Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb ζαω (zao) means to live in the sense of to be alive. It mostly describes to live as opposed to die (θνησκω, thnesko), whereas to live in the sense of to live one's life is covered by the verb βιοω (bioo). One's personal state of being alive is covered by the noun ψυχη (psuche), commonly translated with mind or soul, which opposite is νεκρος (nekros), a corpse.
The crucial difference between the pagan understanding of life and the Biblical one is that pagans imagine that living things can exist on their own, whereas the Bible sees the whole of the biosphere as one continuous entity and living things as nodes or ripples on an otherwise homogeneous ocean. Just like one single ant or one single bee can not exist and will die, so can no living thing exist on its own. This is why Eve is called the "mother of all life" (Genesis 3:20); she represents the entire biosphere.
What is life?
A living thing can be an entity that consists of molecules (that would be a living cell), or cells (which would be a complex organism), or minds (which would be a culture). An entity is alive when it is able to absorb energy without dispersing it over its elements (i.e. molecules, cells or minds) in the form of private, thermodynamic excitation. A living thing stores energy in the bonds between its elements and transforms energy into chemical equivalents — at the biological level mostly in carbohydrates (proverbially called μελι, meli, or honey), and at the mental level in conventions such as speech and script. A living thing creates a significantly greater entropy than a non-living thing of identical mass, which might explain why natural law allowed the formation of DNA (which decreases entropy much less than life increases it).
Note that according to these definitions, life begins at the atomic level, namely when atoms bond into molecules. This means that a form of proto-mentality occurs when single cells cluster up into colonies. And it also means that human culture the way we know it is a mere preview of yet another step up in complexity. What that is, precisely, is as hard to imagine for most people as it is for a colony of bacteria to imagine what it would be like to be a squirrel. But note that the formation of Adam from the dust of the earth and the infusion with God's breath (Genesis 2:7) is perfectly self-similar to the formation of the Body of Christ from the dust-like seed of Abraham (Genesis 13:16, Galatians 3:7) and the infusion with God's Spirit (Acts 2:4).
Consequently, these definitions suggest that life, ultimately, is not a condition but rather a progression, namely that of increasing complexity and thus diversity. The opposite, namely to die, is a decrease in complexity and diversity. The process of evolution is commonly very poorly understood — it's very real but obviously not a carnival of accidents. Most people agree that the universe came out of the Big Bang like a bullet fired from a gun, but the universe is not evolving randomly but rather onto a so-called attractor. In more familiar terms: God is creating the universe by pushing it forth from one end and pulling it forth from the other (Genesis 12:1, Jeremiah 1:5, John 5:25). On its journey, the universe is "governed" by perfectly righteous natural law (Matthew 5:18), which likewise expands from very simple (Matthew 7:12) to very complex (John 21:25 — and if this confuses you, compare Psalm 12:6 to Luke 2:52).
Evolution is a parabolic journey between two deaths (from singularity to heat death), while life peaks in the middle of it. In between the two deaths nature provides a window in which life is able to generate a whole new level of complexity that self-similarly evolves between its two deaths. Hence matter generates biological life, which in turn generates mental life, which in turn generates super-mental life (whatever that might be; 1 Corinthians 2:9). It's a bit of a wild hypothesis, but here at Abarim Publications we surmise that somewhere in the window in the window in the window, nature allows some sort of arrest of further decay at lower levels. That would mean that the universe stops expanding, living things stop dying and cultures stop collapsing (Luke 18:30, John 3:16, Revelation 21:4).
For more on the Bible's view on evolution, read our article on the verb ιστημι (histemi), meaning to stand, and particularly the derived noun αναστασις (anastasis), meaning rise, resurrection or evolution. Also note the similarity between our verb ζαω (zao), meaning to live, and the verb ζεω (zeo), meaning to seethe or boil.
Our verb ζαω (zao) is used 142 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition ανα (ana), meaning on or upon, often in a repetitive sense: the verb αναζαω (anazao), meaning to live again or to revive (Luke 15:24, 15:32 and Romans 7:9 only).
- The noun ζωη (zoe), meaning life: the act of investing energy in bonds rather than in thermodynamic excitation. When a particle or a person hoards energy or wealth, this particle or person gains mass and speed and ultimately disconnects from all others. Both hoarding and heat causes loneliness and thus death. Life is the opposite of that (Luke 12:15). Sharing wealth requires convention, and speech and script are manifestations of that (John 1:4). Life is a cloud of interactions. Its beginning may be feeble and weak (James 4:14) but it has the potential to bring about God's Kingdom (Hebrews 12:1, 1 Thessalonians 4:17). This noun is used 135 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συζαω (suzao), meaning to jointly live or live together (Romans 6:8, 2 Corinthians 7:3 and 2 Timothy 2:11 only).
The adjective ζωος (zoos), meaning alive or living (and substantially used: a living thing), doesn't occur in the New Testament, but from it derive:
- Together with the verb αγρευω (agreu), to catch: the verb ζωγρεω (zogreo), meaning to catch alive (Luke 5:10 and 2 Timothy 2:26 only). In Biblical times, animals were mostly hunted for food and thus conveniently shot dead from a distance, but occasionally animals were caught to be domesticated to some degree. Domestication may have a bit of an unromantic ring in our modern society, but that's because all modern people are domesticated and may confuse a camping trip supported by the latest tech and weatherproof gear for actualy roughing it. Animals that were frequently forced to run for their lives from predators would have been very happy to live in human pens, and domestication probably started when the most agreeable among animals gravitated toward the security of human settlements. Dogs may be man's best friend but man is also dog's best friend. The dog is arguably the happiest animal alive but without man, dog would not have existed. Diversification comes from cultivation, which starts with domestication (Luke 5:10). Unfortunately, slavery too begins with being caught alive (2 Timothy 2:26).
- Together with the adjective γονος (gonos), begotten, from the verb γινομαι (ginomai), meaning to be, begin to be: the adjective ζωογονος (zoogonos), meaning living-thing-forth-bringing. This adjective isn't used in the New Testament, but in the classics it served as an epithet of Apollo. From this adjective in turn comes:
- The noun ζωον (zoon), meaning a living entity. Although this word is mostly used to describe animals, it's certainly not so restricted and may denote any kind of being that lives. The "four beasts" that are mentioned all throughout the book of Revelation probably denote social beings, that is to say: the various different social modalities or ways of living together (not to be confused with governments; these four beasts have only God as their king; 1 Samuel 8:7, Matthew 23:9). Their number, four, probably describes not an arithmetically accurate amount but rather the full spectrum of human sodality (associated to the four angels, four winds and four corners of the world, Revelation 7:1, or the four horns of the world-wide altar, Exodus 20:24, Ezekiel 43:15, Daniel 8:8). This noun is used 23 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the verb ποιεω (poieo) meaning to do, make or bring about: the verb ζωοποιεω (zoopoieo), meaning to make alive. This verb usually refers to the resurrection and occurs 12 times in the New Testament; see full concordance. From it in turn derives: