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

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/p/p-t-e-r-u-x.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The noun πτερυξ (pterux) means wing, but a wing in Biblical times was not the same thing as a wing now. Our noun derives from the unused noun πτερον (pteron), meaning feather or plumage, and shares its Proto-Indo-European root pet-, meaning to rush or fly, with the verb ποταομαι (potaomai), to fly about, and ultimately the familiar noun ποταμος (potamos), meaning stream or river. That means that to the ancient Greek, a wing was not the proverbial instrument of flight but rather the proverbial instrument of flow and ultimately that of protection. Early humans, after all, began to seek each other in order to find protection from the wilderness and its forces and predators.

As we overly discuss in our article on the name Tigris, ancient civilizations commonly arose in association with great rivers. Since any culture is kept together by the knowledge (i.e. skills, artistry, traditions, stories) shared by its participants, and knowledge is associated with light, there is a strong narrative correlation between shining light and flowing water — hence the Hebrew verb that means to flow (what a river does) is the same as the verb that means to shine (what a lamp does), namely נהר (nahar), which in turn demonstrates that the ancients were familiar with Relativity Theory.

The Hebrew word for feather, namely אבר (abir), also means to be strong, hence the name Abir, which is an epithet of YHWH, which in turn is both the "personal name" of God as well as that of the alphabet (for a variety of reasons but also since, obviously, the Alphabet is the father of the Word). And that means that the Lord has wings (Psalm 91:4).

The first active deed of the Word in the Bible comes with his introduction to Abraham, when he says: "Abraham, don't fear, I am a shield to you" (Genesis 15:1). Hence the verb עוף ('up) means both to fly and to cover. The noun כנף (kanap), in turn, denotes either a wing or a winged creature, which is a creature that proverbially shields rather than one that proverbially flies.

As we discuss at length in our article on the noun αγγελος (aggelos), meaning messenger or angel, in antiquity wings were things that protected, which is why being winged was associated with the accumulation of knowledge, and thus with writing, and thus with a flow of light and thus with rivers.

Our noun is used 5 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derives:

  • The noun πτερυγιον (pterugion), which is a diminutive form of the previous, and hence means little wing (or little protector or little cover). To be more precise, our noun is indeed a diminutive but instead of simply describing a smaller version, it rather describes "one of a conceptual continuum" (comparable to the noun θηριον, therion, a particular animal, which derives from the noun θηρ, ther, which describes an animal in general).
    In the Greek classics, our noun πτερυγιον (pterugion) is used for anything wing-shaped, like fins of fishes and other aquatic creatures, the "horns" of a horned owl, pointy roofs, flaps and straps of armor and other outfits, body parts like shoulder blades, nostrils and ears, and even afflictions such as the aptly named pterygium, which is a triangular growth of tissue on the eye. Our noun is used in Matthew 4:5 and Luke 4:9 only, both times to describe the part of the temple upon which the devil set Jesus to entice him to prove that he was indeed the Son of God by leaping off.
    It's remarkable enough that the devil has the power to drag the Son of God anywhere he pleases, but to argue the virtue of his further ideas, he quotes Psalm 91:11-12, which, as we note above, is also the Psalm that describes the protective wings of YHWH, to whom the temple in Jerusalem was dedicated. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, which is also the chapter that asserts that God is one (6:4) and that godly wisdom is a generational endeavor that requires information technology (6:8-9), that ultimately results in wealth and prosperity (6:10-11).
    This "wealth of nations", however, is easily squandered when the primary principle of information technology is forgotten. This primary principle, of course, is to provide modernity an unbroken connection with the past; from its flowery crown of smart phones and moonwalks down its bleak root into the soil of history, so that time may complete its cycles and the whole may be alive.
    All meaning is historical and all history is meaning. Said simpler: anything that means something does so because it relates to something earlier. That means that truly new things don't refer to anything and have no meaning until they themselves are referenced. This is precisely why our Facebook and Instagram culture is doomed to disintegrate into a huge cloud of meaningless dust. All meaning is mnemonic and thus heavenly, whereas forgetfulness is earthly.
    The devil's generous offer to have Jesus "fall down to earth" relates to forgetting and thus to becoming meaningless, which is why Jesus responds by quoting the chapter on remembering and becoming meaningful. What architectural feature our noun πτερυγιον (pterugion) may exactly describe in this particular literal context isn't overly clear (the templar pinnacle, perhaps, or some overhanging balcony kind of thing?) and is ultimately rather irrelevant regarding the dazzling depth of the metaphor.

Obviously related to the above, the verb πετομαι (petomai) means to use wings. A modern reader may immediately associate the term "use of wings" with a taking off into flight, but to the ancients, the "use of wings" much rather had to do with the gathering together of vulnerable young and shielding them against predators, the rays of the sun, and their own foolish desire to wander off. This magnificent and often misinterpreted verb is used 5 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derives:

  • The noun πετεινα (peteina), meaning birds or fowl. It's the neutral plural of πετεινος (peteinos), which isn't used in the New Testament, and our plural word is a generic term that categorizes beings specialized in protecting (of which flight and thus an enormous scope are pleasant side-effects). In Romans 1:23, Paul helpfully juxtaposes our word with ανθρωπος (anthropos), man, the proverbial networker and thus meaning-maker; the τετραπους (tetrapous), meaning quadruped or the proverbial stable and strong four-footer, and the ερπετον (herpeton), the proverbial belly-sliding creeper. It's used 14 times; see full concordance.
  • The adjective πτενος (ptenos), which means winged or having wings or having the use of wings. It occurs in 1 Corinthians 15:39 only, as synonym of the previous.

The noun πτερνα (pterna) means heel; the aft end of one's foot opposite one's toes. The Greek word for foot is πους (pous) and the Hebrew is רגל (regel), and both may refer to one's physical and figurative foundation. How the Greek word for heel came to look like the words for feathers and flight isn't immediately clear, but a living language evolves just like the living biosphere, and words, just like animals, may evolve a convergent similarity in form that does not demonstrate an actual kinship. Still, Greek mythology obviously played with this link, both in the pedila, or winged sandals, of Hermes (which in Rome became the talaria of Mercury), and the vulnerable tendon of the otherwise uncompromisable Achilles.

In Hebrew canon the heel is featured prominently in both inculpation and redemption: from the promise that the serpent would bruise the man's heel (Genesis 3:15), to the story of Jacob, who would be Israel, who was born by holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau (Genesis 25:26). A skeleton found at Giv'at ha-Mivtar (in Jerusalem) shows that Romans crucified at least some of their victims by driving nails though their heels (Psalm 22:16).

We humans are plantigrade, which means that our entire foot, from toes to heel, is flat on the ground while standing or periodically while walking. All primates are plantigrade, and so are bears, rodents, rabbits and kangaroos (and hyraxes), but that's where the list ends. All other animals are digitigrade and walk on their toes (and fingers, if you will). Curious enough, plantigrade locomotion appears to be the evolutionary original, from which digitigrade locomotion derived. Walking on toes allows for much greater speeds, but when a predator's advantage of a faster attack is met by the prey's advantage of a faster retreat, neither has gained much, and digitigrade gives no real advantage.

Humans are old-school flat-footers, who kept their heels on the ground and sought advantage over their enemies in other areas than speed. Their bipedal posture required plantigrade to retain stability, and their ability to stand upright greatly helped them to retain their social network, even when the individuals were relatively far apart. Above we briefly discuss Jesus' temptation to "fall to earth", which clearly describes a similar devolution or counter-evolution as digitigrade: a novelty that initially seems very advantageous, but which can't be contained and which spreads through the entire arena until no actual net advantage remains and the opportunity costs account for a negative return on investment.

Note, for instance, that Hebrew vowel notation retains considerable ambiguity, since the symbols for vowels may also be used for consonants: the written word דוד, for instance, may be the noun dod, meaning beloved, and also the name David, and the two are told apart solely by the reader's discretion. The Greek language dropped several of the Hebrew consonants (most notably the glottal plosives) or used their symbol to mark vowels. That is how the Hebrew letter א (aleph), which is a glottal plosive consonant, shouldn't be confused with the Greek letter α (alpha), which is a vowel, even though they share their name and their place in the alphabet. The Greek alphabet and the Latin one that followed it, don't have the interpretive freedom of the Hebrew one. The precision that modern alphabets command is, of course, more than welcome in our scientific age, but it appears that verbal ambiguity requires a kind of alertness from its reader that greatly benefits the reader, or at least in the long run (pun intended). As we discuss in our article on the name YHWH, this name consists entirely of symbols that may both convey a vowel or a consonant, and its power derives wholly from this duality.

Our noun πτερνα (pterna) occurs in the New Testament in John 13:18 only, which quotes Psalm 41:9, where the Psalmist speaks of his close friend who once ate his bread but now has lifted his heel against him. This is commonly (and rather liberally) interpreted to indicate some unspecified sort of deceit, but the ancients were pastorals and obviously realized that fast-movers walked on their toes, with lifted heels. The phrase "lifting the heels" is not a colloquium but rather speaks of the adoption of digitigrade locomotion, in favor of speed and at the price of stability, bipedalism and ultimately mankind's celebrated social network and thus his ratio and reason.