Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The familiar noun λιθος (lithos) means stone — hence English words such as lithograph, monolith, megalith and so on. Where the word πετρος (petros) tends to denote a natural hunk of rock that happens to sit somewhere, our noun λιθος (lithos) tends to describe stones that have been employed for a specific function. Homer used our word predominantly to describe stones that were used as ballistic weapons, but in later times our noun tended to denote stones that were worked or milled in some way, either chiseled into a proper shape or else engraved with information or ornamentation. Hence our noun may also be used to describe stone as a material rather than an object.
It needs to be remembered that prior to the advent of polymers and hard drives, stones were the hardest things there were and the most durable material to store information in. Our modern association with stone tends to home in on stone's massiveness and inflexibility, but in ancient times stones were also (or perhaps more so) known as faithful data storage devices, which is why important stuff was chiseled in stone (Exodus 28:9-11, 31:18, Job 19:24, 2 Corinthians 3:7, Revelation 2:17).
When the Psalmist spoke of the "Rock of our salvation" (Psalm 95:1), the reference may not have been to a natural fundament to step on, but rather to the fact that in him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Likewise the "stone" that the builders rejected and which has become the chief-stone (Matthew 21:42), may not so much refer to a very important element of a building structure but rather to something like the Hebrew alphabet and literary tradition, which allowed the storage of massive amounts of information in a very small and portable medium. Similarly, the "stones" of the temple refer not only to the literal bricks that the building consisted of, but also to the scrolls which made the library which made the temple more than just a building (see Romans 9:32, and compare Acts 19:19 with Mark 13:2).
Likewise "living stones" are human minds that keep growing and learning and ultimately form into a living temple together (1 Peter 2:5). The Hebrew word for stone is אבן ('eben), which rather reminds of the word בן (ben), meaning son, which in turn reminds of the verb בנה (bana), meaning to build. The feminine form of בן (ben) is בת (bat) and means daughter. The Hebrew word for house or temple is בית (bayit). The verb בין (bin) means to discern and understand.
It's not immediately clear where our noun λιθος (lithos) comes from but here at Abarim Publications we suspect that it has to do with the noun λιτη (lite), meaning prayer or entreaty, which comes from the verb λιτομαι (litomai), or its more common form λισσομαι (lissomai), meaning to pray. Stones were not only perfect to store information in but some of them yielded the most marvelous of substances when heated, namely metals such as copper, tin and later iron. Bronze was such a marvel of technology that its Hebrew name, namely נחש (nahash), also came to denote the act of divination and even became the most common word for snake. Our English word "metal" comes from the Greek verb μεταλλαω (metallao), meaning to search for diligently. The noun μεταλλον (metallon) denotes a mine or quarry: a place for diligent searching, not at all unlike a library.
Note that the adjective λιτος (litos) means inexpensive, frugal or when applied to persons: poor. A second but identical word means supplicant (someone who entreats). The Greek word περι (peri) means "about" and applies to things that occur proverbially all over the place and which are thus frugal and inexpensive. The word for dove is περιστερα (peristera), which was a creature so abundantly common that it served as the poor man's sacrifice (Leviticus 5:7, 12:8). The dove was also the form in which the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus (Matthew 3:16).
Our noun λιθος (lithos) is used 60 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- The verb λιθαζω (lithazo), meaning to stone. There are many ways to execute someone but the Hebrews had embraced the cumbersome process of pelting stones, and that's not as arbitrary as it may seem. As we discuss above, stones were the USB sticks of the old world, and the act of throwing stones at an uppity culprit was a very close metaphor for battering someone with laws and Scriptures or even codes of conduct and conventional wisdoms. Our verb is used 8 times, see full concordance, and from it derives:
- The adjective λιθινος (lithinos), meaning stony or stone in the sense of made of stone (John 2:6, 2 Corinthians 3:3 and Revelation 9:20 only).
- Together with the verb βαλλω (ballo), meaning to throw: the verb λιθοβολεω (lithoboleo), meaning to stone-throw, to stone, to execute someone by throwing stones at him. See our remarks to this verb's synonym λιθαζω (lithazo), above. Our verb λιθοβολεω (lithoboleo) is used 9 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the verb στρωννυμι (stronnumi), meaning to strew or lay out: the adjective λιθοστρωτος (lithostrotos), meaning "strewn with stones." This relatively rare word was in the classics sometimes used to describe a paved road, gravel patch or even a mosaic, but in the Hebrew mind only something proverbially worthless was put on the ground "to be trampled on by men" (Matthew 5:13). Hence the image of a city with "streets of gold" (Revelation 21:21) is not a proverbially rich city but rather one in which gold has lost its value (presumably because the citizens value other things, like wisdom and compassion). Our noun, which is treated like a name, occurs in John 19:13 only.
- Together with the noun χρυσος (chrusos), meaning gold: the adjective χρυσολιθος (chrusolithos), or chrysolite, which appears to have denoted a kind of gem stone. Note that gold was revered in antiquity because it didn't react with anything, and was therefore a medium in which data could be preserved eternally. It didn't break, like stone, and could therefore be worked much finer than stone. Gold in the Bible most often refers to the perpetual storage of information, which is why highly efficient writing systems such as that of the Hebrew alphabet is often associated with gold. What precisely the χρυσολιθος (chrusolithos) was isn't clear, but in the classics it appears to describe any of several yellow or green gem stones. In the New Testament our word only appears in Revelation 21:20, where it might describe an actual gem, or it might describe an aspect of information technology.