What is a hapax legomenon?
Question: "What is a hapax legomenon? How do we know what hapax legomena mean?"
Answer: Hapax Legomenon (plural legomena) is a Greek term that literally means “being said once.” It has come to refer to a term that is used only once in a given context, whether it is the works of a particular author, a particular work of literature, or even within all the known writings of a particular language. The works of Shakespeare are estimated to contain thousands of hapax legomena, as about 6,500 words appear only once in all of Shakespeare’s poems and plays.
The Bible contains hundreds of hapax legomena, that is, words that only appear once in the Bible. However, the meaning of most of these terms is not in question because they are used in other Greek and Hebrew/Ancient Semitic literature. As always, context is important. If the meaning of the word is known from other ancient literature and that meaning fits the context of the biblical passage, then the word can be translated with a great deal of confidence.
Sometimes the scriptural context and the components of the word make the meaning clear without consulting other literature. For instance, the word parathalassios is a hapax legomenon, used in Matthew 4:13 and nowhere else in the New Testament. However, its translation is easy because the word is a compound made up of para, a preposition meaning “by” or “beside”; and thalassios, meaning “sea.” So parathalassios most likely means “beside the sea,” which fits the context perfectly because the verse is telling us where the city of Capernaum was located. It turns out that the city was located on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee.
The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts contain many hapax legomena, usually medical terms found in ancient Greek medical texts but that are exclusive to Luke’s writings in the Bible. Such terms are to be expected, since Luke was trained as a medical doctor. Examples include aphrou (“foams”) in Luke 9:39; hudropikos (“dropsy” in the ESV) in Luke 14:2; and heilkōmenos (“covered with sores”) in Luke 16:20. In his description of Jesus’ travail in Gethsemane, Luke uses three medical hapax legomena in Luke 22:44: agōnia (“agony”), hidrōs (“sweat”), and thromboi (“great drops” in the ESV).
There are only a small handful of words in the Bible that are completely unknown in other literature. There are about 400 such hapax legomena that appear in the Old Testament and about 25 in the New Testament. The numbers used to be much larger, but with new archeological discoveries, the list has been shrinking over the years. It is not unreasonable to think that one day the list may completely disappear.
Until more information can be brought to light, the context and the individual components of the remaining hapax legomena are used to arrive at the best translations possible given the knowledge that we have, and sometimes we cannot be completely certain. One well-known hapax legomenon in the New Testament is found in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3; and in the Didache). Although the word for “daily” is used in three different documents, it is only used in one context—in one line of the Lord’s Prayer—and is thus technically considered a hapax legomenon.
The Greek word translated “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer is epiousios, but we really don’t know exactly what it means. If the word is a compound, then it is made up of the preposition epi, which has a variety of meanings but usually has to do with the idea of “on” or “during.” The word ousious means “substance” or “being.” Epiousious is taken to mean “on [the day] being” or “daily.” The English word daily fits the context because bread was normally made fresh every day, before the advent of preservatives, and it would be sensible to pray for its provision every day. Other scholars think epiousios might refer to that “that which is necessary for existence,” which might even be spiritual bread.
Although there are a number of instances of hapax legomena in the Bible, none of them render the passages in which they are found unintelligible. Even if we cannot know the exact meaning of a word, we can usually arrive at several possibilities that make sense within the context. None of the hapax legomena should threaten our confidence in the Bible as God’s Word or our confidence that we can read and understand it.
Recommended Resource: How Biblical Languages Work: A Student’s Guide to Learning Hebrew & Greek by Peter Silzer & Thomas Finley
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Questions about the Bible
What is a hapax legomenon?