Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun μισθος (misthos) means wage, and a wage is a payment for work that is considered an equivalent of that work by both the payer and the payee. That means that a wage always follows a voluntary transaction, and any exchange of effort and compensation that is not voluntary or mutually agreed upon equals theft or slavery (when work is done but not paid for) or tyranny (when work is done but not asked for). An exchange of wage for work is a commercial transaction and is governed by property rights, and since the guarantee of property rights is the foundation of all complex economy, and a complex economy the basis of all human collectivity and thus culture and thus language and information technology and finally science and ultimately the knowledge of God (Romans 1:20), the concept of wage is tied into the very core of the human definition.
A single binary data point comes about when a single difference is observed (of a thing against its background, like a black nose of a white rabbit at the far end of a snow covered field). When a second single difference (of another thing against its background) is observed, a second binary data point is the result. But there is a third difference, namely the difference between the two points (rather than each against their own backgrounds), which results in a third binary data point. Intelligence is defined as the ability to create data from data. And the more data is generated from the same set of primary data points, the more intelligent the observer is.
Likewise, an economy is all about differences and differences between differences. Wealth is defined as the experience of security and community (these two general ideas are basically what all our purchases are about), and the quicker an economy is able to generate wealth from wealth, the more intelligent it is. And the intelligence of an economy is proportional to the velocity of its money: a ten dollar bill that changes hands ten times per day generates much more wealth than the same ten dollar bill that only exchanges hands once per week.
The guarantee of property rights is the beginning of an economy's intelligence. The equivalence of work and property is a big step up. The invention of a unit of account is an even bigger step up. And all this helps to explain why the Bible so often equates silver and gold with wisdom (Psalm 12:6, Revelation 3:18).
Money is precious because the distribution of money is a perfect symbol of the distribution of value, and the map that shows the highways, byways and alleys through which the money zips, slushes and trickles is a perfect symbol of the distribution of wealth. That is why money cannot simply be given away for free, because if money changes hands without a simultaneous corresponding exchange of value (work, service, goods), the value that's missing is deducted from the total value and wealth inferred in all money. If all the gold in the world would suddenly be distributed equally among all people on planet earth, nobody would be short of gold, and nobody would go to work for any. That means that the value of gold would plummet and the economy would implode. The often lamented unfair distribution of wealth in the world is actually the very glue that keeps the whole thing together, and the solution to this horrible problem lies not in an even more unfair distribution of value to areas where there is no wealth to account for it, but rather in an increase in wealth (and thus the velocity of money) were it's now missing. This is achieved by motivating people to become intimately involved with their neighbors, simply because the familiar layer of financial settlements always sits atop a much thicker layer of social transactions of kindness and favors. Without the vibrant, breathing health of that first layer, the second will never form, just like no seed will sprout in an unplowed field.
Crimes like theft, or the refusal to pay someone their proper wage, are not only inconvenient to the victims, they are also detrimental to the economy at large. When Paul calls death the "wage" of sin (Romans 6:23), he not only indicates that the transaction is entered voluntarily by both parties, but also that death must follow sin to protect the consistency of life at large. Likewise, although the existence of all human economy is the great gift of God, the "wage" of the righteous must follow their righteousness and their righteousness must be voluntary (Matthew 5:12).
Registering one data point for every difference against some background is not intelligent but merely a matter of making some mechanical copy. Likewise, a one-on-one correspondence between what you want and what you pay for does not result in an increase in wealth. Any successful entrepreneur will attest that the trick to a vibrant economy is to not focus on the narrow bouquet of one's own desires, but rather on the broad spectrum of desires in the economy at large, even when those desires are incomprehensible to the entrepreneur herself (Matthew 5:46). Value, like anything else, lies in the eye of the beholder, and if the beholder isn't able to recognize value in the average passerby (Mark 9:41), the eye of the beholder isn't really worth keeping (Matthew 5:29).
Our μισθος (misthos) is used 29 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition αντι (anti), meaning over or against: the noun αντιμισθια (antimisthia), meaning counter-wage. This curious noun appears to describe the secondary transaction (anti-) upon a completed primary service-related transaction (misthos). This word is used in Romans 1:27 and 2 Corinthians 6:13 only, and seems to be an invention of Paul as it occurs nowhere else in Greek.
- Together with the verb αποδιδωμι (apodidomi), meaning to duly give or to give out of a specified motivation: the noun μισθαποδοτης (misthapodotes), which is another Paulism and appears to describe a reinforcing wage economy. The form of the noun corresponds to a state of being (comparable to "-hood" in English) and apparently describes a state of being that comes from being paid an honest wage for honest work, but out of a particular motivation that exists separate from the transaction: coming from someone who not only rewards the work performed but who also seeks to stimulate the economy this transaction is part of. This word occurs in Hebrews 11:6 only, and with it Paul seems to want to emphasize that God regards the seekers of him not like some employer who regards his work force — as a necessary means to an end, and whose wages are reluctantly forked over to purchase their fidelity — but rather as a positively and negatively reinforcing instructor whose ultimate objective is the autonomy of his pupils (Galatians 5:1). From this noun in turn comes:
- The noun μισθαποδοσια (misthapodosia), which describes the character or process that defines a μισθαποδοτης (misthapodotes), meaning a wage economy that includes positive or negative reinforcement: the payment of wages with additional objective of stimulating (or directing) the economy that this transaction is part of (Hebrews 2:2, 10:35 and 11:26 only).
- The adjective μισθιος (misthios), meaning pertaining to a wage: someone who's in it for the money but not necessarily someone under permanent contract (that would be a μισθωτος, misthotos, see below). This adjective appears in Luke 15:17 and 15:19 only.
- The verb μισθοω (misthoo), meaning to rent (people, buildings, lands, entire farms, oneself) for hire or a wage (Matthew 20:1 and 20:7 only). This verb describes the engagement in the transaction, irrespective of who's the employer and whose the employee. From it derives:
- The noun μισθωμα (misthoma), meaning rent. In the Greek classics this word mostly describes the amount agreed on between the hirer and the owner of the thing hired (people, buildings, lands, entire farms, oneself), but would also emphasize the contract rather than the actual number (much as our English noun "rent"). This noun is used in Acts 28:30 only, where it appears to describe Paul's rented apartment. It may be that over the centuries our word had indeed absorbed this particular meaning, but it may also indicate that Paul lived not merely in a rented apartment — as this seems curious, seeing that he was so very popular and would have surely been offered lodging as a donation from any of his supporters — but rather in a wholesale state of rent, rather like Scheherazade in One Thousand And One Nights (whose motif of looming decapitation is not without parallel to the extra-Biblical Pauline legend).
- The noun μισθωτος (misthotos), meaning a hireling, someone who works for a wage, either for the duration of a project or for a specified period. This noun is used 4 times; see full concordance.