Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb στρεφω (strepho) means to turn, twist or wind, and stems from an ancient Proto-Indo-European root "streb(h)-", which means the same (hence English words like strap, strophe, apostrophe and catastrophe, and a few rather technical strepto- compounds). In Hebrew our verb appears to be paralleled by the verb פנה (pana), to turn, from which stems the word פנים (panim), "turnings", which is the common word for face and thus scope. Our verb often conveys an effect of muddying, troubling or bringing about disarray, and as such has an effect opposite the conditions described by the adjective ευθυς (euthus), meaning straight, outright, transparently clear. Hence, the Latin parallel of our verb, namely verto, gave us English words like vertigo, vortex, invert and pervert.
Our Greek verb may describe the turning of traveling horses or soldiers (or pigs; Matthew 7:6) from one direction into another. But it may also describe the continuous tossing and turning of a troubled insomniac, the rotation of a potter's wheel or those of the heavenly bodies (see our article on the noun πλαη, plane, to wander). It may describe the turning of the soil by a plow, the turning of hair into a braid, the turning of thoughts in one's mind and the torturous twistings of dislocated members (or certainties) within a troubled body (or mind).
Our verb also often describes the turning of one's attention (one's face), and when Jesus famously instructed to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), he not merely spoke about a mechanical turning of one's face and passive reception of another hit, but much rather the turning of one's attentions toward an obviously needy striker. Before calling Peter satan, Jesus turned (Matthew 16:23), and before they can enter the kingdom of heaven, people must turn and become like children (Matthew 18:3).
This verb and its compound derivatives often occur in the passive voice: "he was turned", instead of simply "he turned", which technically implies a turning due to external stimuli. To serve the flow of the narrative, translators commonly interpret this passive form reflexively: "he turned himself [onto]", but do so at the cost of crucial nuances. Our verb στρεφω (strepho) is used 19 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition ανα (ana), on or upon: the verb αναστρεφω (anastrepho), meaning to overturn, to turn upside down, to turn upon itself, and thus to invert (the order of certain things; hence our English word anastrophe), to bring back something to where it came from but has gone from, to retire. In the active voice, our verb may describe the bringing about of the violent implosion of an enterprise, like that of the templar money changers (John 2:15) or the rather similar extortive system of public prisons (Acts 5:22). Similarly, the "return" of the Lord (Acts 15:16) does not describe a mere comeback but rather a multifarious overturning of dominant corruption.
In the passive voice, this verb may be used to describe a turning (or tuning) into a local vibe or a synchronizing with: a seamless dwelling in a place or a going about in public, a conducting oneself according to the norms or social codes (2 Corinthians 1:12, Ephesians 2:3). Both these voices correspond to the dual nature of Christ: actively, Christ causes the world to become conform the will of God, and passively, he himself became a human in order to enter the corrupt world. This important verb is used 11 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derives:
- The noun αναστροφη (anastrophe), which would literally mean an upsetting or a turning around or upside down, but which in the New Testament simply refers to the routines of one's daily life, and by extension one's behavior or even one's occupation (very insightful of the inevitable increase in material and social entropy by one's mere breathing, eating, walking around, conversing and interacting with others). However, instead of referring to dull ruts and circular ways, this noun rather emphasizes vigor and zeal, irregular trajectories and reversals, scrounging and searching. In the classics, this curiously versatile noun described any degree of obvious confusion, the sudden and unexpected swirl of a ship that changed its course, a cavalry that first charged and was then put to flight, or a hunter who retraces his steps as he tries to find a compromised but hiding prey. This noun is used 13 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
- Together with the preposition απο (apo), mostly meaning from: the verb αποστρεφω (apostrepho), meaning to turn from, to turn away from, and thus to divert, dissuade or omit (hence our English word apostrophe, which is a symbol that marks omission). This verb is used 10 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the preposition δια (dia) meaning through or throughout: the verb διαστρεφω (diastrepho), meaning to turn in many different ways, to twist through and through, to distort, to pervert. This verb commonly describes the chaotic twisting of many independent strands or branches, which could (or should) exists in parallel and to their own mutual support. It's used 7 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the preposition εκ (ek), meaning out or from: the verb εκστρεφω (ekstrepho), meaning to turn out of. In the classics this verb is used to describe how a tree was uprooted from a trench. It also serves to mean to turn inside out, or to alter entirely. In the New Testament it occurs in Titus 3:11 only.
- Together with the preposition επι (epi), meaning on or upon: the verb επιστρεφω (epistrepho), meaning to turn unto, turn upon in the sense of toward (some voice or sight), turn about (as on one's heel). This verb differs from the parent verb in that it additionally indicates (or implies) either a mechanical pivot or motivational reason for why the turning is happening. It not only describes the action but also the focal point of the action. Hence this verb can often be translated with to return. Altogether it's used 38 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
- The noun επιστροφη (epistrophe), meaning a turning unto. Like the parent verb, this noun describes an instance of the action plus the action's focal point: its mechanical or motivational pivot. In the New Testament this noun occurs in Acts 15:3 only, obviously not to speak of some religious "conversion" of the nations, but rather of a change in direction of these nations' political, economic and scientific identities: from the familiar but ultimately self-destructive spirit of competition to the rarer but ultimately sole surviving spirit of cooperation. And all this upon receiving the gospel.
- Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb καταστρεφω (katastrepho), meaning to turn down, to direct a trajectory downward. This verb may be used to describe the tossing and compounding of earth during plowing, but it may also describe the overturning of a government or other such institution. Conversely, it may mean to subject oneself to some authority, but also describes a floating object that rights itself naturally. Our verb may specifically describe the turning of something (a weapon, an attentive mind) for a reason pointed at by the prefix: to turn toward a specific end, to turn onto a specific condition, particularly low or depressed ends (i.e. to turn dead). In the New Testament this word occurs in Matthew 21:12 and Mark 11:15 only, which both describe how Jesus entered the temple and began to turn down the tables of the money changers and dove sellers (John 2:15 uses αναστρεφω, anastrepho). The use of this verb suggests that he not merely physically threw furniture around, but did so specifically in order to bring down these commercial practices in that particular place. From this verb comes:
- The familiar noun καταστροφη (katastrophe), meaning a down-turn(ing), a coming about of a particular (lowly) end. In the New Testament this word occurs in 2 Timothy 2:14 and 2 Peter 2:6 only, and may negatively describe the collapse of a city (the latter) or positively the crossing of a social-entropic boundary, when a society transits from heated chaos to peaceful order (the former).
- Together with the preposition μετα (meta), usually meaning in the middle but here emphasizing transferal: the difficult verb μεταστρεφω (metastrepho), meaning to make the turn from going into one direction to going into another (Acts 2:20, Galatians 1:7 and James 4:9 only). This verb does not speak so much about turning, and particularly not about turning abruptly, but rather about a gradual metamorphosis between mental states: a transitioning from one kind of turning to another kind of turning, or from originally turning into one direction or toward one objective or within one methodology, to slowly going about turning into another direction, toward another objective or within another methodology.
- Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συστρεφω (sustrepho), meaning to turn or twist together. It occurs in Acts 28:3 only, where it describes Paul's bundling of fire sticks. From it comes:
- The noun συστροφη (sustrophe), meaning a bundle, a group of things (or people) twisted together (Acts 19:40 and 23:12 only). Note Luke's exquisite use of this word, in that it first describes the social "stake" upon which Paul was to be burned, and then the bundle of dead sticks from which a snake emerges, which Paul shakes off into the fire (Acts 28:3).
- Together with υπο (hupo), meaning under, beneath, through: the verb υποστρεφω (hupostrepho), literally meaning to under-turn. It differs from the parent verb in that it implies an additional evasive action: to turn about so as to avoid some confrontation or escape an existing situation. In the classics this verb is often used to describe soldiers retreating or altering their advance in order to elude an attack, but it also may describe a disease that resurfaces after a period of reticence. Our verb may often simply mean to return, but unlike the verb επιστρεφω (epistrepho), which emphasizes the defining point of return or its specific moment or decisive reason, our verb υποστρεφω (hupostrepho) would emphasize the departure from present conditions (i.e. to turn away from), rather than the arrival at familiar destinations. This verb is used 36 times; see full concordance.