Abarim Publications' Biblical Dictionary: The New Testament Greek word: αρα

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/a/a-r-a.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The particle αρα (ara) marks inference and means "then", "and so thus" or "hence". In the Greek classics this particle could also serve to mark a question (in English we change the word order for that, but Greek uses inflections, which leaves the order of words up to the author's good humor) but questions often served to mark an affirmative rather than an interrogative clause ("isn't such and such so? Well then!"). This suggests a proportional correlation between a negative question (is it not?) and a positive declaration (it is!), which explains the inferential use of our particle in the New Testament. It's used 35 times; see full concordance.


Obviously related to the above, the adverb or conjunction αρα (ara) marks both a question and an implied negative answer: not!. This important negative nuance follows from the positive implication of a negative answer. The negative question, "Is not such and such true?" implies an affirmative: "Yes, it is true", which means that the positive question, "Is such and such true?" implies a negative, "No, it is not true".

This adverb of negative affirmation cannot be properly translated into English since English uses word order and question marks to mark questions — unlike, for instance, Slavic languages, which use li for that. And this has allowed very serious misunderstandings into common Christian dogma. When the disciples asked Jesus: "Who (ara) is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" (Matthew 18:1), the implied answer is "no one" in the sense of "no single one", since only the least are single individuals (Matthew 11:11) whereas the greater is the community (John 17:21, Acts 4:32, Ephesians 4:3-6). The question is not about how to determine rank but about how to create a perfect community: "Who then if no one is the greatest ..."

This adverb and the particle of inference are spelled identically, and their difference wasn't marked until the normalization of diacritics (breathing and pronunciation marks) in post-Biblical times. That means that it's not always perfectly clear whether we're dealing with our particle of inference, or our adverb of negative inquiry, and clarity must be derived from the context. But most scholars agree that our adverb is used 19 times; see full concordance.


A third word αρα (ara) is a noun, which describes an incantation, a prayer and particularly a bad one: a curse (Romans 3:14 only). Such curses, and particularly when they were uttered by a murder victim (and that would typically be a dead murder victim, speaking from the underworld), were associated with avenging female spirits from the underworld called Αραι (Arai), a.k.a. the Erinyes or Furies, who would then rise to the surface to haunt the living murderer.

But whether the prayer was positive or negative, they were designed to tell the so addressed deity what to do, in the implied assumption that the deity hadn't thought of such a course of action on his/her own (our English word "curse" is of unknown origin, but probably from the Latin cursus, a course or way to go, indeed an instruction to the Powers That Be to follow). Jesus, rather innovatively, thought his disciples to pray: "Thy will be done" (Matthew 6:10), and instead of telling God what to do, to diligently search for ways to align their own wily desires with the eternal Will of the Almighty (Exodus 33:13, Psalm 25:4, 27:11, 86:11).

It's not wholly clear where this word may have come from, also because apart from a vaguely similar Sanskrit term, there are no obvious Indo-European cognates of it. Here at Abarim Publications we suspect that our word may have been imported from the Semitic language basin, and is related to the Hebrew verb ארר ('arar), to curse, or rather to bind: to have the recipient's liberties curtailed.

The Hebrew sense of cursing was totally different from the Greek one, and was actually based on imposing a real hindrance rather than an imagined one. Our verb ארר ('arar) has to do with ארה ('ara), to pluck or gather (noun ארי, ari, means lion), and describes pestering or hunting someone. Hebrew ideology was all about freedom ("it is for freedom that Christ has set you free", said Paul in Galatians 5:1) and a "bound" person was the polar opposite of a free one. When a Hebrew didn't like how someone else exercised their freedom (because the latter used it to pester the former), the former could exclaim his wish for their freedoms to be infringed in the hearing of a judge, who then might send his enforcers to indeed incarcerate the abuser.

Below we discuss the more common and expanded version of our noun αρα (ara), namely καταρα (katara). Again in his letter to the Galatians, Paul pretty much equates this word with the closely related adjective επικαταρατος (epikataratos), accursed, from the Greek equivalent of Deuteronomy 21:23, which uses the verb קלל (qalal), to belittle or make light of, and Deuteronomy 27:26, which uses ארר (arar), to bind. Vain use of the Name of the Lord is described by the verb נקב (naqab), which also means to pierce or be hollow. And the familiar Greek term αναθεμα (anathema), simply denotes something put on display, whether for glory or derision.

From our noun αρα (ara) comes:

  • Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the noun καταρα (katara), meaning a cast curse (a negative αρα, ara): some kind of invocation that was designed to bring bondage and calamity to a target person. Such curses commonly came with an invocation of a favored deity, in the expectation that this deity would obediently take the cue and spring into action. Apart from general malevolence, such an activity also demonstrated the baffling arrogance of wanting to make one's god one's servant. As noted above, the Hebrew counterparts of this word rather spoke of actual incarceration, or figurative piercing or hollowing or belittling. In James 3:10 our noun is juxtaposed with ευλογια (eulogia), "good words" as synonym of κακολογεω (kakologeo), to speak bad, or καταλαλεο (katalaleo), to talk bad. Our noun is used 6 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
    • Together with the preposition επι (epi), meaning on or upon: the adjective επικαταρατος (epikataratos), meaning "having had a wish of bondage cast upon" or "having been deemed worthy of curtailment" (John 7:49, Galatians 3:10 and 3:13 only).
  • The verb αραομαι (araomai), meaning to pray to or pray for something to happen (or actually, that events would take a certain specified turn). In the classics, this verb is surprisingly positive and rarely if ever used in the sense of to curse or pray for something bad to happen. This verb is not used independently in the New Testament, but from it comes:
    • Again together with κατα (kata), meaning down or down upon: the verb καταραομαι (kataraomai), to pray against, or cast a curse against: to attempt to provoke a course of events so that the target person loses his liberties. Since liberty is the purpose of the gospel and the very nature of God in whose image humans were made, the loss of freedom is a dark event indeed (Matthew 25:41). Unlike the parent verb, this one is always negative. It's used 6 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.