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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xl. αἰτέω, ἐρωτάω.

These words are often rendered by our Translators as though they covered the same spaces of meaning, the one as the other; nor can we object to their rendering, in numerous instances, αἰτεῖν and ἐρωτᾶν alike by our English ‘to ask.’ Yet sometimes they have a little marred the perspicuity of their translation by not varying their word, where the original has shown them the way. For example, the obliteration at John 16:23 of the distinction between αἰτεῖν and ἐρωτᾶν might easily suggest a wrong interpretation of the verse,—as though its two clauses were in near connexion, and direct antithesis,—being indeed in none. In our Version we read: “In that day ye shall ask Me nothing [ἐμὲ οὐκ ἐρωτήσετε οὐδέν]. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask [ὅσα ἂν αἰτήσητε] the Father in my name, He will give it you.” Now every one competent to judge is agreed, that “ye shall ask” of the first half of the verse has nothing to do with “ye shall ask” of the second; that in the first Christ is referring back to the ἤθελον αὐτὸν ἐρωτᾶν of ver. 19; to the questions which the disciples would fain have asked of Him, the perplexities which they would gladly have had resolved by Him, if only they dared to set these before Him. ‘In that day,’ He would say, ‘in the day of my seeing you again, I will by the Spirit so teach you all things, that ye shall be no longer perplexed, no longer wishing to ask Me questions (cf. John 21:12), if only you might venture to do so.’ Thus Lampe well: ‘Nova est promissio de plenissimâ cognitionis luce, quâ convenienter oeconomiae Novi Testamenti collustrandi essent. Nam sicut quaestio supponit inscitiam, ita qui nihil amplius quaerit abunde se edoctum existimat, et in doctrinâ plene expositâ ac intellectâ acquiescit.’ There is not in this verse a contrast drawn between asking the Son, which shall cease, and asking the Father, which shall begin; but the first half of the verse closes the declaration of one blessing, namely, that hereafter they shall be so taught by the Spirit as to have nothing further to inquire; the second half of the verse begins the declaration of a new blessing, that, whatever they shall seek from the Father in the Son’s name, He will give it them. Yet none will say that this is the impression which the English text conveys to his mind.

The distinction between the words is this. Αἰτέω, the Latin ‘peto,’ is more submissive and suppliant, indeed the constant word for the seeking of the inferior from the superior (Acts 12:20); of the beggar from him that should give alms (Acts 3:2); of the child from the parent (Matt. 7:9; Luke 6:11; Lam. 4:4); of the subject from the ruler (Ezra 8:22); of man from God (1 Kin. 3:11; Matt. 7:7; Jam. 1:5; 1 John 3:22; cf. Plato, Euthyph. 14: εὔχεσθαι [ἔστιν] αἰτεῖν τοὺς θεοὺς). Ἐρωτάω, on the other hand, is the Latin ‘rogo;’ or sometimes (as John 16:23; cf. Gen. 44:19) ‘interrogo,’ its only meaning in classical Greek, where it never signifies ‘to ask,’ but only ‘to interrogate,’ or ‘to inquire.’ Like ‘rogare, ’1 it implies that he who asks stands on a certain footing of equality with him from whom the boon is asked, as king with king (Luke 14:32), or, if not of equality, on such a footing of familiarity as lends authority to the request.

Thus it is very noteworthy, and witnesses for the singular accuracy in the employment of words, and in the record of that employment, which prevails throughout the N. T., that our Lord never uses αἰτεῖν or αἰτεῖσθαι of Himself, in respect of that which He seeks on behalf of his disciples from God; for his is not the petition of the creature to the Creator, but the request of the Son to the Father. The consciousness of his equal dignity, of his potent and prevailing intercession, speaks out in this, that often as He asks, or declares that He will ask, anything of the Father, it is always ἐρωτῶ, ἐρωτήσω, an asking, that is, as upon equal terms (John 14:16; 16:26; 17:9, 15, 20), never αἰτέω or αἰτήσω. Martha, on the contrary, plainly reveals her poor unworthy conception of his person, that she recognizes in Him no more than a prophet, when she ascribes that αἰτεῖσθαι to Him, which He never ascribes to Himself: ὅσα ἂν αἰτήσῃ τὸν Θεὸν, δώσει σοι ὁ Θεός, (John 11:22): on which verse Bengel observes: ‘Jesus, de se rogante loquens ἐδεήθην dicit (Luc. 22:32), et ἐρωτήσω, at nunquam αἰτοῦμαι. Non Graece locuta est Martha, sea tamen Johannes exprimit improprium ejus sermonem, quem. Dominus benigne tulit: nam αἰτεῖσθαι videtur verbum esse minus dignum:’ compare his note on 1 John 5:16.

It will follow that the ἐρωτᾶν, being thus proper for Christ, inasmuch as it has authority in it, is not proper for us; and in no single instance is it used in the N. T. to express the prayer of man to God, of the creature to the Creator. The only passage seeming to contradict this assertion is 1 John 5:16. The verse is difficult, but whichever of the various ways of overcoming its difficulty may find favour, it will be found to constitute no true exception to the rule, and perhaps, in the substitution of ἐρωτήσῃ for the αἰτήσει of the earlier clause of the verse, will rather confirm it.


1 Thus Cicero (Planc. x. 25): ‘Neque enim ego sic rogabam, ut petere viderer, quia familiaris esset meus.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G154,G2065.]

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