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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xvii. θιγγάνω, ἅπτομαι, ψηλαφάω.

An accurate synonymous distinction will sometimes cause us at once to reject as untenable some interpretation of Scripture, which might, but for this, have won a certain amount of allowance. Thus, many interpreters have explained Heb. 12:18: “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched” (ψηλαφωμένῳ ὄρει), by Ps. 104:32: “He toucheth the hills, and they smoke;” and call in aid the fact that, at the giving of the Law, God came down upon mount Sinai, which “was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it” (Exod. 19:18). But decisively forbidding this is the fact that ψηλαφάω never expresses the so handling of an object as to exercise a moulding, modifying influence upon it, but at most a feeling of its surface (Luke 24:39: 1 John 1:1); this, it may be, with the intention of learning its composition (Gen. 27:12, 21, 22); while not seldom it signifies no more than a feeling for or after an object, without any actual coming in contact with it at all. It continually expresses a groping in the dark (Job 5:14); or of the blind (Isai. 59:10; Gen. 27:12; Dent. 28:29; Judg. 16:26); tropically sometimes (Acts 17:27); compare Plato (Phoed. 99 b), ψηλαφῶντες ὥσπερ ἐν σκότει; Aristophanes, Pax, 691; Eccles. 315, and Philo, Quis Rer. Div. Hoer. 51. Nor does the ψηλαφώμενον ὄρος, to which reference was just made, the ‘mons palpabilis,’ or ‘tractabilis,’ as the Vulgate has it, mean anything else: ‘Ye are not come,’ the Apostle would say, ‘to any material mountain, like Sinai, capable of being touched and handled; not, in this sense, to the mountain that might be felt, but to the heavenly Jerusalem, to a νοητόν, not to an αἰσθητόν, ὄρος,’ Thus Knapp (Script, Var. Argum, p. 264): ‘Videlicet τὸ ψηλαφώμενον idem est, quod αἰσθητόν, vel quidquid sensu percipitur aut investigatur quovis modo; plane ut Tacitus (Ann. iii. 12) oculis contrectare dixit, nec dissimili ratione Cicero (Tusc. iii. 15) mente contrectare. Et Sina quidem mons ideo αἰσθητός appellatur, quia Sioni opponitur, quo in monte, quae sub sensus cadunt, non spectantur; sed ea tantum, quae mente atque animo percipi possunt, νοητά, πνευματικά, ἠθικά. Apposite ad h. l. Chrysostomus (Hom. 32 in Ep. ad Hebr.): πάντα τοίνυν τότε αἰσθητά, καὶ ὄψεις, καὶ φωναὶ· πάντα νοητὰ καὶ ἀόρατα νῦν.’

The so handling of any object as to exert a modifying influence upon it, the French ‘manier,’ as distinguished from ‘toucher,’ the German ‘betasten,’ as distinguished from ‘berühren,’ would be either ἅπτεσθαι1 or θιγγάνειν. These words may be sometimes exchanged the one for the other, as at Exod. 19:12 they are; and compare Aristotle, De Gen. et Corrupt. 1. 8, quoted by Lightfoot with other passages at Coloss. 2:21; but in the main the first is stronger than the second; ἅπτεσθαι (== ‘contrectare’) than θιγγάνειν (Ps. 104:15; 1 John 5:18), as appears plainly in a passage of Xenophon (Cyr. i. 3. 5), where the child Cyrus, rebuking his grandfather’s delicacies, says: ὅτι σε ὁρῶ, ὅταν μὲν τοῦ ἄρτου ἅψῃ, εἰς οὐδὲν τὴν χεῖρα ἀποψώμενον, ὅταν δὲ τούτων τινὸς θίγῃς, εὐθὺς ἀποκαθαιρῃ τὴν χεῖρα εἰς τὰ χειρόμακτρα, ὡς τάνυ ἀχθόμενος. It is, indeed, so much stronger that it can be used, which certainly θιγγάνειν could not, of the statuary’s shaping of his materials (Plutarch, Max. cum Principibus, 1); the self-conscious effort, which is sometimes present to this, being always absent from the other. Our Version, then, has exactly reversed the true order of the words, when, at Col. 2:21, it translates μὴ ἅψῃ, μηδέ γεύσῃ, μηδὲ θίγῃς, “Touch not, taste not, handle not.” The first and rest prohibitions should change places, and the passage read, “Handle not, taste not, touch not;” just as in the Latin Versions ‘tangere,’ which now stands for ἅπτεσθαι, and ‘attaminare,’ or ‘contrectare,’ for θιγεῖν, should be transposed. How much more vividly will then come out the ever ascending scale of superstitious prohibition among the false teachers at Colosse. To abstain from ‘handling’ is not sufficient; they forbid to ‘taste,’ and, lastly, even to ‘touch,’ those things from which, according to their notions, uncleanness might be contracted. Beza has noted this well: ‘Verbum θίγειν a verbo ἅπτεσθαι sic est distinguendum, ut decrescente semper oratione intelligatur crescere superstitio.’ The verb ψαύειν does not once occur in the N. T., nor in the Septuagint. There is, I may observe in conclusion, a very careful study on this group of words in Schmidt’s Synonymik, vol. i., pp. 224–243.


1 In the passage alluded to already, Ps. 104:32, the words of the Septuagint are, ὁ ἁπτόμενος τῶν ὀρέων καὶ καπνίζονται.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G2345,G5584,G680.]

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