Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The word θεος (theos) means God, but although that may seem like an open-and-shut case it really isn't. In fact, our word θεος (theos) is fantastically complicated. To start with, it also covers humans (John 10:34) and even what seems to be the devil (2 Corinthians 4:4). There's clearly more to the word θεος (theos) than simply offering a kind of genus for the Creator to be classified as. In the New Testament, this noun occurs 1340 times; see full concordance. Let's have a look at this mysterious word.
When people began to call upon the Name
Our word stems from a time when every detail of human existence was permeated with theology (in the broadest sense of the word), easily up to the modern levels of pervasion of the entertainment and health industries combined. And additionally, back then our word theos was understood in the etymological context of what it represented. It was a word that clearly came out of a verbal neighborhood that included everyday verbs and adjectives that all had to do with what theos meant. In other words: back then, even if you could find someone with absolutely no knowledge of theology, the word for God still actually meant something. It was a word like "shopper" that upon its inception was immediately and by everybody understood to describe a person who had something to do with a shop (whether a workshop or a place of retail), and which only after much usage attained the meaning of someone who purchases something in a shop rather than the proprietor of one (the verb "to shop" meant being a shopkeeper for about a hundred years, until the late 18th century when it came to mean to buy something).
Today, on the other hand, the word "God" is a technical term, which only means something to people who know something about theology (in its broadest sense). Its etymology is obscure, and its inherent meaning isn't clear at all. In that regard, the term "God" is like the term "item nr. 15" that means only something if you also have the IKEA assembly instructions that show what "item nr 15" might be and how it fits the furniture you're trying to assemble. The whole big screaming deal about theology these days is that there's no real consensus about what sort of furniture we're trying to assemble. In fact, much friction between theological models is exactly that: a difference in opinion about what theology is, rather than what and who God is.
Until the European Renaissance of the 15th century there were no scholarly disciplines. What today is a delta of largely isolated scientific and artistic disciplines was until the Renaissance a unified river of knowledge. A person of learning (a.k.a. a wise one, or wizard) knew everything about everything (1 Kings 4:33). The primary purpose of knowing things — knowing when to sow, when to harvest, how to track prey, how to battle threats, how to respond to a complex international social market — was to create security and thus increase people's chances of survival (see our article on the word πιστις, pistis, meaning "faith" or rather "that which one is sure about", for more on this). And all details of all knowledge added up to the unified quest for the basic operating principle of the universe. There were and still are two main schools of thought about that: school A and school B:
Star Wars vs. Star Trek
Adherents to school A figure that the world is a stage and all must play a part. In this model all creatures are like stars that happen to hang in empty space; take away the stars and the empty space remains, and if nobody does anything then nothing gets done. Competition is thus everything and the stronger guy is better than the weaker guy. The invisible forces that so obviously run the world (collectively known as theoi; whether seen as inanimate or living) must hence work the same way, and this in turn leads to belief in a pantheon of theoi that compete among each other as much as men do.
School B, on the other hand, believes that the actors are not on the stage but bring about the stage because collectively they are the stage. School B is all about unity, no matter how complex, because unity drives complexity. School B understands that the diversity of all human culture is due to its unity, just like the diversity of the biosphere is due to its unity, just like the unity of the singularity from whence the entire expanding universe came was never compromised. In this model, all things, including stars, come with the space in which they sit — take away the stars and you'll also lose the space. And even when nobody would do anything, the whole of the unity still progresses, hence altering the communal stage and forcing the actors do react.
School B does not believe in multiplicity and competition but in unity and diversity. Where school A believes in a stationary universe, school B believes in an inherently progressing universe. To school A, we're all players in a grand casino; while some might amass a fortune, most lose everything and the house always wins. To school B we're all rowers on a boat whose rudder is controlled by natural progression. We will either, at some point, arrive at the only possible dock available, or succumb to lack of cooperation and die half way the great passage.
School A will try to address the much remote deity and entice him (her/them) to do something he is evidently not doing on his own (the secular branch of school A speaks optimistically of "harnessing the forces of nature"). School A knows better than even the deity and sets out to change the deity, or at least his mind. To them the deity is a big horse that pulls the cart of existence to wherever they instruct the deity to lumber. School B sees the deity indeed separate but not remote, indeed not part of creation but intimately involved with it (the way the second dimension of a two-dimensional plane touches a one-dimensional line in its every point while still remaining separate from it). To them the deity continues to form the universe and leads it like an attractor toward a mirror image of himself, rather the way DNA replicates. Their prayers don't try to change the deity's mind but their own (Matthew 6:10). They want to become like God, not the other way around (Psalm 25:4).
YHWH is God, and YHWH is One
To school B, God is YHWH and is not simply One because there is no other or because he is stronger than the others: he is the Oneness of the whole. He is not simply the pantheistic whole, but the Oneness of the whole. This Oneness was there before the whole began, and will be there when the whole achieves completion. That is how Jesus could say the he and the Father are One (John 10:30) and that he is in the Father and the Father is in him (John 14:10), while at the same time all believers are in Jesus and Jesus is in them (John 14:20) and all believers must be one just like he and the Father are one (John 17:21-22). It's also the reason why in the last century scientists have become convinced that all forces of nature are in fact one (called the Grand Unified Force), which at lower energy levels breaches like an unfolding umbrella into the familiar four fundamental forces Gravity, Electromagnetism, and the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces, without losing their consistency. But physicists know what school B knows, namely that a breach of symmetry does not entail a breach of unity.
The natural laws by which the universe was created and upon which creation, including mankind, was designed to operate, is in the Bible known as the Word of God; a living and communicating being (John 1:3, Genesis 15:1, John 1:14). Understanding how the universe works leads to a kind of liberation that frees the individual (John 8:32) and brings about a human society in which the Creator is an essential element. This is the reason why both the Father and Jesus blatantly call theoi the people "to whom the Word of God came" (Psalm 82:6, John 10:34-35). You are what you know, after all.
All this has certainly nothing to do with church buildings or marble statues or religions of any sort (Revelation 21:22). In fact, the heroes of both the Old and the New Testaments have much more in common with post-Renaissance scientists (1 Kings 4:33-34) than with post-Renaissance clergy, and unanimously abhorred religious regalia and ritualistic vanity. The Roman imperial machine required its subjects to pay homage to the deified state and its Caesar, and true truth-seekers didn't feel like doing so. This is why they were executed in droves and this is also why the first century Roman historian Cassius Dio could define atheism as "a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned" (Hist.67.14).
The Grand Unified Theory is commonly envisioned as a united cluster of smaller but immutable man-made theories, precisely identical to the pantheon of marble representations of the theoi of the school A models. School B, on the other hand, has since time immemorial tried to make clear that no marble image (εικον, eikon) could ever represent anything remotely connected to any kind of world-governing natural force (Exodus 20:3-5, Acts 17:29). If you would want to represent the Creator, or the divine unity of all governing forces of nature (Colossians 1:17-18, Isaiah 9:6), you'd have to come up with something very much alive (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). That is why Jesus Christ is presented as he in whom are hidden the treasure (thesauros, see below) of all knowledge and wisdom (Colossians 2:3, see Romans 1:20 and Hosea 4:6).
Furthermore, the government of the Word of God is not a government by some unapproachable emperor in an ivory tower far away, but from the same laws to which atoms listen (Deuteronomy 30:14, Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15). It's the very set of rules by which we exist in the first place that will then govern our whole society, and it will feel the same as being entirely free. The authors of the New Testament where part of a revolution in theology, of people who called the Creator by such intimate and near equal terms as mister (kurios) and even father.
God's etymological neighborhood
In the pagan world, the invisible world of the divine was thought to consist of many interacting θεοι (theoi), and one of those sub-currents of the greater river would be called a θεος (theos). In the Judaic worldview the singular word theos came to denote not just one individual but the living oneness of all lifeless and living theoi ("as indeed there are many theoi" — 1 Corinthians 8:5). This same principle of the one-and-the-many sits in the Hebrew word for God, namely אלהים (elohim), which is a plural word just like theoi but used grammatically in a singular way. From this plural word came the singular אלה (eloah) in much the same way as the singular word theos came from the plural theoi. But in the Bible the words theos and eloah are equivalent to the whole pagan pantheon, not just one element of that pantheon.
This original plural word theoi probably came from (and means the same as) the plural of the noun θετης (thetes), which is "one who sets/places". This word does not occur in the New Testament but in Cratylus, Plato uses this word in the sense of giving a name, that is: a formal identity (Crat.389, see Genesis 2:19, Isaiah 43:1, and Revelation 2:17 via Isaiah 62:2). This noun θετης (thetes) in turn comes from the ubiquitous verb τιθημι (tithemi), meaning to place or set — basically what a chess player would do with chess pieces (Matthew 5:15, 1 Corinthians 12:18, Acts 1:7: "what the Father has set"). The first person single future form of this verb is θησω (theso), meaning "I will set", and it's the root of words like θεσαυρος (thesauros), meaning treasure (Matthew 6:20, Colossians 2:3) and νουθετεω (noutheteo), literally meaning to mind-set but used in the sense of to warn or admonish (Acts 20:31, Romans 15:14).
Equally intriguing are the visual similarities between our word θεος, its feminine counterpart θεα (thea, meaning Goddess) and the verb θαομαι (theaomai), meaning to wonder, and its derived middle deponent verb θεαομαι (theaomai), meaning to behold or contemplate intently (John 8:10, Matthew 6:1). From the latter verb comes the familiar noun θεατρον (theatron), or theatre (Acts 19:29). From the primary verb θαομαι (thaomai) also comes the noun θαυμα (thauma), meaning wonder or admiration (Revelation 17:6) and its associated verb θαυμαζω (thaumazo), meaning to wonder (Matthew 8:10, Luke 7:9).
From our secondary verb θεαομαι (theaomai) comes the noun θεωρος (theoros), literally meaning an observer or observed one. This extra-Biblical word became used to denote an envoy sent to divine kings or to oracles or to show up at functions instead of someone represented. From this noun in turn comes the familiar verb θεωρεω (theoreo), meaning to gaze intently in order to get all the details (Mark 15:47, Luke 14:29), and from that verb comes the even more familiar noun θεωρια (theoria), meaning a viewing or sight (Luke 23:48). Quite fittingly, this noun is the origin of our English word "theory" or — dare we say it? — "goddery". Theory is literally god-business.
Derivations and compound words
Our word θεος (theos) comes with a small array of derivatives, and serves as element in several compound words:
- Together with the preposition α (a), meaning without: the familiar adjective αθεος (atheos), meaning atheist(ic). In the Bible it occurs only in Ephesians 2:12, where it describes the condition of being without Christ. Our modern world sports this word as a symbol of scientific reason (versus the "faith" it purports to oppose) but originally this word was properly on a par with αλογια (alogia), without reason (Acts 25:27, Jude 1:10).
- The feminine version of θεος (theos), namely θεα (thea), obviously meaning Goddess. This word occurs only in Acts 19:27, 19:35 and 19:37 where it describes Artemis of Ephesus.
- The adjective θειος (theios), which means godly in the sense of something pertaining to God: an essential quality of the divine. In Greek literature this adjective appears all over the place — sometimes as substantive denoting the divine in general; sometimes as a superhuman quality ascribed to human heroes; sometimes to describe the acts of the Gods — but in the New Testament only in Acts 17:29, 2 Peter 1:3 and 1:4.
- The noun θειοτης (theiotes), meaning divinity or rather "divineness" to distinguish it from the previous word. In the classics this word is used sporadically; sometimes to denote piety and sometimes as title of the Roman emperor. In the New Testament this word occurs in Romans 1:20 only.
- Together with the verb διδασκω (didasko), meaning to teach: the adjective θεοδιδακτος (theodidaktos), meaning taught by God (1 Thessalonians 4:9 only, but also see John 6:45). This concept comes from Isaiah 53:4 where the prophet says "And all your sons will be taught of (or will teach about) YHWH and great will be the peace of your sons".
- Together with the verb μαχομαι (machomai), meaning to fight or quarrel with: the adjective θεομαχος (theomachos), meaning god-fighter (Acts 5:39 only). From this adjective comes:
- The verb θεομαχεω (theomacheo), meaning to fight with God (Acts 23:9 only).
- Together with the verb πνεω (pneo), meaning to blow or to inspire: the contended adjective θεοπνευστος (theopneustos), meaning god-breathed or divinely inspired. This mind-boggling act is demonstrated a few times in the Bible (Genesis 2:7, John 20:22) but this adjective occurs only in 2 Timothy 3:16, where Paul writes that all writing is god-breathed. With this he obviously means all writing — such as the extra-Biblical legend of Jannes and Jambres, which he mentions a few verses prior — and not only so-called sacred writings, let alone the Bible the way we have it simply because much of it hadn't been produced at the time of Paul's writing. In other words: if you can convey the gospel by referring to Shakespeare, Star Trek or Masha and the Bear, by all means don't hold back.
Paul probably also not so much referred to what was written about but rather the very miracle of the existence of script itself. In order for a writing system to exist, an incredible level of cooperation and convention across a vast region must be in place. Prior to this happening, folks of extraordinary vision and powers of persuasion have to travel extensively and somehow convince people of the benefit of this convention before it can be demonstrated.
Writing allowed information to be permanently stored in and retrieved without degradation from a medium other than a forgetful and perishable human brain, which made the Psalmist exclaim: "You will not allow your Holy One [the Word] to undergo decay" (Psalm 16:10). Writing boosted the levels of science and whatever knowledge was once available only to specialized priests, writing made available to everybody (Exodus 19:6). Love believes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), but you can't believe what you don't know about. The ancients rightly understood writing to be divine and a catalyst for world-wide love.
- Together with the verb σεβομαι (sebomai), to worship or venerate: the adjective θεοσεβης (theosebes), meaning god-worshippingly or godly (John 9:31 only). From this adjective comes:
- The noun θεοσεβεια (theosebia), meaning reverence of God or godliness (1 Timothy 2:10 only).
- Together with the otherwise unused verb στυγεω (stugeo), meaning to hate, but in the emphatic sense of showing hate rather than just feeling it; active hate: the adjective θεοστυγης (theostuges), meaning god-hated (hated by god). In the classics this word denoted someone whose misdeeds were expected to generate divine hate; something like our term "god forsaken" but stronger. In the New Testament this word occurs only once, in Romans 1:30, where, for some reason, every major translation interprets it the other way around: hater(s) of God.
- The noun θεοτης (theotes), meaning deity or divinity. This incredible word occurs only once in the New Testament, in Colossians 2:9, where Paul submits that the fullness of the θεοτης (theotes) dwells in Christ in bodily form.
- Together with the adjective φιλος (philos) beloved or friend: the adjective φιλοθεος (philotheos), meaning god-friendly or god-loving (2 Timothy 3:4 only). This word is the reversed of the name Theophilus, which belonged to the man to whom the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were dedicated.