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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xlvi. φῶς, φέγγος, φωστήρ, λύχνος, λαμπάς.

All these words are rendered, some occasionally, some always, in our Version, by ‘light’; thus, φῶς at Matt. 4:16; Rom. 13:12, and often; φέγγος at Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 11:33 (it does not occur again); φωστήρ at Phil. 2:15; Rev. 21:11 (where only it occurs); λύχνος at Matt. 6:22; John 5:35; 2 Pet. 1:19, and elsewhere; though this often by ‘candle’ (Matt, 5:15; Rev. 22:5); and λαμπὰς at Acts 20:8, though elsewhere rendered ‘lamp’ (Matt. 25:1; Rev. 8:10), and ‘torch’ (John 18:3).

The old grammarians distinguish between φῶς and φέγγος (which are but different forms of one and the same wordEtym. Note. 25), that φῶς is the light of the sun or of the day, φέγγος the light or lustre of the moon. The Attic writers, to whom this distinction must belong, if to any, themselves only imperfectly observe it. Thus, in Sophocles φέγγος is three or four times ascribed to the sun (Antig. 800; Ajax, 654, 840; Trachin. 597); while in Plato we meet φῶς σελήνης (Rep. vii. 516 b; cf. Isai. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7). This much right the grammarians have, that φέγγος is oftenest the light of the moon or other luminaries of the night, φῶς that of the sun or of the day; thus Plato (Rep. vi. 508 c) sets over against one another ἡμερινὸν φῶς and νυκτερινὰ φέγγη. This, like so many other finer distinctions of the Greek language, is so far observed in the N. T., that the light of the moon, on the only occasions that it is mentioned, is φέγγος (Matt. 24:19; Mark 12:24; cf. Joel 2:10; 3:15), as φῶς is that of the sun (Rev. 22:5). It will follow that φῶς, rather than φέγγος, is the true antithesis to σκότος (Plato, Rep. vii, 518 a; Matt. 6:23; 1 Pet. 2:9); and generally that the former will be the more absolute designation of light; thus Hab. 3:4: καὶ φέγγος αὐτοῦ [τοῦ Θεοῦ] ὡς φῶς ἒσται: compare Euripides, Helen. 530: φησὶ δ᾽ ἐν φάει πόσιν τὸν ἀμὸν ζῶντα φέγγος εἰσορᾶν. See Döderlein, Lat Synon. vol. ii. p. 69.

Φωστήρ is rendered ‘light’ in our Version; thus, at Phil. 2:15: “Among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (ὡς φωστῆρες ἐν κόσμῳ). It would be difficult to improve on this, which yet fails to mark with entire precision what St. Paul intends. The φωστῆρες here are the heavenly bodies, ‘luminaria’ (Vulg.), ‘Himmelslichter’ (De Wette), and mainly the sun and moon, the ‘lights,’ or ‘great lights’ (== ‘luces,’ Cicero, poet.), of which Moses speaks, Gen. 1:14, 16; where מְאֹרוֺת is rendered φωστῆρες in the Septuagint. Compare Ecclus. 43:7, where the moon is φωστήρ: and Wisd. 13:2, where φωστῆρες οὐρανοῦ is exactly equivalent to φωστῆρες ἐν κόσμῳ here, the κόσμος of this place being the material world, the στερέωμα or firmament, not the ethical world, which has been already expressed by the γενεὰ σκολιὰ καὶ διεστραμμένη. Nor would it be easy to improve on our version of Rev. 21:11: “Her light [ὁ φωστὴρ αὐτῆς] was like unto a stone most precious.” Our Translators did well in going back to this, Wiclif’s rendering, and in displacing “her shining, ” which had been admitted into the intermediate Versions, and which must have conveyed a wrong impression to the English reader. Not that the present rendering is altogether satisfactory, being itself not wholly unambiguous. Some may still be tempted to understand ‘her light’ as the light which the Heavenly City diffused; when, indeed, φωστήρ means, that which diffused light to the Heavenly City, her luminary or light- giver; ‘lumen ejus,’ as in the Vulgate. What this light-giver was, we learn from ver. 23: “the Lamb is the light thereof;” ὁ λύχνος αὐτῆς there being == ὁ φωστὴρ αὐτῆς here.

In rendering λύχνος and λαμπάς our Translators have scarcely made the most of the words at their command. Had they rendered λαμπάς by ‘torch,’ not once only (John 18:3), but always, this would have left ‘lamp,’ now wrongly appropriated by λαμπάς, disengaged. Altogether dismissing ‘candle,’ they might then have rendered λύχνος by ‘lamp’ wherever it occurs. At present there are so many occasions where ‘candle’ would manifestly be inappropriate, and where, therefore, they are obliged to fall back on ‘light,’ that the distinction between φῶς and λύχνος nearly, if not quite, disappears in our Version.

The advantages of such a re-distribution of the words would be many. In the first place, it would be more accurate. Λύχνος is not a ‘candle’ (‘candela,’ from ‘candeo,’ the white wax light, and then any kind of taper), but a hand-lamp, fed with oil. Neither is λαμπάς a ‘lamp,’ but a ‘torch,’ and this not only in the Attic, but in the later Hellenistic Greek as well (Polybius, iii. 93. 4; Herodian, iv. 2; Plutarch, Timol. 8; Alex. 38; Judg. 7:16; 15:4); and so, I believe, always in the N.T. In proof that at Rev. 8:10, λαμπάς should be translated ‘torch’ (‘Fackel,’ De Wette), see Aristotle, De Mund. 4. Our early translators, who rendered it ‘brand’ or ‘firebrand’ (John 18:4), showed that they understood the force of the word. It may be urged that in the parable of the Ten Virgins the λαμπάδες are nourished with oil, and must needs therefore be lamps. But this does not follow. In the East the torch, as well as the lamp, is fed in this manner: ‘The true Hindu way of lighting up is by torches held by men, who feed the flame with oil from a sort of bottle [the ἀγγεῖον of Matt. 25:4], constructed for the purpose’ (Elphinstone, Hist. of India, vol. i. p. 333).

More passages than one would gain in perspicuity by such a re-arrangement; and mainly through the clear distinction between φῶς and λύχνος, which would then be apparent. One of these is John 5:35: “He was a burning and a shining light, ”—so our Translation; but in the original, ἐκεῖνος ἦν ὁ λύχνος ὁ καιόμενος καὶ φαίνων; or, as the Vulgate has it: ‘Ille erat lucerna ardens et lucens;’ not obliterating, as we have done, the whole antithesis between Christ, the φῶς ἀληθινόν (John 1:8), φῶς ἐκ φωτός, that Eternal Light, which, as it was never kindled, so should never be quenched, and the Baptist, a lamp kindled by the hands of Another, in whose brightness men might for a season rejoice, and which must then be extinguished again. In the use of λύχνος here and at 2 Pet. 1:19, tacitly contrasted here with φῶς, and there avowedly with φωσφόρος, the same opposition is intended, only now transferred to the highest sphere of the spiritual world, which our poet had in his mind when he wrote those glorious lines:

‘Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund Day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G2985,G3088,G5338,G5457,G5458.]

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