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

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/d/d-u-n-a-m-a-i.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The verb δυναμαι (dunamai) means "to can" (to be able to, to have the power to) and is the root of English words such as "dynamic," "dynamo" and even "dynasty". In English "to can" appears a bit clumsy but this English verb is related to the Dutch verbs kunnen (German: können; to be able to) and kennen (German: wissen; to know). Strikingly, the English noun "can" describes a small metal container, as does the Dutch noun kan (albeit rather a jug). Likewise our verb δυναμαι (dunamai) describes a "contained" ability to perform some action: to be able to, to have the opportunity to, to be equipped to. Hence two of this verb's most telling derivatives are the adjective δυνατος (dunatos), meaning "possible," and its antonym αδυνατος (adunatos), meaning "impossible" (see below).

It should once more be stressed that our verb emphasizes ability and possibility but not force or might. Subsequently, translators should try to avoid the much too strong English word "power." Power and the use of powerful force are conveyed by the verb ισχυω (ischuo), mastery or control would be covered by κραταιοω (krataioo), actual doing or working by ενεργεω (energeo) and prevailing by νικαω (nikao).

Our verb δυναμαι (dunamai) speaks of ability as a defining quality: you are what you can. In the Greek classics this verb is often used in mathematical equations to describe equality (something we use the symbol " = " for). It may be used to express the monetary equivalence of some item, or the dictionary meaning of some word or phrase.

Our verb mostly describes having a defining inherent or acquired ability, or even an inferred or formal authority (Luke 16:2, John 13:37). A negative (to not can) sometimes indicates a mere preference that assumes assent (Luke 11:7; "The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up"), or a moral objection (Luke 14:20; "I just got married, so I cannot come"). The middle or passive deponent imperfect of this verb ("he was being enabled to") translates rather naturally to an English simple past ("he could" — Matthew 26:9, Mark 6:5, John 9:33).

Our verb is used 209 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derives:


From the verb δυναμαι (dunamai), meaning "to be able to" or "to have the opportunity to" or "to be equal to" comes the noun δυναμις (dunamis), which unfortunately lacks a proper English equivalent. Translations often render this word as "power" but, as argued above, that is really much too strong. And since this noun often describes the key element of some of the New Testament's most quoted evergreens, a lengthy look at this word is certainly warranted.

Our noun essentially describes "something that can be done" or "something for which the opportunity exists" in as broadly a way as the parent verb means "to can". Our noun may describe one single act that lies within the range of abilities or opportunities of some doer, or it may cover the whole range of things that someone is capable of, whether because of personal skill, some inferred authority or autonomy, sheer lack of resistance from the environment or an opportunity offered by that environment. It denotes any deed, action or effect arising from whatever ability, agility or angle. It's an as general word as "thing" and differs from "thing" only in that it implies ability-due-action. It describes anything that someone can do, not necessarily something strikingly mighty or something that no one else can do: simply an ability or a thing done.

In the classics our noun usually describes a quality, whether physical or mental, from which some signature action stems. It may describe the prowess of heroes or readiness of armies. But it may also denote medicines or formulas designed to do something. Our noun may even refer to some natural property — of elementary forces or plants or even artificial devices and music. It may even describe the action that brings about some special kind of number, namely the kind that arises from multiplying some other number by itself. Even today we speak of raising a number to the "power" of such-and-such, but a number's power is not a power but rather an indication of how many times our source number can hula-hoop inside the resultant number.

• a thing possible through lifted restrictions

Likewise in the New Testament our word does not denote some necessarily "mighty power" or "awesome deed" but simply a thing done because the doer had the ability or opportunity of facility to. And that's certainly no small thing; Paul lists the rare gift of "opportunities to actually do something instead of talking about it or sitting silently in thine pew" as the fourth of the great things established by God in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28, also see 4:19, 12:10, 12:29, Acts 1:22, 2 Corinthians 12:12, Hebrews 2:4).

Sarah also didn't receive the "power to conceive" (because what might that be?) but rather the "ability to conceive" (Hebrews 11:11, also see Luke 1:35). The apostles didn't give witness of the resurrection with great power — because what is that? fireworks? billy clubs and barbaric yawps? — but with great ability, that is to say: they were driven to seize every possible opportunity to explain and proclaim this awesome and ancient mystery in all appropriate peace and dignity (Acts 4:33, also see Romans 1:4). Likewise, the people of God are called not to pliantly wait for better times, but to spring into action and work to expand the pallet of what is possible to do (Genesis 11:6, Matthew 6:13, Philippians 2:12).

In Philippians 3:10 Paul yearns to know not merely the mighty technical specs of the resurrection but rather what abilities and possibilities the resurrection might entail (also see 1 Corinthians 6:14). In 1 Corinthians 14:11 our word describes not the power but the defining active properties of a certain voice. And something similar — a natural, unaided ability — is implied in 2 Corinthians 8:3. In Matthew 24:29 Jesus speaks of "those things that can happen in the heavens" or rather: what normally occurs in the skies, or what normally could be expected to happen in the skies.

• potential: the upper limit of what can be done

Still, quite contrary to what is commonly believed, the Kingdom of God is not a kingdom of gab and also not of noisy chisels, hammers and slug fests (John 18:36, 1 Corinthians 2:5, 2 Corinthians 12:9, also see 1 Kings 6:7). It's not violently and painstakingly wrought against the erosive forces of nature, but grows quietly in perfect response to the forces of nature (compare Romans 1:20 with Colossians 1:16-17). The Kingdom will be accomplished when that what naturally grows reaches that for which it was called to grow, like a tree that slowly grows but suddenly blossoms and begins to bear fruit. And until then, the only thing sin can do is necessitate the law (1 Corinthians 15:56).

When creation meets its potential it will be as good as it can possibly get. That's what the Kingdom of God is about (Mark 9:1, 1 Corinthians 4:20, 2 Thessalonians 1:11). Likewise, Revelation 4:11 doesn't speak of God receiving power (as if someone or something could give God power), but rather of God "seizing" the "potential" of creation (also see 5:11, 11:17).

Often (Matthew 22:29, Mark 13:26, Romans 9:27, 1 Corinthians 6:14, Ephesians 1:19, Hebrews 1:3) our word obviously covers the entire range of things God is capable of and is doing (comparable to the use in Matthew 25:15), and this entire range of God's abilities is embodied in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:24, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3) and likewise as the final purpose of creation that is directing his people from within (Ephesians 3:20, Romans 15:13). That certainly covers a lot of power but that's not the point of our word. These statements do not merely discuss the mighty powers that the Creator obviously possesses but rather the vast array of his abilities, which also include gentle whispers and kind subtleties (1 Kings 19:12, Isaiah 40:11).

In 1 Corinthians 15:43 our noun occurs semi-juxtaposed with ασθενεια (astheneia), meaning powerless, but not as a symmetric opposite but rather as an alternative; one that is as different from raw power as δοξα (doxa), "glory", is from τιμη (time), precious, the polar opposite of ατιμια (atimia), worthless. In Matthew 24:30 our noun δυναμις (dunamis), or "limitless possibilities," occurs again in tandem with δοξα (doxa), meaning "glory".

• a misappropriated thing

In Mark 5:30 our word is used to describe how Jesus did something out of what perhaps may be understood as a divine reflex. Both in Luke 9:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:24 it's used in tandem with the noun εξουσια (exousia), meaning authority; the Lucan reference discusses actions against demons but the Pauline reference discusses actions against fellow men, particularly by governments and masters and such (see the noun δυναστης, dunastes, below).

Matthew 13:58 famously explains how people's dubiosity affected the range of Jesus' ministerial activities (their doubt quite assuredly did not diminish Jesus' power, as many translations curiously appear to maintain), and in Luke 10:19 even the "enemy" is said to be equipped with "abilities." Hebrews 11:34 speaks of quelling the signature doings of fire. In Revelation 13:2 the dragon gives the beast his full portfolio of abilities (which range, one might assume, from lionesque roars to seductive whispers — 1 Peter 5:8, Genesis 3:1), and in Revelation 17:13 we learn that this range of abilities is manifest in the beast's ten kingly horns.

Paul speaks of the man of lawlessness, who comes in accordance with the working of satan in a complete "range of abilities" and signs and deceitful observances (2 Thessalonians 2:9). Likewise, in Revelation 18:3, Babylon is ascribed the vast array of wondrous and God-given "things you can do with nature" that we are presently experiencing in our modern technological age, and the Revelator's condemnation is toward the world's merchants who are getting drunk on this array of marvels rather than use it to build up God's Kingdom for everyone to enjoy. Had these vast possibilities of God's physical universe been known to Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago and Sodom would not have seen destruction (Matthew 11:21-23).

Our noun occurs 120 times; see full concordance.

The derivatives of the verb δυναμαι (dunamai), meaning "to can" or "to be able to" are:

  • The noun δυναμις (dunamis) as described above. From this noun in turn come:
    • The verb δυναμοω (dunamoo), meaning to enable. It occurs in Colossians 1:11 only, and from it in turn derives:
      • Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in, on, at or by: the verb ενδυναμοω (endunamoo), meaning to intrinsically enable. This verb is not found in other extant Greek literature (and an associated adverb twice), but whether or not this word was actually coined by the Bible writers, their relative frequent employ of it demonstrates a key difference between the latent servitude demanded by pagan religions and the widely diverse autonomy we have in Jesus Christ (Galatians 5:1, Acts 1:8). The elite of pagan deities are mere agents or vehicles of their master's perceived powers, but the YHWH equips his people with abilities that arise from their own within (rather like the famous streams of living water, John 7:38, or indeed God's very Kingdom, Luke 17:21). This magnificent verb occurs 8 times, see full concordance, thrice in close conjunction with the verb ισχυω (ischuom), to be powerful (Ephesians 6:10, Philippians 4:13, Hebrews 11:34).
  • The noun δυναστης (dunastes), which describes someone in a formal position to do whatever, and usually to do whatever to whoever; a top-manager, someone high up the directory food chain (Luke 1:52, Acts 8:27 and 1 Timothy 6:15 only, but also see Acts 4:7, 1 Peter 3:22, Ephesians 1:21). This word does not really emphasize the liberty of the person it describes but rather the necessary lack of freedom of the folks this person manages. When Jesus ends all dominion, authority and "management" (1 Corinthians 15:24), he will typically usher in an age in which the "freedom to do whatever" is not vested in a powerful few but rather the norm for everybody. Everybody will be autonomous and nobody will rule anybody else.
  • The adjective δυνατος (dunatos), meaning "possible" (Matthew 19:26, Mark 14:36, Luke 18:27) or "able(d)" in much the same way as our English term "able-bodied" (Romans 9:22, Acts 25:5, 2 Corinthians 10:4). In Luke 1:49, young Mary does not famously say: "the Mighty One has done great things for me," but rather "the One Who Is Able has done great things for me." Likewise, Apollos from Alexandria was not "mighty" in the Scriptures, but "able" (Acts 14:23). This adjective occurs 35 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
    • Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning without: the adjective αδυνατος (adunatos), meaning impossible or incapable. It's used 10 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
    • The verb δυνατεω (dunateo), meaning to make able. This verb is very rare in Greek literature and occurs in the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 13:3 only, juxtaposed with the verb ασθενεω (astheneo), weak, feeble, poor or sick.