What is the “Literal” Meaning of ἄγγελος? (James 2:25) – Mondays with Mounce 296

Bill Mounce on September 25th, 2017. Tagged under ,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

In James 2:25 we read, “Was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she took in the spies (ἀγγέλους) and sent them out by another way?”

BDAG defines ἄγγελος as referring to both humans and divine powers.

  1. a human messenger serving as an envoy, an envoy, one who is sent
  2. a transcendent power who carries out various missions or tasks, messenger, angel

Under #1 they list Luke 9:25 (human messengers going before Jesus), Luke 7:24 (John’s disciples), prophets (specifically John the Baptist, Mt 11:10; Mk 1:2; Lk 7:27), and our passage.

Under #2 they list angels and demons.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the idea of a Bible being “literal” and even of a word having a “literal” meaning. I just published a video on this topic on YouTube. What is the “literal” meaning of ἄγγελος? It doesn’t have one. It has a general idea of someone (or something) sent, but does it “literally” mean “messenger” or “angel”? No, but it depends totally on context. Note that I had to say “someone” and “something” (assuming demons are an “it” and not a “he” or “she”). I couldn’t even give a “literal” definition in this context.

In the context of James 2, ἄγγελος cannot “literally” mean “messenger,” even though that is the common translation. The two men didn’t go to the Promised Land as messengers; they went as spies. While concordance is an enviable goal (i.e., using the same English word for the same Greek word when possible), it can confuse and at worst miscommunicate.

So let me also ask you a question? Is “messengers” an “accurate” translation? It perhaps is the main gloss of ἄγγελος when referring to humans, but is translating “literally” (as some mistakenly say) also “accurate”? Of course not. In this case, I would argue that the lack of attention to context miscommunicates and is inaccurate.

Words have a semantic range, a “bundle of sticks” as I like to say. One or two of the sticks may be larger than the other and they become the glosses we memorize in first year Greek. But they are not the “literal” meaning of the word and all words must be translated in context. After all, meaning is largely determined by context.

If you disagree, try ignoring context and meaning, and translate ἄγγελος as “messengers” when the writer is referring to angelic or demonic beings, and “angels” of John’s disciples. Doesn’t work, does it?

Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek here.

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Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

  • Alan Wright 3 months ago

    Dr. Mounce,
    I would like to thank you for the “Mondays with Mounce” series. I look forward to it each week, and you have on more than one occasion caused me to think more deeply about a particular text or issue, which I count a great blessing.

    I very much agree with the gist of this article. The oversimplified concept of literalness is often a barrier to discussing, or even thinking about, a text.

    However, I do believe that “messengers” is a valid translation in the passage considered. It seems very likely to me that James chose the term “angelos” as the counterpart to the Hebrew “mal’ak” used in Josh. 6:17,25. The two terms are very similar in semantic range. Joshua is thinking of these two men in terms of the wonderful message of faith they had brought to Israel upon their return from spying out the land (rf. Josh. 2:23,24).

    Note: I apologize for the transliterations. This form does not appear to accept my Greek and Hebrew fonts.

  • Joe Rutherford 2 months ago

    I completly agree. Perhaps BDAG should expand the definitions a bit. A literal translation is one which reproduces precisely what was written in the original. The spies were spies. The spies were not messengers. The spies were angels because they were sent on a divine mission.