I. Characteristics of Language
The first thing we need to understand is that words in any language change over the years. What may have one meaning now, meant something else entirely a couple hundred years ago.
Take the word “silly.” We know it means “absurd, foolish or stupid.” Did you know that it originally meant “happy and blessed?” How about “lewd?” It now means “sexually unchaste;” originally it meant “a common person as opposed to clergy.” “Idiot” now has the specific meaning of “someone whose mental age does not exceed three,” and a colloquial meaning of “a foolish or stupid person.” Originally it meant “someone in private station as opposed to someone holding public office.” So five hundred years ago, most of us could have been described as silly, lewd idiots and we would not have taken offense!
Be careful of root words too. Do you know what the root word for “nice” is? The Latin nescius. Nescius means “ignorant!” Think about that the next time someone tells you how nice you look on Sunday morning. None of these English words’ early definitions have much of anything to do with the way they are used nowadays, so when you look up the definition of a Greek or Hebrew word you must be careful to find the definition for the time period of the original writing. (The information for these two paragraphs come from Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson.)
“In the age of Alexander the Great…the Greek language underwent [a huge] change…a literary prose language was formed which was founded on the Attic dialect, yet differed from it by adopting a common Greek element…admitting numerous provincialisms. A popular spoken language arose in which the previously distinct dialects spoken by the various Greek tribes were blended, with a predominance of the Macedonic variety.” Dr George Benedict Winer, Grammar of the Greek Testament.
“The usage of the classic Greek authors varies so much according to the time, place, subject, etc.” Alexander Buttman, Grammar of the New Testament Greek.
“…Gradual changes in the vocabulary were going on steadily through the whole period which [led up to the first century]. That force of spoken language which is always weakening old words and bringing in new expressions to be toned down in their turn, was acting powerfully in Greek as it does now in English.” James Moulton, An Introduction to the Study of New Testament Greek.
“The historical investigation of the language of the New Testament…has shown [it] to be…a specimen of the colloquial form of late Greek, and of the popular colloquial language in particular.” Dr Adolph Deissman, New Light on the New Testament.
“By far the most important changes…are those which refer to new or modified meanings given to already existing and current Greek words, whether in the old Classic or in the new Postclassical Greek. It is these changes which especially concern us in the study of the New Testament.” Charles Louis Loos, Professor Emeritus of Greek Language and Literature, Christian Quarterly Review.
Accordingly, psallo went through the following changes in meanings as the years progressed:
To pull out one’s hair
To pull the string of a bow
To twitch a carpenter’s line
To play a musical instrument
To sing (any type of song)
To sing praises
Psalmos went through these changes:
Music of a harp
A song accompanied by a musical instrument
A song, sacred or secular, accompanied or a capella
A hymn of praise
I found the following definitions for psallo and its derivative psalmos as they were used in the first century AD:
Robinson—in later usage, a song of praise to God.
Pickering—a psalm, an ode, a hymn
Groves—a psalm or hymn
Donnegan—by later writers, a hymn or ode
Parkhurst—to sing, to sing praises or songs to God
Dunbar—to sing, or celebrate with hymns
Greenfield—to sing, to sing in honor or praise of, to celebrate in song; a sacred song
Cantopolous—to sing or celebrate
Hamilton—to sing; a song or hymn
Thayer—to sing; to celebrate the praises of God in song; a pious song
Sophocles (Greek playwright)—to chant or sing religious hymns
Green—in the New Testament to sing; in the New Testament, a sacred song
By the first century it is obvious that the word psallo had left behind any meaning having to do with strings and simply meant “to sing.” Psalmos had become far more specific than its origins and was used to refer only to sacred unaccompanied songs.
Tomorrow we will continue this study.