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

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Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The verb λαμβανω (lambano) describes an action into the possession or control of a receiver — in short: to take. It's a close synonym of the verb δεχομαι (dechomai), and the two are employed in a graceful juxtaposition in Matthew 10:41: "He who takes in (dechomai) a prophet shall take in (lambano) a prophet's reward."

Our verb λαμβανω (lambano) may describe a literal taking by or in the hand in order to take control over (Matthew 13:31, 14:19, 15:26). It may mean to take possession of: a coat (Matthew 5:40), a fish (Matthew 17:27), a talent (Matthew 25:16). It may mean to bring along (Matthew 16:5, 25:1), or gather up (Matthew 16:9). It may mean to bear the burden of: our infirmities (Matthew 8:17), one's cross (Matthew 10:38). It may describe to have a meeting (Matthew 12:14, 22:15, 27:1), or to accept a message (Matthew 13:20) or a piece of bread (Matthew 26:26).

Our verb may mean to collect (a tax; Matthew 17:24, 21:34), to be awarded (a hundredfold; Matthew 19:29), to be rewarded (a wage; Matthew 20:7), to be incurred (more severe judgment; Matthew 23:14). It may describe being succeeded (Acts 24:27). It may describe producing a defense (Acts 25:16), attracting a disease (Revelation 18:4), adopting a sign (Romans 4:11) or winning a prize (1 Corinthians 9:24).

When the action originates from an obvious source and without direct initiative from the receiver our verb may be translated as to receive (as long as it is remembered that the Greek verb is the same in all instances). Hence it is said, "Ask and you will receive" (Matthew 7:8, 21:22), "freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8), and of course "receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22). Sometimes it's not clear whether the author might have been thinking of actively taking or passively receiving, and within that uncertainty lays the more correct exegesis. In 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul is not saying that we have because we received (or, alternatively: we got because we took), but that all differences are accessories: everything you have was added to you, so why would you revel in what's not really you, as if what got stuck on you is actually you?

This Greek verb is endowed with a versatility that may seem alien to a modern reader, but on close examination it's easily met by the English one — we moderns take a hike, we take it like a man, and we take care. We take neither prisoners nor someone's stuff. We take our coffee in a certain way. At the supermarket we take a pound or two, and on the way back we take the bus, or else the freeway, because that takes less time. We take temperatures, we take fright, and then we take that all is well. We take news brightly and someone else for a nitwit, especially when we're not so taken with that person, or when that person takes after someone else we didn't like. We take offers, courses, hints and oaths but we take nothing back. Ideas also take. Hence we take in our whopping wage, and first prize if we're really good. And then we take a bow. We take things down, we take them in and we take them off. We take things on, we take them out and on occasion we take things over (someone's business, for instance). We take to things (she's taken to him), we take things up (playing yoyo), and we take up with the wrong things (bad yoyo's). And then we take a nap.

To make matters even more spectacular, our verb λαμβανω (lambano) is not wholly regular and its inflections often change the signature "mb" for a mere "b", a "ps" or even "ph-th". An important derivation (which managed to stay out of the New Testament) is the noun λαβη (labe), meaning handle; something to grab on to in order to take it. This word in turn brings to mind the familiar but probably formally unrelated Latin word for lip: labium (from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to lick), and while many animals use their lips to grab their food, all animals with lips take their food via those organs. The Greek letter λ or labda/lambda corresponds to the Semitic ל or lamed, which in turn derived from the stick with which a driver imparted his wishes to his candid oxen, and they thus took their instructions (Acts 26:14).

Also note the striking similarity between our verb λαμβανω (lambano), to take, and the verb λαμπω (lampo), meaning to shine (hence our word "lamp"; the word αντιλαμβανω, antilambano, means to take instead of, and αντιλαμπω, antilampo means to reflect). If a lamp's fuel could be compared to its food, then its light could be construed to correspond to a person's speech. Whether or not these words are formally related, they appear alike enough to be used in playful metaphors and it's perfectly possible that Jesus' injunction to "let your light shine" (Matthew 5:16) may very well be about the things we say.

The verb λαμβανω (lambano) is used 263 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and is additionally part of the following list of derivatives:

  • Together with the preposition ανα (ana), meaning on or upon: the verb αναλαμβανω (analambano) meaning to take or receive up into some location, use or function; this verb is the common verb to describe an ascension into heaven (Mark 16:19, Acts 1:2, 1 Timothy 3:16). It occurs 13 times; see full concordance. From this verb in turn derives:
    • The noun αναληψις (analepsis), meaning a receiving-up; an ascension. This noun occurs only once, in Luke 9:51, where it applies to the imminent ascension of Christ.
  • Together with the preposition αντι (anti), meaning in place of, or against: the verb αντιλαμβανω (antilambano), in the classics mostly meaning to receive instead of, in turn, or as the result of a previous occurrence. It may mean to lay hold of or lay claim to, with an emphasis on the alternative (that is: being without the thing claimed). In that same sense, this word is frequently used to describe taking into one's hand, that is: to assist and guide someone away from calamity and toward a preferred alternative. But in turn this verb is used equally often to describe a laying hold of someone in order to thwart him. This verb is used only three times in the New Testament, in the sense of laying hold of someone with the express intention to cause to remember what would otherwise be forgotten: Luke 1:54, Acts 20:35 and 1 Timothy 6:2. From our verb αντιλαμβανω (antilambano) in turn derives:
    • The awesome noun αντιληπσις (antilepsis), meaning a redirecting; a grabbing hold of someone in order to provide an alternative to their dismal situation. This noun occurs only in 1 Corinthians 12:28, where it is listed among the great church offices. According to Paul, the office of redirections comes after the gift of healing and before governments. (It must be stressed that this office of redirections requires unusual integrity and wisdom, but its effectiveness can be recognized in the usual way: if the lame start to walk and the blind see, the program works. If fights erupt and congregations rupture, the program doesn't work).
    • Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: συναντιλαμβαομαι (sunantilambanomai), which denotes the teaming up with someone to achieve a corrective effect; to co-redirect. This verb is used only twice in the New Testament: in Luke 10:40 Martha famously implored Jesus to tell Mary to "team up with her so that they could take hold of the situation in order to provide a preferred alternative". In Romans 8:26, Paul informs his readers that the Holy Spirit is in the habit of doing just that: team up with people in order to improve things.
  • Together with the preposition απο (apo), meaning from: the verb απολαμβανω (apolambano), meaning to take from; to extract, or to receive a portion out of a larger collective (a person from a multitude; Mark 7:33, money from economy; Luke 6:34, a lost son from the world; Luke 15:27), or to receive because of a specific reason (Luke 23:41, Romans 1:27). This verb is used 11 times; see full concordance.
  • Together with the adjective δεξιος (dexios), meaning right (that is: right, not left): the curious noun δεξιολαβος (dexiolabos), meaning right-taker or right-receiver. Commentators usually interpret this word with "spearman" but here at Abarim Publications we suspect that this word denoted a general-purpose soldier (see our article on δεξιος, dexios, for the details). This word occurs in Acts 23:23 only.
  • Together with the preposition επι (epi) meaning on or upon: the verb επιλαμβανω (epilambano), meaning to take upon or to over-take; to assume a position of power over someone (or something or a part of someone) in order to lead, help or incarcerate this person. This verb is similar to καταλαμβανω (katalambano; see five words down) but the difference is that the latter expresses disdain toward the subject (a lowering) while επιλαμβανω (epilambano) expresses mere control over the object (for instance to rescue him from drowning; Matthew 14:31, or slavery; Hebrews 8:9). If the subject is a vocation or occupation, this verb describes the assumption of that role (1 Timothy 6:12-19, Hebrews 2:16). If the subject is somebody's words, this verb describes identifying something impeachable (Luke 20:20). A noun derived from this verb (which is unused in the New Testament) still exists in modern English: "epilepsy". Our verb is used 19 times, see full concordance, and from it comes:
    • Together with the particle of negation α (a): the adjective ανεπιληπτος (anepileptos), meaning without anything for someone to grab hold of, unimpeachable. This latter word has nothing to do with peaches (which are "fruits from Persia"), but rather with the Latin impedicare, to impede, which describes locking one's foot (pedis) in a shackle. Our word ανεπιληπτος (anepileptos) covers a combination of being blameless, unprovocative and undeterred. It's used only in Paul's first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:7 and 6:14).
  • Together with the prefix ευ (eu), meaning good: the adjective ευλαβης (eulabes), which describes a taking in a proper manner. It's predominantly used to describe a mental or attitudinal capacity, particularly the proper processing of information; discerning, keen, or "being endowed with an excellent mental metabolism". Translations of the Bible will often use the word "devout" here but that doesn't cut it; our adjective is basically a catch-all term for all the cognitive virtues listed in the Bible, from respectfulness to prudence to discerning to learned. Our adjective appears in Luke 2:25, Acts 2:5 and 8:2 only, and from it come:
    • The noun ευλαβεια (eulabeia), which describes the primary quality of a "well-taking" (respectful, calm, clever, wise) mind. In the classics this word is often used in the sense of discretion or caution. Traditional English Bibles speak of reverence and godly fear, which is obviously a rather politically motivated interpretation, and stem from the monstrous doctrine of the "right of kings" rather than a liberated and autonomous Biblical mind. This word is used only twice, and only in the letter to the Hebrews: Hebrews 5:7 and 12:28 only.
    • The verb ευλαβεομαι (eulabeomai), meaning to "take-well", to be "well-taking"; to be keen, insightful and responsible (Acts 23:10 and Hebrews 11:7 only).
  • Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb καταλαμβανω (katalambano), meaning to take down: to reduce (in stature or honor) or to deduce (to logically derive). This verb is used to describe how an unclean spirit grabs and degenerates its victim (Mark 9:18), or how self-righteous bullies arrest and vilify a perp (John 8:3).
    This verb is also used to describe the implied disdain with which the Sanhedrin "deduces" that Peter and John have no formal training (Acts 4:13). Amazingly, not long after being looked down upon by the Sanhedrin, Peter uses this word when he "deduces" God's impartialness relative to his own former prejudice (Acts 10:34; and note how the great sheet helpfully came "down" Acts 10:11). Likewise, Festus declares proudly that he has "deduced" that Paul has committed nothing worthy of death (in superior opposition to Paul's many accusers who bellowed the contrary; Acts 25:25). Paul, in turn and without the derogatory crypt, wants to intellectually comprehend (γινωσκω, ginosko) Christ and the resurrection and their participatory aspects, but has not yet "deduced" the full stretch of it, even though he himself is "deduced" likewise by Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-13). Still, the ability to deduce all dimensions and to know the love that surpasses knowledge, Paul wishes to all (Ephesians 3:18).
    Most strikingly, our verb is used to describe the interaction between light and dark. In 1 Thessalonians 5:4 Paul uses this verb to describe how the day of the Lord might "take down" the people who are in darkness. In John 12:35 Jesus semi-reverses this metaphor, and warns that these same night-walkers might be "taken down" by darkness.
    But most spectacularly, our verb is used in the most scientific of ways in John 1:5. When light hits an object, the part that is reflected carries the object's color and the part that is absorbed heats up the object. That means that a lifeless object degenerates electromagnetic energy (light) into thermodynamic energy (heat). A living thing, on the other hand, absorbs light but does degenerate it into heat but stores the energy in chemical compounds for later use, to serve as proper equivalent of light in times of darkness. The same thing is true on the mental level: a foolish mind will react spontaneously to any impulse and convert everything into anger, fear and such base emotions. A wise person doesn't get hot or cold, carefully plans the next course of action and stores the event in the form of knowledge. Our verb is used 15 times; see full concordance.
  • The noun ληψις (lepsis, hence the many "-lepsis" and "-leptic" words in English: analeptic, neuroleptic), which describes the act of taking. It's used only once, in Philippians 4:15, where it occurs juxtaposed with the noun δοσις (dosis), meaning a giving in the sense of making an investment with expected return (rather than a gratis gift). This term "giving and taking" is common in the classics, but expresses proper commercial transactions rather than the merry exchange of otherwise inconsequential presents. It means "investing and appropriating" (see Philippians 4:17) and shows that at least Paul and the Philippians were keenly aware of the importance of prudent economic housekeeping in the effort of sharing the gospel.
  • Together with the preposition μετα (meta), meaning with or in the middle: the verb μεταλαμβανω (metalambano), to take part in, to partake or to share among. This verb also describes an enjoying information together, and from there it came to denote "to receive notice", which is how it is used in Acts 24:25. This verb is used 6 times, see full concordance, and from it derives:
    • The noun μεταληψις (metalepsis), which describes the act of partaking (1 Timothy 4:3 only).
  • Together with the preposition παρα (para), meaning near or nearby: the verb παραλαμβανω (paralambano), meaning to take near (near to one self) or begin to hold close. This verb commonly describes a taking into one's intimate care (Matthew 1:20). And its subject is thus demonstrated to be very precious (Acts 16:33, 1 Corinthians 11:23) or at least warranting a vigilant guard (Matthew 4:5). Very often this verb expresses an intimate comradery (Matthew 12:45, Mark 9:2, Acts 15:39) or the lack thereof (John 1:11). This verb also features in the notorious statements that of two people grinding and being in bed or field, one will be "taken" (Matthew 24:40-41, Luke 17:34-36), which does not say so much about the sudden and spectacular divergence between the whereabouts of the members of these two duos (as the rapturists have it) but rather the approaching onto the Lord of one of them. These statements talk about approaching, not about getting separated. In fact, these people might be standing side by side in physical reality while one is basking in the glory of the Creator while the other one has no clue (Hebrews 12:28). This verb is used 50 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derives:
    • Again together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συμπαραλαμβανω (sumparalambano), meaning to "take close with". This verb is used only to describe how two or more folks together take one additional close friend along on a journey. It occurs 4 times; see full concordance
  • Together with the preposition προ (pro), meaning before: the verb προλαμβανω (prolambano), meaning to take before: to wisely stock up on oil before a use presents itself (Mark 14:8), to rudely take food before anyone else has a chance to (1 Corinthians 11:21), and to daftly succumb to folly before the Galatians in their wisdom can come to the rescue (Galatians 6:1). This verb is used only these three times.
  • Together with the prefix προς (pros), which describes a motion toward: the verb προσλαμβανω (proslambano), meaning to take-for; to take with a specified or obvious objective; to engage, employ or utilize (for scolding, Matthew 16:22; for assembling a goon squad, Acts 17:5; for explaining things, Acts 18:26; for restoring health, Acts 27:34). This verb is used 14 times, see full concordance, and from it derives:
    • The noun προσληψις (proslepsis), which describes the act of taking for a specified reason (Romans 11:15 only).
  • Together with the noun προσωπον (prosopon), meaning face: the noun προσωποληπτης (prosopoleptes), meaning a taker on face value. This word occurs in Acts 10:34 only (although the expression occurs as multiple-word terms in Luke 20:21 and Galatians 2:6), where it is negatively applied to God. From this noun derive:
    • The verb προσωποληπτεω (prosopolepteo), meaning to take on face value. This word is also used just once, in James 2:9, where it is strongly condemned. From this verb in turn derive:
      • Negated with α (a), meaning not: the adverb απροσωποληπτως (aprosopoleptos), meaning without taking on face value. This adverb is also used only once, namely in 1 Peter 1:17, again ascribed to God.
      • The noun προσωποληηψια (prosopolepsia), meaning a taking on face value. This word is negatively applied to God three times, and once the absence of it is presented as a natural law (Colossians 3:25). It only occurs these four times; see the full concordance.
  • Again together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συλλαμβανω (sullambano), meaning to take together or take collectively. It's the verb used to describe how the officials came to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:55, Luke 22:54, Acts 1:16) and later Peter (Acts 12:3), and Paul (Acts 23:27), how Paul asked his mysterious yoke-fellow to help their fellow workers (Philippians 4:3), and how the guys from the one boat came to help the guys from the other boat (Luke 5:7, 5:9).
    Our verb is used 16 times in the New Testament; see full concordance, and is quite common in the classics. There it's used to denote gathering or rallying of people, a putting together of something that had fallen apart, and the closing of something that had opened. This word describes the linguistic feature of compounding, in which two words become one (words like sunrise or backpack). And in philosophy our word may mean to comprehend or see the whole picture. Often this verb is used to mean to arrest with a posse (parallel to its predominant use in the New Testament). But it may also mean to enjoy together, to receive simultaneously, and even to take on an assistant, or secure other sorts of help, or, most generally, to get stuck up with a lot of whatever.
    On occasion the classics use this word to describe a woman having conceived (literally "to attain togetherness" or "to take on collectivity"). James uses this word to describe how lust "conceives" and gives birth to sin (James 1:15). But most spectacularly, Luke uses this verb to describe the manner in which Elizabeth conceived of John the Baptist to be (Luke 1:24, 1:36) and Mary of Jesus the Nazarene to be (Luke 1:31, 2:21). This verb is of course perfectly suited to describe a conception without any further ado, but should Luke would have wanted to hint that John and Jesus are literary characters who don't so much correspond to historical persons but rather to some much broader social fervence, then this word would have done exceptionally well (compare the Hebrews words אם, 'am, meaning mother, with אמה, 'umma, meaning tribe, and אמן, 'omen, meaning fidelity; hence the word Amen).
  • Together with the preposition υπο (hupo), meaning under, beneath or through: the verb υπολαμβανω (hupolambano), meaning to under-take in the sense of assuming or supposing something (Luke 7:43, Acts 2:15). This verb has the additional flavor of suddenly coming over (like a storm or snappy answer), which appears the idea behind Luke 10:30: "Retorting, Jesus said ..." Most spectacularly, in Acts 1:9 this word is used to describe the ascension of Jesus: a transition from being fully visible to being firmly lodged in the realm of the supposed and assumed. At first this may seem somewhat blasphemous, but in fact this principle lies at the core of all belief and all hope (Hebrews 11:1). It even lies at the heart of the scientific method, as all theory starts as hypothesis and advances only after the formal confirmation of a great many witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). This verb is used only these 4 times; see full concordance.