Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun πυρ (pur) means fire and both these words, as well as English' many "pyro-" words, stem from the widely attested Proto-Indo-European root paewr- meaning fire (and our word "pure" doesn't, in case you were wondering). Up to the age of electricity, all artificial light came from fire, and since light has since deep antiquity represented wisdom, fire represented a means to get it.
In early human cultures, fire sat literally at the center of the tribal community. It literally kept people together and at night guided wayward members back home. A tribe's central fire rendered light and warmth, but also kept wild animals at bay. People prepared their food on fire and burned their wastes in it. Later people even learned to disinfect non-combustible items (combustible and living items were disinfected with water and soap; Numbers 31:23), which aligned fire-purification with water-washing and explains the "baptism with fire" mentioned in Matthew 3:11. Later still, people learned how to extract metals from stone and how to build hotter fires to make ever stronger metals.
The hotter a people could make their fire, the stronger these people could make their tools and weapons. That correlated the quality of a people's wisdom (that is: their practical skills and understanding of science and technology) both with their chances with the forces of nature and their international clout (Daniel 3:19).
The hotness of a fire in turn correlates to energy density, that is: how much energy you can pack into a unit of space, and thus how much work you can generate (hence also Daniel 3:19). This in turn translates to a general principle that also explains human fervor, enthusiasm and powers of persuasion. In our modern age we don't build actual fires anymore, but the nation that can pack the most energy in one device (such as an A-bomb) is still king of the hill. Fortunately for all of us, the Internet has enveloped the world in a lattice of blazing fire and it's becoming increasingly difficult for evil men to vest large amounts of energy in evil things. Mankind's central fire has never been this big and this hot, and never has so much waste and accumulated garbage been so festively consumed.
Note that the familiar verb θεραπευω (therapeuo), to heal, either derives from or closely resembles the verb θερω (thero), to heat or make warm.
Our word πυρ (pur) occurs 73 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- The noun πυρα (pura) is a collective word denoting beacon or watch fires; a pattern of fires specifically organized to show nightly travelers a safe route. This word occurs in the New Testament only in Acts 28:2 and 28:3, where the helpful people of Malta light a beacon fire to guide Paul and his scattered and beached shipmates to their town. Paul, being quite helpful himself, brings wood along and drops it onto the beacon when he reaches it.
- The noun πυργος (purgos), meaning tower. Dictionaries don't usually list this word under the fire-words because this word appears to denote any sort of tower. Certain towers may have originated as storage houses for wheat, or πυρος (puros), a word which possibly derived from an Egyptian word pr, meaning "brought forth" or simply "a produce"; hence also the word πυραμις (puramis), or pyramid. But Greeks, and particularly Greeks who didn't speak Egyptian, could be forgiven to surmise that most if not all ancient towers would burn fires in the night. Those creative Greeks would probably agree that our noun πυργος (purgos) fits perfectly what we moderns call a lighthouse (the "-gos" part is a very common extension of agency or meaning place-of). This is turn suggests that the mysterious pyramids of Giza may have (also) served as line-of-sight beacons, to serve as literal centers of the local economy — a practice that may have enveloped the whole Bronze Age world in an Internet-of-fire, the general principle of which may be discussed in Genesis 11:1-9.
As we discuss in our article on the Hebrew word for tower, namely מגדל (migdal), in antiquity most societies had towers upon which society was centered, and such central towers may also have originated as elevated beacon fires. Note that the name Magdalene derives from this Hebrew word for tower. Our Greek noun is used 4 times; see full concordance.
- The noun πυρετος (puretos), meaning fever. Note that the body induces a fever in order to combat viral infections. Both body heat and fire are oxidation processes, and a fever is quite literally a fire. This noun is used 6 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derives:
- The adjective πυρινος (purinos), meaning fiery. This adjective is used only in Revelation 9:17, where it modifies the noun for thoracic plating. Most translators appear to assume that our word describes the color of the armor, but even if these items were gleaming bronze, the author would probably not have described them as fiery. Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that these items didn't simply reflect sunlight but produced light from within (see Ephesians 6:14 and John 7:38 and our article on נהר, nahar, to flow).
- The verb πυροω (puroo), meaning to be affected by fire. This verb occurs only 6 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, but that is because many of the specific uses of fire (to light up, to make warm, to sacrifice, to ignite, to burn) are covered by other verbs. Our verb πυροω (puroo) literally means to "fire-ise", and appears to speak mostly of the purifying nature of fire and its luring powers. In 1 Corinthians 7:9 Paul says nothing other than that it's better to marry than to be constantly drawn to every pretty face. Likewise the enemy's fiery darts are specifically honed to meet their target's weaknesses (Ephesians 6:16). From this verb comes:
- The adjective πυρρος (purros), which in the classics describes a color, namely that of egg yolk, sediment in urine, blushing cheeks, or (red) hair. In Revelation 6:4 this word describes the color of a horse, which appears to correspond to Zechariah 1:8, where this color is called אדם ('dm), red. The second time this word occurs in the New Testament is to describe the fiery-red dragon of Revelation 12:3. Our noun occurs only these two times, and from it in turn derives:
The verb καιω (kaio) means to burn or combust (or cause to burn, and so to ignite: Matthew 5:15, Luke 12:35), and it's a mystery where it came from. It occurs in Greek in all time periods (and is thus probably pre-Greek), but has no convincing Indo-European cognates. From this word derives the familiar Latin word causticus, burning or corrosive, from which English gets its adjective caustic (the defining quality of acid).
The equally familiar Latin noun causa (hence English words like cause, because and causality) is also of formally unknown origin, but here at Abarim Publications we surmise that it came from the same root as our verb καιω (kaio), which ultimately emphasized transformation, and thus a one thing leading into another. This directs our suspicions to the common Hebrew particle כי (kai), which indeed expresses relation between clauses. (The Greek alphabet is an adaptation of the Phoenician one, and was imported together with a hardy helping of Semitic terms: see our articles on the names Hellas and Colossae).
Burning is a chemical process that is characterized by a forced and rapid increase in entropy: when an initial injection of energy (an initial flame or spark) breaks chemical bonds within a material, so as to release more energy whilst transforming the original material into several components (usually by also binding oxygen). Burning is often but not always accompanied by a flame (which requires oxygen), and sometimes oxidation occurs at or close to room temperature (rust, digestion), in which case associated fire-terms are commonly understood to be metaphors but are actually quite literal (when we "burn" calories, we really do burn them).
Another form of burning is nuclear fusion (the reason why the sun shines), which is the process of releasing energy by mushing smaller atoms (say, four hydrogen atoms) into bigger ones (one helium atom). The difference in energy needed to hold four hydrogen atoms together is less than what's required for one helium atom, and the difference is released, and comes out as sunlight. This process releases energy up to the forging of iron, but that's where the fun stops. Any heaver atoms can only be made in super novae, when the star's inner fire sizzles out and the whole star explodes. When John the Revelator submits that the sun will not light on people and there will be no more καυμα (kauma), a burning (see below), he is describing conditions just preceding a super nova (Revelation 7:16).
A third form of burning is the most efficient one, but also the rarest form in the material universe. This kind of burning happens when a particle meets its anti-particle (which sounds more exotic than it really is: particles and anti-particles are the same except that their electrical charge is reversed — a positron is identical to an electron, except that it has a charge of +1 whereas the electron is charged -1). The reason why this process is very rare is that most naturally occurring anti-particles have been burned up. The real mystery is why there are (were) slightly more regular particles than anti-particles in the early universe, so that we lucky organics can have material bodies and a stable and largely antimatter-free universe to live in.
All these esoteric physics considerations are not wholly without relevance to our present story because certain emotions are often said to cause burning (a burning desire, burning shame, burning anger) but although this is again commonly understood metaphorically (getting "hot" or "fired up" about someone or something), it's quite likely that the ancients were onto a kind of "real" emotional chemistry (or even nuclear fusion, if not mater-antimatter reactions). As we point out in our article on the familiar noun πνευμα (pneuma), meaning spirit, the realms of the dust of the earth (matter and energy) is self-similar to the world of conscious thought (thinking based on words), which is why the offspring of Abraham (the father of all believers: Galatians 3:7) could be "like" the dust of the earth — so that if the dust of the earth could be numbered, so would his offspring be (Genesis 13:16).
That seems to suggest that it is possible to puzzle together a kind of periodic table of thought (a kind of basic alphabet of complex thinking), and identify atomic nuggets of thought patterns that have predictable outcomes when mixed. It also suggests that it is possible to spin together very practical safety procedures and fail-safe fire extinguishers to be held at the ready during debates and bible studies on certain volatile topics.
Slightly more serious: the end of the world through fire (Luke 12:49, 2 Peter 3:17), as well as satan's lasting torment in fire (Revelation 20:10), speak essentially of cognitive transformations, which remain eternally possible until they are not. Whenever someone arrives at the Truth — another can of worms, but essentially "that which everybody agrees with and nobody opposes" (John 14:6, see our article on καλυπτω, kalupto, to envelop) — no further cognitive transformations are possible, which means that all fire dies out, or rather that the reach of the fire that can never be quenched is transcended and left behind (Exodus 3:2, Daniel 3:27, Psalm 12:6, Ephesians 6:16).
Our verb καιω (kaio), to burn, is used a modest 14 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition εκ (ek), meaning out or from: the verb εκκαιω (ekkaio), literally meaning to burn out. In the classics this verb may indeed literally mean to burn out (of one's eyes, as punishment for plotting to be a tyrant: Plato.Gorg.473c), but more often it simply means to kindle (of camp fires), or figuratively to inflame with curiosity or anger, or be stimulated. In the New Testament it occurs in Romans 1:27 only.
- Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb κατακαιω (katakaio), meaning to burn down or burn up completely. In the classics, this verb often describes the complete burning of houses, cities and sacrificed animals and even human corpses. On rare occasions it may describe the effects of a scorching wind. It's used 12 times; see full concordance.
- The noun καυμα (kauma), which describes an instance of burning, a burning event or the direct effect of one (Revelation 7:16 Revelation 16:9 only). From this noun in turn comes:
- The curious and rare verb καυματιζω (kaumatizo), meaning to cause or experience a burning event, which is slightly more specific than simply to burn. This verb is used 4 times; see full concordance.
- The noun καυσις (kausis), which also means a burning, but describes the act of burning, and implies a sudden intense heat (Hebrews 6:8 only). From this noun comes:
- The noun καυσων (kauson), meaning a burning heat, often in the classics as well as in the New Testament, descriptive of summer heat (Matthew 20:12, Luke 12:55 and James 1:11 only).
- The verb καυτηριαζω (kauteriazo), meaning to brand (to mark cattle with a branding iron), in order for a rancher to declare ownership over whatever is branded with his company logo (1 Timothy 4:2 only).
The noun καπνος (kapnos) means smoke, and occurs in the New Testament only in highly allegorical references to the latter days. It occurs 13 times, once in Peter's quote from Joel (Acts 2:19) and the rest in the Book of Revelation — see full concordance.
Smoke signifies an incomplete combustion, and may consist of incombustible material (i.e. material that burns at much higher temperatures than that of an open flame or common kitchen fire), or material that would combust but failed to due to lack of oxygen. All smoke pollutes the air and most smoke contains toxins that irritate the airways, which causes coughing and trouble breathing. In small quantities, certain aromatic smokes are commonly experienced as pleasant: frankincense, for instance, is burned specifically to release certain compounds that most humans experience as a pleasant smell (also, probably, because certain elements of the smoke of frankincense are known to reduce anxiety and depression).
As we point out above, early societies were centered upon their fires: it's where all government originated, but also all commercial negotiation, where all food was cooked, and ultimately where metals were refined and processed. Fire separated mankind from the animal wilderness and purified man's world. Obviously, fire became a symbol of reason and wisdom, because it had the same effect. It might even be argued that fire and reason are not two separate things at all but rather the same thing, with a single civilizing effect.
In a fire, a substance is broken down into its constituting elements, which then bind to other, freely available elements (such as the oxygen in the air), to form new materials. The ancients appear to have understood that the human mind does precisely the same thing. In our articles on αρτος (artos), bread, and φυραμα (phurama), a mix (of clay or dough), we show that bread is very much like words (hence: "... not on bread alone, but on every word..."; Matthew 4:4). Just like a baker gathers elements and breaks them down and mixes them and kneads them into dough, and then puts the dough in the fire, and obtains an edible bread, so our minds gather, break down, mix, kneed, bake and produces "edible" products.
The mind is an entity that absorbs words, not only by hearing someone speak, but also by regarding items of which we know the name (see our article on the noun ονομα, onoma, meaning word or name). Said otherwise: when we see a man on a horse in a field, we do nothing with the actual man, the horse or the field, but instead process the words "man", "horse" and "field", or rather the vast webs of associations that these words represent. Then we toss these vast associative logs into the fire of our minds, and out comes rational energy (which in turn drives us into some physical action, like run toward the man on the horse), but also words ("hey, there's a dude on a nag eating our strawberries!"), plus a lot of wordless expressions of anger ("HUH? HEY? YO! OI! AAH!"), for which we could find no words. Now, that is smoke.
If the mind is fire, then smoke signifies an incomplete processing of nominal input (i.e. words), and corresponds to non-verbal vocalizations (screams, shouts, but also grunts, groans and moans, and even humming and laughter). There's no accounting for taste, but most people are averted to the billowing black smoke of fear, anger and violence — which comes about either when a fire is not hot enough to burn whatever is tossed into it, or when there is not enough "oxygen" relative to the fuel (1 Kings 10:5, 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; see our article on πνευμα, pneuma, spirit).
Wordless groans, however, are a whole other matter, since these give utterance to sincere concerns of such depth that not even the mind of those so burdened can convert them (Romans 8:26). And wordless joy (even inexpressible joy; 1 Peter 1:8), of course, was the first and immediate result of the covenant between God and humanity, which was first wrought with Abraham (Genesis 15:1) and which was completed in Christ (Romans 4:13, Galatians 3:7). The name Isaac means He Will Cause Laughter, and is the mental equivalent of frankincense (Acts 10:46, Revelation 8:4).
There's no watertight consensus as to where our noun καπνος (kapnos), smoke, comes from but to the less critical eye (and the average Koine speaker, one would think) it would fit right into the same Proto-Indo-European root "kwep-" that also yielded the Latin verb cupio, to desire (hence cupido, desire or lust, and thus Cupid, the name), and the Latin noun vapor, meaning vapor or steam. Some learned commentators, however, have in modern times expressed doubt regarding our word's technical origin in this PIE root, implying that it originated somewhere else, but sounded familiar enough to be adopted into PIE.
In Hebrew, there is the ever handy noun כף (kap), which describes any kind of open dish or cup (the kind in which one would burn incense) and even the palm of one's open hand or the hollow of one's ירך (yarek; see Genesis 32:25). And in Aramaic, we have the verb כפן (kapan), to bend eagerly or hungrily toward, which is an activity not foreign to fire.
There may even be relations with the familiar noun cuprum, or copper, which in turn came from the name Cyprus. For the significance of this, see our article on the noun χαλκος (chalkos), copper.