Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The curious verb λεπω (lepo) means to peel, strip or de-bark (of trees). One would surmise a kinship with the Proto-Indo-European root "pil-", meaning hair, hence the English verbs to depilate (to remove hair), to peel (to remove a hairy skin), and to pillage (to clean out bare), but no, the experts declare the origin of our Greek verb obscure. Earlier experts suggested links with the Latin libet, pleasing, hence our word love, or the noun lepos, meaning grace, which possibly has to do with λαμπω (lampo), to shine, but no, later experts refute all this, and suggest that our verb isn't even Indo-European. And that takes us to the Semitic language basin.
Unfortunately, the letter ל (le) is a very common prefix, meaning onto or for, which means that our verb λεπω (lepo) might stem from any Hebrew word that starts with a פ (peh). Noun פה (peh) means mouth and the form לפה (l'peh) means "as a mouth" (Exodus 4:16), or "onto the mouth" (Proverbs 30:32). Noun פה (peh) is the word for mouth but actually means edge. Hence in Hebrew, a sword has a "mouth" (Genesis 34:26), which is where the Biblical image of the double-edged sword (i.e. a double-lipped mouth from which we speak) comes from: see our article on the adjective διστομος (distomos), meaning two-mouthed or double-edged. The form לפה (l'peh) also occurs in the phrase פה לפה (peh lepeh), meaning from edge to edge (2 Kings 10:21, 21:16), which is not very far removed from the action of peeling or de-barking.
A widely attested Semitic verb that means to peel or strip off is the rather dissimilar לחה (lahah); hence the noun לחי (lehi), jaw or cheek (animals peel bark with their jaws, which, significantly it seems, are parts of their mouths). Another one is the verb שלח (shalah), which mostly describes the peeling off of hides from mammals (and actually means to stretch rather than to strip). The likewise dissimilar verb בצל (basal) also means to strip off, hence the noun בצל (basal), onion, and hence the turban. In Aramaic occurs a verb that expresses the opposite, namely לפף (lapap), to cling to, to swathe or wind with bandages (particularly the head; hence the turban), from which follows לפת (lapat), to twine around, from which comes the noun לפת (lepet), turnip. Slightly more striking, perhaps, is the verb יליף (yalap), to get accustomed to or to learn, which follows from the verb אלף ('alep), to learn (or produce thousands; אלף, 'elep means a thousand), hence the turban, to signify a learned person.
The Greeks were certainly aware of this verb אלף ('alep), to learn, since it also yielded the name of the first letter of the alphabet, namely א ('aleph), which is commonly believed to have denoted an ox-head (suggesting that the proverbial Golden Calf rather represented a Received Method or True Teaching or Fixed Orthodoxy). The Hebrew consonantal א ('aleph) became the Greek vowel α (alpha), or more accurately: the symbol for the first Hebrew letter, a consonant, was wholly divorced from its native meaning, and like an enslaved prisoner of war, was made to represent a blasphemous vowel. Read our article on the name YHWH for more on the importance of vowel notation.
Note that the Hebrew word for hair, namely שער (se'ir), comes from a verb that has to do with being very afraid, and that the act of learning is meant to achieve precisely the opposite: fearlessness (Genesis 15:1, Revelation 1:17; also see our article on the noun χοιρος, choiros, pig). This means that someone who had his hair bound with a turban, signified that he had bound his fears rather than being mastered by them, and this by his great learning (which in turn might help to explain Paul's curious concerns with hair in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
Our verb λεπω (lepo), to peel, does not occur in the Bible, but from it derive the following words:
- The noun λεπις (lepis), meaning scale or flake: scales of a fish or a reptile (as used in the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 11:9-10 for קשקשת, qasqeset), flakes of bronze that fly around a smithery, any relatively small plate of metal, even the blade of a saw. This noun occurs in the New Testament in Acts 9:18 only, in the enigmatic scene that describes how Saul regained his sight "as if scales" fell out of his eyes. What precisely happened, in a medical sense, is not wholly clear, but symbolically this event clearly reminds of the symbolism of Pascha, or the feast of the Unleavened (αζυμος, azumos, unleavened). Pascha, or the Feast of the Unleavened, was the old world equivalent of a world fair, designed to demonstrate the great Truths that unites all humans, regardless of the little cultural details (like fish scales) that make us seem so different. In Damascus, Saul literally stopped focusing on obscure legalistic details and began to see the much bigger picture (in which there are no cultures, nations or religions: Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, Revelation 21:22). In the Bible, sufferers of all diseases and ailments can be grouped in two proverbial Über-sick: the blind and the lame. This is because the Hebrew word for blindness comes from the word for skin, and essentially means having too much of some good thing (too fat, too rich, too learned), whereas the word for lameness comes from a verb that means not having enough of some good thing (too skinny, too poor, too ignorant). The word meaning lame, namely פסח (piseah), is spelled identical to פסח (pesah), meaning Pesah or Passover. From our noun λεπις (lepis), scale, in turn come:
- The noun λεπρα (lepra), meaning leprosy, not to be confused with the modern and much more specific term leprosy, but rather any general skin disease that results in flakes and scales (which is not even the same as the leprosy in the Old Testament, which was signified by the skin turning לבן, laban, white). Many forms of leprosy result in dermal desensitization (which indeed makes it more akin to blindness than to lameness) and ultimately necrosis of the underlying tissue, which literally reduces the sufferer until he dies. The healing of leprosy was a matter of καθαριζω (katharizo), or cleaning of one's outer layers, i.e. restoring one's properly functioning skin. Legalistic nitpicking and obsessive faultfinding is a sign of mental leprosy, mental blindness and ultimately mental necrosis (since ελευθερια, eleutheria, or freedom-by-law, is the purpose of the gospel, see Galatians 5:1, legalism equals bondage equals lawlessness: Matthew 24:12). That's not to say that relaxing one's legal or proper vigilance is somehow a virtue, but rather that rules are to be regarded as the visible stems of a much larger plant, whose essence comes from invisible roots deep within a much greater earth. When a rule is understood with a mature mind and embraced and adhered to down to its deepest spirit, its letter becomes a cherished childhood memory (hence 2 Corinthians 3:6). Our noun λεπρα (lepra), leprosy, occurs 4 times; see full concordance.
- The adjective λεπρος (lepros), meaning leprous or, when used substantively, a leper, which is a person who lacks a properly functioning skin, and is slowly dying. As we demonstrate above, legalism is a form of mental leprosy (albeit still better than zero-critical tolerance, which is an open wound). This adjective is used 9 times; see full concordance.
- The noun λεπτον (lepton), which technically describes any small thing, actually comes from the adjective λεπτος (leptos), small, fine-grained, thin or light (even refined or delicate in a behavioral sense). Specifically, our noun λεπτον (lepton) denoted some proverbially small coin: a flake, a bit, a cent, a dime (Mark 12:42, Luke 12:59 and 21:2 only), but note the similarity in meaning with the name Paul (from the Latin adjective paulus, small or little), and James' advice to "Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark" (James 3:5).
Our noun λεπτον (lepton) lives on in English as the word lepton, which describes the species of elementary particles to which the electron belongs. The electron, of course, is the smallest of particles that make up our world, but bind all atomic nuclei to each other by electromagnetic webs that flow through our world like rivers of living water, and which govern and allow all chemical and most physical processes (see our article on the Hebrew verb נהר, nahar, to shine and to flow).
Paul famously shipwrecked on Malta, and note that the familiar yell "shave and a haircut, two bits!" appears to have originated on Malta (Joel Sayre, Hizzoner the Mayor), where from the middle 16th to the late 18th century, the Order of Saint John (the Knights Hospitaler) maintained a Jewish slave community, stocked mostly by maritime Jewish merchants, who were routinely accosted, apprehended, shaven and given a haircut, and put up for sale (Joseph Hacohen, The Vale of Tears). The "two-bits" part may refer to the double reciting of the Amidah (bitten, to pray, from PIE gwed-, to beseech). The infuriating phrase "shave and a haircut, two bits" is like "hocus pocus pilatus pas" and "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", semi-nonsensical but very effective rallying cries for all forms of fascism and destruction of the weak (see our more elaborate article on weird patterns in movies).