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

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/n/n-o-u-sfin.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The noun νους (nous) means mind, the conscious and reasonable faculty of a person. It's officially unclear where this noun comes from, also because it doesn't seem to occur in cognate languages. This would mean that the Greeks had their own word for mind, which is not unthinkable, but also that they named the mind after something with which its kinship is so counterintuitive to us moderns that we are no longer able to retrace the ancient logic and arrive, with the ancient Greeks, at the source. In a living language (particularly in a time when there were no dictionaries, standards and committees), words are formed according to the shared enthusiasm for that word by every user of that language. Since the mind occupied a great portion of Greek thought, the word by which it was known must have seemed spot-on by everybody involved, and this ultimately demonstrates that we have no real idea what the ancient Greek were talking about when they used our noun νους (nous).

Some modern scholars suppose that our noun derives from the verb νεω (neo), to spin, probably also because Greek mythology explained life as being "spun" by Clotho (in Latin known as Nona, which is not dissimilar to our noun), one of the three Fates. This verb itself is a specialization of the verb ναιω (naio), to flow or overflow, from which in turn come the nouns ναος (naos), temple, ναυς (naus), ship, and of course the familiar adjective νεος (neos), new and young. Moreover, our English words "text", "textile" and "technology" all derive from the same ancient proto-Indo-European root meaning "to weave" as the Greek noun τεκτων (tekton), meaning assembler: the profession of both Jesus and Joseph. Subsequently, Clotho was also credited with giving the alphabet to humanity.

The problem with all this is that, even in Greek thought, the sovereignty of the mind is difficult to reconcile with the supremacy of the Fates. And a second problem comes with the obvious proto-Indo-European pedigree of the other words with which the Greeks contemplated man's cognitive and reasonable faculties: the verb γινωσκω (ginosko), to know, comes from the PIE root "gno-", to know; the noun ψυχη (psuche), mind or soul, comes from the PIE root "bhes-", to breathe (in); the noun πνευμα (pneuma), spirit, comes from the PIE root "pneu-", to breathe (out). All this suggests that Greek contemplation on cognition was a continuation of a more ancient PIE tradition, in precisely the same way that our Western philosophy of reason is based on the Greek tradition.

All these things considered makes us here at Abarim Publications privately suspect that our noun νους (nous) may have been rooted in the proto-Indo-European root "nas-" from which comes our English word "nose". Unlike the spinning Greek Clotho, the God of the Hebrews gave life to Adam by breathing it into his nose (Genesis 2:7). And not only the English word for nose stems from this root, also the Sanskrit, Persian, Latin and thus all European and Slavic languages. The only odd one out is Greek, which has ρις (ris) for nose, hence the familiar element "rhino-". Where this word ρις (ris) in turn comes from isn't clear either (but perhaps from αιρω, airo, to lift up, hence our word "air"?).

For most of our human existence we had no speech and all that time human vocalization wasn't much different from animal vocalization. That means we had no nominal, categorical and thus logical reason (see our article on the noun ονομα, onoma, meaning name or noun). And the ability to quickly tell the difference between an animal and a fellow human was crucial during an encounter in the wild but also when humans were trying to compose a dynamic but coherent society out of fellow humans plus their many animals. Certain things could be expected from fellow humans, even when there was no language yet, while those same things could not be asked from animals. But how to tell the difference? Humans were bipedal, but so were birds. And certain animals like bears would routinely stand on their hind legs, just like humans. And of course all the members of the family of the great apes had most physical features in common with humans, including the celebrated opposable thumb. Only humans have buttocks (hence the name Seth) but fur and clothing hide them, and buttocks point to wrong way when creatures face each other. And that means that really the only true way to tell a reasonable human from unreasonable animal was by the nose.

Only humans have a so-called pyramid nose that protrudes from their faces. Why our human nose evolved that way (or why God gave humans such a distinct nose) is still not clear to science but the leading hypotheses whittle it down to (a) a specialization in olfactory navigation (our nose apparently helps with foraging but also with cooking), and (b) advancing social intelligence in which the nose greatly increased the range of people's facial expressions and their ability to express affection, disapproval and other feelings, as a kind of proto-speech.

Also, as we explore in our article on the noun ους (ous), meaning ear, the human face is uniquely featured to turn wholly, as a kind of sensory array, to whatever sound peeks our interest. In highly dynamic situations (say, a hunt or a fight or a party), our noses literally point toward the action, which certainly gives a brief tactical advantage to our observant fellow hunters, fighters or partiers. Protruding noses point toward objects of interest. And that surely aided parents read their infants' direct intentions, leaders assess their subjects' attention, and even prospective females gauge for an attentive mate.

The Hebrew word for nose or nostril, as used in Genesis 2:7, is אף ('ap), from the verb אנף ('anep), meaning anger or dissatisfaction. The noun נחר (nahar) describes the vigorous snorting of a horse, and probably has to do with the root חרר (harar), which describes a society's central and enclosed source of heat. The name of the grandfather of Abraham — who was not simply the father of the faithful but rather the father of international trade — namely Nahor, comes from this noun.

Glowing with Enlightenment, man began to generously refer to himself as Homo sapiens (coined in 1758), which means "man with taste", after the Latin verb sapio, to taste, which not only implies mere discernment but also enjoyment and specifically man's ever quest for pleasure, and of course refinery, as man clearly felt right to name himself after his most exquisite tastes. But now it appears that ancient and wordless man may have regarded himself as Homo nasus, or "man with nose" to distinguish himself from creatures without a pyramid nose and thus without the faculty of reason.

Curious enough, in the 17th century, the English language yielded the word "nosy" in the sense of having a prominent nose, but in the 19th century grafted upon it the anatomically inexplicable quality of inquisitiveness, and even left us with the phrase Nosy Parker of equally obscure pedigree. The other archetypal nose of that same era was that of Pinocchio (1883), whose nose grew, and thus became nosier as he lied.

We moderns may like to take our private mind for naturally granted, but there's nothing natural about it, and neither is it private. Our mind is a collective thing, not an individual thing, which is why we need formal systems of logic instead of just great ideas. Formal, in this sense, means to have form, to have a standardized form that everybody can recognize. Formality is the reason why, say, the letter A can be recognized by everybody, no matter in what font it comes. The font allows creative freedom within the formal qualities that define the letter A. Without formalities there can neither be shared understanding nor private understanding, which means that formalities are what separate man from beast. It also means that man is a collective thing; a sole human is an animal (Psalm 73:22, Ecclesiastes 3:18, 2 Peter 2:12, Jude 1:10).

The human mind was born a wilderness and over the timeless ages, mankind tamed it and cultivated it, sowed into it the seeds of symbolism, contemplated the very nature of thought and distilled the essence from its own world of artistic expression until the bare alphabet came like powdered thought to the surface. Man took plants and made paper (βιβλος, biblos), created a world based on trade and created temples devoted to synthetic thought and knowledge (starting with the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem). The in itself wildly radical and unnatural idea of a day-off became the Sabbath, which forced people to count their days in sevens, which nothing in the whole of the universe naturally did. Days, months, years and Great Years are all natural cosmological phenomena but the week is artificial. Moses prayed: "Teach us the number of our days, that we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12), which has always been explained to refer to a person's productive life, but no, it refers to the calendar, to a kind of planning independent from the cycles of nature. It was followed by other synthetic orders, regularities and administrations; pillars of modern societies.

All throughout history, the People of the Nose were known to — how shall we put it? — routinely fail the Turing test. They were clumsy in whatever social code counted as proper that day, as they probed on toward a brave new world with a clock at its heart; a mechanism like divine DNA that never failed, was perfectly predictable and ultimately impartially just.

The story of the little mechanical boy named Pinocchio comes from a time when Romanticism had oozed over into Transcendentalism, when intellectual rigor had once again made way to emotional speculation and the quest for woodland elves and dead people's spirits. Romanticism had called for nationalism, for naturism, for a counter-scientific movement that ultimately resulted in the utterly dark revival of Roman-styled National Socialism. The negative ring of the word nosy and the derogative term Nosy Parker (= an itinerant person with a big nose who parks somewhere; to park, in this sense, was coined in 1844) are deeply counter-noetic and ultimately natural and bestial. The story of Pinocchio, instead, was deeply sensitive to the spirit of its age.

The noun νους (nous) describes the intellectual mind: the artificial cognitive processes in our brain that allow us to make a synthetic world, which is separate from the natural world and the natural cycles to which the whole rest of the biosphere is subjected. It's the counterpart of the emotional intuition that humanity shares with the natural animals, and the two relate precisely in the same way as water (emotions) relate to dry land (reason) with first agriculture (spoken language and visual art) and then cities made from synthetic bricks and metals and such (written language, systems of formal logic such as mathematics and the Scientific Method, and ultimately computer code).

Our noun is used 24 times in the New Testament and always in the singular form, never plural: see full concordance. From this noun derive:

  • Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the noun ανοια (anoia), literally meaning mindlessness, without the reasonable faculties of a synthetic mind, and thus bestial or according to the natural considerations of animals (Luke 6:11 and 2 Timothy 3:9 only).
  • Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in, on, at, by: the noun εννοια (ennoia), meaning an "in-mind", that is a thing that is in the synthetic mind: a thought, a reason, a logic train of thought (Hebrews 4:12 and 1 Peter 4:1 only).
  • Together with the preposition επι (epi), meaning on or upon: the noun επινοια (epinoia), meaning purposeful thought, a deliberation (Acts 8:22 only). Technically, our noun describes the result of the unused verb επινοιω (epinoio), to think upon, to deliberate.
  • The verb νοεω (noeo), meaning to understand by reason, to attain through logic or abstract thought, to comprehend via the use of words, categories and definitions — as opposed to via emotional resonance or empathy. It means to make use of one's νους (nous), one's synthetic reasonable mind rather than one's natural emotional intuition and desires. This importantly nuanced verb is used 14 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derive:
    • Again together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the verb αγνοεω (agnoeo), meaning to act or be without reasonable understanding, or without formal comprehension. This word and its derivatives look deceptively like the word αγνωσια (agnosia), without knowledge, from γνωσις (gnosis), knowledge, from the above mentioned verb γινωσκω (ginosko), to know. The difference is that the latter describes being without (stored) data or information, whereas the former describes being without applicable reason, that is: being without a relevantly functioning operating system that consists of reasonable software: from the earliest systems of script to the alphabet up to systems of formal logic such as the Scientific Method, non-speculative philosophy and mathematics.
      Despite the images painted by folklore, the people who wrote the Bible, including the New Testament, were not simple peasants who were also somehow steeped in an elite literary tradition, but rather people who had devoted their earthly existence to perfecting the systems of logic available at the time. Their specialty was literature (rather than mathematics), and that has produced the works of unfathomable complexity that has baffled and mesmerized many millions of very smart people for two millennia, without showing signs of exhaustion or any kind of intellectual bottom. In the New Testament this word does not simply mean to misunderstand or under-appreciate but rather to be incapable to meet with formal understanding, incapable of arriving at a proposed conclusion by means of formal logic, being unable to provide formal proof (or disproof). There is no such verb in English, but "to be unable to comprehend" comes close. It's used 22 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn come:
      • The noun αγνοημα (agnoema), meaning an inability to comprehend. It describes an instant of the verb, not simply an error but a failure to meet a proposition with appropriate reason. It's used in Hebrews 9:7 only, where it describes the high priest's compensation for the agnoema of the people: not simply accidental sins or errors out of ignorance, but inadequacies of any available formal system of reason.
      • The noun αγνοια (agnoia), which describes the state of being without a system of formal reason, or more precise: to be without reasonable faculties that are adequate to meet he issues at hand. Our noun does not merely describe a state of ignorance but rather a state of insufficient formal reason. It's used 4 times; see full concordance.
    • Again together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the adjective ανοητος (anoetos), literally meaning not thought of, unconsidered or even inconsiderable. When used substantially, this word describes someone who doesn't apply their reasonable faculties: a thoughtless and uncritical person, who rather follows his animal instincts and feelings. This word is used 6 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and is commonly translated with fool or foolish, but it needs to be remembered that the authors were not in the habit of throwing curse words and stopgaps around. When Jesus or Paul uses our word ανοητος (anoetos), they don't just shout "Yo fool!" at someone and them scurry on, but rather calmly assess someone as lacking the mental discipline to think with clarifying consistency.
    • Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb κατανοεω (katanoeo), meaning to incline one's reasonable faculties toward, to consider logically and analytically. This verb is used 14 times; see full concordance.
    • Together with the preposition μετα (meta), meaning in the middle or emphasizing transferal: the important verb μετανοεω (metanoeo), to change the mind, but specifically not from one feeling into another feeling, but rather from one logically derived conclusion to another one. This powerful verb does not simply speak of reaching another conclusion after a second hard look, but rather the effect of changing one's very system of logic, from an inferior one to a superior one. Our verb does not so much speak of a reconsideration within the same system of formal reason (possibly aided with more data to work with, like in a Agatha Christie novel), but rather a change in systems (like going from Newton's brilliant system of classical mechanics to Einstein's new and improved system of relativity, or evolving from a social conscience based on superstition and mass manipulation to one based on the scientific method, or going from stone tools to metal ones, and so on). Traditional translations commonly interpret this verb with to repent (from the Latin re-, again, and poena, penalty), but that word implies guilt, regret and punishment, whereas our verb μετανοεω (metanoeo) rather considers the adoption of a superior system of formal thought over an inferior one. In Romans 12:2, Paul famously speaks of a transformation by the renewal of the mind (νους, nous), which captures the idea of our verb without actually using it. Our verb is used 34 times, see full concordance, and from it come:
      • Once again together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the adjective αμετανοητος (ametanoetos), meaning without intellectual transition, without changing the mind (Romans 2:5 only).
      • The noun μετανοια (metanoia), meaning an intellectual upgrade; a change of the intellectual mind, a transition from one system of formal thought to another one. As mentioned above, the traditional translation of repentance (from the Latin re-, again, and poena, penalty), implies guilt, regret and punishment, whereas our noun speaks merely of a transition between mental formats — precisely the way the similar word metamorphosis speaks of a transition between morphs or physical forms — preferably from a simpler to a more complex one, or from an inferior to a superior one, or from a strictly theoretical one to an applicable one, which (staying with the metamorphosis parallel) might actually be capable of fruition and reproduction. This important noun is used 24 times; see full concordance.
    • The noun νοημα (noema), which describes an element of the intellectual mind: a schema, deliberation, thought or reasoning made from established words or similar formal symbols (as opposed to an emotional thought or system of thought based on feelings). This word is used 6 times; see full concordance.
    • Together with the preposition προ (pro), meaning before: the verb προνοεω (pronoeo), meaning to mind or contemplate beforehand, to premeditate intelligently (rather than emotionally). This verb ties into the idea that certainty based on understanding provides insight into the future (Hebrews 11:1). It occurs in Romans 12:17, 2 Corinthians 8:21 and 1 Timothy 5:8 only, and from it comes:
      • The noun προνοια (pronoia), meaning an intelligent premeditation, an intelligent and reasonable consideration beforehand (Acts 24:2 and Romans 13:14 only).
    • Together with the preposition υπο (hupo) meaning under: the verb υπονοεω (huponoeo), literally meaning to under-mind, that is to entertain in one's mind below the level at which one's system of formal reason operates. This verb describes anything from a private suspicion to a formal hypothesis: to surmise, conjecture, suppose, suspect. Most spectacularly, this verb describes the things that are forbidden to be depicted by idols: anything from the waters under the earth (Exodus 20:4). It's used in Acts 13:25, 25:18 and 27:27 only, and from it comes:
      • The noun υπονοια (huponoia), meaning suspicion, conjecture, hypothesis, and so on (1 Timothy 6:4 only).
  • Together with the verb τιθημι (tithemi), to set, put, place or establish: the verb νουθετεω (noutheteo), meaning to set to one's reasonable mind, to capture in coherent statements of reasonable logic. This verb tends to attract an aggressive and belittling tone in translations (to warn, to exhort), but that is not directly implied by this verb itself (which rather means to explain or teach), although a need to capture in coherent statements implies that the counterparty hadn't done so, for whatever reason. This verb is used 8 times; see full concordance.