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NT Greek Figure vs. Form

Two Greek words, σχῆμα and μορφή, generally understood as figure and form respectively, are thought to be synonyms. Some translations in fact use compound forms of these words (transfiguretransform) interchangeably. As will be shown below, however, an understanding of their underlying difference in meaning can shed a new light on a number of scripture verses. 

The distinction between σχῆμα and μορφή is best seen in Philippians 2:6–8. Here Paul speaks of Christ Jesus as being in the form of God ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ; and who, by becoming incarnate, assumed the form of a slave μορφὴν δούλου and was thus found by others to be in figure σχήματι like a man. Let us now examine these two words.

Σχῆμα [s-híma]. From this word we get English scheme and schematic. In the above passage, σχῆμα is variously translated figure (DBT), fashion (KJV), appearance (NIV), or in other ways. The word signifies all the outwardly perceptible shape of one’s existence. Indeed, Christ had the shape, bearing, language, action, relations, habits, needs, and behavior in general of an ordinary human being, so that in the entire mode of his outward appearance and conduct he made himself known, and was recognized by others, as a man. The inclusion of likeness of men ὁμοιόματι ἀνθρώπων [omiómati anθrópon] in verse 7 exhausts Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s true humanity.

Μορφή [morfí]. From this word we get English morph, which is also found in compounds such as morphology and metamorphosis. In the above passage, μορφή is generally translated form, though some translations render it as nature (GNT), very nature (NIV), humble position (NLT v. 6), or in other ways.

Σχῆμα here concerns the outward appearance and expression of the incarnate Christ and is therefore simpler to comprehend. Μορφή, on the other hand, concerns the pre-incarnate Christ’s divine attributes and existence as God.[1] This makes one wonder how Paul really uses μορφή. For while in ordinary speech the two terms may overlap, μορφή is here used in a narrow sense.  For a possible answer, we must probe the term’s application in Greek philosophical thought. As Lightfoot remarks, Paul’s use of μορφή “[is] in a sense substantially the same which it bears in Greek philosophy.”[2]

Lightfoot’s commentary now ushers into our discussion Aristotle’s view of μορφή. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses the relationship between matter and form. Existence, he says, is understandable only in terms of what a particular thing does or is meant to do: (a) timbers and stone are potential to a house; (b) that which shelters men and their possessions functions as a house. When (a) and (b) are combined, one speaks of what a house actually is—its function—not its shape. Aristotle concludes that while matter is equated with potentiality, form is equated with function.[3] Korsgaard concurs. “Function,” she says, “[. . . is] the best candidate for form,”[4] and it “does not mean purpose but rather a way of functioning—how a thing does what it does.”[5] In the same vein of thought, Ainsworth comments, “A statue may be human-shaped, but it is not a human, because it cannot perform the functions characteristic of humans.”[6]

Paul was born and educated in the “university city” of Tarsus, where society was heavily influenced by Hellenistic language and culture and Stoic philosophy.[7] His superb command of the Greek language indicates that he studied Greek at the university level. Such factors point to the likelihood that the Apostle not only was acquainted with Aristotle’s philosophy, but that he also applied μορφή in the Aristotelian sense of function.[8]

Viewing now μορφή in this light, we will at once see Paul drawing in the above passage an extreme contrast between the pre-incarnate Christ as being equal in function with God, and the incarnate Christ as being equal in function with a slave of God—a servant who voluntarily surrendered to the Father the independent exercise of his divine attributes.[9]

Below are excerpts from the KJV that show how they are affected when the strikethrough word in italics (the word used in various translations) is replaced by the preferred equivalent shown in bold print. 

  • Jesus was transfigured transformed (Mat. 17:2, Mark 9:2). Comment: An outward expression of Jesus’ indwelling divine form was temporarily made manifest to Peter, James, and John. 
  • Satan transforms transfigures himself (2 Cor. 11:14). Comment: Satan cannot change his function, only his appearance.
  • Satan’s pseudo-apostles and deacons transform transfigure themselves (2 Cor. 11:13, 15). Comment: Like Satan, his evil servant spirits cannot change what they do, only their appearance.
  • Do not be conformed configured to this world but be transformed [sic] by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2). Comment: Christian principles should not be compromised in this world; rather, change in behavior should be maintained through the ongoing renewal of the mind by pursuing what pleases God. Both commands here are durative in aspect.
  • Christ will change transfigure our vile body that it may be fashioned conformed to his glorious body (Phil. 3:21); We are being changed transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18); We will be changed conformed to the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29).  Comment: Our earthly bodies are destined to change both shape and function by being conformed to the image of Christ.

Today, after 2,000 years, both σχῆμα and μορφή and their compound forms as used in the NT are read, spelled, understood, pronounced, and applied the same way in Modern Greek, though only educated speakers of Greek would to any extent associate these terms with Aristotelian concepts.


[1]  Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), 261.

[2]  Joseph B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 8th ed. (London: MacMillan and Co., 1888), 132–33.

[3]  Barbara Jancar, The Philosophy of Aristotle (NY: Monarch Press, 1966), 127. 

[4] Christine M. Kosgaard, “Aristotle’s Function Argument,” p. 39. https://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/AristotleFunction.pdf (accessed Jan. 4, 2021).

[5]  Christine M. Korsgaard, “Oxford Scholarship Online,” 

https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199552733.001.0001/acprof-9780199552733-chapter-5 (accessed Jan. 4, 2021).

[6]  Thomas Ainsworth, “Form vs. Matter,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/form-matter/#MattFormIntr, “1. Matter and Form Introduced,” par. 4 (accessed Jan. 4, 2021).

[7]  Quency E. Wallace, “The Early Life and Background of Paul the Apostle,” https://www.biblicaltheology.com/Research/WallaceQ01.html.

[8]  This article is only an attempt to form a basis for the distinction between these two terms, not to explain in any detail Aristotle’s philosophy regarding matter and form.

[9]  George L. Lawlor, When God Became Man (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 74. Also, Vincent R. Marvin, Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. III (McClean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, 1990), 431.

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Born in the Womb

At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth. But do we know when Jesus was actually born? I do not mean the day, month, or even the year of Jesus’ birth, only the very moment His earthly life began. Simple, yet utterly profound, this question beckons an examination of three Greek verbs and some of their derivatives in connection with Jesus’ birth:

  1. συλλαμβάνω [silamváno][1] I conceive, become pregnant.
  2. τίκτω [tíkto] I give birth, bear (children). When in reference to the mother, it also means labor in childbirth (cf. John 16:21 below).
  3. γεννάω [jenáo] I give birth, beget, bring forth. Widely used in the Scriptures and in Modern Greek, this verb denotes bringing forth one into this life.

Jesus affords us a clear distinction between verbs 2 and 3: “When a woman is in childbirth τίκτῃ [verb 2] she has sorrow, because her time has come; but when she gives birth to the child γεννήσῃ [verb 3] she no longer thinks about her suffering because of the joy that a human being was born into the world” (John 16:21).

Proceeding with these verbal nuances, let us now put our question into perspective by looking at Mary and events surrounding the birth of John the Baptizer. In Luke chapter 1, we read that Zacharias, a priest, and Elizabeth, his wife, were advanced in age and childless (7), their childlessness carrying a stigma of disgrace (24). When Elizabeth, who was known to be barren (7, 36), συνέλαβεν conceived (36), she kept her pregnancy secret for the first five months (24).

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (26), the angel appeared to Mary and announced that she was going to συλλήμψῃ conceive and τέξῃ bear a son and that she would name him Jesus (31). He also explained to Mary that τὸ γεννώμενον[2] [verb 3] that which is born was holy and would be called “Son of God” (35). The announcement of the angel ended with another piece of miraculous tidings: Elizabeth, Mary’s “barren” relative, was already six months pregnant with a son (36).

Mary immediately went to visit Elizabeth (39). As Mary entered Zacharias and Elizabeth’s home, and upon greeting Elizabeth (40), Elizabeth’s baby lept inside the womb (41, 44). Whereupon, Elizabeth became filled with the Holy Spirit (41) and pronounced blessings upon Mary and upon the fruit of her womb (42), thereby also attesting Mary’s pregnancy.

Mary sojourned with Elizabeth three months (56). When Elizabeth’s time came to τεκεῖν bear (a child) and ἐγέννησεν υἱόν gave birth to a son (57), Mary returned to her home (56). By then Mary’s pregnancy could not be concealed. As Joseph considered releasing Mary secretly (Mat 1:19), an angel appeared to him in a dream, announcing that τὸ . . . ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθέν[3] (verb 3) that which was born within her was of the Holy Spirit (Mat 1:20).

In light of what we have gleaned from the foregoing, let us now return to two key points related to when Jesus’ earthly life began.

In the angel’s announcement to Joseph (Mat. 1:20) we note the use of the aorist participle τὸ γεννηθέν that which was[4] born. This means that Jesus’ birth at that point in time was an event completed in the past.

Moving now three months back in time, we note in the angel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:35) the use of the same verb, except this time in the present participle: τὸ γεννώμενον. Significantly, from the speaker’s time of reference, this participle denotes an action not in the past, hence synchronous with the angel’s announcement.

The point: The verb γεννάω as used in the scriptures examined above makes no distinction whatsoever between (a) birth at the time of delivery, and (b) birth in the womb from conception. It becomes clear therefore that baby Jesus, like all human babies in this world, was a full human life worthy of love and protection from the very beginning of his time in the womb. At conception, to be exact.

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[1] Historical Greek Pronunciation (HGP) using International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols.

[2] Nominative, singular, neuter, present passive participle.

[3] Nominative, singular, neuter, aorist passive participle.

[4] May also be rendered “is born” or “has been born.”

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The Distinctiveness of BibleMesh’s Greek

Are you interested in studying New Testament Greek? And are you currently comparing online Biblical Greek programs? If so, know that in this age of booming distance education, searching for the right Biblical Greek program can lead the uninformed down the wrong path. To that end, you need to know what makes BibleMesh and its approach to Greek distinctive, and how BibleMesh will guide you in the right path.

Part of BibleMesh’s distinctiveness is that you can enroll in the Biblical Greek program’s self-study track or the credit-bearing track. In either case, you will find that each Greek lesson progressively steers you through all components of the program: grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing, listening and pronouncing, translation, and assessment. At the same time, you will find that, unlike other programs, the BibleMesh Greek program does not require you to purchase any pricey Greek textbooks, lexicons, commentaries, workbooks, CDs, or other material—not that such helps are unnecessary.

But what truly sets BibleMesh Greek apart from other online programs is how it uses Cerego, a cutting-edge program that helps optimize your retention of information. While other popular programs also use Cerego, they use it with the Erasmian or “academic” pronunciation, a sound system that is artificial and un-Greek. In contrast, BibleMesh uses Cerego with the authentic Hellenic pronunciation, also known as the Historical Greek Pronunciation. And that, in a nutshell, is a prime feature that characterizes the distinctiveness of BibleMesh Greek.

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Some related terms and definitions seem apropos here:

Hellenic: Hellenic means “Greek,” an Anglicized form derived from Latin Graecus, which originates from Γραικός Graikos, the name of a Greek tribe that migrated to Italy in the 8th century B.C. Technically the name Hellenic, which is used by BibleMesh, may refer to the Greek of any period, including Biblical Greek and Modern Greek.

Neohellenic: This name combines Neo “new” with Hellenic to form the official name for Modern Greek.

Hellenistic: Hellenistic refers to the time period between 300 BC and AD 300. The term comes from Ἑλληνίζω “I Hellenize,” i.e., “I make Greek.”

Historical Greek Pronunciation (HGP): HGP comprises the Greek sounds represented by the 24-letter Ionic alphabet, a script that was adopted by classical Athens (officially in 403 BC). Preserved in Modern Greek, the HGP can thus be traced to NT times and to Classical Greek.[1]

Koine: Κοινή (in Erasmian pronounced “coy-neigh” and in HGP “kiní”) is often used to refer to NT Greek. Κοινή means “common” (tongue) and is identified with Hellenistic Greek. Thus the Κοινή of NT Greek is Hellenistic Greek.

Modern Greek: See “Neohellenic” (above).

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[1] The description of the development of the NT Greek pronunciation and the HGP are expounded in Philemon Zachariou’s book, Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020).