In several past blogs, I have commented on the extreme difficulty of reading the New Testament in English translation, where you miss a lot of the connections, echoes, and resonances that would strike a Greek speaker. The same is true of Hebrew in the Old Testament, where reading in even the best translation means missing a great many puns and word-plays, but that’s a separate subject. Here I want to focus on one particular Greek word that points to a critical and under-appreciated theme in the earliest Christian message. This is the verb, namely apollumi, to destroy (or be destroyed) utterly, to perish, or be entirely lost. In its various forms, it appears very frequently indeed throughout the New Testament – an impressive 92 instances, in fact – but a non-Greek speaker will miss those repetitions and echoes.
This gets to a critical question of translation. In normal writing, we try to avoid repeating the same or similar words and roots, and we do that by using synonyms or variant words. Only a clumsy writer would use the same noun (say) six times in a dozen lines, and that includes variant forms of a single word, as in palace and palatial. Use not vain repetitions. When we read the numerous forms of apollumi, then, English translations vary the words they offer, which range between destroy, perish, and lost. When we put those words all together, though – when we reverse engineer the original text – we realize that we are dealing with an extremely significant theme in the theology of the New Testament. And a theme that is highly relevant to the present season of Lent.
We also see that when the original authors used the same word or root time after time, they were not being shoddy wordsmiths, who did not know how to diversify their vocabulary in an interesting or creative way. Rather, they were trying very successfully to produce an inexorable drumbeat, in which even the slowest listener would discern the theme being presented. Maybe they actually intended to use the same word six times in a dozen lines.
That is exactly what happened to the Greek word for the “way,” or better, “the Way” (hodos) which was a loaded slogan or descriptor of the early Jesus movement. New Testament authors deliberately use the word often to make a critical point – over a hundred times, in fact, through the whole collection. In pursuit of elegant writing, however, English translators variously render hodos as path, road, wayside, journey, and so on, so that we modern readers literally lose our way. Some repetitions are anything but vain.
And that brings us back to apollumi. Just as one example of many, 2 Corinthians speaks of “the perishing” to whom the gospel is veiled. The word here is apollumenois, those who are lost or to be destroyed. The same verb occurs when the apostles see Jesus calm the storm on the lake, and they plead with him to save them, as they are perishing (apollumetha: Matt. 8.25). Jesus warns that his followers it is better that one of their limbs should perish (apoletai) rather than they go into hellfire (Matt 5.30). The disciples are to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (apololota: Matt 10.6). He who takes up the sword will perish (apolountai) by the sword (Matt.26.52). In Luke 13, Jesus warns his listeners that unless they repent, they will perish (apoleisthe). The Pharisees plot how they might destroy Jesus (apolesosin: Mark 3.6). The priests and scribes plot to destroy (apolesosin) him (Mark 11.18). In John 3.16, the one who believes in the Son shall not perish (apoletai) but have eternal life. Luke alone uses the word 28 times in its various manifestations.
When the gospels translate “lost,” you can usually assume that the Greek original is a variant of apollumi. In Luke 15, the famous story of the Lost Sheep is followed by the woman who loses a silver coin, and every instance of the word “lost” derives from that verb – five instances in six verses. “Lost” in these contexts does not merely mean straying somewhat from the path, but rather being doomed or forfeit. You get the sense from talking about a ship being lost. Think Titanic.
In the Greek text, that verb occurs very frequently in the Gospels, and then in the epistles, ten times in the two letters to the Corinthians alone. So frequent is it, in fact, that we might be hearing almost a code-word or slogan of that early faith, just as “the Way” denotes the correct path of Jesus’s followers. In contrast, this word for perishing – apollumi – summarizes the path of the evildoers, those who fall from the Way. They are the lost, the perishing, and Jesus’s followers plead that they do not perish thus. They plead that they might not be lost. This is the fate from which Jesus’s followers seek to be saved. And saved is the direct antithesis of “lost.” Jesus tells his followers that “whoever would save [sosai] his life will lose [apolesei] it; and whoever loses [apolesei] his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save [sosei] it.” (Mark 8.35).
Being “lost” in this sense was an ultimate nightmare for those earliest Christians. When the disciples cry out for Jesus to save them from the storm, I wonder if we are hearing one of the most ancient Christian prayers?
Κύριε σῶσον, ἀπολλύμεθα
Kyrie soson, apollumetha!
Save us, Lord, we are perishing!
Or alternatively, We are in danger of being completely lost. Not a bad way of thinking about Lent, and ideal for some kind of penitential service or liturgy.
This whole topic also suggests the near-Dualistic approaches that so often appear in the New Testament, the sharp divide separating the saved from the lost or perishing. That is the classic language of a sect, which uses special in-group terms to indicate total separation from unbelievers and the half-hearted. We are Saved. You are Lost, you are Perishing.
I won’t talk much about this here, but losing implies finding, and this recalls a word that most people should know. You know the word Eureka? That comes from Archimedes’s famous exclamation of “I have found it!” which in turn derives from the verb heurisko – to find, encounter or discover. Different forms of that verb appear no fewer than 176 times in the Greek New Testament, which thus has an awful lot to say about being lost and found.
As so often, this early Christian language builds explicitly on the Semitic original. When Christians used apollumi, they were recalling a common Hebrew verb, which was abad, to perish or destroy. That word in turn is the root of Abaddon, Destruction. In later books of the canonical Old Testament, Abaddon is linked with Sheol, in the sense of “Hell and Destruction.” (Job 26.6; 28. 22; Proverbs 15.11, Ps. 88.11). When those books were translated into the Greek Septuagint, that “perish” or “destroy” word was translated with a word derived from apollumi. In the Job and Psalm references cited here, Abaddon becomes apoleia.
For Jews of Jesus’s time, this was very familiar language indeed, but with a twist. In the couple of centuries before Jesus’s time, words and concepts that were clearly metaphorical in the Old Testament often assumed a more concrete identity, and some were personified as spiritual beings or angels. (I write about this process at length in my recent book Crucible of Faith). That is exactly what happened to Abaddon. In Revelation 9.11, we hear of the angel of the bottomless pit, or “angel of the abyss,” whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon, or Destroyer. The Latin Vulgate added another title, et latine habet nomen Exterminans – Apollyon was the Exterminating Angel. John Bunyan borrowed that evil angel Apollyon to combat the Pilgrim on his Progress.
At least for some early Christians, that idea of being lost or perishing had a truly frightening demonic face.
Later generations of Christians have lost the critical sense of just what it means to be lost. There has to be a way back.