Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, July 28

What's a "myriad"?

This is one of the more interesting words in Greek, partly because it is so hard to translate.

BDAG says μυριάς can mean, "a group/collective of 10,000, myriad," but it can also mean, "a very large number, not precisely defined, pl. myriads."

It is this second meaning that is most interesting. Basically, it means a "gajillion." Or perhaps a "bajillion." What slang do you use? A gajillion means lots and lots and lots, with no specific number in view.

μυριάς occurs eight times in the New Testament. The Ephesians burned magic books worth "fifty thousand pieces of silver (ἀργυρίου μυριάδας πέντε)" (Acts 19:19). That is an easy translation.

But how do you translate μυριάς elsewhere. Even the more formal equivalent translations struggle with this one.

Luke 12:1 (cf. also Acts 21:20), μυριάδων τοῦ ὄχλου. "Crowd of many thousands had gathered" (NIV). "So many thousands of the people" (ESV).

Heb 12:22, μυριάσιν ἀγγέλων. "You have come to thousands upon thousands of angel" (NIV). "Innumerable angels" (ESV, NRSV). "Countless thousands of angels" (NLT). NASB/NET went with, "myriads of angels."

Jude 14, ἁγίαις μυριάσιν αὐτοῦ. "See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones" (NIV). "Many thousands of His holy ones" (NASB). Interestingly, the NRSV says: "See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones." I assume the final "s" on "thousands" still makes the number indefinite (also ESV).

Revelation 9:16 is a little more challenging: "The number of the mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand (δισμυριάδες μυριάδων)" (NIV). Note the compound δισμυριάδες.

Most inexact is Revelation 5:11. "Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands (χιλιάδες χιλιάδων), and ten thousand times ten thousand (μυριάδες μυριάδων)" (NIV).

What a great word. It is by definition indefinite, but its meaning is clear. This is one of those times you can't go word for word, unless you think that "myriad" is understandable English.

The Lord has a bajillion angels. I wonder where they all came from?


In Australia, we would normally use "zillion".

Why wouldn't myriad be understandable English? :) Even if it weren't commonplace, a quick Google search or dictionary look-up would do.

The argument is that it is not used in English apart from the Bible.

Actually, I think that the word myriad entered English in 1555... Shakespeare perhaps?

The concept of a myriad actually was used to designate an Achaemenid Persian military unit of 10,000 men. The Persians were organized on a decimal system with ten men forming a squad under a daθapati; ten squads made up a company of 100 under a θatapati; ten companies formed a battalion of 1000 under a hazarapati; and ten battalions made up a division of 10,000 under a *baivarapati. As far as I know, the ancient Greeks did not use a myriad as a unit in their armies. Ancient and Hellenistic Greek military organizations basically stopped at the phalanx of 9000 men which was decidedly not based on a decimal system. The army of Alexander the Great formed the basis for all Hellenistic armies up until the attempted reforms of Mithradates VI, Antiochus IV and perhaps Pyrrhus of Epirus (all of which were failed efforts to counter the flexibility of the Roman military structure which was completely different yet again). Alexander's infantry was organized like this: a lochos consisted of 16 men and was commanded by a lochagos. 16 lochoi made up a syntagma of 256 men commanded by a syntagmatarch. Six syntagmata formed a taxis of 1,500 men commanded by a strategos. Six taxeis formed a phalanx of 9000 under a phalangiarch. To the Greeks, the huge armies of the Persian Empire were uncountable, which perhaps is the origin of the concept of using myriad to denote an uncountable number. The concept of myriad probably was invented by the ancient Indians and transmitted to Greece via Persia (or even earlier via trade between the Meluha culture and Sumer thence Phoenicia thence Archaic Greece). I'll bet that if you look hard enough, you will find that the word myriad is a loan word from ancient Persian (although I have not found anyone else who says this). And that may be why it is so hard to translate...

Thanks, people, for this discussion. I'm going to use it in my 7th grade math class, where they're doing things like multiplying very big numbers with lots of zeroes. I like to throw in history, Bible, and Greek letters when I can.