, some kind of civil servant or perhaps the whole of the bureaucratic machine. Some commentators demand that this word denotes some kind of angelic genus, but that is with very little merit.