Last weekend, I was in Las Vegas. But not for poker. I was speaking at Upland Bible Church.
On Saturday night Pastor Rich, his wife Debbie, Al and Sheri Bingham, and my hosts, Tim and Daria Vanselow, shared a feast at Casa Vanselow. During supper, Pastor Rich mentioned the expression hapax legomenon.
No. That is not some exotic vegetable.
That is Greek. It means that which is said once. It is used in Biblical studies to refer to words that only occur once in the NT (Greek) or once in the OT (Hebrew or Aramaic). Occasionally, it refers to words that only occur once in the writings of a given author, such as Paul.
I could remember only one example of what I thought was an NT hapax legomenon–monogenē, meaning “only begotten” or “one and only” (John 3:16). However, when I looked it up, monogenē also occurs in Heb 11:17 to refer to Abraham’s only begotten son, Isaac.
I looked up hapaxes after I got back.
Guess how many hapax legomenon there are in the NT. Would you believe 686? I would not. That is what Wikipedia suggests (see here). Others say there are over 1,000.
For more information, see this article at gotquestions.org.
For a list of every NT hapax along with its verse and meaning, see here.
I asked Bill Fiess to check this out in Logos. He found 1,769 words that only occur once in the NT if you exclude the ninety proper nouns that only occur once. If you include those, the number is 1,859.
Some of the NT hapaxes are specialized terms: medical terms (in Luke), nautical terms (in Act 27), and names of precious metals and stones (Revelation 21).
How do we know what these words mean if they occur only once in the Bible?
There are two ways. First, most of these words were used outside the Bible. While extra-Biblical usage does not mean a word is used the same way in the Bible (authors can coin new uses for words), it gives us some direction. Second, and most importantly, the Biblical context tells us what the word means.
For example, in the Lord’s prayer, the Lord said, “Give us our epiousious bread.” The word occurs twice in the NT, but in parallel passages (Matt 6:11 = Luke 11:3). It would be a mistake to suggest that the word’s meaning must equate to the sum its parts mean.i Epi is a preposition that means “on” or “upon,” and ousious is from ousia, which means “property,” “wealth,” or “substance.” In this case, the context suggests that the meaning of the roots is close to what the word means, which is “daily,” “necessary,” or “needed.”
Context is king. By studying the context, we can usually determine what a word means, even if it is not found outside the Bible. About twenty-five NT hapaxes have not been found in any other literature.
Why are these words important?
Since all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable (2 Tim 3:16-17), the meaning of every word is also important.
Here are ten of my favorite hapaxes with their meaning and where they are found: 1) architektōn (master builder, 1 Cor 3:10. We get the word architect from it; we are all called to be church builders); 2) oua (pronounced oo-ahh = Aha! Mark 15:29)ii; 3) agrammatoi (uneducated, Acts 4:13. The initial alpha negates the meaning, and grammatosiii means “educated, scholarly,” from which we get grammar and grammatical. The apostles did not have formal training, but they were brilliant in their speech.); 4) amartyron (without “witness” or “testimony,” from which we get the word martyr: “God did not leave Himself without witness…”); 5) taktē (set. appointed, arranged, Acts 12:21–from taktos. We get the word tactics from it); 6) agnōstō (unknown, Acts 17:23–from agnōstos. We get the word agnostic from it.); 7) akōlutōs (without hindrance, Acts 28:31–the last word in the book of Acts, signifying that though the apostle to the Gentiles was in prison, God’s Word was free and unhindered); 8) hilaros (cheerful, 2 Cor 9:7, “God loves a cheerful giver.” The word hilarious is derived from this word); 9) Marana thaiv–“O Lord, Come,” or “Come, O Lord,” 1 Cor 16:22. We get the word Maranatha from it.); 10) Theopneustos (inspired or God-breathed, 2 Tim 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable…” The Bible is God’s Word.).
The Bible, like its divine Author, is beautiful. That is even seen in words that occur only once.
i Words sometimes do mean what their roots suggest. But often, they do not. A cupboard was originally a board that had pegs on which you hung cups. That is not what a cupboard is today. A parkway is not somewhere you park your car. But atypical is what its roots suggest–something that is not typical.
ii I like this one because it sounds like what it means.
iii The word grammatos does not appear in the NT. However, the related word grammateus, meaning “a scribe,” occurs over sixty-seven times.
iv These are two Aramaic words, but I list them as one since we know the expression as Maranatha. But it should be Marana tha.