Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun τυφος (tuphos) appears to have originally described a fog or smoke and was applied by Hippocrates to one of four kinds of fever, particular a fever that caused delirium and delusions — hence the English word typhus. The noun was quickly adapted to broader usage and began to also denote non-fever induced nonsense.
Note that smoke witnesses of a falling apart of elements, whereas a cloud witnesses of the falling together of elements. Smoke testifies of the loss of consistency whereas a cloud testifies of the achievement of convention (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Hebrews 12:1 with Revelation 9:2 and 14:11).
It's not clear where our word comes from but some scholars suggest it relates to the Proto-Indo-European root dheub-, from which also comes our English word deep (and deaf, surprisingly). That would mean that the Greeks appear to have believed in what Freud called the subconscious, what the Bible appears to call the "waters under the earth" (Exodus 20:4) or simply "the deep" (Genesis 1:2), and what modern science calls sub-nominal reason; that is the thinking that you do below the level of words — see our article on the word ονομα (onoma), meaning noun or name.
This in turn would suggest that to the Greeks "depth of thought" was not at all the same as what we think of deep thinking. To the Greeks, depth meant primitivity and intuitiveness, whereas sophistication and convention related to heights. In turn, calmness, mental composure and adherence to convention were all considered signs of "elevation" whereas the signs of "depth" were disconnectedness, chaos, noise and storm — hence the English word "typhoon," which also derives from our noun τυφος (tuphos).
By the time of the New Testament, our word was rarely if ever associated with physical smoke and mostly denoted a figurative clouded vision. A clouded vision, in turn, marked a disconnectedness from normal visual congress. Our noun doesn't actually occur in the New Testament, but from it comes the following important derivation:
The adjective τυφλος (tuphlos) means visually impaired but refers to an obstructed vision and thus an impaired connection to normal social congress rather than the mere inability to see. It occurs 53 times, see full concordance, mostly in association with a whole spectrum of restrictive maladies, and predominantly with lameness.
Particularly in the Hebrew Bible, blindness is often mentioned in tandem with lameness to form the idiomatic formula: "the blind and the lame" (עור ופסח, 'iwwer wa piseah; Leviticus 21:18, Deuteronomy 15:21, 2 Samuel 5:6-8, Job 29:15, Jeremiah 31:8, Malachi 1:8 — Matthew 21:14, Luke 14:21) and that is because these two conditions form two extremes of a spectrum of impaired sociality.
Blindness restricts a person's ability to tune into humanity at large. That means that blindness is not merely a physical disability but much rather a social one.
Lameness versus blindness
Lameness and blindness are each other's counterparts. All people begin their life in a state of lameness, and the ability to walk is commonly acquired over time. Most people, however, start their life seeing, and it's blindness that is acquired. Lameness remains when a natural potential is never actualized, but blindness occurs when the adoption of something foreign hinders an innate ability. When Jesus urged his audience to be like little children (Matthew 18:3), he urged them to do a factory reset: to forget how to get around in the grown-up world, and to shake off the shutters from one's eyes.
Our social conventions give strength to our legs: most of us know how to greet folks properly and be courteous, which means that we can perform an exchange of goods and services without there being misunderstandings and chaos. But at the same time, it's perfectly common in our modern world to allow our neighbor to suffer financial and emotional neglect while we have more than we need. When someone falls on the street, the vast majority of bystanders will rush to the person's aid because helping others is what made mankind so successful in the first place. But somehow we've managed to convince ourselves that there is something vulgar or degrading about giving someone who has fallen financially, financial aid. Most of us are blind to the simple notion that there is no difference between physical aid and financial aid, and this is an acquired blindness.
The capitalist religion dictates that rich people are holier (i.e. smarter, more cunning, more successful) than poor people, but when we throw off this blinding notion it becomes rather easy to see that rich people are rich because they give less than they receive, whereas poor people give more than they receive. You really have to be a murderer at heart to be able to continuously extract wealth from an enslaved society, and in order to live with themselves and sit in front pews and pretend to be concerned and benign, rich people willingly amputate their portion of vision that allows to see suffering. They offer prayer and best wishes to the poor, as if poverty is some natural calamity that rightly strikes the rightly cursed, while it's in fact their own deeds and dealings that create poverty. The printing presses have always been controlled by the rich, and the metaphor-card has been played over and over, but now that there is the Internet we can shout from the roof tops: It's NOT a metaphor! Rich people will NOT inherit the Kingdom of God! People who have chosen to stay rich in this life will NOT see the New Jerusalem.
When you want to see but don't know how
Ninety percent of the today's world's blind people live in undeveloped societies, which means that in Jesus' time, the vast majority of blind people weren't born blind but went blind. Since in our technologically advanced world most cases of acquired physical blindness are easily remedied or prevented, people in communities that revered wisdom (such as that of the Jews) doubtlessly had observed a strong positive correlation between lifestyle and going blind. Back then, people probably feared blindness as much as we fear lung cancer today, but even though we don't directly choose the effects, we do choose to smoke or to continue to read by poor light or engage in other activities that are likely to result in blindness.
Only very few blind people in Jesus' time would have been born blind, which thus was a condition so rare that it warranted its own category and provoked the assumption that the person's parents must have done something horrible to him (John 9:2). Up until the present age of enlightenment and contrary to what certain popular TV shows might suggest, most people born with an impaired social brain have suffered immensely from the understandable conviction of parents and siblings that any sort of behavior would be willingly abandoned when associated to derision and torture. Most people are blind to blindness.
The Hebrew verb meaning to be blind, namely עור ('awar), is spelled the same as the noun עור ('or), meaning skin. This may literally refer to cataracts, but it also explains why curing one's blindness equals "opening" one's eyes (John 9:17). It suggests an association between being blind and being asleep, and thus with being dead (John 11:37), also since death is obviously the most thorough state of social isolation. Or as Jesus says it right before he sets out to raise Lazarus: "If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him" (John 11:10; also see 1 John 2:11).
Physical blindness equals a mechanical insensitivity to light and thus heat and is thus on a par with being callous or cold of heart (Matthew 13:15, 24:12, Ephesians 4:19). Blindness is therefore remedied by the throwing off of whatever surfeit is obstructing one's vision: hence Bartimaeus threw off his cloak (Mark 10:50), scales fell off Saul's blinded eyes (Acts 9:18), and the resurrection of Lazarus commenced with the removal of a huge stone (John 9:39). A desire to remedy innate blindness, or at least the social manifestation of innate blindness, may even have been the core concern expressed in the rite of circumcision: see Deuteronomy 30:6 and Romans 2:29 (and our article on the verb περιτεμνω, peritemno, to circumcise). And it ties into the many injunctions to "throw off" whatever keeps a person in a state of bondage or slavery: yokes and chains and such (Psalm 2:3, Isaiah 10:27). Note that Bartimaeus cannot have been the only blind person in Jericho, but he was the only one who cried out that he wanted to see. The others were quite comfortable not seeing.
Our adjective τυφλος (tuphlos) relates to "deep" in the above mentioned Greek sense of the word. It's the condition that occurs when someone sits at the bottom of a deep pit and only sees a small circle of light directly above him. The opposite, namely to have great panoramic clarity of vision, occurs when one stands high on a mountain and one can inspect whatever is above, below and on the same height. Hence blindness also relates to a particular kind of social isolation. Blindness implies being primitive, unsophisticated, bellowing one's spontaneous opinions without realizing that others may have carefully examined the matter at hand, and honed their findings through sustained dialogue with peers into a broadly shared position.
Heal the blind, set the captives free
Light is an obvious metaphor for knowledge in the Bible, but blindness does not simply relate to the absence of data in one's mind. It much rather refers to a failure to be part of the greater economy of knowledge. The ability to converse and exchange ideas is of course an acquired ability, which begins with learning to speak and read and write, and continues with the study of literature and archetypes and literary devices, and of course the knowledge and sciences that are discussed, but also broad bouquets of social conventions and the illusive rules of dialogue — which are, it is estimated, 93% non-verbal. Blindness may not merely be a general insensitivity to light, but rather a limitation in scope: from the Greek word for mountain, ορος (oros), comes our English word horizon.
Here at Abarim Publications we have a personal interest in the study of autism, and it seems to us that autism's signature limited yet obsessive interests and impaired lateral congress points to blindness in the Biblical sense, but the special category of birth-blindness. We thus take great comfort in Jesus' words: "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9:3). We autistics may live in pits, but boy, where we aim our scopes we see beyond stars. You'll have to lean over the edge a bit and make some effort, but once you know where the bucket hangs, you can draw water for entire tribes.
Of course, as the great Sheldon Cooper once demonstrated, a quick calculation of statistics may negate years of sweaty football practice, so not all clarity is always met with cuddles and smiles. This in turn may help explain the derision and torture.
Neurotypical people who were born with a fine vision and normal social interaction skills are frustratingly prone to occlude their precious gift with all sorts of mud banks. In the classics our adjective is often used to describe "blind" passages: those are alleys or waterways where stacked crates or garbage and silt obstruct a normal current and in which traffic ultimately stagnates. Applied to human minds our adjective describes the lack of expected mental activity; not a lack of intelligence but rather a lack of social intercourse, not the absence of any common understanding but the absence of change in one's mind — the absence of freshness of thought, the absence of mental flexibility and the absence of curiosity. The most common mud bank that people stash in their eyes is belief in some religion or philosophical stance: a collective position that wouldn't hold under normal conversational duress but which is fortified with claims to the absurd and allegiances to the unseen (Matthew 23:24, see Romans 1:20). Other common causes of visual occlusion are trauma and fear (Deuteronomy 28:34).
Most forms of acquired blindness can be cured with forms of education, and even the toughest leather blindfolds and hardest concrete walls can come down. The key is to use the right tool: sometimes you have to make a lot of noise (Exodus 6:20), sometimes a bit of water does the trick (Nahum 2:6). What Jesus did by applying spit-mud to the blind man's eyes (John 9:6) isn't immediately clear, but his similar healing of the blind man of Bethsaida involved not one miraculous act but rather a series of adjustments (Mark 8:22-26), and, most strikingly, Jesus' intermissive inquiry whether he saw something. This shows that Jesus engaged the man in a process in which the efforts and responses of the patient played part. It reminds of YHWH asking the same question of his prophets: "what do you see?" — in which he obviously did not request intel that he wasn't privy to, but rather aimed to provoke the prophet to translate their visions into conventional human words (Jeremiah 1:11-13, 24:3, Amos 7:8, 8:2, Zechariah 4:2, 5:2 — Luke 10:23).
Another great source of consolation comes with the familiar words of Isaiah: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low" (Isaiah 40:4), which we here at Abarim Publications understand to refer to a kind of human convention that rises far above the reach of verbal language and even mathematics, but which allows even the most reclusive souls to be included into the great human congress, and because of which no one individual has a visual vantage point over anyone else.
Blindness versus deafness
The other great malady that is often mentioned in the Bible is deafness, and deafness also forms a proverbial tandem with blindness. The obvious difference is that blindness refers to impaired sight, which has to do with light, whereas deafness refers to impaired hearing, which has to do with sound. Light is a long-distance affair, which means that data stored in light is general or meant for everybody, all the time. Sound is a local affair, which means that data stored in sound is specific: meant for whoever we are talking to.
That means that blindness describes a difficulty with information that comes in social conventions: symbols carried by clothing or hairstyles, gestures that everybody magically understands, vocal intonations that may convey the opposite of what words are for. Because light and knowledge go hand in hand, blindness may be misconstrued for stupidity or deliberate rudeness. And this is part of the reason why people with social blindness may compensate by knowing everything there is to know about whatever little they can actually see. Hans Asperger famously dubbed these compensators "little professors," not realizing that they were in fact lunging from a very dark dungeon for a very small speck of light. (Lovely neurotypicals such as Hans Asperger and Tony Attwood describe higher functioning autism the way an Eskimo would describe a day at the beach).
Deafness on the other hand describes a difficulty with information that is specifically aimed at us and what sets us apart from the masses. Deafness may lead to the famous emotional neglect of someone who's crying out to be heard within a relationship (by a well-willing but deaf partner). Deafness implies difficulty with synchronicity (like singing), which in turn makes it very difficult to be partners with someone in the emotional sense. In Biblical jargon, "hearing" someone also means to be obedient to someone, which implies that deafness may be misconstrued for disobedience.
There are two kinds of signals in the universe, namely electromagnetism and gravity. The first has obviously to do with light, and thus with intellectual knowledge and blindness thereto. The second is rather mechanical and relates closely to sound and what the Bible calls αγαπη (agape), or love. Long story short: blindness results in trouble in the intellectual arena, deafness gives trouble in the emotional arena.
Other derivations of the noun τυφος (tuphos), meaning mist or fog, are:
- The verb τυφοω (tuphoo), meaning to lack vision or common mental congress, to be "deep" in the above mentioned Greek sense of the word; to be primitive, or to fail to relate to convention (1 Timothy 3:6, 6:4 and 2 Timothy 3:4 only). From this verb comes:
- The adjective τυφλος (tuphlos), meaning visually impaired or blind; to have the obscured vision of someone who sits deep in a pit. For an exhaustive look at this word, see above. From it in turn derives:
- The verb τυφω (tupho), meaning to make smoke and particularly a smoke that makes it hard to see (Matthew 12:20 only).
- The adjective τυφωνικος (tuphonikos), meaning tempestuous but with the implication of wildness, primitivity and being unsophisticated. Note the accidental association with the familiar noun νικος (nikos), meaning victory: to the Greeks our adjective τυφωνικος (tuphonikos) looked like a word that meant "overwhelmed by primitivity" or "when chaos wins". In the New Testament it occurs in Acts 27:14 only.