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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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lxxix. ἀγράμματος, ἰδιώτης.

These words occur together Acts 4:13; ἀγράμματος nowhere else in the N. T., but ἰδιώτης on four other occasions (1 Cor. 14:16, 23, 24; 2 Cor. 11:6). Where found together we must conclude that, according to the natural rhetoric of human speech, the second word is stronger than, and adds something to, the first; thus our Translators have evidently understood them, rendering ἀγράμματος ‘unlearned,’ and ἰδιώτης ‘ignorant’; and so Bengel: ‘ἀγράμματος est rudis, ἰδιώτης rudior.’

When we seek more accurately to distinguish them, and to detect the exact notion which each conveys, ἀγράμματος need not occupy us long. It corresponds exactly to our ‘illiterate’ (γράμματα μὴ μεμαθηκώς, John 7:15; Acts 26:24; 2 Tim. 3:15); being joined by Plato with ὄρευις, rugged as the mountaineer (Crit. 109 d), with ἄμουσος (Tim. 23 b); by Plutarch set over against the μεμουσωμένος (Adv. Col. 26).

But ἰδιώτης is a word of far wider range, of uses far more complex and subtle. Its primary idea, the point from which, so to speak, etymologically it starts, is that of the private man, occupying himself with his own things (τὰ ἴδια), as contrasted with the political; the man unclothed with office, as set over against and distinguished from him who bears some office in the state. But lying as it did very deep in the Greek mind, being one of the strongest convictions there, that in public life the true education of the man and the citizen consisted, it could not fail that the word should presently be tinged with something of contempt and scorn. The ἰδιώτης, staying at home while others were facing honorable toil, οἰκουρός, as Plutarch calls him (Phil. cum Princip.), a ‘house-dove,’ as our ancestors slightingly named him, unexercised in business, unaccustomed to deal with his fellow-men, is unpractical; and thus the word is joined with ἀπράγμων by Plato (Rep. x. 620 c; cf. Plutarch, De Virt. et Vit. 4), with ἄπρακτος by Plutarch (Phil. cum Princ. 1), who sets him over against the πολιτικὸς καὶ πρακτικός. But more than this, he is often boorish, and thus ἰδιώτης is linked with ἄγροικος (Chrysostom, in 1 Ep. Cor. Hom. 3), with ἀπαίδευτος (Plutarch, Arist. et Men. Comp. 1), and other words such as these.1

The history of ἰδιώτης by no means stops here, though we have followed it as far as is absolutely necessary to explain its association (Acts 4:13) with ἀγράμματος, and the points of likeness and difference between them. But to explain why St. Paul should employ it at 1 Cor. 14:16, 23, 24, and exactly in what sense, it may be well to pursue this history a little further. There is a singular feature in the use of ἰδιώτης which, though not very easy to describe, a few examples will at once make intelligible. There lies continually in it a negation of that particular skill, knowledge, profession, or standing, over against which it is antithetically set, and not of any other except that alone. For example, is the ἰδιώτης set over against the δημιουργός (as by Plato, Theag. 124 c), he is the unskilled man as set over against the skilled artificer; any other dexterity he may possess, but that of the δημιουργός is denied him. Is he set over against the ἰατρός, he is one ignorant of the physician’s art (Plato, Rep. iii. 389 b; Philo, De Conf. Ling. 7); against the σοφιστής, he is one unacquainted with the dialectic fence of the sophists (Xenophon, De Venat. 13; cf. Hiero, i. 2; Lucian, Pisc. 34; Plutarch, Symp. iv. 2. 3); against the φιλόλογος (Sextus Empiricus, adv. Grammat. § 235), he has no interest in the earnest studies which occupy the other; prose writers are ἰδιῶται as contrasted with poets. Those unpractised in gymnastic exercises are ἰδιῶται as contrasted with the ἀθληταί (Xenophon, Hiero, iv. 6; Philo, De Sept. 6); subjects as contrasted with their prince (De Abrah. 33); the underlings in the harvest-field are ἰδιῶται καὶ ὑπηρέται as distinguished from the ἡγεμόνες (De Somm. ii. 4); the weak are ἰδιῶται, ἄποροι and ἄδοξοι being qualitative adjectives, as contrasted with the strong (Philo, De Creat. Princ. 5; cf. Plutarch, De Imper. Apophth. 1); and lastly, the whole congregation of Israel are ἰδιῶται as set over against the priests (De Vit. Mos. iii. 29). With these examples of the word’s use to assist us, we can come to no other conclusion than that the ἰδιῶται of St. Paul (1 Cor. 14:16, 23, 24) are the plain believers, with no special spiritual gifts, as distinguished from such as were possessed of such; even as elsewhere they are the lay members of the Church as contrasted with those who minister in the Word and Sacraments; for it is ever the word with which ἰδιώτης is at once combined and contrasted that determines its meaning.

For the matter immediately before us it will be sufficient to say that when the Pharisees recognized Peter and John as men ἀγράμματοι καὶ ἰδιῶται, in the first word they expressed more the absence in them of book-learning, and, confining as they would have done this to the Old Testament, the ἱερὰ γράμματα, and to the glosses of their own doctors upon these, their lack of acquaintance with such lore as St. Paul had learned at the feet of Gamaliel; in the second their want of that education which men insensibly acquire by mingling with those who have important affairs to transact, and by taking their own share in the transaction of such. Setting aside that higher training of the heart and the intellect which is obtained by direct communion with God and his truth, no doubt books and public life, literature and politics, are the two most effectual organs of mental and moral training which the world has at its command—the second, as needs hardly be said, immeasurably more effectual than the first. He is ἀγράμματος who has not shared in the first, ἰδιώτης who has had no part in the second.


1 There is an excellent discussion on the successive meanings of ἰδιώτης in Bishop Horsley’s Tracts in Controversy with Dr. Priestley, Appendix, Disquisition Second, pp. 475–485. Our English ‘idiot’ has also an instructive history. This quotation from Jeremy Taylor (Dissuasive from Popery, part ii. b. i. § 1) will show how it was used two hundred years ago: ‘S. Austin affirmed that the plain places of Scripture are sufficient to all laics, and all idiots or private persons.’ See my Select Glossary s. v. for other examples of the same use of the word.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G2399,G62.]

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