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

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/k/k-a-th-a-r-o-sfin.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The adjective καθαρος (katharos) is usually translated with pure or clean (hence the English noun catharsis) but a much more precise translation is honed or fine-tuned toward a specified purpose or service. It speaks of a twofold process, namely (1) an external cleaning and the removal of all kinds of barnacles and growths, dead ends and pseudopodia, and (2) an internal honing of innate qualities, the removal of unwanted qualities and a emphasizing of wanted qualities. The first process focuses on perfecting the outside of a thing, the observable behavior of a person or the range of activities of a company. The second process focusses on the core of a thing, the DNA of a cell, the nature and convictions of a person, or the constitution of a company. There is of course significant overlap between these two, since the heart (and DNA) tends to form after the environment, and the behavior of a thing tends to follow its DNA.

Unfortunately for translators, there is no proper word in English that sums up all these elements as well as our Greek adjective does. It's is commonly translated with clean (outside) or pure (inside), but purity is a tricky word and sounds much more virtuous than it really is. Very few things in nature comprise only one element, and these are materials that don't react with anything, and are thus not very exciting. Noble gases and metals like gold are "pure" and thus inert, which means that they are chemically dead, and their molecules drift like little useless pips in the vast bustling economy of give and take that makes our planet a living one. The word "noble", in this context, is not very accurate since the very quality that gives gold its value to us humans is what makes it entirely worthless in the natural world.

Pure H2O, on the other hand, is wildly aggressive, which is why it doesn't occur in nature: every drop of pure H2O immediately sucks in minerals and doesn't stay pure for long. This makes pure H2O an excellent external cleaning agent (Hebrews 10:22), but not a very good internal thirst quencher, since it also destroys one's internal chemical balance.

All life is based on DNA, but only the simplest living cells have just one genetic set. All complex cells are eukaryotic and have a genetic set in their nucleus (which governs the cell) and a wholly separate one in the mitochondria (which power the cell).

Contrary to common perception, complex organisms (such as humans) are not even based on one single nucleic genetic set. Half of the individual cells that make up one single human have the same DNA but the other half comprises 10,000 different species of single-cellular organisms, most of which can't survive outside the human body and without which the human could not survive. Our celebrated human minds are part rational (words) and part emotional (feelings), but the emotional part largely stems from the bugs that live in our bowels. So what is man? What is the mind? What is the self, really?

Our bodies are not simply static "things" but much rather dynamic tornadoes that continuously absorb and excrete chemical and organic materials. We eat and drink, but our bodies are also continuously bombarded by chemicals and living things that want to enter us through our skin, and come into our bloodstream and tissues. And this evokes the reaction of our immune systems, which in turn forms us and makes us who were are. Our bodies are what they are because they absorb and excrete, select and approve, reject and remove. Some invaders are always good, and some are always bad, and some are good when consumed but become toxic when entering via the wrong way, or virtuous on the skin but poisonous when swallowed.

Our minds can only become as complex as our bodies when they become as discerning as our bodies. And like our minds, our societies can only exist when they too are wise. Growing societies invariably wonder what societal purity is, and in their adolescence, foolish and unsupervised societies may decide that purity is a state without aliens, like a body without bacteria. These foolish societies commonly don't survive their attempts to purge themselves.

More mature societies understand that any complex living thing, including a complex society, must always consist of a majority of synchronized members who carry the shared tradition that gives the society its identity and signature character, but also of a very large minority of auxiliary citizens, who do not carry the national tradition but augment it with their own, and even challenge it and possibly even oppose and attack it. Mature societies understand that they would not exist without the strangers in their economic bowels and upon their cultural skin (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 24:22, Isaiah 28:11, Acts 2:5).

Likewise, as we detail in our article on the Gospel of Impurity, both the nation of Israel and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are not bastions of exclusivity, as is often assumed, but rather living complexes of vast arrays of tributaries. And such living complexes can only successfully exist when they are also endowed with the inherent wisdom to self-organize and self-govern, to discern between elements to absorb and to reject whatever is harmful or simply not useful or compatible.

Cleanliness and purity, therefore, are not merely about conformity and exclusivity but about the sustainable intersection of diverse interests. Purity is about trimming the range of participating elements and simultaneously broadening the range of applicability and usefulness. Cleanliness, likewise, has to do with discernment and thus with knowledge and wisdom: both with a selectiveness that limits and a scope that expands.

Purity is a matter of completeness, or שלום (shalom), and someone without purity can either be incomplete and overcomplete: the proverbial lame and blind (עור ופסח, 'iwwer wa piseah).

The proverbial "color" of purity, namely white (Revelation 15:6, 19:8, 19:14), is actually the dynamic sum of all colors. This is why white light refracts into a rainbow, and it's also why snow is white: H2O, whether gas, liquid or solid, is always translucent, and the white of snow is actually a mesh of many interwoven rainbows. Our words "textile", "text" and "technology" share an ancient root that means to weave. In Greek this root resulted in the noun τεκτων (tekton), or assembler, which also describes the profession of Jesus, who was not a carpenter, as per popular lore, but rather an assembler. White is the color of the perfect assembly, in which every element that belongs to it is incorporated and installed in its proper place, and no element that does not belong to it is allowed entry. This is why John the Revelator could envision a city that was both made from "pure" gold and alike "pure" glass (Revelation 21:18, 21:21); an impossibility if the word "pure" describes the exclusivity of the material, but making perfect sense if the word "pure" refers to the perfection of its dynamic composition. Likewise a "pure" heart (1 Timothy 1:5) is not just a heart with only one thought in it, but rather a heart whose many thoughts add up to a single, dynamic whole (Matthew 6:33). As Jesus explained: as long as it is perfectly complete and only when it is perfectly complete, a single tiny seed represents an entire forest (Matthew 13:32, also see John 21:25).

Beside water, the other key ingredient of a clean lifestyle is soap. Soap is mentioned in the Bible only in the Hebrew part, as the word אזב ('azab).

From the Hebrew verb ברר (barar), to clean, purify or clarify, comes the word ברית (borit), which is a rarer word for soap. This latter noun is spelled identical to the noun ברית (berit), meaning covenant; a very big word in the Bible (Genesis 9:9, 15:18). The related noun בריאה (beri'a) means creation, or "an entirely new thing".

A stronger verb that means to clean is בער (ba'ar), which describes purification by fire — πυρ (pur) — rather than soap. Many of the Bible's purification metaphors are related not to washing but to metallurgy, hence the Word of YHWH is like silver, refined in the furnace of the earth seven times (Psalm 12:6), which of course describes the scientific process of observation, experimentation and falsification (science only proves wrong, never right). And since Biblical cleanliness is largely a matter of mental purity — which in turn concerns the quality of thought, but not the subject of it (Titus 1:15) — the removed dross that exposes the vessel (Proverbs 25:2-5) is about scientific rigor and the removal of superstitions, biases and plain old erroneous hypotheses.

A failure to stay clean leads first to impurity, then to sickness and then to death. Coming back from impurity requires a good wash. Coming back from sickness requires healing, or θεραπευω (therapeuo). Coming back from death requires resurrection, or αναστασις (anastasis).

Where our adjective καθαρος (katharos) itself comes from isn't clear, but it's certainly not without similarities to the Hebrew verb כתר (katar), to surround, and its related noun כתר (keter) crown. And that relates our adjective, at least by association, to Caphtor and even Crete.

Our adjective is used 27 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:

  • The verb καθαιρω (kathairo), meaning to refine or purge in the sense of to internally purify: to narrow the range of the innate or natural qualities in order to increase specialization and thus usefulness (John 15:2 and Hebrews 10:2 only). In modern times we call this "artificial selection" and the ancients had a clear understanding of it, since all our edible plants and domesticated animals were brought about in the Neolithic Period, just prior to the agricultural revolution. Contrary to common perception, the scientific process only proves wrong (and never right), which means that the Great Human Library doesn't simply get bigger but rather smaller (since the falsehoods are removed from consideration) and grows only in depth and applicability. That means that the scientific process is basically a matter of artificial selection, and so are manners and social codes of conduct. In fact, a cave-dwelling brute is a cave-dwelling brute simply because he lacks discernment, whereas a modern, well-informed and well-behaved human being is rather like a selectively bred poodle, curbed of much of his wild attributes, and groomed to be a "sustainable intersection of diverse interests", namely those of his fellows and the economy of specialized diversity these differing fellows form. All complex economy comes from this kind of specialization. From this verb in turn come:
    • Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the adjective ακαθαρτος (akathartos), meaning unrefined, not purged, not internally purified: unlimited in one's specialization and thus limited in one's usefulness. In Acts 10:28 this adjective is used in parallel with κοινος (koinos), common, vulgar, coarse. It describes the common features of wild dogs long before there were poodles, dachshunds and Rottweilers, or those of wild nightshades long before there were tomatoes and potatoes.
      In the New Testament, our adjective ακαθαρτος (akathartos) often describes the defining quality of "unrefined spirits", which are coarse spirits of large-pixel primitivity, unsophistication and unspecialization, the opposite of social, cultural and scientific sophistication: the spirit of cave-dwelling, infighting, inbreeding muttering brutes as opposed to the spirit of patience, tolerance and verbal, psychological and technical precision. Since pre-speech club-wielding rapists lack the facilities to process manners and words and all forms of persuasive argumentation, it's very difficult to latch onto a spirit like that and cast it out. Any aspiring exorcist must first realize that the violent feed off violence, and the only members of society who will immediately understand when an alternative is demonstrated are the violated. These violated crave safety more than anything, which is why the exorcism of an unclean spirit begins with providing comfort to the possessed. This adjective is used 31 times, see full concordance, and from it comes:
      • The noun ακαθαρσια (akatharsia), meaning coarseness, or the condition or situation of not being internally refined: having no properly honed specialization and thus having only limited or compromised usefulness. This noun is used 10 times; see full concordance.
    • Together with the preposition εκ (ek), meaning out or from: the verb εκκαθαιρω (ekkathairo), meaning to breed or purge out of (1 Corinthians 5:7 and 2 Timothy 2:21 only). This curious verb emphasizes the original maternal collective (say, dogs or nightshades) out of which our object (poodles, tomatoes) were bred.
  • The verb καθαριζω (katharizo), meaning to clean in the sense of to attain a state of external cleanliness. The difference with καθαιρω (kathairo) is not overly obvious, but the latter describes the removal of unwanted inner or innate qualities, whereas καθαριζω (katharizo) describes the removal of external and alien materials.
    Our verb is used 30 times in the New Testament see full concordance, and mostly describes the healing of leprosy, which was considered a disease of the outer skin. This links leprosy to blindness (the Hebrew word for blindness comes from the word for skin), and our verb καθαριζω (katharizo) to curing people from their visual insensitivity (from their unwillingness to sense light or be enlightened). Subsequently, the verb καθαιρω (kathairo) relates to the curing of lameness, which is all about curing people from their lack of innate strength (from their inability to stand, choose a direction and progress into it). Our verb καθαριζω (katharizo), to clean surface dirt, is also insightfully applied to the outer surface of the inside of a pot (Matthew 23:25-26). Likewise, in Mark 7:19 this verb is used to describe defecation, which was thus keenly considered an external cleaning rather than an inward one. From this verb derive:
    • Together with the preposition δια (dia), meaning through or throughout: the verb διακαθαριζω (diakatharizo), meaning to thoroughly clean the surface of (Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 only).
    • The noun καθαρισμος (katharismos), meaning a general state of outer cleanliness: having a properly functioning skin. In behavioral terms, this word described the ability to confidently recognize and absorb nutrients and reject whatever else. Someone with leprosy figuratively suffered from rejecting too much, which caused the underlying members to ultimately rot away, whereas someone with an open wound suffered from not rejecting at all, which would cause an infection. This noun is used 7 times; see full concordance.
  • The noun καθαροτης (katharotes), also meaning external cleanliness but an attained state: a "healing" from some specific hygienic compromise that was not yet a disease (Hebrews 9:13 only).

The noun κιθαρις (kitharis) describes a kind of lyre or harp. The poet Homer (whose works stem from Greece's pre-literate age) used this word to both describe the actual instrument (Od.1.153) and the instrument as marker of luxury and source of merriment (Od.8.248), and even of military strength (Il.3.54). The art of playing this instrument he regarded as a heavenly gift (Il.13.731).

From this instrument evolved the κιθαρα (kithara), see below, and finally the guitar (same word). How the κιθαρις (kitharis) differed from the λυρα (lura), lyre, is not immediately clear, but of the latter there were two kinds:

  1. The eastern lyre, which was used from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and had a flat sound box for a base that made it square like the letter Π. This box-type harp also signified Judah and the house of David, where it was called כנור (kinnor), hence the name Chinnereth (Numbers 34:11) and thus Gennesaret (Matthew 14:34). This word כנור (kinnor) in turn is difficult to explain etymologically — there is no verb כנר (kanar), and our word possibly stems from כרר (karar), to go around, with a נ, nun, forcibly inserted. But the result rather resembles a term that would mean "like a flowing river" or "like a shining light" (כ, ke, + נור, nwr).
  2. The western lyre, which was used in ancient Greece, and was round like the letter Ω. This round lyre was the sole variant in use in Greece from 1400 BCE to 700 BCE, which means that Homer's κιθαρις (kitharis) was indeed a round one.

It's formally unclear where our word κιθαρις (kitharis) comes from, but if it isn't Indo-European, and it doesn't seem to be, then it's likely to be Semitic. As noted, the Hebrew word for lyre is כנור (kinnor), but that's rather unlike our word and also signified the square box-type one and not the round one. Here at Abarim Publications we suspect that Greece's Phoenician trading partners, who had the box-type, noted the Greek one for its distinct roundness, and named it by means of the Hebrew root we mentioned above: namely כתר (katar), to surround or be round (to be crown-like; see our article on the name Stephen). That in turn would have related our word κιθαρις (kitharis) to the adjective καθαρος (katharos), pure (see above), which may have added to the instrument's mythical popularity, and filled the heart of many a Greek poet with explanatory song.

Also note that playing the lyre or harp was a "work of one's hands", and that plucking two or three strings simultaneously produced compounds like written words (Hebrew words comprise two or three letters: Matthew 18:20). A flute, contrarily, produced only one tone at once like a spoken word, and playing the flute was a thing done with one's breath — i.e. one's spirit: πνευμα (pneuma).

Humanity has had flutes for tens of thousands of years but harps only for about five thousand years. Whistling can be done naturally with one's lips but a harp is a proper "tool" and requires a significant level of technology to exist. All this suggests that the First Signs (to use the excellent Genevieve Von Petzinger's inspired term), were not only markings scratched in stone, but rather also primitive bits of twine wrapped around items marked as property. This ultimately may even explain why our ancestors began to make thread: to mark what was theirs, and so to "weave" the narrative that was their identity.

Between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, there was the crucially important Age of Weaving as the true first step toward modernity. As we note in our article on the verb αρνεομαι (arneomai), meaning to artificially select (to breed a domestic race): "Weaving allowed people to display patterns and thus symbols", which means that mankind's first step to modernity was accompanied by individuals expressing their own identity and leanings by means of their artistically decorated clothing.

But whatever deep forces brought about the harp and whatever our word's etymological pedigree, only the following derivatives of our word appear in the New Testament:

  • The noun κιθαρα (kithara), usually translated with harp, describes a professional version of the more basic κιθαρις (kitharis), the instrument we discuss above. Types vary but in general, the κιθαρα (kithara) was a hand-held seven-stringed instrument with a sound box that merged the typical round shape of the eastern lyre with the square shape of the western one. This of course mimicked the greater merger of the Hellenistic and Semitic cultures that ultimately resulted in the modern world (specifically, the spread of the Hebrew alphabet and the subsequent "domestication" of the European languages; see our article on the name Hebrew).
    Playing the κιθαρα (kithara) took formidable skill, and its music was used to accompany dance and epic recitations. Such recitations went far beyond mere entertainment as they taught people a common vocabulary and vernacular, which synchronized and literally expanded people's minds (simply because we think in words and all language is network). Playing the κιθαρα (kithara), and even its very invention, was ascribed to Apollo, who was to literate Greece what David was to literate Israel. This is rather significant since most occurrences of this and the following words happen in the Book of Revelation — note for instance the great emphasis on this typical "harp of merger" in Revelation 14:2, where the voice of heaven is equated with many waters, great thunder and many harpists playing their harps. Our noun κιθαρα (kithara) is used 4 times; see full concordance.
    From our noun κιθαρα (kithara) in turn derives:
    • The noun ξιθαρωδος (kitharodos), which describes a singer-harpist, someone who sings and accompanies himself on the harp. This word combines our noun κιθαρα (kithara), harp, with the noun αοιδος (aoidos), singer (not used in the New Testament), from the noun ωδη (ode), song. Another word that uses this noun αοιδος (aoidos), singer, is τραγωδια (tragodia), tragedy, literally: Ode To Goat. For reasons we discuss above, harp-singers were held in the highest regard in ancient Greece and were recognized by their distinctive robes (ιματιον, imation, robe). This noun ξιθαρωδος (kitharodos) occurs in Revelation 14:2 and 18:22 only.
  • The verb κιθαριζω (kitharizo), meaning to play the harp (1 Corinthians 14:7 and Revelation 14:2 only).