Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun κρατος (kratos) and associated verb κρατεω (krateo) express holding on, holding in one's power, having power over, or master in the sense of absorbing something into one self — and this usually via some agent. These words come from an ancient root that means just that and ultimately derives from a group of word that has to do with being hard and inflexible.
But where our modern word "power" brings to mind some blunt and coercing force, the Greek noun κρατος (kratos) reflects a calm and intelligent kind of control; a giving kind of mastery that comes from an intimate knowledge of whatever is directed. It occurs 12 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
Misnoming the -cracy
Quite unfortunately, in the 16th century these words were adopted into the English language (via French and Late Latin) to denote forms of government (democracy, aristocracy, theocracy), but these words really only express government when this government is thought of as something that masters or holds the people in its power. Infinitely more sad is the similar misfortune that lurked in early interpretations of the familiar term παντοκρατορ (pantokrator), which even today is often thought to explain Christ as the supreme emperor of the universe.
The nuance of our noun is demonstrated in Ephesians 1:9, where Paul uses it in combination with ισχυς (ischus), meaning strength-having, when he speaks of greatness in accordance with the κατος (kratos) of God's ισχυς (ischus). Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that in this case, κατος (kratos) relates to believers' mastery of God's strength-having, not God's mastery of his own strength-having, as most modern translations appear to maintain. In other words: God empowers those who know him, and he empowers them with his strength. That means that they "master" his strength, like one masters a skill.
Paul uses the same words in Ephesians 6:10, where he exhorts his audience to be empowered in the Lord and in the "mastery" of his strength-having. In Colossians 1:11 he speaks of the "mastery" of God's δοξα (doxa, literally meaning: imagination or image-forming — in other words: humans may adopt God's thought patterns, and that gives them a tremendous range of abilities). Peter reverses these same terms in 1 Peter 4:11, as does John in Revelation 1:6 and 5:13, and Jude incorporates them both in his magnificent Jude 1:25. In 1 Timothy 6:16 Paul couples our noun with the word for "honor", which flows from us to him, suggesting that κατος (kratos) goes from him to us.
A similar mode of agency occurs in Hebrews 2:14, where the devil has assumed the κατος (kratos) of death. Mary uses our noun κατος (kratos) to describe what the Lord did with his right arm (Luke 1:51).
One familiar derivation of our noun is the name Socrates (Σωκρατης), which combines it with the plural word σω, meaning safeties or wholenesses, and thus means something like "Safety In Hand" or "Mastered Wholeness". Other derivations of our noun are:
- Together with the particle of negation α (a): the adjective ακρατης (akrates), meaning without a grip and particularly the grip on one's own appetites; without self-control (2 Timothy 3:3 only). From this word comes:
- The noun ακρασια (akrasia), denoting lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5 only).
- Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in, on, at or by: the adjective εγκρατης (egkrates), meaning being empowered, having control over and particularly over one self; disciplined (Titus 1:8 only). From this word come:
- The adjective κραταιος (krataios), meaning fast-holding or firmly-containing. It occurs only in 1 Peter 5:6, where it describes a quality of the hand of God. From this word in turn comes:
- The verb κραταιοω (krataioo), meaning to have or get a grip. In the New Testament this verb occurs only in the passive voice, implying that God is doing the firmly holding and the person to whom this verb applies is firmly held by God. This in turn, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, implies autonomy and self-control; see John 8:32, Galatians 5:1. This verb occurs 4 times; see full concordance.
- The verb κρατεω (krateo); see below.
- The adjective κρατιστος (kratistos), which is the superlative form of an otherwise not used adjective meaning hold-having. It literally means "most-holding" but it's used merely as an abstract appellation when addressing dignitaries; something like "your excellency". It was a pretty common thing to say in the Greek world; in the New Testament it's applied to Felix (Acts 23:26 and 24:3), Festus (Acts 26:25) and Theophilus (Luke 1:3). This adjective occurs only these 4 times; see full concordance.
From the noun κατος (kratos) also comes the verb κρατεω (krateo), which describes holding or holding on to someone or something.
The verb may literally mean to arrest by means of a police force (Matthew 26:48-55, Acts 24:6), apprehend with a group of colleagues (Matthew 21:46, Mark 3:21) or to conquer by superior physical strength (Matthew 18:28) or a great chain (Revelation 20:2). It may describe a physically or figuratively clinging to someone (Acts 3:11), a grabbing a person's hand (Matthew 9:25), or feet (Matthew 28:9), or head (Colossians 2:19).
Our verb may denote the holding something in one's hand (Revelation 2:1), or on one's record (John 20:23). But it may also describe a holding on to a common understanding (Hebrews 4:14), or traditions (Mark 7:3-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:15), or anything you got (Revelation 2:25, 3:11) — someone's words (Mark 9:10), name (Revelation 2:13) and teachings (Revelation 2:14-15).
Our verb may also denote the holding back of the "four winds of the earth" (Revelation 7:1), or an otherwise logical conclusion or observation (Luke 24:16), or even someone in the clutches of death (Acts 2:24).
Our verb is used 47 times, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the noun κοσμος (kosmos), which commonly denotes the governed human world-order rather than the natural world: the noun κοσμοκρατωρ (kosmokrator), which literally means a world-order holder or world-order controller. This noun occurs in Greek literature as epithet of world-ruling deities, but in New Testament times it denoted the Roman emperor. Our word occurs only in Ephesians 6:12, in plural, in Paul's list of procedural and bureaucratic enemies of the people, and in tandem with σκοτος (skotos), meaning darkness, which also refers to Roman rule.
- Together with the adjective πας (pas), meaning all or whole: the familiar noun παντοκρατωρ (pantokrator), literally all-holder, not "all-ruler" (especially not in any imperial way), but rather what was expressed by Paul in Colossians 1:17: "in him all things hold together". This noun occurs 10 times in the New Testament see full concordance, or see our feature article on this word (via the link below).
- Together with the preposition περι (peri), meaning around or about: the adjective περικρατης (perikrates), which denotes a mastery of a particular task or set of skills. This word occurs only in Acts 27:16, where Paul and companions got their ship back under their control.