Anti Ain’t the Word We Thought It Was

Anti means “against,” doesn’t it? Not in Greek, even though that’s where we got the word from. Perhaps I overstate a bit, but the word anti means “against” in English far more than it does in Greek. Examining the uses of this word gives us a rich picture of meaning that can illuminate some key passages of God’s word, including the very heart of our message of the cross.

While the word anti is used only seventeen times in the Greek New Testament, it is used 170 times in the Septuagint, and there it consistently means “in place of” or “instead of,” from which by extension we get the notion of “against” or “opposed to,” although sometimes it means “in exchange for.” A tour through the Septuagint is in order here.

Photo by Nathan Shively, on Unsplash.

In Joel 4:3, Israel’s enemies have sold a girl “in exchange for / for the price of wine.” In Psalm 109:4-5, the writer complains about his enemies: “In exchange for my love, they are my accusers…They reward me evil in exchange for good, and hatred in exchange for my love.” Proverbs 17:13 likewise warns that evil will not depart from those who reward “evil in exchange for good.” Zephaniah 2:10 reads, “This they shall have for / in place of / because of their pride.” In Hebrews 12:16, Esau sells his birthright “at the price of” a single meal.

Anti is used six times in quotes where the Biblical writer condemns the returning of “evil for evil.” It is also used sixteen times in the three Mosaic Law passages that record the law of retaliation (“an eye for an eye” and other examples). Exodus 21 gives six more instances where payment must be made “in exchange for” (anti) damages done.

The phrase ant’ autou (= anti autou, “in his stead / place”) is used 84 times in the Septuagint, particularly when kings die and their replacements begin to reign. In the New Testament, we find this use only where Archelaus rules “in place of” Herod (Matthew 2:22).

The phrase anth’ ōn (= anti-hōn, “because of these things”) is used 108 times in the Septuagint. Both Psalm 109:16 and Jeremiah 5:19 ask, “Because of what has YHWH done all these things?” We also find this use of anti in Jeremiah 27:7 (= Hebrew/English 50:7), and Ezekiel 25:3 and 25:6.

Ephesians 5:31 gives us a novel use of this word in its quote of Genesis 2:22: “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother.” Paul’s version of this text is not found in the Septuagint, or in Jesus’ quotes in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7! In these texts, a different Greek expression is used. Since Paul does not seem to be citing anything he has written in his preceding verse, he appears to be making his own independent translation, using anti toutou (“Because of this”) as a variation of the above expression that was used in Psalm 109:16 and 83 other times.

Luke 11:11 asks, How many parents will pull a bait and switch on their child, and give them a snake “instead” of a fish when asked?  In 1 Corinthians 11:15, Paul declares that a woman’s hair is given to her “instead” or “in place of” a head covering. James 4:15 warns readers who make too many plans they may not live to see, “instead of you saying, if the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” In Ezekiel 4:15, when God commands the prophet to bake his bread on dung, God allows him to use “cow’s dung instead of human dung.”

John 1:16 is a real puzzler: “From his fullness have we all received grace anti grace.” The picture seems to be God’s undeserved favor being dumped on us in buckets, with one bucket being rapidly swapped out for another. “Grace upon grace” (Revised Standard Version) or “one gracious blessing after another” (New Living Translation) is the best we can do in our translations.

Photo by Jean Wimmerlin, via Unsplash.

The word Antichrist is found nowhere in Jewish or pagan Greek, and is found in the New Testament only in 1 John 2:18, 2:22, and 4:3, and 2 John 7. While we tend to think of this figure as “against” or “opposing” Christ, one might argue based on what I have observed above that this character comes “in place of” or “instead of” Christ. The “against” meaning for anti that we know so well in English can be found in compounds such as antagonizomai (struggle against), antilegō (speak against), and antithesis (counter-proposal). The word antigraphon (Mark 16:9, title for the shorter ending) means a replacement text.

All that we have said about the word anti illuminates two of the most profound passages of Scripture. The first is Jesus’ words found in Matthew 20:28 (= Mark 10:45) that the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom in exchange for / in place of (anti) many.” (A similar use is found in Matthew 17:27, where Jesus instructs Peter to take the coin he finds in the fish’s mouth and give it to the collectors of the Temple tax “on behalf of you and me.”)

The other passage is Hebrews 12:2, which tells us that Jesus, “in exchange for (or is it instead of?) the joy set before him, endured the cross.” A case can be made for “instead of,” based on the root meaning of anti, which would mean that Jesus turned down a chance for his own personal joy in order to endure the cross. But “in exchange for” is much more likely. Jesus endured the pain of the cross, “in exchange for” the joy of setting a countless crowd of sinners free from sin and eternal death.

Anti ain’t the word we thought it was, was it? “Against” doesn’t begin to do justice to its meaning. The meaning of anti makes a huge difference as we meditate on how Jesus took our place in his saving death on the cross.


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