Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The adjective ελευθερος (eleutheros) means free, and its derived noun ελευθερια (eleutheria) means freedom — or so it's generally said, and possibly not quite correctly. A state of freedom is easily imagined when applied to some specific state of bondage: say, when you're a slave, freedom means being your own master; or when you're an alcoholic, freedom means the power to say no. But the Greek word ελευθερια (eleutheria) describes freedom not relative to any specific kind of bondage, but rather in an absolute sense: freedom as the defining quality of an existence utterly separated from a world of bondage.
Our word ελευθερια (eleutheria) is complicated enough to warrant a huge stack of meditative writings on it. It's a laden and anti-intuitive term, and represents an important element of the democratic ideal as envisioned in ancient Greece. This closely associated word δημοκρατια (democratia) describes the characteristic anti-thesis of tyranny, and comes from δημος (demos), meaning people or country, and κρατος (kratos), meaning power. Freedom, as the ancients understood, has nothing to do with letting one's hair down and being footloose and fancy free, nothing with a stone-aged wild-man absence of all things cultured, but actually rather the opposite. Freedom is a quality achieved through sophistication and certain well-picked voluntary limitations. Freedom is not lawlessness but lawfulness. It's a governed condition; not merely the ability to choose, but rather the preservation of this ability.
If one's free choice (say, one's freedom to consume alcohol) leads to a forfeiture of one's further freedom and subsequent descent into bondage (say, alcoholism; the inability to say no), one's initial freedom didn't mean a whole lot to begin with, and one might argue that "freedom" does not exist without the discipline to sustain it. The availability of one single choice doesn't constitute freedom, just like crossing a single road doesn't make one a traveler, particularly when a passing truck makes this road the last one the aspiring traveler will ever try to cross. Just like one cannot swim out of a pool, fall off a floor, or use omnipotence to create a stone one can't lift, so freedom does not include the freedom to lose it. All children are born into existential bondage, and (as unfair as this may be) not all are given the opportunity to rise above it. Freedom is maturity: a skill that has to be learned and practiced into the perfection it is so famous for. And when freedom is lost, it was never really had.
The most obvious and often cited opposite of being free is being a δουλος (doulos), meaning slave (Revelation 13:16), which is a creature whose body, soul and labor are the legal property of his owner (δεσποτης, despotes). We moderns reckon slavery mostly in terms of the horrors that befell abducted Africans in the American colonies, but in antiquity a "slave" was simply someone who had failed to attain or sustain his own freedom — either because his people had lost a war and were appropriated as booty, or he had lost a commercial bet and had gone bankrupt and he and his family were sold to pay the debts, or a natural calamity had destroyed his properties and he had sold himself and his family to some other family in order to keep his people from starving.
But the key difference between a free person and an enslaved person is that the latter had demonstrated an inability to keep himself out of bondage, which automatically meant that he was also unfit to keep society out of bondage. And that meant that slaves had no right to interfere with any kind of policy making. In our modern and sensitive times we call people who perform work but have no authority to make policy by the term "employee", which is the same thing as a δουλος (doulos).
However, certain contexts of our words in ancient commentaries have caused generations of scholars to scratch their heads, as the difference between being either ελευθερος (eleutheros) or a δουλος (doulos) was obviously not simply a matter of property rights, and the democratic ideal of ελευθερια (eleutheria) was not simply brought about by letting everybody loose. The key to this conundrum lies in the deepest core meaning of our words, which they draw from their most ancient roots:
Our adjective ελευθερος (eleutheros), free, stems from the Proto-Indo-European root "hlewd", which means to grow (when used as verb) and people (when used as noun). From the latter usage also come the familiar German noun Leute and the Slavic equivalent ljudi, both meaning people. And that means that our word ελευθερος (eleutheros) describes a collective-dependent condition: not a private state of freedom but a societal one. Our noun ελευθερια (eleutheria) does not simply mean "freedom"; it means "peopleness" or "peoplehood". It describes the quality of being a singular and living collective.
The noun ελευθερια (eleutheria) describes a collective condition not unlike language, which also requires a freely interacting collective to mature in. It's even similar to the Bible's signature promise of salvation (see the verb σωζω, sozo, to save), which likewise is a collective thing, and not a personal thing. The idea that people have to compete with others to get into heaven ahead of everybody else is decidedly pagan. It's no secret that one's superior genes, breeding and financial leverage yields superior access to all the right books as well as the free time to pursue the proper knowledge and develop the proper convictions, and that should count as sufficient proof that God does not favor these things, and certainly does not relate one's private statements of faith to access to Paradise. Instead, God checks whether we have used our advantage over others to help these others get to the same place of bliss as we commonly occupy. People who show up at the pearly gates all by themselves but with all the right theological answers, have the devil as their father (spoiler alert: satan intimately knows Christ, confesses that Christ is the son of God and wholeheartedly believes that Christ will do what he said he would; satan is the perfect theologian). People who show up barely knowing where they are, but dragging along scores of the underprivileged and destitute, they'll be welcomed home.
In Galatians 5:1, Paul submits that it's for freedom (ελευθερια, eleutheria) that Christ made us free (ελευθεροω, eleutheroo), which describes not merely a state free from bondage but rather a perfect state of salvation, a perfect state of communication and a perfect state of community (which also explains why the New Jerusalem is a city and not a beach resort or a golf course).
As the Danish philologist Mogens Herman Hansen notes in his excellent exposé Democratic Freedom and the Concept of Freedom in Plato and Aristotle (2009), in Homer (8th century BC), our words are used solely as opposites of δουλος (doulos), slave, but by the time philosophers began to ponder the qualities of a perfect society and flesh out the characteristics of the newly invented democracy, our words began to attract new and surprising meanings. In antiquity, every society had its free citizens and slaves, but also a third group, namely the ξενοι (xenoi), which covered foreigners who were clearly not slaves (rich merchants and ambassadors and such) and subsequently enjoyed many of the pleasantries the city offered to its own free citizens. But they were not counted among the ελευθεροι (eleutheroi), because they were not native and as such were not partakers in the native soul of the city, and were therefore excluded from the many offices of its collective government and organs of policy making — leading to the understanding that ελευθερια (eleutheria) meant "to rule and be ruled in turns" as a defining quality of democracy.
Possibly even more surprising, our noun ελευθερια (eleutheria) was often used to contrast the abhorred memory of tyranny, which included tyranny by the very rich few (tyranny by oligarchy). And that, rather strikingly, aligned our word ελευθερος (eleutheros) with society's impoverished native free — specifically the stratus called πενιχροι (penichroi), which comprised people who were not necessarily slaves but who nevertheless had to perform labor out of necessity rather than passion (the closely related word πονηρος poneros means "evil"). A fate even worse than the πενιχροι (penichroi), the impoverished, and the δουλοι (douloi), slaves, were the πτωχοι (ptochoi): folks so utterly destitute that they had to beg for a living — in economic terms, folks so worthless as to not even qualify for life as a slave (sick, deformed or old people with no friends of families).
The whole idea behind all of this is that only ελευθερια (eleutheria), freedom, would allow one's innate potentials to blossom into maturity, which in turn would allow society to manifest its collective potentials. Hence, in the classics our word ελευθερια (eleutheria) often signified the independence and autonomy of a πολις (polis), or city, as opposed to it being part of a kingdom or oligarchy. The city's collective ελευθερια (eleutheria) would continue internally and become the citizens' individual ελευθερια (eleutheria), who used it in turn to guarantee the city's ελευθερια (eleutheria). Or in other words: a city's self-government and the citizens' rational self-control were considered mutually sustaining; a fractal, even.
Our English word "polite" comes from the Greek word πολις (polis), and literally means civilized (from the Latin civis, meaning citizen). That means that ελευθερια (eleutheria) is the polar opposite of abandon, indulgence and unrestrainedness. Instead, it's a matter of a collective code of conduct, of kindness and consideration. That means that ελευθερια (eleutheria) embodies the second aspect of the Great Command, namely the command to love one's neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39).
Many of the blessings of our modern world — free speech and property rights, democracy and human rights, theater and popular literature, mathematics and even science — bubbled into sustainable reality in the Greeks' greater discussion on the qualities and feasibilities of ελευθερια (eleutheria). And that went hand in hand with the often evoked right, and the guarantee of the right, of all citizens to live as they pleased. This guarantee, however, came with the unspoken implication that citizens could only be the free citizens of a free state if they pleased to employ their rationalities to curtail their natural self-seeking desires. A free society is not recognized by its citizens glancing away from neighbors acting like beasts, but rather by neighbors promoting the qualities of freedom, which includes developing one's rationality and domesticating one's lusts.
Or in the celebrated words of Pericles (5th century BC): "A spirit of freedom governs our conduct; not only in public affairs, but also in managing the small tensions of everyday life, where we show no animosity at our neighbor's choice of pleasures, nor cast aspersions that may hurt even if they do not harm." Pericles also said that "freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it."
Pericles said these lofty things at the height of Greece's Golden Age. Neary immediately after he said them, Greece spiraled into civil war, and was ultimately conquered by the Romans. This suggests that Pericles' insights on the nature of freedom did not include its mastery, and since freedom is only freedom when it is sustained, this casts doubt on whether Pericles actually understood freedom at all.
The adjective ελευθερος (eleutheros), meaning free — or more precise: lawfully free, or free because of one's willing devotion to collective law — occurs 23 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition απο (apo), meaning from: the noun απελευθερος (apeleutheros), which describes a freedman or manumitted slave (1 Corinthians 7:22 only). See for a brief discussion on manumission our article on this word's associated verb: εξαγοραζω (exagorazo), which means to buy out but implies the provision of a sustainable condition of freedom rather than a mere cutting loose.
- The noun ελευθερια (eleutheria), meaning freedom, or more precise: lawful freedom or freedom-by-law. As we discuss at length above, freedom is a collective and societal quality, much rather than an individual one. It's used 11 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, most spectacularly in Galatians 5:1: "It is for freedom that Christ made us free".
- The verb ελευθεροω (eleutheroo), meaning to make lawfully free or free-by-law. As we discuss above, this verb does not describe a mere setting loose, but rather an elevation toward a collective functioning: the becoming of a unified but decentralized and freely communicating community, or a being accepted and adopted by such a community. This magnificent verb is used a mere 7 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, most notably in Galatians 5:1: "It is for freedom that Christ made us free" and John 8:32: "you will know the truth and the truth will make you free" — which additionally demonstrates that truth is as much a collective entity as language is: an entity that has always existed, buried deep within the minds of man, and which manifests slowly out of the contracting consensus of many freely interacting people, who willingly accept guidance, correction and inspiration without feeling anger or resentment.