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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xci. τέρας, σημεῖον, δύναμις, μεγαλεῖον, ἔνδοξον, παράδοξον, θαυμάσιον.

These words have this in common, that they are all used to characterize the supernatural works wrought by Christ in the days of his flesh; thus σημεῖον, John 2:11; Acts 2:19; τέρας, Acts 2:22; John 4:48; δύναμις, Mark 6:2; Acts 2:22; μεγαλεῖον, Luke 1:49; ἔνδοξον, Luke 13:17; παράδοξον, Luke 5:26; θαυμάσιον, Matt. 21:15; while the first three and the most usual are in like manner employed of the same supernatural works wrought in the power of Christ by his Apostles (2 Cor. 12:12); and of the lying miracles of Antichrist no less (2 Thess. 2:11). They will be found, on closer examination, not so much to represent different kinds of miracles, as miracles contemplated under different aspects and from different points of view.

Τέρας and σημεῖον are often linked together in the N. T. (John 4:48; Acts 2:22; 4:30; 2 Cor. 12:12); and times out of number in the Septuagint (Exod. 7:3, 9; Deut. 4:34; Neh. 9:10; Dan. 6:27); the first == מוֹפֵת, and the second == אוֹת; often also in profane Greek, in Josephus (Antt. xx. 8. 6; Bell. Jud. Proëm. 11); in Plutarch (Sep. Sap. Con. 3); in Polybius (iii. 112. 8); in Philo (De Vit. Mos. i. 16); and in others. The ancients were fond of drawing a distinction between them, which however will not bear a moment’s serious examination. It is sufficiently expressed in these words of Ammonius: τέρας σημεῖου διαφέρει· τὸ μὲν γὰρ τέρας παρὰ φύσιν γίνεται, τὸ δὲ σημεῖον παρὰ συνήθειαν; and again by Theophylact (in Rom. xv. 19): διαφέρει δὲ σημεῖον καὶ τέρας τῷ τὸ μὲν σημεῖον ἐν τοῖς κατὰ φύσιν λέγεσθαι, καινοπρεπῶς μέντοι γινομένοις, οἷον ἐπὶ τοῦ τὸ τὴν πενθερὰν Πέτρου πυρέττουσαν εὐθέως ἰαθῆναι [Matt. 8:15], τὸ δὲ τέρας ἐν τοῖς μὴ κατὰ φύσιν, οἷον τὸ τὸν ἐκ γενετῆς τυφλὸν ἰαθῆναι [John 9:7]; compare Suicer, Thes. s. v. σημεῖον. But in truth this distinction breaks down so entirely the instant it is examined, as Fritzsche, in a good note on Rom. 15:19, has superabundantly shown, that it is difficult to understand how so many, by repeating, have given allowance to it. An earthquake, however rare, cannot be esteemed παρὰ φύσιν, cannot therefore, according to the distinction traced above, be called a τέρας, while yet Herodotus (vi. 98) gives this name to the single earthquake which in his experience had visited Delos. As little can a serpent snatched up in an eagle’s talons and dropped in the midst of the Trojan army be called beyond and beside nature, which yet Homer (Il. xii. 209) calls Διὸς τέρας αἰγιόχοιο. I may observe that the Homeric idea of the τέρας is carefully discussed by Nägelsbach, Homerische Theologie, p. 168, sqq. On the other hand, beyond and beside nature are the healing with a word of a man lame from his mother’s womb, the satisfying of many thousand men with a few loaves, the raising of a man four days dead from the grave, which all in Scripture go by the name of σημεῖα (Acts 4:16; John 6:14; 11:47); compare Plutarch, Sept. Sap. Con. 3, where a monstrous birth is styled both a τέρας and a σημεῖον.

It is plain then that the distinction must be sought elsewhere. Origen has not seized it, who finds a prophetic element in the σημεῖον, which is wanting in the τέρας (in Rom. 15:19): ‘Signa [σημεῖα] appellantur in quibus cum sit aliquid mirabile, indicatur quoque aliquid futurum. Prodigia [τέρατα] vero in quibus tantummodo aliquid mirabile ostenditur.’ Rather the same miracle is upon one side a τέρας, on another a σημεῖον, and the words most often refer, not to different classes of miracles, but to different qualities in the same miracles; in the words of Lampe (Comm. in Joh. vol. i. p. 513): ‘Eadem enim miracula dici possunt signa, quatenus aliquid sen occultum sen futurum docent; et prodigia, quatenus aliquid extraordinarium, quod stuporem excitat, sistunt. Hinc sequitur signorum notionem latins patere, quam prodigiorum. Omnia prodigia sunt signa, quid in illum usum à Deo dispensata, ut arcanum indicent. Sed omnia signa non sunt prodigia, quid ad signandum res caelestes aliquando etiam res communes adhibentur.’

Τέρας, certainly not derived from τρέω, the terrifying, but now put generally in connexion with τηρέω, as being that which for its extraordinary character is wont to be observed and kept in the memory, is always rendered ‘wonder’ in our Version. It is the miracle regarded as a startling, imposing, amazement-wakening portent or prodigy; being elsewhere frequently used for strange appearances in the heavens, and more frequently still for monstrous births on the earth (Herodotus, vii. 57; Plato, Crat. 393 b). It is thus used very much with the same meaning as the Latin “menstrum”1 == monestrum (Virgil, aen. ii. 171: ‘Nec dubiis ea signa dedit Tritonia monstris’), or the Homeric σῆμα (Il. ii. 308: ἔνθ᾽ ἐφάνη μέγα σῆμα δράκων, ). Origen (in Joh. tom. xiii. § 60; in Rom. lib. x. § 12) long ago called attention to the fact that the name τέρατα is never in the N. T. applied to these words of wonder, except in association with some other name. They are often called σημεῖα, often δυνάμεις, often τέρατα καὶ σημεῖα, more than once τέρατα, σημεῖα, καὶ δυνάμεις, but never τέρατα alone. The observation was well worth the making; for the fact which we are thus bidden to note is indeed eminently characteristic of the miracles of the N. T.; namely, that a title, by which more than any other these might seem to hold on to the prodigies and portents of the heathen world, and to have something akin to them, should thus never be permitted to appear, except in the company of some other necessarily suggesting higher thoughts about them.

But the miracles are also σημεῖα. The σημεῖον Basil the Great (in Esai. vii. § 198) defines well: ἔστι σημεῖον πρᾶγμα φανερόν, κεκρυμμένου τινὸς καὶ ἀφανοῦς ἐν ἑαυτῷ τὴν δήλωσιν ἔχον: and presently after, ἡ μέντοι Γραφὴ τὰ παράδοξα, καὶ παραστατικά τινος μυστικοῦ λόγου σημεῖα καλεῖ. Among all the names which the miracles bear, their ethical end and purpose comes out in σημεῖον with the most distinctness, as in τέρας with the least. It is involved and declared in the very word that the prime object and end of the miracle is to lead us to something out of and beyond itself; that, so to speak, it is a kind of finger-post of God (διοσημεία, signs from Zeus, is nounfrequent word in later Greek), pointing for us to this (Isai. 7:11; 38:7); valuable, not so much for what it is, as for what it indicates of the grace and power of the doer, or of his immediate connexion with a higher spiritual world (Mark 16:20; Acts 14:3; Heb. 2:4; Exod. 7:9, 10; 1 Kin. 13:3). Lampe has put this well: ‘Designat sane σημεῖον naturâ suâ rem non tautum extraordinariam, sensusque percellentem, sed etiam talem, quae in rei alterius, absentis licet et futurae, significationem atque adumbrationem adhibetur, unde et prognostica (Matt. 16:3) et typi (Matt. 12:39; Luc. 11:29) nec non sacramenta, quale est illud circumcisionis (Rom. 4:11), eodem nomine in N. T. exprimi soleht. Aptissime ergo haec vox de miraculis usurpatur, ut indicet, quod non tantum admirabili modo fuerint perpetrata, sed etiam sapientissimo consilio Dei ira directa atque ordinata, ut fuerint simul characteres Messiae, ex quibus cognoscendus erat, sigilla doctrinae quam proferebat, et beneficiorum gratiae per Messiam jam praestandae, nec non typi viarum Dei, earumque circumstantiarum per quas talia beneficia erant applicanda.’ It is to be regretted that σημεῖον is not always rendered ‘sign’ in our Version; that in the Gospel of St. John, where it is of very frequent recurrence, ‘sign’ too often gives place to the vaguer ‘miracle’; and sometimes not without serious loss: thus see 3:2; 7:31; 10:41; and above all, 6:26.

But the miracles are also ‘powers’ (δυνάμεις == ‘virtutes’), outcomings of that mighty power of God, which was irherent in Christ, Himself that “great Power of God” which Simon blasphemously allowed himself to be named (Acts 8:8, 10); these powers being by Him lent to those who were his witnesses and ambassadors. One must regret that in our Version δυνάμεις is translated now “wonderful works” (Matt. 7:22); now “mighty works” (Matt. 11:20; Luke 10:13); and still more frequently ‘miracles’ (Acts 2:22; 1 Cor. 12:10; Gal. 3:5); in this last case giving such tautologies as “miracles and wonders” (Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:4); and always causing something to be lost of the true intention of the word—pointing as it does to new and higher forces (ἐνέργειαι, ἐνεργήματα, 1 Cor. 12:6, 10), ‘powers of the world to come’ (Heb. 6:5), which have entered and are working in this lower world of ours. Delitzsch: ‘Jedes Wunder ist eine Machtäusserung der in die Welt der Schöpfung, welche dem Tode verfallen ist, eintretenden Welt der Erlösung.’ With this is closely connected the term μεγαλεῖα, only occurring at Luke 1:49 (== ‘magnalia’) and at Acts 2:11, in which, as in δυνάμεις, the miracles are contemplated as outcomings of the greatness of God’s power and glory.

They are further styled ἔνδοξα (Luke 13:17), as being works in which the δόξα or glory of God and of the Son of God shone manifestly forth (John 2:11; 11:40; Luke 5:25; Acts 1:13, 16). They are ταράδοξα (Luke 5:26), as being “new things” (Num. 16:30), not hitherto seen (Mark 2:12), and thus beside and beyond all opinion and expectation of men. The word, though finding place only this once in the N. T., is of very frequent occurrence in ecclesiastical Greek. They are θαυμάσια (Matt. 21:15), as provoking admiration and astonishment (8:27; 9:8, 33; 15:31; Mark 5:20; Acts 3:11). Θαύματα they are never called in the N. T., though often in the writings of the Greek Fathers. A word which conjurers, magicians, and impostors of various kinds had so long made their own could only after a while be put to nobler uses again.


1 On the similar group of synonymous words in the Latin, Augustine writes (De Civ. Dei, xxi. 8): ‘Monstra sane dicta perhibent a menstrando, qued aliquid significando demonstrant, et ostenta ab ostendendo, et portenta a portendeudo, id est, praeostendendo, et prodigia qued perro dicant, id est, futura praedicant.’ Compare Cicero, Divin. i. 42.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1411,G1741,G2297,G3167,G3861,G4592,G5059.]

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