🔼The name Agabus: Summary
- Party Person
- Hill Billy, Locust
- From חגב (hagab), grasshopper.
- From עגב ('agab), to join a collective spirit.
- From גבעה (gibeah), hill, or גבי (gobay), locust.
🔼The name Agabus in the Bible
The name Agabus occurs twice in the Bible (Acts 11:28 and 21:10) and although this likely concerns the same man, it's not at all certain. The first reference to Agabus occurs in the last chords of the Peter-cycle, when the persecution in connection with the lynching of Stephen results in a sort of Cambrian explosion, when scattered refugees ignite local churches wherever they land. Among those places was Antioch, which quickly developed into an evangelical hub. Barnabas retrieved Saul from Tarsus and brought him to Antioch. And from Jerusalem came some prophets, among whom was Agabus, who predicted a great famine during the reign of Claudius.
Then, much later, when Paul and companions head east from Corinth to Ephesus then Troas and onto Jerusalem, "a certain prophet" named Agabus meets them at the house of Philip in Caesarea. The Greek uses the rather vague and impersonal pronoun τις (tis), meaning someone, some guy, some or other, and this is curious, since we already saw Agabus in action ten chapters ago. Then, despite his theatrical antics with Paul's belt, Agabus only ends up repeating what the companions had been saying for a week: don't go to Jerusalem.
The companions had been speaking to Paul "through the Spirit", and although every translation capitalizes the word "Spirit", it's not sure at all whether that's in agreement with the Greek original (which made no distinctions between spirit or Spirit). Indeed, Agabus claims that he is speaking for the Holy Spirit, but is he really? Why would Paul go on to Jerusalem anyway? And why would Jesus appear to Paul in Jerusalem, informing of his greatest missionary journey yet to come, namely to the very heart of the known world: the Roman court of emperor Nero (Acts 23:11)?
Something obviously is going on, even though it be may not be wholly clear to us moderns what that might be. In our article on Malta we point out that particularly the Pauline cycle of the Book of Acts is obviously designed to cater to the literary sensibilities of Luke's Greo-Roman audience (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-20 and Philippians 2:7), and also functions as a respectful commentary on Homer's Odessey and Virgil's Aeneid.
Despite the dictates of common intuition, the Bible (in human terms) is about statecraft (which requires an intelligence apparatus and thus, ultimately, information technology: a standardized language, writing, the postal service and the road system). From the first city, which was named Enoch and built by Cain, to the New Jerusalem, the City of God, the Bible meditates on human community: how it works, how it can be perfected, and what happens when it does (compare 2 Corinthians 11:2 to Revelation 19:7 and 21:2, and see our article on ελευθερια, eleutheria, or freedom-by-law).
The first "restriction" that befell Adam and Eve, right after they ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil — whose perfect design had included being desirable to the eyes and wanting to make wise (and see our article on αρνεομαι, arneomai, for a brief look at this) — was their making of girdles from fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). In Paul's world, one's outer garments (ιματιον, imation) advertised one's professional leaning, and those garments almost always consisted of widely flowing robes, which in turn were almost always kept in check by belts (ζωνη, zone). Greek athletes, famously, dropped restricting belts and loin cloths altogether and merrily competed in the nude. In our article on the verb κολυμβαω (kolumbao), to swim or plunge into a pool, we argue that collective nudity was a thing typical to Greeks but frowned upon by Jews.
All this means that when Agabus relieved Paul of his belt and bound his own hands and feet with it, he simultaneously released Paul's garments, and with that the discipline with which Paul kept his academic rigor in check. To Luke's original audience, the scene in which Agabus bound his own hands and feet with Paul's belt would have clearly been about rules and discipline, and the insistence that Paul would "loosen up" a bit and "let his hair down".
Of course, rigor is crucially important in both science and religious contemplation of law. And of course, heaven and earth will end before a single letter drops out of the law. But there is also something that fulfills all law and transcends all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19, Philippians 4:7), and it appears that Paul had to be reminded of that. Or in the words of Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14).
That same belt that held Paul's garments in check, also bound the hands (noun χειρ, cheir, means hand, whereas verb χαιρω, chairo, means to rejoice; noun יד, yad, means hand, whereas verb ידה, yada, means to praise) and feet (ποδες, podes; רגל, regel) of the next guy who comes along, and who may want to talk slightly different about slightly different things.
Tradition, dogma, canon and orthodoxy are wonderful things but certainly not the final station of the Jesus train. The Body of Christ is a living conversation. It has tastes and an immune system and a great deal of sense. It will be fine. Go off-roading.
🔼Etymology of the name Agabus
It's not wholly clear where the name Agabus comes from but it's most probably Semitic. The term agabus/agabos does not exist in Latin or Greek. There are very few Latin words that start with gab- and none that start with agab-. Likewise, in Greek there are no common words that start with γαβ- (gab-) or αγαβ- (agab-).
Fortunately, there are quite a few Hebrew constructions that would transliterate into Greek in forms that would closely resemble our name. Most obviously, our name Agabus (Αγαβος, Agabos) may be a Hellenized version of the familiar name Hagabah (Αγαβα, Agaba), which in turn stems from the common noun חגב (hagab), grasshopper:
The noun חגב (hagab) describes the grasshopper, a kosher animal comparable to the locust in much the same way that an informal or amateur scholar (or naive artist) compares to a formally educated and degree-carrying maestro. In related languages this word is associated with covering or concealment, even with shrines (that which conceals).
The verb עגב ('agab) means to desire or lust, not merely in the sense of seeking extra-covenantal intimate relations, but any sort of getting swept up in some collective spirit that entices one to lower one's barriers and suspend one's conscience and dignity. Noun עגב ('agab) means lust, and noun עגבה ('agaba) means lustfulness. Noun עוגב ('ugab) described a musical instrument, a pipe of some sort, which would produce the dance music that in the pagan arenas was associated to deities like Pan (Genesis 4:21, Job 21:12), but in other settings with the collective joy of knowing the Lord (Psalm 150:4).
As we point out in the full dictionary article on this noun: the primary function of the wings of birds (and angels and hence perhaps locusts and grasshoppers) is not to render the power of flight but rather the power of protecting, particularly the young and weak (Matthew 23:37). Flight is just a side effect of that. We also point out that the word for locust, namely ארבה (arbeh), comes from the same verb רבב (rabab), to be or become many or much, as does the familiar term ραββι (rabbi), Rabbi or great one. That suggests that the locust relates to the grasshopper the way the formally educated and formally designated Rabbi relates to the many informally gifted seers which normally live among any normal population.
The function of formalization is of course the weeding out of any wannabees that are really clueless (or who derive their self-proclaimed expertise from their exposure to a five minute presentation, whether on the classical market, in a theater or on YouTube). A problem occurs when the formalized few begin to gang up into armies, and recruit anyone who can hold a rolled up diploma to defend orthodoxy in sweeping whacks. Our modern world has embraced free enterprise, which means that any Tom, Dick or Harry may reward a Ph.D. to whomever pays (usually not an "accredited" one, but then, any Tom, Dick or Harry may open their own accreditation agency and give out doctorates that are accredited by the Global Federation of Godly Knowledge, or something like that; when nicely framed, who's going to know the difference?). Then, of course, there is the rise of things like ChatGPT and AI that can make anybody look smart and does so in great numbers. Said somewhat less poetically: our world is getting ready to host of super-swarm of doctors and professors who collectively know nothing at all and eat up everything there is to eat (see our article on Apollyon, king of the Locust).
Fortunately for all of us, there are also the formally untrained but naturally gifted, like the Oracle in the first Matrix movie: ordinary people in ordinary apartments baking cookies, who don't feel peer-pressure from academic colleagues or paying constituency, whose audience isn't big enough to cause any kind of stir, and simply bake their cookies and share what they got.
All this considered, Luke's "somebody" named Agabus relates to Paul the way grasshopper relates to locust, amateur to Ph.D., natural prophet to formal Rabbi, Nethinim to Cohanim, even Moses to Aaron (Exodus 4:10-17), and even the wisdom of the heathens (see our articles on Homer and Hellas and 2 Timothy 3:16) to the divine enlightenment of the Jews (hence Isaiah 28:11), which obviously explains why the gospel came to be received by the gentiles, which also explains Peter's vision of the Great Sheet (Acts 10:9-22), upon which followed the conversion of Cornelius, whose name comes from κερας (keras), which means horn or anything pointy.
Wholly likewise, the Greek word for locust is ακρις (akris) and derives from the noun ακη (ake), meaning point, which ties Paul's prickly goads to Jesus' crown of thorns (see our articles on the noun κυριος, kurios, lord, and the name Tigris). The noun ακη (ake), point, in turn relates to ακρον (akron) meaning extremity and hence ακροβυστια (akrobustia), foreskin, which goes a long way to explain circumcision (see our article on the verb περιτεμνω, peritemno, to circumcise).
🔼More etymology of the name Agabus
Our name Agabus may formally be Greek for Hagab(ah), but to any Hebrew speakers with a sense of humor (and who realized that the noun חגב, hagab is rather pronounced as chagav), the name Agabus equally well reminded of the verb עגב ('agab), meaning to lust or partake in some group spirit. Rather significantly: music from flutes — as stated above, the noun עוגב ('ugab) means flute — is produced by one's breath (both nouns רוח, ruah, and πνευμα, pneuma, also mean spirit), whereas the music of the harp is a "work of one's hands" (1 Thessalonians 4:11, but see Acts 17:24-25). Also note that where Paul often laid hands upon people (Acts 19:6-11), Jesus was also known to breathe on them (John 20:22, see Genesis 2:7). Technology is crucially important (Exodus 31:3-6), but ultimately can't beat animation (Exodus 40:34-35).
All this suggests that Agabus was not only the naive Grasshopper to Paul's law-enforcing Locust, he was also the Pied Piper to Paul's Davidic Harp. This reminds of what the children sitting in the market places said: "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn" (Matthew 11:17). Of course, it's certainly never OK to partake in sin, but sometimes the occasion calls for a less strict approach to things and simply getting swept up in the spirit, irrespective of whether that spirit is a spirit of celebration or one of mourning. Entirely likewise, right before Jesus was to raise Lazarus, he first tuned into the spirit of grieving to which his friends had succumbed (John 11:33).
Lastly, to any Latin-speaking people who were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, our name Agabus would have reminded of Gabaon, the Latin version of the name Gibeon, which belonged to a great Hivite city (Joshua 9:17). Significantly, Gibeon was the place where Joshua had famously requested the sun to stand still during the First Battle of Beth-horon (Joshua 10:12), when YHWH himself pelted the enemy with stones. The Second Battle of Beth-horon happened a millennium and a half later, namely in 66 AD, when Jewish rebels surprised the world by licking the Roman Twelfth Legion. Upon this defeat, the enraged emperor Nero sent Vespasian into the Galilee to squash the uprising. Vespasian's son Titus besieged and sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. (This happened a few years into our present scene's future, but Luke wrote the Book of Acts after his gospel, which is generally agreed to have been written after the sack of Jerusalem, and with this disaster fresh in mind).
A single Gibeonite (1 Chronicles 12:4) would have been called הגבעוני (haggibowni), which surely might have ended up in Greek as something resembling our name Agabus. The tricksy Gibeonites were of course made Israel's slaves in perpetuity (hence perhaps Agabus' bound hands and feet), but that also allowed them to partake in the covenant. Whether or not Agabus was some proverbial Gibeonite, the easily made association again shows the tension between formal and naive, or native and immigrant, or reason and emotion (even sun and moon, and see our article on the adjective μωρος, moros, for a slightly longer look at this).
The name Gibeon, and thus perhaps our name Agabus, comes from the noun גבעה (gibeah), hill, or perhaps from the verb גבה (gabah), which would describe a person who amasses or collects like a tax-collector and plunders society like a swarm of ravenous Acrididae. Nouns גב (geb), גוב (gob), גבי (gobay) and גובי (gobay) refer to locusts, and, as noted above, in Greek, the noun ακρις (akris), means both hill and grasshopper:
The verb גבב (gabab) doesn't occur in the Bible but it appears to have meant to be concave or convex; to be bulbous or hollow. Noun גב (gab) denotes anything that is bulbous (hills, buttocks).
The verb גוב (gub) means to dig. Noun גב (geb) means pit or ditch. This verb appears to be associated with the verb יגב (yagab), meaning to till (what a farmer does). Noun יגב (yaqeb) probably refers to the field where the farmer tills.
Noun גבא (gebe') appears to describe a hollow in which water collects and is commonly translated with cistern, pool or marsh.
Verb גבה (gaba) means to collect. Nouns גב (geb), גוב (gob), גבי (gobay) and גובי (gobay) refer to locusts. Possibly a whole other verb גבה (gabah) means to be high, exalted or lofty, although this verb could actually describe a person who collected a heap, or who plunders a society like a swarm of locusts. In the Talmud the word for tax collector was derived from this verb. Adjective גבה (gaboah) means high or haughty. Noun גבה (gobah) means height or haughtiness. And noun גבהות (gabhut) means haughtiness.
Verb גבע (gabay) appears to mean the same as גבב (gabab), to be concave or convex. The very common noun גבעה (gib'a) means hill.
The unused verb גבן (gaban) probably meant to be curved, contracted or coagulated. Adjective גבן (giben) means humpbacked. Noun גבינה (gebina) means curd or cheese. Noun גבנן (gabnon) means peak or rounded summit.
A certain grammatical construction that creates a sort of continuous tense of the verb גבב (gabab) is formed from prefixing a נ (nun) and making the double ב (beth) a single one. The result, a verb נגב (nagab) would mean to undulate, to wave, to have shifting dunes. That verb doesn't exist, but a mysterious noun נגב (negeb) does. This noun would thus denote a region with rolling hills, and came to be synonymous with "south".
The name Agabus is highly poetic and doesn't mean one conveniently simple thing. It's most probably a Hellenized version of Hagab, who was mentioned among the Nethinim, which may have been the collective term for what we moderns call the Laity: inspired but unschooled amateurs, as contrasted by the formally schooled and formally appointed Clergy. Hagab means Grasshopper.
But our name may also be derived from the verb עגב ('agab), to lust or to be swept up by a collective party spirit. NOBSE Study Bible Name List rather mercifully (and incorrectly) translates out name with He Loved.
Our name may also have been inspired by the Latin version of the name Gibeon and simply mean The Gibeonite or the Hill Billy or the Locust, with the implication of Tricky Person or Enslaved Person, and certainly with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Second Battle of Beth-horon, which marked the beginning of the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 AD.