Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb απτω (hapto) essentially means to attach in the sense of to bring two (or more) things together until they touch and then secure them so that they become one and stay one. But instead of emphasizing the mere mechanics of this, our verb tends to emphasize the powerful feelings that usually accompany it.
In the classics this broadly applicable verb is used to describe how a rope is tied to a beam (by a desperate soul intending to hang herself), how strings are connected to instruments of merriment, how grunting wrestlers grab on to each other, how someone engages in the enthusiastic pursuit of something, or heatedly attacks the arguments of a speaker, perceives with the senses or comprehends with the mind, is grabbed by an overwhelming disease, or engrossed by something impressive.
Most strikingly, our verb may be used to describe how one flaming item might touch and pass its flame on to some other item, so that the two become as one, ablaze with the one same fire.
In antiquity, fire — πυρ (pur) — played a much greater role in society than it does in our modern world. Very early societies were organized around their central fire, which kept people warm and safe from predators. Fire cleaned non-combustible items and gave man pottery, metal and of course cooked food. But most of all, fire gave light and light is, for obvious reasons, strongly associated with knowledge and wisdom — remember that from the Hebrew word for light, namely אור ('ur) come the name Ur, where Abraham was from, and the Hebrew name for the Nile, where Moses was from. And the verb נהר (nahar) means both to flow (what a river does) and to shine (what a lamp or torch does).
Our verb is used a mere 4 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, consistently in the sense of to set one thing ablaze by touching it with another, already ablaze thing. From our verb derive:
- Together with the preposition ανα (ana), meaning on or upon: the verb αναπτω (anapto), which means the same as the parent verb, namely to pass fire or passion on, but with a slight emphasis on the thing so touched (Luke 12:49, Acts 28:2 and James 3:5 only).
- The verb απτομαι (haptomai), which is generally considered to be the middle deponent voice of the parent verb απτω (hapto), and is generally translated with to touch. But this may not be accurate.
A deponent is a verb that's written as if it's passive (I am touched) but interpreted as if it's active (I touch). Since we're not dealing with the mere touching of two things, but rather with the two becoming one, and more specifically with a subsequent transaction of either fire or passion, it's by no means certain that the ancients did not indeed began to use the passive form of the parent verb from an understanding that, even though light flows toward darkness, it does so because the darkness first reaches for the light. As can be clearly seen in nature, flowers bend toward the impartial sun (Matthew 5:45), and people of wisdom toward the impartial God (Romans 2:11), much rather than the other way around.
Our verb is used 36 times, see full concordance, and nearly all instances deal with Jesus touching or being touched, in order that the other person might be healed. But that our verb truly means to cause to flow is made clear in the scene of the woman who touched Jesus' robe, and he wondered who (using a masculine pronoun) had touched him since "power" — δυναμις (dunamis) — had gone out from him (Mark 5:30). This instance also explains that the flow does not necessarily go from the initiator of the transaction (from the toucher to the touched) but always goes from the one with greater power (or heat or light) to the one with less. That means that our verb doesn't mean to touch (active) but rather to be drained or discharged (passive). As such it fits the pattern of the inexhaustible vessel (1 Kings 4:1-7) or well (John 4:14).
All this leaves us with the question of what, exactly, flowed from Jesus into the sick people he touched, although it's obvious that this process was electromagnetic in nature. In our article on the noun θεραπων (therapon) — from which we get our English words therapy and therapeutic, and which itself comes from the verb θερω (thero), to heat or make warm — we point out that physicians in the classical world didn't perform invasive surgeries or even provided much of a treatment, but rather provided the patient rest to recover on their own. In the Greek world, disease was considered a matter of chaotic imbalance, which could only be remedied by allowing a patient's entire constitution to calm down and settle on its own center of existential gravity. Jesus' famous promise to give rest implies healing (Matthew 11:28).
We know from the story of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:2) that Jesus could make his regular human body release electromagnetic energy on the visible spectrum (which is no supernatural miracle; see our article on the verb φαω, phao, to emit) but how this would benefit a human recipient isn't clear. Still, in our enthusiasm we shouldn't forget that Jesus of Nazareth is essentially a literary character who embodies the whole of human understanding of nature, and Jesus' touch-flow may very well be a metaphor for the exchange of knowledge of the physical world, or even for reflections on the entropy of information in a Shannon sort of way. But on the other hand, perhaps there are forces in this world that Western science hasn't began to identify, some life force that holds living things together through a kind of balance, like the phenomenon called Chi in Oriental traditions whose descriptions aren't dissimilar to Solomon's reflections on הבל (habal).
In 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul writes the immortal words: "It's good for a man not to απτομαι (haptomai) a woman," which has always been gratefully interpreted to mean that any man better not touch any woman, but that's also not correct. Instead, Paul rather graphically writes that men shouldn't exchange fluids with women, which is self-evidently a euphemism for extra-marital horsing around and prostitution (see 1 Corinthians 5:1 and 6:15-20). Every minister in Christ preaches freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1), and runs into the same problem as Paul did, namely how to explain to a culture steeped in sexual liberty that a greater freedom comes from discipline and a greater joy from fidelity.
- The noun αφη (haphe), meaning a joint, but a joint across which fire, knowledge or passion flows: like a synapse or an electrical switch. This noun occurs in Ephesians 4:16 and Colossians 2:19 only, both times to describe how the members of the Body of Christ are joined: not standing silently and obedient in grids, waiting for orders like soldiers in a Roman legion, but connected like autonomous nodes in a data network or an electrical grid.
- Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb καθαπτω (kathapto), meaning to attach firmly in order to exchange fluids. This verb is used in Acts 28:3 only, where the viper not only attaches itself to Paul's hand but pumps him full of poison. In the Greek classics this verb is used in much the same way as the parent verb, but with an emphasis on the firmness of the joining: to attach tightly, to accost wholly, to attack aggressively.