Five rare words in the Bible and what they mean

Did you know there are approximately 3414 words that only occur once in the Bible? These rare words are called “hapax legomena” and their meanings are a seriously neglected field in biblical studies, despite accounting for nearly 25 per cent of the total vocabulary of the Bible! Research has commenced into shedding more light on these singular words, but today we’ll take a sneak peek at just five of them – what they mean and why you should care.

Φάρμακον (pronounced phar-ma-con) is a word found in Revelation 9:21 in a list of terrible sins (including murder). If you’ve noticed that pharmacon sounds a lot like “pharmaceuticals”, you’d be right! Those words came from this very word family. Homer himself used it in the Odyssey to mean “healing”.

But does that mean that the Bible condemns the use of medicine? Not at all! In ancient times, medicine and healing were often very closely tied to invoking divine powers. This word, in particular, referred to the use of concoctions or drugs whose production had involved worshipping gods. Therefore, the use of this word in the Bible is telling people not to rely on magic potions or healing that is based on other gods’ powers. In short: ‘Don’t do idolatry, kids.’ As far as the Bible is concerned, you are free, and indeed encouraged, to go to the pharmacy, see your doctor and get whatever vaccinations you like.

Today we could translate it with “he walked the plank!”

In Philippians 2 we find a lovely poem about Jesus, describing his humility and his power. The first line of which is, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to ἁρπαγμός (pronounced har-pag-mos), which generally seems to refer to theft or robbery (though interestingly, the early Latin translation uses the word rapina, which, in addition to referring to robbery, could also refer to a turnip-field).

So, does this mean that Jesus needed to steal equality from God? That he didn’t already have it? Does this verse claim Jesus really wasn’t God? Not so! This word is actually part of an idiom that refers to seizing something for one’s own advantage. When taken with the next line in the poem, “but rather he emptied himself”, it becomes clear that Jesus already possessed equality with God, but he did not seek to exploit it or “fill himself up with it, but rather he emptied himself.”

ἀπορίπτω (pronounced apo-ripto) appears in a story in Acts 27:43 about people jumping overboard during a shipwreck, to describe the action of jumping. However, this word usually means “to throw away.” Of 3780 instances of this word in the ancient Greek language, it only means “to jump” three times, so what gives? The other two instances are: first in Lucian 1.30 when he jumps off a ship to go for a leisurely swim and second in Chariton 3.5.6 when he jumps off a ship to save a suicidal Chaereas. This shows us a very interesting pattern of aporipto having a special meaning “to jump off a ship”.

James is using this word to introduce his theme of single versus double-mindedness.

In James 1:5 everyone and their dog translates ἁπλῶς (pronounced hap-los) as “generously.” However, it seems to appear way less frequently with words for “give” than we might expect for that meaning. If we go back to Plato and Xenophon, we find it being used in the sense of “singularity,” then over time people used it in metaphors for “simplicity”, “openness” and “sincerity”, all the while maintaining the idea of “singleness” at its core. Perhaps then, James is using this word to introduce his theme of single versus double-mindedness, which is present throughout the letter. Perhaps he is saying God gives wisdom with a singleness of mind, with no strings attached. So perhaps we can stop hearing about how God’s going to make us wealthy by giving so very generously?

εὐπρέπεια (pronounced e-prep-ia) is used in James 1:11 to describe the beauty of a flower that withers in the burning sun. This is part of a metaphor where the flower represents rich people who appear to be in a high position in the world but will lose this high position in heaven. The primary sense of this word is indeed physical beauty, however, it also referred to merely the visible appearance of things. And over time it grew more and more to mean a good visible appearance that did not match with a negative reality. Plutarch and Appian, writing near the time of the New Testament, are particularly fond of this sense of “pretext” or “speciousness”, using it almost exclusively. Therefore, this verse may be saying that the rich will merely lose their pretext of good standing, that they never really had true beauty in the first place.

So there you have it, five words from the Bible which might mean something a bit different from what you had heard. How many more nuggets of nuance hide among the many hapax legomena of the Bible? We’ll have to wait for continuing research to find out!

Sarah Lawson gained her Master of Divinity at the Bible College of South Australia and is now working on a PhD in Biblical Linguistics from Charles Sturt University. She is also a regular preacher, council member and youth leader at Mount Barker Baptist Church in the Adelaide Hills.

‘5 Rare words in the Bible and what they mean’ first appeared on Eternity in 2022.