Word Studies from the New Testament


Words used in ancient texts offer insights into the gospel.

Word Studies from the New Testament

The language of the Bible is beautiful and rich in meaning. 1 When we bend heart, mind, and spirit to study the scriptures, we can receive through the Holy Ghost the messages that the Lord, who is at the center of all scripture, would have us receive.

The books of the New Testament, as they have come down to us, were originally written mostly in Greek. We know that full spiritual enlightenment is available through the Holy Ghost as we study the Bible in our own language. But we may also gain valuable historic and linguistic information by examining the oldest surviving texts of the New Testament. We find that specific words used in Greek and their Hebrew counterparts often convey interesting insights. The following three examples may help us further appreciate the extent to which the Prophet Joseph Smith restored the true understanding of the organization and covenants of the early church of Christ. 2

Euangelistes—Evangelist

The sixth Article of Faith declares, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth” (emphasis added).

For centuries, readers of the Bible have found reason to wonder about the evangelists mentioned three times in the New Testament: Philip was an evangelist (see Acts 21:8); Timothy was an evangelist (see 2 Tim. 4:5); and so were others listed together with the Apostles and prophets in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (see Eph. 4:11). But these references give no clear information about the powers, responsibilities, or functions of this priesthood office.

In 1839, the Prophet Joseph Smith explained that “an Evangelist is a Patriarch. … Wherever the Church of Christ is established in the earth, there should be a Patriarch for the benefit of the posterity of the Saints, as it was with Jacob in giving his patriarchal blessing unto his sons.” 3

With this in mind, the earliest known use of the word euangelistes (“you-ON-gell-is-TAYS”) outside the Bible is of considerable interest to Latter-day Saints. It was found in a Greek inscription on the island of Rhodes; it appears to be a burial inscription of a high priest who functioned in a temple of Apollo. Most scholars who have studied this fragmentary text have concluded that this priest was called a euangelistes because he was “the deliverer of oracular sayings” to individuals who typically came seeking prophetic information from Apollo about their personal lives. 4

Today we cannot be certain of the origins of the New Testament term euangelistes. But of all the meanings attributed to the word evangelist over the years, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s identification of this office as that of a patriarch who gives spiritual and prophetic blessings to individuals still comes closest to the meaning of this term in its earliest known occurrence.

Diatheke—Testament

The New Testament takes its name from the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper: “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). The Greek word for “testament” here is diatheke (“dee-a-THAY-kay”). The meaning of this word sheds light on both its general usage and its usage in the subtitle of the Book of Mormon, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”

Outside of the Bible, the Greek term diatheke is most commonly used to mean a person’s last will and testament. It is also used in this way and in other ways several times within the Bible. (The word is not to be confused, however, with testimony or witness.)

Diatheke is also used in the Bible several hundred times as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word berit, usually rendered covenant. In the Hebrew Bible, “the covenant” usually describes the entire relationship between God and the children of Israel. Terms such as “contract,” “agreement,” “treaty,” “obligation,” “brotherhood,” “law,” and “cutting” or “binding” express facets of the covenant. But none of these alone is sufficient to capture the full meaning of this distinctive, self-contained Israelite religious concept. It has been said that according to the Israelite concept of covenant, one enters into a fellowship of the strongest order with another party, virtually becoming like that person himself, as in the covenant between Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 18:1, 3–4 [1 Sam. 18:1, 3–4].

Paul is the main user of the word diatheke in the New Testament. He describes Israel’s relationship with God as the diatheke, meaning a covenant relationship reflecting the divine order of salvation (see, for example, 2 Cor. 3:6; compare Jer. 31:31). Likewise in Luke, “the word is used in the traditional sense of the declaration of the will of God concerning future salvation, promise and self-commitment.” 5

The appearance of the term diatheke is perhaps most notable in the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:25; Mark 14:24; Matt. 26:28). He spoke his last will to his disciples, passing to them all that he had and indicating that by his death he would fulfill the old relationship of God to mankind and institute a new one. The usage of diatheke here embraces the full disposition of God, “the mighty declaration of the sovereign will of God in history, by which He orders the relation between Himself and men according to His own saving purpose.” 6

With this background, one can see many reasons why the Book of Mormon is called “another testament.” Consistent with each of the ancient meanings of diatheke, the Book of Mormon teaches and establishes our Heavenly Father’s covenants. It describes the relationship between him and his children, particularly as it is bonded through the atonement of Christ. The book tells how the Lord has spoken in history to order the relationship between himself and man in accordance with his will. It is another declaration of the last will and testament of Jesus, spoken after his death and bestowing an eternal inheritance upon all who will accept the teachings of the Book of Mormon. By receiving those teachings, one enters into a fellowship of the strongest order with our Heavenly Father and Christ and understands their will concerning salvation and eternal life. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon expressly remembers the covenants of old, and in this sense, too, it is testamental scripture.

As “another” testament, the Book of Mormon is not a different covenant but rather an enduring description of the one eternal order of things that accords with our Father’s plan for mankind. Thus, in the many broad and fundamental senses of the word, the Book of Mormon is indeed a diatheke of Jesus Christ—a testament.

Amen—Amen

This little word carries many powerful meanings. It is a Hebraism that has been retained in the Greek New Testament, in English, and in many other modern languages. In Hebrew, amen means “verily, truly,” and its cognates mean “to confirm, support, be faithful, or firm.” In English, it is often translated as “verily.”

Typically, modern speech simply uses amen as end punctuation for a prayer or a religious talk, or as an expression of one’s casual concurrence with what has been said, meaning “I agree.” In biblical times, however, amen had greater significance.

“[It] was the customary response made to an oath” and a “solemn acknowledgement of the validity of a threat or a curse affecting oneself.” 7 Thus, when the people said amen under conditions outlined in Num. 5:19–22, Deut. 27:14–26, or Neh. 5:7–13, they bound themselves to solemn oaths and serious obligations (see also Moro. 4:3; Moro. 5:2).

Amen was also used to associate oneself with very high praises given to God. Often it was spoken immediately after the glory or power or name of God was mentioned (see, for example, Ps. 41:13; Ps. 89:52; Ps. 106:48; 2 Ne. 4:35; Alma 13:9). Thus, it traditionally came at the end of prayers, which usually ended in an expression of praising God (for example, Matt. 6:13).

Amen also contained a strong sense of verification or confirmation. By each use of amen in the gospels, Jesus “gives the hearer to understand that [he] confirms his own statement in the same way as if it were an oath or a blessing.” 8 Amen is used also to assert the truthfulness of prophecy (for example, Jer. 11:5 [“So be it” in Hebrew is amen] or 1 Ne. 9:6), and may convey a devout desire that a spoken blessing in fact come to pass (see Rom. 15:33; 1 Kgs. 1:36).

This small word may also be used to certify the accuracy of something said or written. In a document written in the seventh century B.C. on a piece of broken pottery, as was commonly done, the writer of the document affirms that what he himself has written is true: “Amen, there is no mistake on my part.” 9 This compares with the usage in 1 Ne. 14:30 and 1 Ne. 15:36, or Mosiah 3:27.

With all its meanings, the word amen was particularly useful to the Savior. He frequently began statements with amen—“verily.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke record many such statements, and statements like this in John always have a double amen—“verily, verily.” Forty-six times in chapters 9 through 27 of 3 Nephi, sayings of Jesus begin with “verily,” or “verily, verily.” Nowhere else in the Bible or Book of Mormon, except Mosiah 26:31 (where the Lord is speaking directly to Alma) or Alma 48:17 (where Mormon is later affirming the greatness of Captain Moroni), do statements begin with “verily.”

It is interesting, then, that Christ would call himself “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14). His frequent use of the word amen underscores the importance of deep commitment, sincere praise, bold affirmation, verification, truth, fulfillment, and steadfastness in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So be it. Amen.

[illustration] Illustrated by Mitchell Heinze

[illustrations] Lettering by Warren Luch

[illustration] Right: Detail from The Sacrament in the New World, by Minerva Teichert, from the collection of the Museum of Art, BYU

John W. Welch, a professor of law and the editor of BYU Studies at Brigham Young University, serves as second counselor in the BYU Fourteenth Stake presidency.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    See also John W. Welch, Ensign, Apr. 1993, pp. 28–30.

  2.   2.

    These three word studies were selected from short articles that appeared in BYU’s Religious Studies Center newsletter beginning in 1987. The collection is available from F.A.R.M.S. For further discussions relevant to these studies, see Daniel B. McKinlay, “Amen,” Woulter van Beek, “Covenants,” and R. Douglas Phillips, “Evangelists,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:38, 332–33; 2:475.

  3.   3.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 151.

  4.   4.

    Albrecht Dietrich, “Euangelistes,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 1 (1900): 336–37; see also Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967), 2:736–37.

  5.   5.

    Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 2:132.

  6.   6.

    Ibid., 2:134.

  7.   7.

    Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 32.

  8.   8.

    Gustaf Dalman, The Words of Jesus (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1902), pp. 226–29, as cited in Trites, New Testament Concept of Witness, p. 32.

  9.   9.

    Metzad Chashavyahu, as quoted in Hans Bietenhard, “Amen,” in Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975), 1:98.