New Testament Words and Verses
ἀνωφελής, Anopheles, “unprofitable/useless”
The New Testament’s vocabulary is relatively small but sometimes, especially in the more literarily-inclined writings such as Hebrews or Acts or occasional passages in Paul, we are surprised by the beauty or elevation of the language. The appearance of ἀνωφελής in Hebrews 7:18 invites us not only into the world of Hebrews’ unique and sophisticated theology, but into a family of related words having to do with uselessness or unprofitability. In addition, the term for today has been taken over in the binomial nomenclature system to describe a certain kind of especially harmful mosquito which can transmit human malaria. One might wonder why the word ἀνωφελής is used to describe such a mosquito when the word ἀνωφελής doesn’t mean useless but very damaging. Did the original namers of the anopheles mosquito make a mistake in Greek usage? All of these questions are implicated by this little word.
First, on theology. The word ἀνωφελής in the sense of “unprofitable” or “useless” appears 2x in the New Testament, but in Hebrews its meaning is quite sharp. It is used to contrast the utility and power of the priesthood of Christ with the weakness (ἀσθενὲς) and unprofitability or inutility (ἀνωφελής) of the Jewish law (7:18). What is striking is that already near the end of the first century CE the early Christians sensed the most vulnerable point of their argument: the uselessness of the Jewish law. They had to argue its ineffectuality, even though an argument might have been made that it had functioned for more than 1000 years to build a community pretty effectively.
The word appears one other time in the NT, in a dispute rather than theological context, though its close connection with the Jewish law may hint at a dependence on Hebrews. Titus 3:9 urges the reader to “avoid” (the rare verb περιΐστημι, literally to “stand around/turn around to avoid”) four kinds of things: “foolish controversies, genealogies, arguments, and quarrels about the law” (μάχας νομικὰς). These quarrels are ἀνωφελεῖς (“useless/unprofitable”) and μάταιοι (“foolish”). The word ἀνωφελής appears a handful of times in the LXX, where it points to the uselessness of idols (Is 44:10; Jer. 2:8) or grumbling (Wi. 1:11) or even the rain. Prov 28:3 says, “A bold man blackmails the poor with impious acts, like a violent/boisterous and useless (ἀνωφελής) rain.”
Both the New Testament and the LXX have a few synonyms for ἀνωφελής that deserve mention. ἀλυσιτελὲς is a New Testament hapax (it is also absent from the LXX), appearing in Heb. 13:17 and best translated “unprofitable.” The positive form of the verb is λυσιτελεω, “to be advantageous” or “profitable” and appears frequently in Classical Greek as well as a few times in the LXX (Sir. 20:10; Tob. 3:6). Other terms for something disadvantageous or unprofitable are ασύμφορος (Prov. 25:20), άχρηστος (Hos. 8:8; Wi. 3:11), and αχρείος (II Ki. 6:22). While one often thinks about Biblical faith as emphasizing things that are good or bad, right or wrong, one might reflect on the possibilities of using the vocabulary of profitability or inutility to anchor a contemporary ethical theory.
Finally, I consider the issue of why the Anopheles mosquito is so named when we know it as probably the most harmful (and not useless) of mosquitoes. The big Liddell-Scott Greek dictionary does have a reference or two where ἀνωφελής might be rendered “harmful” or “prejudicial,” but this is rare and definitely didn’t catch on in antiquity. The mosquito was so named by JW Meigen in 1818, though his name is usually associated with the description of Diptera. But one point that seems relevant is that when Meigen named the mosquito as Anopheles in 1818, its malaria-causing properties were unknown. Not until the summer of 1897 did Ronald Ross make his breakthrough discovery that enabled him to demonstrate the role of the Anopheles mosquito in the transmission of malaria parasites in humans. In 1818, when it was named, it was “useless,” as befit its name. It wasn’t discovered as harmful for nearly 80 years thereafter.
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