Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb σφαζω (sphazo) means to butcher, specifically in a ritualistic sense. In antiquity, all butchering was ritualistic and pretty much all available meat had been dedicated to some idol or other, unless it had been deliberately prepared kosher (Acts 15:29, 21:25, 1 Timothy 4:3). In antiquity, butchering was done both in homage to one's deity and as a part of preparing one's meal. The idea behind this was that the god had given the devotee the power over the animal, because by eating the meat, one would also feed the god. At a psychological level, this was of course precisely what happened. And by refusing to eat some idol's meat, a disciple of the Living God would quite literally starve the pagan deity out of existence.
This means that our verb doesn't simply mean to kill or even to butcher for food (or, psychologically speaking, for sustenance), but much rather also the sustenance of the deity who maintained the balance of power. Cain didn't merely kill his brother Abel, he butchered him for his own sustenance and the sustenance of God's favor upon him (1 John 3:12). Likewise, the Lamb that John the Revelator saw butchered, wasn't merely killed, but had provided sustenance to his people (Matthew 26:26-28) and favor to God (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25, 1 John 2:1-2).
In the classics, our verb appears to have specifically denoted the cutting of the throat of some sacrificial animal, but in the later classics it also came to be used in the sense of jugulating (or otherwise doing in) a human victim. In that sense, our verb specifically described the doing away of some undesired element, or the performing of a ritual that had that same effect — that is to say, it would describe the intended removal of some misfortune after the due sacrifice to one's favorite deity.
It's wholly unknown where this word came from (and thus what it originally may have meant), but it's generally assumed that it survived from a pre-Greek European language that has since disappeared.
However, in our article on the noun σειρα (seira), cord or rope, we submit a modest list of words that were formed by an added or deleted leading σ (s). We also frequently make the point that the Greek alphabet is an adaptation of the Hebrew one, and most probably was introduced in the Greek language basin along with a helping of Hebrew terms to jump start the contemplation of complex and abstract ideas.
That said, the Hebrew verb פצה (pasa) means to part or open. This verb is relatively rare and mostly describes how mouths open and swallow things (Numbers 16:10, Deuteronomy 11:6, Lamentations 2:16, 3:46, Psalm 22:13), or say things (Judges 11:35-36, Job 35:16, Psalm 66:14, Isaiah 10:14). In Psalm 144:7 and 144:11, an identical Aramaic loan-verb is used, which means to snatch away and set free. The Hebrew verb is used in Genesis 4:11, to describe how the earth opened its mouth to receive the blood of Abel. In 1 John 3:12, the author uses our verb σφαζω (sphazo) to describe how Cain slayed Abel.
But whatever its pedigree, our verb σφαζω (sphazo) is used 10 times in the New Testament; see full concordance. From it derive:
- Together with the preposition κατα (kata): the verb κατασφαζω (katasphazo), meaning to slay down (Luke 19:27 only).
- The noun σφαγη (sphage), meaning a slaughter or a butchering (Acts 8:32, Romans 8:36 and James 5:5 only). All these three references translate the Hebrew noun טבח (tebah), as used in Isaiah 53:7, Psalm 44:23 and Jeremiah 12:3 respectively. Also note the striking similarity between this noun and the verb φαγω (phago), to eat. In the classics, this noun could describe the event of a slaughtering (the killing and preparing animals for the devotion), but also the wound from which the animal was dying, and even the throat where that wound was inflicted.
- The noun σφαγιον (sphagion), meaning a butchered one: a victim of a killing or a sacrificial animal that has been sacrificed. This noun occurs in Acts 7:42 only, where it appears in conjunction with the noun θυσια (thusia), a sacrifice.