Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun μορφη (morphe) means form or shape, but speaks of a thing's existential structure — it's form as it relates to both its substance and its existential definition — rather than its mere outer parameters, as its adoption in the English language would suggest. Derived English words like morphology, endomorph, anthropomorph or biomorph typically only speak of a thing's static outer form, but the word metamorphosis touches upon our word's most original meaning: during metamorphosis, a caterpillar's body is broken down at the cellular level and built back up into a butterfly; not a mere shift of shapes of some malleable substance, but rather an existential change of the core fabric of which the outer appearance is a mere manifestation.
In the Greek classics, our word may refer to both physical and imaginary forms. The deity Morpheus, meaning form-guy or shape-guy, was named after his tendency to appear in human form in people's dreams (hence the English word morphine). Our word is mostly associated with beautiful or pleasing forms, again both physical (objects, plants, a person's complexion but also their gesticulations and poses) and non-physical: graceful utterances were said to have beautiful "form" or "substance".
Our noun μορφη (morphe) differs from σχημα (schema), also meaning form, in that the former describes an innate form (a thing has the form of a thing because it is the thing: a horse is a horse because it has the mobile and living form of a horse), whereas the latter describe a thing's likeness to some other thing (clay formed like horse). The noun ιδεα (idea) describes a form that is purely theoretical, a thing that takes shape in one's mind: archetypes and such: the theoretical word "horse" sums up all horse-like animals and horse-shaped objects.
It's not clear where our word comes from, which is curious as it seems to express a rather fundamental property of things, namely their appearances by which they are appreciated. But perhaps this is indeed a complex idea, and belongs to the library of thought that was introduced into the Indo-European language basin along with the alphabet (our word appears in Homer, but so does a reference to the alphabet, even though the Homeric texts themselves stem from a time prior). That said, our noun μορφη (morphe) may have been imported from the Semitic language basin (see our article on that topic), and a word that jumps to mind is מרפה (marpe), health or healing, from the verb רפא (rapa'), to heal, or else a similar noun derived from the verb רפה (rapa), to fall or sink (as in Greek mythology, shapes did fall from heaven: Acts 19:35).
Our noun μορφη (morphe) is much rarer in Greek than its ubiquitous English counterpart(s) would suggest — which rather demonstrates that English endows our word with a meaning it really doesn't have in Greek. In the New Testament, our noun occurs in Mark 16:12 and Philippians 2:6-7 only. From it come:
- The verb μορφοω (morphoo), meaning to give shape or form to. Note that the form so given is not supposed to look like anything: it's the form the thing happens to show up with when it comes into being. An artist who gives clay the shape of, say, a horse, would give the clay the σχημα (schema) of the horse. The lumpy appearance of the clay as it gets slapped on the work bench, is its μορφη (morphe). This word occurs in Galatians 4:19 only, where Paul speaks of the "form" of Christ within a person. This is obviously not some icon or plastic look-alike, but the actual Christ who happens to have the form that he happens to have, which is now shaping the believer like a skeleton from the inside out. From this verb in turn come:
- Together with the preposition μετα (meta), meaning with or among and implying motion toward the inside: the verb μεταμορφοω (metamorphoo), meaning to metamorphose: to change form. The difference between this verb and μετασχηματιζω (metaschematizo) is that the latter describes changing from one likeness to the next (the artist makes clay into a horse first, and then into a giraffe), whereas the former describes a change of innate form (the artist pours water onto the clay so that it changes from malleable lump to liquid puddle). When a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, every cell of the caterpillar is broken down and built back up: it changes its innate form at the molecular level. This magnificent verb is used 4 times; see full concordance.
- The noun μορφωσις (morphosis), which describes the process of morphing: a formation, a form-obtaining, a manifestation of form (Romans 2:20 and 2 Timothy 3:5 only).
- Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the adjective συμμορφος (summorphos), meaning of the same form as; not the same outward appearance or some similar likeness but of the same innate form (from the molecular level up). This magnificent word appears in Romans 8:29 and Philippians 3:21 only. From it in turn comes:
- The verb συμμορφοω (summorphoo), meaning to make of the same form; not the same likeness or appearance, but the same form, from the molecular level up (Philippians 3:10 only).