Defining the words

This is a follow up to Suzanne’s post The Apostle Titus. It started as a comment, but this post goes in an entirely different direction.

She quoted Bill, who asked,

How come no major translations are willing to call Titus & Epaphroditus “Apostles”?

I think this underscores an important need Bible users have regarding their interaction with a translation:

They need clear, accurate definitions of the original words.

We have no tool for this today. Yes, I know we have lexicons; however, they provide glosses. Even the new BDAG, though it attempts to provide something like a definition, does not supply what is needed. (Anyway, BDAG is more an original language, research tool than a Bible study, exegetic tool, but, I digress).

Here’s where I’m coming from. The word ἀπόστολος (APOSTOLOS) means:

“A person commissioned by an authority to carry out a given task, who is delegated not only the commissioner’s responsibility, but also his or her authority, to complete that task.”

That, IMO, is the definition. Which can be verified through the use of tools such as BDAG.

So, in the case of the twelve Apostles, we have men who were commissioned by Christ, delegated with his requisite authority, to birth the church. There are typological reasons for ‘twelve’ that I won’t get into that complicate a direct answer to the original question. But, the important piece of information regarding the word ἀπόστολος has to do with the elements of the definition:

  • one who commissions,
  • the commissioning with the given task,
  • and the delegation of authority.

These elements make up the definition. For the twelve this meaning is close to what we refer to when we use the complex term “Commissioned Officer,” though a simple term would be best. Perhaps ‘Apostle’ is as good as it gets.

Titus & Epaphroditus are a little different than these twelve. They weren’t commissioned by Christ (at least not directly). They were commissioned by the Church. Note what 2 Cor. says: ἀπόστολοι ἐκκλησιῶν (APOSTOLOI EKKLHSIWN, “apostles of churches”). In other words, it was “churches” that commissioned these men. These churches would have delegated their authority and responsibility to further the growth of the Church. This understanding flows quite naturally from the definition of the word. And, FWIW, we call these people “missionaries” today.

The definition helps us wrap our minds around what the translation is doing. And, more importantly, gives us insight into the why behind the translation decisions.

In other words, if we had clear, natural, and accurate definitions, ones that expressed the various elements inherent to the word, then Bible students could interact more knowledgeably with a given translation.

Some of the benefits would be:

  • Bible students would interact with more depth into the meaning, and they would be less inclined to sit on the surface of the form.
  • They would see how the translation attempts to reflect the original meaning. The translation may not achieve as high quality as the student expects; however, the student would at least be helped by the definitions to see what the translation is attempting to do.
  • They would see more clearly how words interact within a given text: sharpening and molding each other’s meanings as they form coherency within a text.
  • The students would less inclined to walk down the pathway of “matching up glosses.” That is, they wouldn’t “hunt for the right gloss in the lexicon.”
  • And they would more easily realize that concordance doesn’t provide exegetic insight; it simply conflates–and confuses–the English lexis with the Greek one (or Hebrew).
  • However, the negatives of a literal translation would be mitigated by having word definitions easily at hand. So, literal translations may actually increase in value as they provide better transparency into the original. One benefit here is that cross-textual coherency (eg allusions) would not be lost as they are with less literal translations.
  • Overall, people would start to get a much better feel for what it means to translate a text.

If the student would start with the definition of the words, then they would more easily walk the pathway of meaning transference–which is what translation is all about. They would be less tempted to venture down the cul-de-sac of matching up forms. I think that would be a win for everyone.

11 thoughts on “Defining the words

  1. Bill says:

    Mike, thanks so much. I'm thrilled with your response, and I hope you won't mind if I reply boldly despite my "student-ness". 😉

    First of all, typology, theology, context and etymology are all debatable. The other aspect of my question still remains: is there a tradition of bias involved that helps settle translators into their conclusions about these debates?

    But for now, to the arguments:

    1) You say Titus & Epahroditus weren't commissioned by Christ… but how do you know? The lack of data on their lives makes any contextual arguments inconclusive. Again, this leads me to suspect motive for bias – not of yourself, Mike, but of the past 500 years worth of protestant tradition.

    2) The phrase "apostles of churches" doesn't tell us anything about commissioning. Even if it did, it's not in Philippians. Even if it was, that argument actually complicates the question, "So why avoid the rendering?"

    3) The definition from Liddell & Scott is “messenger, ambassador, envoy”. I admit some theological addition to this is required, but your definition adds far too much by qualifying all practical application of the term. If this definition is the basis of your argument, it’s begging the question. Though forgive me, I don’t own a BDAG.

    4) Just by the way, “Missionary” is only fair as a root etymological parallel, because in all practical connotation, the word is anachronistic in the extreme.

    After all that, I might say my bottom line is Paul’s willingness to use the term “apostle” suggests he thought they were qualified to be called as such. Therefore, so should we.

    Mike, if you think I’ve missed something vital here, of if you’ve more to say, I’d love to hear it. You suggested a point or two I’d not heard before and I’m hoping there’s more. Not that typology promises to feel very convincing… but if it’s actually, historically, substantially part of WHY translators choose their renderings, let’s know about it. Please.

    Again, thanks so very, very much for being willing to engage on this.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    You have brought up some excellent points. However, I note that the NAB also has “apostles” so I can’t help but think that there may be a bias against “apostolic succession” also at play in the protestant Bibles.

    Andronicus and Junia are still apostles, but that seems to be dependent on the phrase “outstanding among the apostles.” The apostles seem like a set group among which one can be outstanding.

    How do we know that the “twelve” enjoyed a distinct ongoing status in the early church?

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    Very good Bill. We’re all students, and you remind me of Darby who explored much of what you’re dealing with in his translation. You’re in good company. 🙂

    Bill wrote:
    1) You say Titus & Epahroditus weren't commissioned by Christ… but how do you know?

    Let me try to be precise without (hopefully) being argumentative. Christ isn’t mentioned, the churches are. I can’t make an argument from silence; so, while I don’t know for sure whether or not Christ commissioned them, the text doesn’t say. I conclude it wasn’t the original author’s point to make. So, it’s irrelevant.

    The point I was making was that they were commissioned by the churches. Christ didn’t delegate any authority, the churches did. Perhaps the problem is related to your next question/point.

    2) The phrase “apostles of churches” doesn’t tell us anything about commissioning.
    Sure it does. It’s in the word APOSTOLOS. Commissioning is part of its meaning. This became clear to me when I learned that a ship’s captain was “APOSTOLOSed” by a governing authority with the task of delivering military action to its destination. The most natural English word I can think of for this action is ‘commission’.

    Even if it did, it’s not in Philippians.
    The Philippian citation (2:25) isn’t about the missionary task. It’s about the Philippian church commissioning (tasking, if you will) Ephaphroditus with the task of “taking care of [Paul’s] needs. (2:25)” I probably wasn’t clear. The Philippians felt that was part of their responsibility; so, they delegated that responsibility and the authority to carry it out to Epaphroditus. I think you’ll agree that the sense of responsibility to take care of Paul is definitely part of the letter to Philippi.

    Also, note Paul uses a synonym of APOSTOLOS in 2:28–πέμπω (PEMPW) which doesn’t carry the element of commissioning. It’s a broader term that encompasses APOSTOLOS and therefore can (sometimes) replace APOSTOLOS. Paul is sending Epaphroditus back, but there’s no sense of a task being given for him to do and no delegation of authority from Paul. Paul is simply ‘sending’.

    Also, I take back my statement that the 2 Cor. citation refers to missionaries (though I still think APOSTOLOS and “missionary” are very close cousins). The 2 Cor. reference refers to a small group of people tasked with delivering funds to the Jews in Palestine. Obviously, that’s different than growing the Church. The delegation of authority and commissioning with a task are definitely there, though.

    3) The definition from Liddell & Scott is "messenger, ambassador, envoy".

    That’s not a definition. Those are glosses. And that gets to the point of my posting. We need definitions of the words, and we don’t really have any tool today that does that. If you take my definition and smack all the NT uses against it, I think you’ll find it holds up quite well.

    There is, of course, Kittel’s; however, it has produced much, much more than just definitions.

    The tool I’m thinking of would be much more sleek. It could be incorporated into the back of an interlinear for example. Hmmmmmmm….now there’s an idea. 🙂 Even better would be a parallel NT with dynamic equivalent, literal, and Greek, side-by-side, and a dictionary in the back giving solid definitions. And no glosses.

    Lastly, might I suggest you jettison from the word APOSTOLOS any theological and religious connotation that you have. I’m trying to be helpful here–reading your response from my perspective (obviously a different one) you appear to have incorporated into the meaning of the word the popular theological and religious senses. I suggest those senses aren’t in the original (that’s one more reason why I think definitions would be so very helpful.) In the Greek it’s a perfectly normal, everyday term in many ways similar to, but less formal than, our English term ‘commission’. There is no theological or religious baggage.

    Personally, I think you’re on the right road (theologically) with your poking at the theological, even Clerical, assumptions brought to us by (may I say) more than just the “past 500 years worth of protestant tradition.” I just think you’ll arrive at a more accurate result if you first jettison from APOSTOLOS the theological baggage with which we’ve encumbered it.

    And now, a little bit regarding your issue. For the twelve, the word APOSTOLOS takes on special meaning. However, that is because of context. It is not because of the term chosen. It’s because of the specialness of the twelve. This is one more reason definitions would be helpful (though difficult to construct). Lexicography (and the making of dictionaries in general) is all about dividing the context of the usage of a term from the meaning of the term itself. That is very difficult since a word is modified by the context within which it is used. It takes a Solomon, a very wise and loving mother, and something as important as a baby. 🙂

    One last thing about definitions. Definitions should not incorporate religious or theological baggage unless that is required by the original language. SYNAGOGH would be a good example of a religious word. It was used in just that way in both Jewish and Greek religious contexts. Surprisingly to many Christians, EKKLHSIA is a secular term!. (Though I’ve probably opened up a large can of rabbit trail worms here. 🙂 I’m not going to be able to chase those wormy rabbits.

  4. Bill says:

    Woah. Mike, I’m overwhelmed but grateful. It’s going to take me a while to get behind your language this time. For example, I thought your view was the one with theological baggage! But I’ll consider that touche’ if you’ll do the same. 🙂

    I need time to digest what you’re saying.

    Hopefully someone else can step in and help me out here…

  5. David Ker says:

    Thanks Suzanne and Mike for responding to this. I opened the floor for questions and then neglected to answer any of them!

  6. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    Thanks for some counterpoint. I would say that the English reader has little access to these thoughts if they do not know when “apostle” is used and when it is not.

    At least, if we read the word as it was in Greek, we could think about the changing status of the word, as happens with ekklesia, and other words.

    I note also that the NAB as well as the DR retained “apostle” so even though it has more than one meaning or connotation, it is also possible that the Catholic editions retain it, and protestant ones do not, for specific polemical reasons, as they do “bishop” and “rulers.”

    That is, there can be more than one reason and the stated reason may not be the actual reason and so on.

    Jerome also retained the word apostle here, BTW.

  7. Don B. Johnson says:

    Well, I think those 2 were apostles, just not of the 12. The 12 were all apostles but there are more apostles in the NT than just the 12.

  8. David Hamstra says:


    Fantastic observation and proposal! Would you say that there is a similar problem with Hebrew definitions? You sort of hint at this, and I have never seen the type of dictionary you proposing.

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    David Hamstra asked:
    Would you say that there is a similar problem with Hebrew definitions?

    Absolutely. I just want the Greek one real bad. 🙂

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