ἐπιτιμάω – Part II

In my last post I went through all the contexts in the NT in which ἐπιτιμάω is used, and made a first approximation of the meaning – ‘tell someone to stop [doing something]’. But if we really want to be sure that this is the meaning, we have to consider what other possible word choices were available. In other words, if you have a lot of words that mean more or less the same thing, then the meanings can be quite specific. If there are only one or two words, then the meaning is more general. I’m proposing a fairly specific meaning. It will need to be supported.

So what are the words we should be looking for in Greek that are near synonyms of ἐπιτιμάω? – those that will help us tell if its meaning is as precise as my previous post suggests, or if it has a more general meaning and it’s merely an accident of our texts that so many of the contexts happen to line up a particular way.

There are two ways to approach this. One is to think about what kinds of speech acts might get translated as rebuke and figure out what the possible Greek words would be. The other is to look in Louw and Nida who have already thought this out. Of course looking in Louw and Nida doesn’t excuse us from thinking through what the aspects of meaning of the English word are. So let’s examine that first.

It seems there are two general aspects to rebuke. One is to modify behavior – to tell people not to act a certain way. The other is to talk to people in a stern way about their behavior. Louw and Nida list ἐπιτιμάω under two categories that that more or less match this analysis.

For telling people what to do (or what not to do) Louw and Nida give us διαστέλλομαι, κελεύω, ἐντέλλομαι, παραγγέλλω, τάσσω, διατάσσω, προστάσσω, and συντάσσω. (Command, Order 33.323-332) For telling people things they don’t want to hear, they list ἐλέγχω, νουθετέω, ὀνειδέζω, ἐπιπλήσσω, and ἐμβριμάομαι (Rebuke 33.417-422).

Note – When I say that I like Louw and Nida, this is why. Their semantic categories bring the mutually relevant words together so we can actually sit down of an evening and do the kind of thing I’m talking about. If you look in Strong’s under forms of rebuke, you only find ἐπιτιμάω, ἐλέγχω, and ἐπιπλήσσω. Of course, you have to be careful in Louw and Nida because they lump nouns, verbs, and adjectives in the same list, and take care when there is a phrase as opposed to a single word, but that’s for a more advanced lesson. For now we’ll just collect the verbs that are near synonyms.

Now we have thirteen words and it looks a little daunting. Do we have to do for all of them what we did for ἐπιτιμάω? Unfortunately, yes. But in this series of posts, I’m going to short circuit the matter some by zipping past some words with just a skeleton argument regarding their meaning, and focus on those few that help us the most in sharpening our understanding of what means. The particular words I’ll treat lightly are those that function as general words (cover terms), specifically παραγγέλλω and the forms related to τάσσω and words that only occur once like ἐπιπλήσσω or just a few times and aren’t otherwise helpful, like ἐμβριμάομαι.

So let’s just start with one of these near synonyms. διαστέλλομαι is an obvious choice because it seems to have a meaning very close to that of ἐπιτιμάω – so close that there is one passage in which the variant readings differ only in these two words, Matt. 16:20.

Matt. 16:20

20 τοτε επετιμησεν τοις μαθηταις ινα μηδενι ειπωσιν οτι αυτος εστιν ο χριστος

20 Then Jesus ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matt. 16:20

20 τοτε διεστειλατο τοις μαθηταις ινα μηδενι ειπωσιν οτι αυτος εστιν ο χριστος

20 Then Jesus ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah

When we’ve worked out what the difference in meaning is, we’ll come back to this passage.

While διαστέλλομαι doesn’t occur much in the NT, seven times, not counting the variant reading, six of those times it clearly means to tell someone not to do something. Once again I’ll list the examples, by sense and comment on the trickier ones afterward.

1) tell not to speak (4)

Mark 5:43

43 και διεστειλατο αυτοις πολλα ινα μηδεις γνοι τουτο και ειπεν δοθηναι αυτη φαγειν

43 But Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone, and he said, “Give her something to eat.”

Mark 7:36 (2X)

36 και διεστειλατο αυτοις ινα μηδενι λεγωσιν οσον δε αυτοις διεστελλετο αυτοι μαλλον περισσοτερον εκηρυσσον

36 Then Jesus ordered the people not to speak of it to anyone; but the more he ordered them not to, the more they told it.

Mark 9:9

9 και καταβαινοντων αυτων εκ του ορους διεστειλατο αυτοις ινα μηδενι α ειδον διηγησωνται ει μη οταν ο υιος του ανθρωπου εκ νεκρων αναστη

9 As they came down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has risen from death.”

2) tell not to act (2)

Heb. 12:20

19 και σαλπιγγος ηχω και φωνη ρηματων ης οι ακουσαντες παρητησαντο μη προστεθηναι αυτοις λογον 20 ουκ εφερον γαρ το διαστελλομενον καν θηριον θιγη του ορους λιθοβοληθησεται

19 the blast of a trumpet, and the sound of a voice. When the people heard the voice, they begged not to hear another word, 20 because they could not bear the order which said, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.”

Mark 8:15

15 και διεστελλετο αυτοις λεγων ορατε βλεπετε απο της ζυμης των φαρισαιων και της ζυμης ηρωδου

15 “Take care,” Jesus warned them, “and be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”

3) not tell to act (1)

Acts 15:24

24 επειδη ηκουσαμεν οτι τινες εξ ημων εξελθοντες εταραξαν υμας λογοις ανασκευαζοντες τας ψυχας υμων οις ου διεστειλαμεθα

24 We have heard that some who went from our group have troubled and upset you by what they said; they had not, however, received any instruction from us.

The first four cases of telling someone not to speak are quite clear. The two cases of telling someone not to act might not be so obvious. In the Heb. 12:20 passage, το διαστελλομενον, glossed ‘the order’, is a participle, so a more literal rendering would be ‘that which one is told not to do’, i.e., it’s not just an order, it’s a commandment forbidding action. In the Mark 8:15 passage things are a little trickier. GNB glosses ‘warn’, but the English word warn has two aspects, first telling someone to behave (or not behave) in a certain way, and second that there will be consequences for failure to comply. But this isn’t so much a warning with some implied consequence as it is Jesus simply telling the disciples not to act in ways that reflect the thinking of the Pharisees and Herod, or maybe just don’t think like that. Either way it’s a charge not to act, not a warning.

Now let’s look at the last and most problematic case, Acts 15:24. Here the negative notion is not associated with the content of the communication, but with the communication itself, i.e., the apostles did not tell these teachers to teach what they are teaching. Since this is the only instance in this sense, and it’s clear that this word is affiliated with commands given by the apostles, similar to the command from God in the Hebrews verse, and given that this is a sense that goes back to Classical Greek, I don’t think it’s that important here that there is no clear negative in the content of the implicit communication from the teachers, because the key issue is whether a command from the apostles was given to the teachers in the first place.

Now comparing ἐπιτιμάω and διαστέλλομαι one can see that the difference in meaning is subtle, but real. Both of them mean to tell someone not to do something, but in contrast to ἐπιτιμάω, the instances of διαστέλλομαι are all cases in which the addressee has not yet done the thing being forbidden. This is particularly clear in Heb. 12:20, where the receiver of the command would be dead if he’d been acting in violation of the command. It’s also clear in Mark 9:9 (part of the Transfiguration account) where Jesus gives the command before the disciples have seen anyone else. And likewise in Mark 5:43 (part of the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter), Jesus gives the command before any of the witnesses have had a chance to tell anyone else. In these cases the forbidden action is only a potential action, and the command is one not to do something one might otherwise start doing.

At the beginning I promised to look at the verse that has alternate readings, one with ἐπιτιμάω and one with διαστέλλομαι. Here it is:

Matt. 16:20

20 τοτε επετιμησεν τοις μαθηταις ινα μηδενι ειπωσιν οτι αυτος εστιν ο χριστος

20 Then Jesus ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matt. 16:20

20 τοτε διεστειλατο τοις μαθηταις ινα μηδενι ειπωσιν οτι αυτος εστιν ο χριστος

20 Then Jesus ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

This is in the passage in which Jesus first reveals that he is the Messiah. The preferred reading for reasons of textual criticism is the second. Interestingly enough this is consistent with our analysis of the meanings of these words. διαστέλλομαι is appropriate rather than ἐπιτιμάω because it is forbidding potential action not commanding the cessation of action. After all, the disciples hadn’t seen anyone to tell yet.

There are more words to be looked at in future posts, but the shape of ἐπιτιμάω is starting to emerge. Its shades of meaning are far more subtle than one might expect. The recognition of that fact raises an important point about what accuracy in translation means. Since English doesn’t have easy ways of expressing distinctions like those we have been discussing, an accurate translation of verses with ἐπιτιμάω will have to take into account the degree to which the semantic component in the command to cease an action is relevant to the verse being translated. So I’d argue that Luke 8:24 should be translated as follows:

Luke 8:24

24 προσελθοντες δε διηγειραν αυτον λεγοντες επιστατα επιστατα απολλυμεθα ο δε διεγερθεις επετιμησεν τω ανεμω και τω κλυδωνι του υδατος και επαυσαντο και εγενετο γαληνη

24 The disciples went to Jesus and woke him up, saying, “Master, Master! We are about to die!” Jesus got up and commanded the wind and the storm to stop; they quieted down, and there was a great calm. [Modified from the GNB]

[cf. the original GNB] The disciples went to Jesus and woke him up, saying, “Master, Master! We are about to die!” Jesus got up and gave an order to the wind and to the stormy water; they quieted down, and there was a great calm.

Take special note. This is not interpretation. This is what the original actually means. To fail to convey this in the translation is not being true to the original.


Let me point out that there is reason to think that this distinction between ἐπιτιμάω and διαστέλλομαι is one that arose late, in the two to three centuries between the translation of the LXX and the writing of the NT. I won’t give the whole analysis, but the short story is that the LXX has only διαστέλλομαι meaning of telling someone not to do something. Instances of ἐπιτιμάω mean ‘punish’ which is one of the Classical Greek meanings.

3 Macc. 2:24

24 ἐν χρόνῳ δὲ ὕστερον ἀναλεξάμενος αὑτὸν οὐδαμῶς εἰς μετάμελον ἦλθεν ἐπιτιμηθείς ἀπειλὰς δὲ πικρὰς θέμενος ἀνέλυσεν

24 After a while he recovered, and though he had been punished, he by no means repented, but went away uttering bitter threats.

In the LXX διαστέλλομαι covers both of the NT senses of telling not to do something, forbidding potential action and commanding cessation of ongoing action. An example of διαστέλλομαι in the latter sense is found in the warning to Ezekiel about the responsibility of a prophet. (The passage goes on and has more instances of διαστέλλομαι, but this is enough to get the point.)

Ezek. 3:18-19

18 εν τω λεγειν με τω ανομω θανατω θανατωθηση και ου διεστειλω αυτω του διαστειλασθαι τω ανομω αποστρεψαι απο των οδων αυτου του ζησαι αυτον ο ανομος εκεινος τη αδικια αυτου αποθανειται και το αιμα αυτου εκ της χειρος σου εκζτησω 19 και συ εαν διαστειλη τω ανομω και μη απο στρεψη απο της ανομιας αυτου και απο της οδου αυτου ο ανομος εκεινος εν τη αδικια αυτου αποθανειται και συ την ψυχην σου ρυση

18 If I announce that someone evil is going to die but you do not warn him to change his ways so that he can save his life, he will die, still a sinner, but I will hold you responsible for his death. 19 If you do warn an evil man and he doesn’t stop sinning, he will die, still a sinner, but your life will be spared.

Clearly this is a case of telling someone to stop doing something, but it has διαστέλλομαι.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s