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New Testament Words and Verses
Ephesians 4:12, 16 and Medical Terminology

It is well-known that the leading theoretician and practitioner of medicine in the century after the writing of the New Testament was Galen.  He hailed from Asia Minor and was active both at the Imperial Court as well as in the treatment of people of lesser note. So voluminous are his writings (many of them still remain untranslated into English) that one scholar has estimated his literary output alone was 1/10 of all extant Greek literature until the third century CE. What has not really been much noted, however, is that some of the medical terminology that plays such a major role in his work had already been used—in the New Testament.  And, the burden of this essay is to show that a few significant medical terms come from a letter written just a generation or so before Galen’s birth and that the recipients lived fewer than 100 miles from where Galen lived most of his life (I am speaking of the Letter to the Ephesians and the City of Pergamum).


                             Getting Our Bearings on Medical Terms and the New Testament


Ever since W K Hobart wrote The Medical Language of St Luke more than a century ago (1882), a lot of effort has gone in to exploring his hypothesis on the Gospel of Luke (i.e., that it contained more than its share of ancient medical terminology principally because it was written by “Luke the Physician,” the traveling companion of Paul—e.g., Col. 4:14). Even though the theory seemed decisively to have been debunked by Henry Cadbury about a century ago, many eager students of the Bible continue liberally to quote and use Hobart.  All this emphasis on Luke the physician and his language has tended to obscure what, to my mind, is the really interesting use of medical terminology in the New Testament—in the case where the authors (Paul and his school) describe the workings of the Church as the “body” of Christ.


That is, I argue here that in thinking through ways to try to characterize this unique and powerful doctrine of the Church as Christ’s body, the authors naturally came upon terminology that was generically in use in the Hellenistic era to describe not simply parts of the body but especially the process of healing of the body. The rest of this essay will be largely devoted to Ephesians 4:12, 16 and the medical terminology in those verses.


                                                            Ephesians 4:12


The author of Ephesians is here describing the so-called “Gifts of the Spirit” or the equipment with which the Spirit endows the Church to do its ministry.  After listing a handful of those Gifts of the Spirit in Eph. 4:11, he gives their purpose in 4:12,


πρὸς τὸν καταρτισμὸν τῶν ἁγίων,


“for the training/discipline of the saints.”


The crucial word here, of course, is καταρτισμὸν, a New Testament hapax. But it is derived from the verb καταρτίζω, which occurs about a dozen times in the New Testament.  The suppleness of the meaning of καταρτίζω may lead us to “re-translate” the words above. For example, it can mean to “prepare” or “train” (Matt. 21:16; Lk. 6:40; Rom. 9:22), but its most vivid and picturesque usage comes from two appearances in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 4:21; Mk. 1:19) where Jesus comes upon prospective disciples in their boats.  They are “mending” (καταρτίζω is the verb) their nets. This use of the term emphasizes the underlying adjective ἄρτιος, which means “fitted” or “prepared.” Thus, if we went back to Eph. 4:12 we might render the phrase, “to make the saints well-fitted/prepared.” The verb form is used in Gal 6:1 and is best translated “to restore to (psychic/spiritual) health,” and it may well be this meaning of “restoration to health/mending” that will underlie the Galenic use of the term.  Though I don’t have a Galen concordance at the ready (if there is such a thing), my reading so far tells me that Galen picked up the concept of ἄρτιος/καταρτίζω to capture the idea of “completely furnishing” or “perfecting” or “restoring the health of” the body.


                                                                             Ephesians 4:16


The passage continues, as the author of the Epistle uses ever more impressive phrases to describe the purpose of the Gifts with which the Spirit has endowed the Church. Finally, in verses 15-16 it culminates in the statement that Christ is the head of the Church:  


ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα συναρμολογούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον διὰ πάσης ἁφῆς τῆς ἐπιχορηγίας


“From whom the entire body, being in full harmony and being joined together through every joint of supply/with which it is supplied.”


The phrase is quite difficult, but adding to the difficulty is that it is literally dripping with medical terminology. We see the “harmony with” meaning of the first of the words. Its more usual meaning is to interconnect or join something or to fit it together so that it efficiently and effectively functions.  Again, I don’t know the full scope of the meaning of the verb, but the LSJ tells us that it appears frequently in Plato and Aristotle, and is thus a foundational term in philosophical discourse. No doubt the concept of bodily harmony in medicine owes its origin to the philosophical meaning.


But I hasten on.  The second verb means “to knit together,” though it also has a richer meaning field including words like “instruct” or “prove.” I do not know if Galen picks up συμβιβάζω, but it is placed between two words that have a medical meaning.  That other term that has a medical meaning is ἁφή the simple word for “joint” or “ligament.”  Interestingly, the only other place in the NT where ἁφή appears is in Col. 2:19, where again the body is described as being “supplied” (ἐπιχορηγέω) with “joints” (ἁφή) and “ligaments” (σύνδεσμος).  Note that Eph. 4:16, which probably is literarily dependent on Colossians, doesn’t have the σύνδεσμος and converts the verb ἐπιχορηγέω into a noun:  ἐπιχορηγία or “supply.”




Enough has been said at this point to show how at least one or two early Christian authors used medical terminology that may have been quite common in educated talk of the late first century CE to explain the concept of the body of Christ and its functioning. Though it is far too early to posit any awareness that Galen might have had on the language used by Ephesians, it shows that Galen himself would have been nurtured in an environment where use of medical terminology was helpful to describe theological, as well as bodily, realities.

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