Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The adjective ασθενης (asthenes) means without strength, and is the source of our English medical term "asthenia" (a sickly lack of strength, or weakness as symptom of disease). In Greek, our word comes from the combination of the familiar particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without, and the otherwise unused noun σθενος (stenos), meaning strength. This noun is of unclear origin.
The noun σθενος (stenos) either describes a static strength, in which case it describes the rigidity of one's skeleton, or it describes an active strength, in which case it describes the ability of one's muscles to convert stored reserves into useable energy, and concentrate and apply it. When our word describes not a physical but a mental attribute, it refers in its static sense to one's will (and thus desire), and in the dynamic sense to one's comprehension, intelligence and rational operating principles.
As we discuss at length in our article on the verb περιτεμνω (peritemno), to circumcise, to the Hebrews, the mind and the body were the same thing, or two sides of the same coin, and an obvious condition in one equaled a perhaps less obvious but equivalent condition in the other. This means that when our word occurs in the New Testament, it does not specifically describe either a physical or a mental weakness but rather both.
In our article on the noun ירך (yarek), meaning genitalia, we argue that the obvious difference between the male and female genitalia is the same as that between extrovert and introvert desire. Since strength is not in itself a positive thing (1 Corinthians 12:22), in 1 Peter 3:7, wives are called "the strengthless" or literally "the impotent". This certainly does not imply that they are the lesser of the two, but rather emphasizes the anatomic inability for women to demonstrate their desire by means of a visible erection, and thus their plight of having to resort to (how shall we put it?) less direct solicitations (Judges 16:16). The comment urges people who are by their nature accustomed to a direct approach, to be sensitive to people who are not, without embracing the illusion that either of these two natures might in some way be inferior, and the other superior, but instead search for ways to relate in ways that pleases both.
Our noun occurs 25 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- The noun ασθενεια (astheneia), meaning weakness, or rather the absence of strength: impotence or infirmity. Note that darkness is not the opposite of light but the absence of it. Likewise, foolishness is not the opposite of wisdom but the absence of it. All this ties into the idea of the familiar Hebrew word for peace, namely שלום (shalom), which derives from the verb שלם (shalem), to be whole or complete. As we point out in our article on the noun θεραπων (therapon) — from which we get our English words therapy and therapeutic — physicians in the classical world didn't really treat their patients but rather provided the patient rest to recover on their own. The rest that Jesus famously offered (Matthew 11:28, also see Genesis 5:29 and Hebrews 3:11) has to do with completion, health and thus strength. This noun is used 24 times; see full concordance.
- The verb ασθενεω (astheneo), meaning to be without strength, to be impotent or infirm, and by implication to be incomplete. This verb is used 36 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
- The noun ασθενημα (asthenema), which describes the result of being without strength: a case of weakness or impotence (Romans 15:1 only).
The adjective μαλακος (malakos) means soft or tender, and is the opposite of καρτερος (karteros), hardness (see below). It stems from the Proto-Indo-European root "melh-", to grind or crush, from which also come the Latin terms malleus, marcus and marculus, which describe various sizes of hammers (see the name Mark). In Greek, our root mostly expresses things ground, crushed, and vacated of their internal strength and consistency (and ultimately their usefulness), rather than the thing doing to crushing, as in Latin, and as such is a synonym of ασθενης (asthenes), meaning without strength (see above).
In the classics, our word may describe tangible things that are soft (grass, freshly plowed earth, fleece, cushions or a soft bed), or intangible things that are gentle or weak (a small fire, soft words, subdued music, youthful looks, a faint smell, a mild climate, weak or loose reasoning). When our adjective describes persons it sometimes calls them, somewhat virtuously, soft or mild, but mostly decidedly vicious: worthlessly feeble, faint-hearted, morally weak and lacking self-control and inner strength. On occasion our word describes physically sick people, on a par with ασθενης (asthenes), strengthless (see above), and νοσος (nosos), sickness (see below).
It's crucial to note that the fruit of the spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — is the result of massive inner strength rather than a lack of it, and that a lack of inner strength results in the deeds of the flesh: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing (Galatians 5:19-21). Such deeds of the flesh are usually pursued with the help of tools and weapons, which indeed ties our Greek word to its Latin counterparts that describe various sizes of war hammers.
Our adjective occurs 4 times in three verses, see full concordance, but 3 out of those 4 occurrences describe "soft" clothing, which is clothing without inner strength, worn by pretty white-collar people in courts and governments, the opposite of clothing used by blue-collar physical laborers. In Christ, every person attains personal sovereignty, and society's government is carried by councils of free people (Isaiah 9:6), which renders formal governments wholly obsolete (1 Corinthians 15:24). This means that soft, white-collar clothing is clothing worn by useless and self-serving people, whereas hard, blue-collar clothing is worn by useful and others-serving people.
The final occurrence of our word describes human "softies" (1 Corinthians 6:9), which traditional commentators have eagerly interpreted to describe effeminate or even gay people. This is nonsense. Human softies are people who don't serve others in any real way, and only themselves: people who've derived their entire earthly existence from exploiting the deeds of the flesh, and reveled a lifetime in competition, strife and disputes.
From our noun derives:
- The noun μαλακια (malakia), meaning softness in the sense of uselessness: either being without physical inner strength (this word also described squids and snails: cephalopods), or moral strength (folks pursuant of the deeds of the flesh, as listed by Paul; see above). This noun occurs in Matthew 4:23, 9:35 and 10:1 only, generally descriptive of weak or sick people — either people whose unfortunate physical condition has rendered them quite useless to a complex economy, or else people whose moral and mental lameness has rendered them quite incapable of partaking in polite society (which is a society based in cities, and thus law and codes of conduct; see ελευθερια, eleutheria, freedom-by-law; also see our article on the proverbial lame and blind: עור ופסח, 'iwwer wa piseah).
The noun νοσος (nosos) means sickness or disease. It's reportedly of unclear origin, but the not dissimilar English word nausea comes via the Latin nausea, sea-sickness, from the noun ναυς (naus), meaning ship. Note a comparable similarity between the nouns λιμην (limen), harbor, and λιμος (limos), hunger or famine, and λοιμος (loimos), plague or pestilence.
The familiar symbol of medicine, the caduceus, and the Rod of Asclepius, both depict staffs entwined by one or two snakes. The Hebrew word for snake is the not dissimilar נחש (nahash), which may also describe divination and the miracle material bronze — see our articles on χαλκος (chalkos), bronze, and δρακων (drakon), dragon or serpent, and note the similarity between θηριον (therion), beast, and θερω (thero), to heat, hence the aforementioned verb θεραπευω (therapeuo), to cure.
Our noun νοσος (nosos), sickness, is frequently paired with ασθενεια (astheneia), strengthlessness, and μαλακια (malakia), inner weakness (see above), and all are counteracted by the verbs θεραπευω (therapeuo), to cure (to remove something bad), and ιαομαι (iaomai), to heal (to add something good).
Our noun is used 12 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- The verb νοσεω (noseo), meaning to be sick. This verb occurs in 1 Timothy 6:4 only, quite tellingly in a context that suggests a meaning of having a sickly penchant for conflicts and disputes: deeds of the flesh, as opposed to fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:19-23). As we note in our paragraph on μαλακος (malakos), weakness (see above), the deeds of the flesh come about from lack of inner strength, whereas the fruit of the spirit are the result of having inner strength. From our verb νοσεω (noseo) comes:
- The noun νοσημα (nosema), which describes an instance of being sick; a sickly condition but not a particular sickness (John 5:4 only).
The verb καρτερεω (kartereo) means to be rigorous: to be hard or strong due to inner strength, to be steadfast or patient. It stems from the unused noun καρτερος (karteros), inner strength, patience, mastery; the polar opposite of μαλακος (malakos), without inner strength (see above). In the classics these words occur proverbially juxtaposed.
Our verb and its parent noun stem from the same Proto-Indo-European root "kret-", strength (both physical and mental), as words like κρατος (kratos), power, and καρτος (kartos), strength, vigor or courage. This PIE root is even the source of our English adjective hard, and possible the noun cartilage (although this latter noun is formally of unknown origin).
Our verb καρτερεω (kartereo), to have inner strength, occurs in Hebrews 11:27 only, but from it derives:
- Together with the prefix προς (pros), which describes a motion toward: the verb προσκαρτερεω (proskartereo), meaning to persist patiently onto something. In the classics this verb predominantly describes adhering firmly or faithfully to the service of a particular person or one's office. It's used 10 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derives:
- The noun προσκαρτερησις (proskarteresis), which describes an enduring faithfulness to a person, office or duty (Ephesians 6:18 only).
The curious verb ρωννυμι (rhonummi) means to strengthen or be in good health and may even indicate eagerness or enthusiasm (in the sense of displaying strength of will and mind). In the New Testament, our verb occurs in Acts 15:29 and 23:30 only, only as cheerful greeting: have good health!
Our verb is of unknown origin and is also the only Greek word that starts with the letters ρων- (ron-). This suggests that it's probably not Greek. Conveniently, in Hebrew exists the cheerful verb רנן (ranan), to produce a ringing cry (out of joyous cheer, distress or to introduce a declaration of some sort). Derived nouns רן (ron), רנה (rinna) and רננה (renana) all describe ringing cries. The plural noun רננים (renanim) refers to birds that deliver piercing cries.
From our verb ρωννυμι (rhonummi), to be in good health, comes:
- Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the adjective αρρωστος (arrostos), meaning to not be in good health, to not be enthusiastic. In the classics this word could also describe weakness or feebleness in a moral sense, and perhaps even of morale (argued by the connection to enthusiasm). In that sense, our adjective may mean depressed or oppressed (for whatever reason). It's used 5 times; see full concordance