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

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/ph/ph-u-l-a-s-s-om.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The verb φυλασσω (phulasso) means to watch or keep watch in the sense of to guard (to ensure safety, security, integrity, purpose), which was a very common occupation in the old world, particularly by night. This verb could be used not only in a defensive but also in an offensive sense: one could watch out for someone or even lie in wait (to ambush) them. Sailors or travelers could peer into the darkness watching out for the fire of a lighthouse. Folks would watch for, or "observe", a specific time, day or event. They would "heed" commands, "hold fast" to a belief, "be on their guard" for danger or deception, or generally tread their ways "with care".

The Hebrew equivalent of this verb φυλασσω (phulasso) is שמר (shamar), from which comes the name Samaria and thus the ethnonym Samaritan. Possibly not technically related but similar enough to tickle poetic sensibilities, is the noun שמור (shamor), which describes a particular thorny bush, the proverbial symbol of ruin (Isaiah 5:6). The Greek name for this same plant is μαραθον (marathon), and, as everybody in Biblical times would remember, at the Battle of Marathon of 490 BC, the Persians were defeated by the Greeks. This caused the whole world to become Greek, and this in turned opened the door for the Romans. Hence, in Biblical times, nobody would have interpreted Jesus' crown of thorns as a mere torturous gimmick, but rather as a literary motif in the explanation of how the entire world was almost lost.

Our verb φυλασσω (phulasso) is used 30 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:

  • Together with the preposition δια (dia), meaning through: the verb διαφυλασσω (diaphulasso), meaning to thoroughly guard, to keep safe through and through (Luke 4:10 only).
  • The noun φυλακη (phulake), which describes the act of the verb: a guard(ing), a watch(ing), a watchkeeping stint (Matthew 14:25), a shepherds' vigil (Luke 2:8), a show-case (Mark 6:28). Most often this noun is used to describe a "guard(ery)" or "watch(ery)", i.e. the place where such guarding or watching occurs: a holding pen or house of detention (Matthew 5:25, 14:3). When the text speaks of "placing under guard", translators will often render this as "throwing into prison" but note that in antiquity prisons like we know them didn't exist. A "guard(ery)" was not a penitentiary — not a place of punishment — but rather a place where suspects were held during investigations and trials, to keep them from fleeing, to keep angry citizens from lynching them (Acts 16:23). And when a person was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine, that person was kept in the "guard(ery)" as ransom until their family and friends came up with the bail (Matthew 5:26, 18:30-34). But the incarceration itself was never the punishment, and translators should avoid the word "prison" in these contexts.
    The important emphasis of our noun lies on the guarding and particularly the scrutiny element, not on the implied loss of freedom. Likewise, Peter submits that Christ's physical death allowed his Spirit to visit and preach the gospel to spirits in a "watchery" (1 Peter 3:19). What kind of "watchery" that might be isn't told, but it could be anything from a virus lab to some arena with CCTV. That this "watchery" might indeed be something modern is suggested by John the Revelator, who likewise speaks of a "watchery" into which the slanderer will cast some of the faithful (Revelation 2:10), and probably another one into which all sorts of foul spirits are kept under scrutiny (18:2), and ultimately satan himself (20:7).
    Altogether, our noun is used 47 times (see full concordance), and from it in turn derive:
    • Together with the noun γαζα (gaza), meaning treasure: the noun γαζοφυλακιον (gazophulakion), which describes a treasure-guard(ing) or treasure-"watchery"; not merely a place where a treasure is stored but rather a place where treasure is assessed and subsequently applied; in modern terms: the ministry of finance. This word is used 5 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
      The diligent theologians of the middle ages made sure that their audience understood this word to describe a big hungry box through which one was to deposit one's coin into the perpetual care of rulers and their henchmen, but that's obviously not what this word implies. Instead, this word describes a device in which the many donations of the people could be reviewed and assessed. Since, as the saying would maintain, donations were verified by their mere hollow thump, it's not beyond reason to suspect some people's generosity to include mostly rubble, which in turn might have prompted the administrators of the treasury to opt for some form of front-end monitoring. The famous story of the poor widow and her two much-discussed copper coins (Mark 12:41-44), also demonstrates that the templar enterprise was pretty much see-through (for more on the lucrative temple business, see our article on the name Annas).
      Also note that the temple was never the "house of worship" that many moderns take it for, but rather the prototype of any sort of institution we are now familiar with: from central bank to library and university, to town hall and seat of parliament. And as the king's throne was the seat of the whole nation, so the temple served as the "attractor" upon which the entire economy pivoted. That means that the contributions came not only in the form of monies, but also as books and wisdom. One of the main functions of the wisdom elite was to listen to whomever had something to say or inquire, and assess it for what it was worth. This is how for three days young Jesus came to be in the "midst of the teachers" in the temple (Luke 2:46), and how he later spoke into the treasury (John 8:20). For more on the meaning and function of temples in antiquity, see our article on the noun ναος (naos).
    • The verb φυλακιζω (phulakizo), meaning to place under guard (and remember that in antiquity people were punished with whips and fines but not with incarceration; holding pens were for audits). This verb occurs in Acts 22:19 only.
  • The noun φυλακτηριον (phulakterion), which literally describes a place of watchkeeping, instrument of vigilance, item of security, and so on. The manual of a modern chainsaw might describe the saw's plastic casing as its "guard"; in Greek we would use our noun φυλακτηριον (phulakterion) for that. In the classics this noun is used to describe a defensive fort, castle or watch-tower, and the plural of it may indicate guards' quarters within a larger complex. Plato uses this word once to describe "guard-things" of market-men by which a corrupt salesman might swear his trustworthiness. It's not clear what these "guard-things" might be, but there is a slight chance that Plato was in fact speaking of Jews and their "phylacteries" (same word), which are small containers that Jews wore according to Exodus 13:9 (the Tefillin) and Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20 (the Mezuzah). Plato wrote in the fourth century BC and our oldest references to these phylacteries are from the first century BC, so chances are equally good that the Jewish phylacteries were named after much older pagan phylacteries: holy items and amulets that would protect the bearer against harm. The difference between the Jewish phylacteries and the pagan ones is the same as with any object in the Jewish liturgy, namely that pagans assign intrinsic power to their holy objects whereas the Jews hold that the object may merely remind of power, or not; all depending on the understanding of the one who sees the object. In that sense, the Jewish phylactery was very much like a word or phrase written on a piece of paper: the paper or even the ink are in no way of any significance to anyone, and only to someone who can read in the language in which the phrase is written (and who subsequently understands what the text is actually referring to), the object may represent something powerful or protective (say, when the text reads something like: "watch out, this plate is hot!"). Our word occurs in the New Testament in Matthew 23:5 only.
  • The noun φυλαξ (phulax), meaning a guard, a guardian, a keeper, a watcher (Acts 5:23, 12:6 and 12:19 only). From this noun derives:
    • Together with the noun δεσμος (desmo), something that binds, from the verb δεω (deo) to bind: the noun δεσμοφυλαξ (desmophulax), a rare word that appears to describe a person who guards someone by tying them up for additional security (Acts 16:23, 16:27 and 16:36 only).