New Testament Words and Verses
Luke 10:40, Distracted (περισπάω) with Much Serving
The purpose of this essay is to reflect on the way that a basic verb (σπάω), meaning to “draw one’s sword,” could add a preposition (περι) and expand itself into περισπάω and take on the connotation of “being distracted.” But, further, my interest is in understanding how the participial form of the verb περισπάω became associated with a circumflex accent on the last syllable of a Greek word and then enter into English as perispomenon, a word that tormented generations of prep school youth and college students who tried to learn Classical Greek. That’s a lot—so one step at a time.
Prep Schools and Colleges
Let’s begin with New England prep school and college Greek classes of the generation from about 1950-1980.
Teachers of Greek had to choose a textbook. The basic introductory grammar book used by thousands of aspiring Greek students in this era was Chase & Phillips, A New Introduction to Greek. This text, first issued in 1941, was authored by one teacher from Phillips Andover and one from Phillips Exeter Academies, after being proofed and approved by Harvard classics Professor Zeph Stewart, who happened to be the brother of Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Potter Stewart. These are the people who put their heart and soul into preparation of an introductory Greek grammar in those days.
The “Chase & Phillips” followed a long line of Greek grammars for teaching and reference purposes since about 1820 that had either been translated into English (usually from German) or initially published in English. Those books emerged from what is known as the “scientific grammar movement,” in which scholars confidently developed “rules” or discovered “laws” of Greek and Latin which could be described in 700 or so paragraphs of their books. Reading through some of these books could be excruciating, and Chase & Phillips, though directed at high school and college students, is no exception.
That Chase and Phillips were from Andover and Exeter meant that the book was intended in the first instance for schoolboys starting at age 15. Imagine you are a scared 15 year-old, living away from home for the first time and deciding, with the help of counselors, to start your journey into Classical Greek. You first learn the alphabet, in Lesson 1, but then in Lesson 2 you learn about accents. How would you at age 15 have reacted to this paragraph (from the seventh printing, of 1969, p 4)?
“A word bearing the acute on the ultima is known as an oxytone, one with the acute upon the penult as a paroxytone, one with the acute upon the antepenult as a proparoxytone. One which bears the circumflex upon the ultima is called a perispomenon, one with the circumflex upon the penult is a properispomenon [My insertion: Of course the student ought to know that there can be no circumflex on the antepenult]. These terms, though formidable, will save much laborious periphrasis.”
Of course, one certainly doesn’t want “laborious periphrasis”! Remember, this is page 4. Would you have continued with the course? At age 15?
From Perispomenon to σπάω to περισπάω
Well, the word perispomenon is derived from the Greek verb περισπάω, but it isn’t immediately apparent how περισπάω ends up, in his participial or adverbial form, meaning “circumflex on the ultima.” I can’t shed full light on it, but we can take a trip back to the New Testament and other ancient literature in understanding the vivid word σπάω and its “spawns.”
Actually σπάω is a verb with a definite meaning: to draw a sword. The forty-line entry in the big Liddell-Scott-Jones dictionary gives many passages in which it is so used. Its meaning can morph slightly into drawing a hand from another hand or, more violently, wrenching something away from someone else. There are some metaphorical meanings which the verb picked up, such as to “draw” breath or “draw tight” the reins of horses, but if you have the notion of “drawing” something, especially a sword, you will have the concept.
This was the only way the verb σπάω was used in the New Testament and the Septuagint. From the Gospel of Mark we have one of the people surrounding Jesus at his arrest drawing his sword (σπάω) and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant (Mark 14:47). We also have a jailor “drawing his sword” when Paul seemingly is set to escape from prison (Acts 16:27).
But the notion of drawing or dragging something out of something else or across something else is so suggestive that it led to the addition of various prefixes and the creation of several other verbs, among them:
ἀνασπάω, ἀποσπάω, διασπάω, ἐπισπάω, περισπάω.
Prepositions added to a basic stem can do all kinds of things to a word, and it is beyond my purpose to trace the meaning of each of these five verbs. Suffice it to say, for one of the five verbs, that διασπάω appears twice in the NT (Mark 5:4; Acts 23:10) and in both instances describes a violent action of tearing/drawing apart. For example, the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:4) had been bound with shackles and chains, but these were torn apart (διεσπάσθαι) by him because of his great strength.
The verb that catches our attention, however is περισπάω, a New Testament hapax legomenon which appears only in the passive voice (Luke 10:40). Its meaning in Classical Greek is “to draw off from around” or “strip off” and is usually focused on removing garments from around one’s body or shoulders. But then a figurative meaning arose when one took the concept of drawing off as the drawing away of attention or diverting attention from a person or a task. One might “divert" the barbarians from the fatherland or divert/distract the attention of listeners.
It is in this universe of “distracting” or “diverting attention” that the single appearance of περισπάω in the New Testament comes into focus. Jesus is visiting in the home of Martha and Mary. Mary wants to sit at his feet and imbibe all the lessons of the Master, but Martha couldn’t let herself just focus on that. She had to make preparations for this most important guest. The text says: ἡ δὲ Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν, or “Martha became distracted around all the service tasks.” Interestingly, though the verb never again appears in the NT, we have the rare appearance of the negative adverb ἀπερισπάστως, meaning “without distraction” in I Corinthians 7:35, used to emphasize a single-hearted devotion to the Lord.
Well, the lingering question is how does all of this relate to the circumflex accent? Beginning already in Classical antiquity, a few authors began to use the past participle of περισπάω, or περισπώμενον to stand for the circumflex on the ultima. Though I haven’t seen a convincing explanation of why this word was chosen, it appears to be that the prefix, “around” and the verb “drawn” could also be rendered “turned around,” which then describes the shape of the accent—something that is turned around or turned from the simple acute accent which was most prominent in the language at the time. περισπώμενον then was taken up into Latin as circumflectus, or something that is “bent around” or “turned around,” which led to the English circumflex.
So, from drawing swords, removing things by turning or going around, to a grammatical symbol that looks like it has been turned around, to the figurative meaning of the word as “drawn away” (attention), which leads to being distracted—so περισπάω has taken us on a journey of literal and figurative power.