The curious case of baskets in the Bible

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/s/s-p-e-i-r-om.html

The curious case of baskets in the Bible

— How since Moses, baskets have symbolized encryption —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary


The verb σπειρω (speiro) means to sow or scatter. It's the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew verb זרע (zara'), which may have given rise to the name Nazareth (or so we here at Abarim Publications surmise). Our verb σπειρω (speiro) stems from a widely attested Proto-Indo-European root sper-, meaning to strew.

It needs to be remembered that compared to language, agriculture is a relatively late invention and the root sper- was once a hip novelty. By the time of the New Testament, our verb σπειρω (speiro) could denote the sowing of seed but just as much the spreading of a rumor or even the begetting of children (by either parent). Our verb predominantly describes the broadcasting of any sort of "seed," which subsequently needs to settle in fertile "soil" before it can bear fruit itself.

Our verb is used 53 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:

  • Together with the preposition δια (dia), meaning through or throughout: the verb διασπειρω (diaspeiro), meaning to broadly scatter, albeit with the implied result of seed taking root and producing fruit. This verb is used in Acts 8:1, 8:4 and 11:19 only, and from it in turn derives:
    • The familiar noun διασπορα (diaspora), meaning a broad scattering or dispersion, but again, with the implied result of seed taking root and producing fruit. This noun is used in John 7:35, James 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:1 only.
  • The noun σπερμα (sperma), which refers to that which is sown, and takes root and produces fruit (hence the English word sperm). This word does not merely refer to the physical seed (that's covered by the word σπορος, sporos; see below) but rather the whole process of the seed's own harvest, the seed's getting sown upon soil, the seed's germinating and beginning to grow toward maturity. Our word covers the entire first section of the agricultural cycle of which the harvest and processing of the produce is the final section (known by the word θερισμος, therismos).
    Particularly because Jesus spoke of a kingdom like a seed (Matthew 13:31), people have assumed that a seed stood symbol for anything very small but that's not the key. A seed is a living molecule of an entire plant: the smallest possible instance of the whole thing that still possesses all the qualities of the whole thing. A kingdom might be formidable like huge half oak tree, which means that it won't grow, won't photosynthesize, won't produce acorns and won't last a whole lot longer. But a kingdom might also be tiny like a wholly complete mustard seed, which has the whole adult tree within it, including all the tree's future seeds, and thus forests upon forests of living, photosynthesizing and fruit-bearing trees.
    Our noun is used 44 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
    • Together with the noun λογος (logos), which in this case means reason or "a collection of things to know": the adjective σπερμολογος (spermologos). This word originally described birds that wander around aimlessly, picking up whatever they come across, but it became applied to people who pick up tidbits of information and pass them on without context or relevance: gossips and idle babblers. This word occurs in the New Testament only in Acts 17:18.
  • The noun σπορα (spora), meaning a sowing. This word may describe the time of sowing or the act of sowing, and as such could also refer to the origin of something of someone. Our noun σπορα (spora) is used in 1 Peter 1:23 only.
  • The adjective σποριμος (sporimos), meaning sown, sow-ready or sowable. This word does not necessarily refer to a field that's ready to be sown or has just been sown; it may also simply refer to a piece of land that has an agricultural designation: an acre. In the New Testament it's used in Matthew 12:1, Mark 2:23 and Luke 6:1 only.
  • The noun σπορος (sporos), meaning seed; hence our English word spore. Technically this word refers to the physical seed and produce, whereas the noun σπερμα (sperma) refers more to the process. But in practice these words are pretty much synonymous. Our noun σπορος (sporos) is used 5 times; see full concordance.

The noun σπειρα (speira) denotes anything twisted, coiled or wrapped around something; hence our English word spiral. Technically it may have little to do with our previous words but ancient users of Koine Greek might have rather been charmed by their obvious similarity: our noun σπειρα (speira) is thought to stem from Proto-Indo-European root sper- (2), meaning to turn or twist, whereas the σπειρω (speiro) group is thought to come from sper- (3), meaning to strew.

Our noun σπειρα (speira) could refer to anything twisted, from spires of a serpent to twists in ropes or braids in one's coiffure. It could point to throngs, straps or gnarly guides, the rounded molding of columns and even something complicated mathematical called "anchor-ring" or "tore".

It also somehow managed to get attached to the Roman military: namely to describe a tactical unit of some sort. The use of the term in the military sense appears to have shifted a bit over the centuries, so it's not wholly clear what the original non-military audience of the gospel understood when this word was used. Some translations speak of a cohort, but a cohort would have contained 400 to 600 troops, which is a bit much. It's much more likely that our word σπειρα (speira) was not a standard unit but rather a colloquial term that meant "a bunch" or "contingent"; a handful of men "wrapped" around a commander of some sort, which was "strewn out" in order to retrieve someone or get something done; a reconnaissance unit.

This word is used 7 times, see full concordance, and from it derives:

  • The noun σπυρις (spuris), which described a storage basket of relatively small size, judging from the contexts in the classics. It seems likely that this item was named such because it was made from coiled or braided material. However, also note the striking similarity with the Hebrew noun ספר (seper), meaning book or record (which was always a rolled up scroll). The noun σπυρις (spuris) is used 5 times, see full concordance, four of which in the context of one of two reports of a miraculous feeding: in one version, the remaining food is gathered into seven baskets (using our noun σπυρις, spuris), whereas in the other version, there are twelve baskets (using the noun κοφινος, kophinos, see below). The fifth occurrence of our noun tells of the item that allowed Paul to escape Damascus (Acts 9:25). In the other version of this story, the noun σαργανη (sargane) is used (see below).

The noun κοφινος (kophinos) describes a large and round container, such as a basket. It exists in several languages, but most notably in Aramaic, as קופא (qopa'), which describes anything curved or hollow, and which mostly contains bulk to be poured or scooped forth. The noun כף (kap) describes an open or hollow hand and served as a makeshift unit of volume: a handful (also see our article on the verb κυβερναω, kubernao, to govern a ship, and κυπτω (kupto), to bow or stoop).

These words stems from the verb קוף (qop), to be round or move in a circle, which may describe anything curved or round, from curved archways to the round stubs of chopped off vines. Noun קוף (qop) means ape, or literally round-head (2 Chronicles 9:21). This latter word is also the name of the 19th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, namely the ק (qop). The verb קוף (qop), to be round, may be related to the verb קפא (qapa'), to congeal or form a heap. The noun קיפא (qayapa'), from the former verb, describes a residual blob of congealed fat at the bottom of a cooking pot. Noun קפאון (qippa'on), from the latter verb, means congelation.

The noun κοφινος (kophinos) is used 6 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, consistently in reference to the twelve basketfuls of left-over food that were gathered after the miraculous feeding. There are two such stories in the New Testament. The one in which there are seven basketfuls of food left over, uses the word σπυρις (spuris), see above. The curious dualism in the twelve kophinoi and seven spurides also exists in the twelve disciples and the seven deacons (Acts 6:2-3).


The noun σαργανη (sargane) describes a large braided basket. It occurs in the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 11:33 only, where it describes the basket in which Paul was lowered down the wall of Damascus. In Acts 9:25, the word σπυρις (spuris) is used (see above).

This noun obviously stems from the Hebrew verb שרג (sarag), to intertwine, and that is remarkable because that same verb gave rise to the nomen of Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, from whom Saul appears to have taken his new name: Paul.

The curious case of baskets in the Bible

The Bible tells the story of how humanity developed speech (Genesis 2:19-20), then Law and script (see our article on YHWH), then natural theology (1 Kings 4:29-34, Romans 1:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:21), until finally the Word of God (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 2:3) could assume human form (John 1:14), and humanity in turn could begin to partake in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4, Ephesians 4:24, Hebrews 12:10).

All texts are woven things, but some texts are like tapestries in that they display a clear picture, whereas other texts are like baskets in that beneath their obvious story they store a second and unrelated message. The invention of written texts was a baffling miracle, but the invention of literary baskets — metaphors, figures of speech, parables and self-similar fractals — inaugurated a whole new level of literary profundity.

The New Jerusalem envisioned by John the Revelator is not a natural garden or beach resort but a city. And a city is an enclave of synthetic reality within the natural world. Likewise, the gospels are highly synthetic compositions within historic realism, and the words we discuss on this page, beside their literal function, also tell of the process of sowing the seeds of wisdom by the handful upon the candid earth.

As we explain in more detail in our article on Onesimus, simply by discussing the freedom for which Jesus set us free (Galatians 5:1), Paul and colleagues committed acts of high treason against the Roman Empire. This required them to resort to a kind of literary code or narrative encryption. Their books are carefully crafted baskets that are certainly works of art in their own right but also contain encrypted information that can easily be retrieved when a skilled reader opens the lid (see our article on the noun κλεις, kleis, key).

Paul's bodily escape from Damascus in a large basket also tells how the gospel of Jesus Christ had been secretly contained in the writing of mankind at large (compare 1 Kings 10:23-25 to John 21:25 and 2 Timothy 3:16). The great archetype of all this is of course the basket of papyrus (βιβλος, biblos) in which Moses was first deposited and then found among the reeds of Egypt. The word that describes the papyrus basket in which baby Moses was placed, namely תבה (teba), is the same word that describes the ark of Noah. These same themes return in the manger (φατνη, phatne), in which the Logos was first deposited and then found.

Jesus was the son-by-law of Joseph of Judah (Luke 3:23), but Mary and Elizabeth (and thus Jesus and John the Baptist) were closely related Levites (Luke 1:36). The name Levi means Joiner. The earthly profession of Jesus (and his father-by-law Joseph) was that of τεκτων (tekton) or Assembler. This word comes from the same Indo-European root "teks-", meaning to weave, as our English words textile, technology and text. It appears that baskets were the quintessential symbols of anything that was both woven and designed to contain something that went beyond the obvious fabric of the thing woven: the basket is the Biblical symbol for encryption.

PeterCephasCaiaphasCaphtor/Creteכפף (kapap)κοφινος (kophinos)
SaulPaulSergius PaulusCyprusשרג (sarag)σαργανη (sargane)