Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun ελαια (elaia) means olive and, as in English, this word denotes both an individual olive fruit and the whole olive tree. The noun ελαιον (elaion) means olive oil. It isn't clear where these words come from (what the olive and olive oil meant to the ancients) but in Hebrew there's a strong suggestion toward being a first sapling, or the inaugurating signs of something new and fresh (see our article on the word זית, zayit, meaning olive).
In Latin there's the familiar word oleum for olive oil, but that word appears to be more akin oleo, meaning to smell (whether nice or not), whereas the Greek word ελαια (elaia) appears more associated with ελατη (elate), which denotes a kind of fir tree. This latter word also exists in Latin as elate, also denoting a fir tree, which is identical to the adverb elate, meaning loftily or proudly (hence our English adjective "elated"). This latter adverb in turn derives from the verb effero, meaning to bring or carry out or to bring forth. And that reminds of the Greek verb ελαυνω (elauno), meaning to impel or urge on (see below).
In the Hebrew world, olive oil had been used to inaugurate kings, high priests and prophets — these were all known as "anointed one", or Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek — but in the Greek world, olive oil was used for medicinal purposes (Mark 6:13, Luke 7:46), as fuel for lamps (Matthew 25:3), and as the base for a costly perfume called μυρον (muron).
Olive oil was produced on an industrial scale (Luke 16:6, James 3:12) and olive trees were everywhere. Paul used the image of the domesticated olive tree as symbol for Israel (Romans 11:17-24), but both Zechariah and John the Revelator enigmatically spoke of two olive trees that stand on the earth astride a lamp stand (Zechariah 4:3, Revelation 11:4). One of Jesus' favorite places was the Mount of Olives (Matthew 21:1, Mark 11:1, John 8:1) and his arrest occurred in Gethsemane, which means [Olive] Oil Press.
Our noun ελαια (elaia), meaning olive or olive tree occurs 15 times in the New Testament (most often in the phrase Mount of Olives); see full concordance. The noun ελαιον (elaion), meaning olive oil, is used 11 times; see full concordance.
Other derivations are:
- Together with the adjective αγριος (agrios), meaning semi-cultivated field: the noun αγριελαιος (agrielaios), meaning wild or uncultivated olive tree. This word occurs only in Romans 11:17 and 11:24, where Paul compares gentile converts to branches of the wild olive tree which are grafted onto the trunk of the cultivated tree that is Israel.
- The noun ελαιων (elaion), denoting an olive grove or olive orchard. In the New Testament this particular word occurs in Acts 1:12 only, as the name of what translations usually call Mount of Olives, or Olivet (see the link below).
- Together with the adjective καλος (kalos), meaning good or rather godly: the adjective καλλιελαιος (kallielaios), denoting a cultivated olive tree (Romans 11:24 only), as opposed to αγριελαιος (agrielaios), the wild olive tree. The difference lies not in their tameness but in their functionality and purpose.
The verb ελαυνω (elauno) means to set in motion or drive forward. In the classics this very common verb is used to describe the driving forth of chariots, horses or even ships by the wind, men by war, or arguers by disgust. It may describe the beating of metal into some form or even to set a wall or hedge along a certain line. This verb comes with a slew of derivatives, possibly most spectacular the adjective ελαστος (elastos), beaten, which from the 1670s on was used in English to describe material that would veer back to its original shape when beaten: hence the term elastic.
Our verb ελαυνω (elauno) occurs all over the classics, and was very common as early as Homer, albeit in variants such as ελαω (elao) and ελω (elo). But where it came from is a mystery. Linguists have proposed the existence of a catch-all Proto-Indo-European root "helh-" but that's only because our words must have come from somewhere, not because other languages have words with similar forms and meanings (and thus share this PIE root).
Here at Abarim Publications we don't know either, but over the years we have compiled a list of Greek words of unclear origin but with an uncanny resemblance to Hebrew terms, which may look similar purely by accident but which also may have seeped over into the pre-Greek language basin from the local tribes' Phoenician trading partners (see our article: the many Hebrew roots of Greek). Our verb ελαυνω (elauno) and its variations obviously resemble the cluster of Hebrew roots that contains אלל ('alal) and אול ('awal): words that have to do with sticking out or leading (a fat man's belly, a house's porch, a panting deer that protrudes from the forest, a chief of society). Nouns אלון ('allon/'elon), אלה ('alla/'elah) describe oaks and terebinths, but as proverbial sticking-outers or sticking-uppers, which in Greek may very well have been a function that was assumed by the ελαια (elaia), the proverbially early-blooming olive tree that yielded the oil with which society's leaders were anointed (see above).
Most spectacularly, of course, is that the most primary Hebrew words for the Creator also seem to be part of these roots that express sticking out or leading on: Elohim (אלהים, 'elohim) and Eloah (אלה, 'eloah).
Our verb ελαυνω (elauno), to lead on, is used a mere 5 times in the New Testament; see full concordance. From it in turn derive:
- Together with the preposition απο (apo), meaning from: the verb απελαυνω (apelauno), meaning to drive out of or away from (Acts 18:16 only).
- Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συνελαυνω (sunelauno), to drive together. In the classics this verb may describe the driving together of cattle, but also of teeth (for whatever reason: to chew or to grind in anger), or metal (hammering or smithing iron). More spectacularly is the usage of this verb in the sense of to drive someone's reasoning together and lead a person back to sanity and consistency of mind. This is the nuance in which the one occurrence of our verb appears in the New Testament (Acts 7:26 only). The link between teeth and learning is obvious in Hebrew. The noun שן (shen) means tooth, and derives from the verb שנן (shanan), to repeat or to sharpen. Similarly, but perhaps only to the poetically inclined, the familiar Greek word οδοντεσ (odontes), teeth, clearly associates to οδος (hodos), road or modus operandi. Our word "metal" comes from the Greek verb μεταλλαω (metalleo), to diligently search for and is obviously also linked to wisdom (see our article on χαλκος, chalkos, copper).