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Monday, September 25

What is the “Literal” Meaning of ἄγγελος? (James 2:25)

In James 2:25 we read, “Was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she took in the spies (ἀγγέλους) and sent them out by another way?”

BDAG defines ἄγγελος as referring to both humans and divine powers.

  1. a human messenger serving as an envoy, an envoy, one who is sent
  2. a transcendent power who carries out various missions or tasks, messenger, angel

Under #1 they list Luke 9:25 (human messengers going before Jesus), Luke 7:24 (John’s disciples), prophets (specifically John the Baptist, Mt 11:10; Mk 1:2; Lk 7:27), and our passage.

Under #2 they list angels and demons.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the idea of a Bible being “literal” and even of a word having a “literal” meaning. I just published a video on this topic on YouTube. What is the “literal” meaning of ἄγγελος? It doesn’t have one. It has a general idea of someone (or something) sent, but does it “literally” mean “messenger” or “angel”? No, but it depends totally on context. Note that I had to say “someone” and “something” (assuming demons are an “it” and not a “he” or “she”). I couldn’t even give a “literal” definition in this context.

In the context of James 2, ἄγγελος cannot “literally” mean “messenger,” even though that is the common translation. The two men didn’t go to the Promised Land as messengers; they went as spies. While concordance is an enviable goal (i.e., using the same English word for the same Greek word when possible), it can confuse and at worse miscommunicate.

So let me also ask you a question? Is “messengers” an “accurate” translation? It perhaps is the main gloss of ἄγγελος when referring to humans, but is translating “literally” (as some mistakenly say) also “accurate”? Of course not. In this case, I would argue that the lack of attention to context miscommunicates and is inaccurate.

Words have a semantic range, a “bundle of sticks” as I like to say. One or two of the sticks may be larger than the other and they become the glosses we memorize in first year Greek. But they are not the “literal” meaning of the word and all words must be translated in context. After all, meaning is largely determined by context.

If you disagree, try ignoring context and meaning, and translate ἄγγελος as “messengers” when the writer is referring to angelic or demonic beings, and “angels” of John’s disciples. Doesn’t work, does it?


Hello! Would you say then that "One that is sent, generally with a message" is the literal meaning of the word? Maybe a word for word ancient greek to modern english literal translation is not possible. But I think that the words do still have literal meanings, even if we can't directly represent the ancient (or modern) greek word with an english word. Thank you for what you do, sir! -David

But here is the problem. You missed the nuance of "authority," and note also that you used a phrase to define a word, which will never work in translation. So what would someone mean byu "literal"? There certainly was a set of basic ideas in the mind of the ancient hearer, but that is not what people mean when they use the word "literal."

Then perhaps, the word doesn't mean "messenger" so much as "agent". Maybe, we should increase it's linguistic range a bit. :)

I like the way another gentleman put it. He said words don't have meaning; they have usage. It is hard for me to believe how many SCHOLARS still say, "Word X literally means..." Do you think it is more acceptable to say that the ROOT idea of this word is XYZ?

It is not so much the scholars and the Bible publishers. You will not that the NIV NEVER says "literally." I like the idea of usage, but as long as by "XYZ" you mean a series of uysages.

Excellent article. I have seen in the Spanish language how serious errors have been made in this matter of literal meaning. These articles are very good, and make us consider that all words should (must) be translated in context. Dr. Mounce, do you authorize me to translate part of this article into Spanish ?, giving credit to your work. There are many students who need to consider articles like this. Greetings.

You are more than welcome to use it.

You are more than welcome to use it.

Dr. M., This is a relevant topic for sure! As a Pastor-Teacher, I am constantly correcting the idea that one can look up a word in Greek and find the 'real' meaning! The availability of the Greek Text with the touch of a screen has certainly increased this problem. I continually remind people in sermons, conversations and studies, that words in Greek and English have a range of 'usages', I like this verbiage! Our Saturday morning group often mimics me in fun, "context, context determines meaning." Thanks for the insightful post. Tim

The importance of usage came home to me years ago when someone pointed out that a certain dictionary had 32 meanings for the word "run." Context makes a lot of difference. Sometimes that becomes clear when you read Scripture out loud, because even a change of tone can imply a change in meaning.

Because a word has a large linguistic range does that mean that the word doesn't have a literal meaning for that it has multiple literal meanings? Still thinking about this.

Could it be that, at least in the case of angellos in these verses, the basic idea that is being communicated by the word is the idea of "one who is sent by another"? Then looking at the context you could derive for what purpose and in what capacity they were being sent by another. Such as a "spy" being "one who is sent by another" for the purpose of information gathering; or, as in the case of angels, "one who is sent by another" for the purpose of carrying a message? Understanding though that words sometimes have very different meanings depending on the context (like the word "field" in English). But could it be the case with angellos?

I would translate the word as "Official Commissioner". I'd been looking for the word "message" on the NT and OT, to associate it with ἄγγελος and the most I got is the verb ἀπαγγέλλω associated more with a "report" than with a "message". In OT I found a word closely related: ַמְלָאכוּת only appearing on Hagg.1:13, which conveys more with a "commision" than a message even if some versions translate it the other way. The word ַמְלַאךּ / ἄγγελος (in LXX) is used in Josh.6:17 about the spies. It is on Heb.11:31 where this word κατάσκοπος (spies) is used, which means there is a specific word for that which it's not ἄγγελος. I think probably that is the reason why Heb.1:7 says: Ὁ ποιῶν τοὺς ἀγγέλους αὐτοῦ πνεύματα, καὶ τοὺς λειτουργοὺς αὐτοῦ πυρὸς φλόγα· If his ἄγγελοι (angels) are supposily spiritual beings, that meaning ("angels") implies a redundancy.