Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb σεβομαι (sebomai) means to revere, worship or do homage to, particularly accompanied with feelings of shame or humility. It basically expresses the sentiments of an inferior, weaker or less formidable party when facing a superior one. But although it's tempting to read a typically religious quality into our verb, religious reverence the way we moderns know it is essentially political and stems from the idea that the deity is a king — a willful ruler who comes with an extended government of dignitaries, spokespeople and enforcers — which is a relatively modern invention. Our verb appears to have originated in a time when tribes were family groups governed by their own elders, prior to the kind of social stratification that would support complex centralized governments, and therefore, probably, expresses reverence for natural forces (the wind, thunder, bigger animals).
One particular derivation of our verb is the noun σεβας (sebas), meaning reverential awe (see below). This word isn't used independently in the New Testament, but it does bring to mind the familiar noun βασιλευς (basileus), which means king and which is formally of obscure pedigree. This suggests that our words stem from a mindset that saw the newly invented king as an extension of the formidable forces of nature, rather than deities as heavenly kings and kings as earthly deities. Modern religions are unfortunately mostly about pledging one's allegiance to a particular socio-economic faction, rather than unspoiled theory, sentiment or even honest experience, and are thus on a par with derived reverence for the king's emblems and regalia, his entourage and his security and law enforcement personnel, but our verb appears to not regard such imposed associations.
We are able to guess all this because our verb stems from an ancient Proto-Indo-European root "tyeg-" that's otherwise pretty much forgotten, and which appears to have meant to retreat or abandon. How the original came to be associated with reverential awe isn't immediately clear, but some commentators point to the related verb σοβεω (sobeo), to move rapidly or violently (specifically: to scare away animals), to be agitated, exited or wild, and its derived adjective σοβαρος (sobaros), meaning rushing or violent, but also pompous, proud or even rousing (yet descriptive of horses, which are commonly motivated to act like that by their human riders). Our verb σεβομαι (sebomai) is then thought to have formed from a passive voice of the PIE root, namely of being scared away, of being driven into humility.
Even though our verb comes from a very ancient root that hasn't left lasting traces in other language branches, in Greek it comes with a broad delta of derivations, which seems to suggest that it expresses something very important specifically to the Greek mindset, and read our article on Hellas for a look at what that particular mindset might be all about.
In the New Testament, our verb appears to describe a general attitude of reverence, not merely religious awe or a tendency to break out in praise and worship, but rather a gentle confidence in greater forces, whether natural, social or spiritual. Here at Abarim Publications we like to propose that our verb, essentially, describes the common attitude of man's best friend, namely the dog: to acknowledge one's master, i.e. to freely and voluntarily behave in accordance with the wishes of those curious naked apes that dogs love and love to please.
As we point out in our article on the noun θηριον (therion), meaning wild animal, humanity is not the tribe of naked apes we identify ourselves with, but the whole sphere of human cultivation, including all domesticated plants and animals. Modern humanity started when rejected naked ape weaklings (very early humans) and rejected wolf weaklings (very early dogs), found comfort in each other's company, and began to domesticate each other. Later cows, sheep and pigs joined too, but all these creatures domesticated all the others, and although the naked apes now dress themselves and have smart phones, modern dogs and sheep are as human as the modern naked apes are. Without the other animals, the naked apes would still live in caves, still competing with everything that moves. It's the amalgamation, the domesticated collective, that is humanity.
And although it is always tempting to imagine the world of our canine friends in human terms, dogs don't have a conception of property rights (and thus ownership) or command structures and thus master-slave relations. Dogs do understand hierarchies, however. And they also understand when a place of residence is warm, safe, secure and full of food and friendly joy, and that such a place is forfeited when one's fine relations with the naked apes are allowed to go sour.
Our verb is not about simply being a slave and doing as ordered, but rather about knowing how to live in a flexible symbiosis with the obviously greater forces of the world: to live in the larger world like a dog in the house of his associated human — in a state of ελευθερια (eleutheria), or governed freedom, much happier, safer and more prosperous than in the anarchy of the wilderness. The opposite of our verb would be to insist on one's own superiority, to have an attitude of irreverence, or even to put up a boastfulness or violent resistance against the powers that be.
How to bring about a human world in the coveted state of ελευθερια (eleutheria) has of course been a mystery since its possibility was proposed, but the Bible offers a comparative review of the two most visited candidates: the way of Emperor Augustus (nicknamed King of Kings, Savior of the World, Son of God), and the way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (also nicknamed King of Kings, Savior of the World, Son of God). See our article on the name Augustus for a quick overview of the main differences between these two ways.
Our verb σεβομαι (sebomai) is used 10 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning not or without: the adjective ασεβης (asebes), meaning irreverent or uncooperative in the sense of unwilling to be domesticated (the opposite of ευσεβης, eusebes, see below). In our modern world, in which we romanticize wild freedom (whilst clad in Gore-Tex and GPS in hand), domestication is almost a nasty word. But back when the entire world was wild, every creature that was not an apex predator lived in a state of perpetual fear that they would gladly depart from. We don't exactly know how it all happened, of course, but domestication most likely began when failing apes (very early humans) and failing wolves (very early dogs) voluntarily teamed up and began to strengthen and reform each other mutually. Similar flunkies of other species probably joined equally voluntarily, or at least when they had collectively worked out that the governance of dogs and humans resulted in a much higher standard of living than taking one's chances out in the wilderness with the lions and bears.
Most religions and sects are exclusive in nature, and revolve around their constituting statements of faith: methods, creeds and secret handshakes that plot out the aspirant's one and only shot at redemption. Such statements of faith commonly speak of one's "personal Lord and Savior", and evidently forget that while damnation is a perfectly personal and private thing, salvation is a collective thing. In the Bible, salvation happens only to the Body of Christ, which is a collective. That's its nature. Not a personal thing.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for folks who have found themselves in hysteric despair, trapped between a rock and a hard place, with on each side of them all varieties of clowns and morons of unrelated affiliations, all equally hysterically desperate. The purpose of the Gospel is not to reject those weirdoes and hence purify our group of true believers, but rather to provide the means and persuasion to voluntarily enter into a hitherto unseen kind of alliance with those weirdoes (Galatians 5:1). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the mental and intellectual equivalent of a very early farm and the beginning of an agricultural revolution of which nobody alive today could possibly begin to guess the outcome (1 Corinthians 2:9). Domestication (i.e. cooperative association with gringos, goy, Ausländer, aliens, people of other leanings, people of other faiths, infidels) is not for everyone, of course, and those who disapprove of it, should by all means stay wild, free and competitive in the outer darkness (Isaiah 8:22, Matthew 22:13, Revelation 21:27; also see our article on the adjective καθαρος, katharos, pure or clean).
Our adjective ασεβης (asebes) is used 9 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derive:
- The noun ασεβεια (asebeia), meaning irreverence, uncooperativeness, unwillingness to partake in collective domestication. The Roman Emperor, that great domesticator of the human wilderness (which explains why Romans deified their Emperors), was known by several terms derived from our noun's parent verb σεβομαι (sebomai). Our noun, subsequently, was also used to denote disloyalty to the Roman Emperor. It's used 6 times; see full concordance.
- The verb ασεβεω (asebeo), to act irreverently or with unwillingness to join in collective domestication (2 Peter 2:6 and Jude 1:15 only).
- Together with the adverb ευ (eu), meaning good: the adjective ευσεβης (eusebes), meaning well-reverent or well-willing to partake in collective domestication (the opposite of ασεβης, asebes, see above). This adjective is commonly translated as "pious" (or pius in Latin) and became an epithet of Emperor Antonius Pius (who succeeded Hadrian in 138 AD). But that our word certainly didn't mean pious in the religious sense is demonstrated by its usage in describing a "well-productive" (?) piece of land (by the 4th century BC poet Menander in Georgos). It's used 4 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn come:
- The noun ευσεβεια (eusebeia), meaning well-reverence or well-willingness to partake in collective domestication. It's used 15 times; see full concordance.
- The verb ευσεβεω (eusebeo), meaning to be or act well-reverent or well-willing to partake in collective domestication (Acts 17:23 and 1 Timothy 5:4 only).
- The adverb ευσεβος (eusebos), meaning well-reverently or well-willingly to partake in collective domestication (2 Timothy 3:12 and Titus 2:12 only).
- Together with the noun θεος (theos), meaning God: the adjective θεοσεβης (theosebes), meaning god-reveringly (John 9:31 only). From this adjective comes:
- The noun θεοσεβεια (theosebia), meaning reverence of God (1 Timothy 2:10 only).
- The verb σεβαζομαι (sebazomai), to stand in awe (Romans 1:25 only), which actually derives from the unused noun σεβας (sebas), awe or reverence. From this verb in turn come:
- The noun σεβασμα (sebasma), which describes the result, manifestation or expression of standing in awe: a devotional structure of some sort (Acts 17:23) or more general: any expression of awe (2 Thessalonians 2:4). This noun occurs in these two verses only.
- The adjective σεβαστος (sebastos), which describes the object stood in awe of: revered (or substantially: reverent). This familiar adjective became the Greek equivalent of the Latin name Augustus, and from it stem the names Sebastian and Sebastopol (a city in Crimea). In the New Testament, this word occurs in Acts 25:21, 25:25 and 27:1 only; in the first two verses it refers to the emperor Nero (whose full name was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) and the final one it refers to a Sebaste (or Augustan) contingent of unclear pedigree. It may have been a cohort levied in Samaria, which Herod had named Sebaste in honor of the original emperor Augustus (Josephus mentions a Sebastene cavalry in his Antiquities: 19.2, 19.9 and 20.6, and Suetonius mentions it as well in his Life of Nero.20). Or this contingent may have been part of Nero's private army, which he named Augustani, after himself (Tacitus mentions them: Ann.14.15). Not long after the events of Acts 27:1, a centurion named Julius Priscus was promoted to joint command the Praetorian Guard (writes Tacitus in Hist.2.92), who might or might not have been the same as the Julius who took custody of Paul (but ultimately not very relevant). From a literary point of view, the journey of Paul is highly allegorical (with obvious links to the Odyssey but also various highlights of history; see our articles on Malta and Euroclydon, and for more on the Pauline code in which much of the New Testament is written, see our article on the name Colossae).
- The adjective σεμνος (semnos), meaning revered or venerable. In the Greek classics this adjective was a common term or semi-epithet for anything worthy of honor or reverence, including various Greek gods and items associated with them (caves, temples). It is used 4 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it comes: