New Testament Words and Verses
NT Words for Touching, Two
θιγγάνω, ψηλαφάω, and προσψαύω
For all its prominence in the Synoptic Gospels, it is interesting that ἅπτομαι plays such a minor role in the rest of the New Testament. And, the other verbs for “touching” don’t appear that many times but often are in memorable passages. We have seen, for example, that one of the three appearances of θιγγάνω appears in a list probably quoted by Paul in Col. 2:21 and not original to him. What is interesting is in that list of prohibited activities appears not only “do not taste” (from γεύομαι), but two words for touch: ἅπτομαι and θιγγάνω. There is no reason to believe that these point to an identical activity—why would they just be listed as “do not touch; do not taste; do not touch”? One approach is to say that there isn’t a huge difference between the two, but much like rules today that tell us not “to touch or handle,” so the ancient rule prohibited “touching” using synonymous words. Yet I tend to see a difference in the words and would render the passage: “Don’t touch, don’t taste; don’t damage by touching.” In this case the usage would be similar to its appearance in Heb. 11:28, below.
θιγγάνω appears twice more, in Hebrews 11:28; 12:20. The second passage is a reference to Exodus 19:12. Interestingly, in that passage both ἅπτομαι and θιγγάνω are used synonymously. We have:
προσέχετε ἑαυτοῗς τοῦ ἀναβῆναι εἰς τὸ ὄρος καὶ θιγεῗν τι αὐτοῦ πᾶς ὁ ἁψάμενος τοῦ ὄρους θανάτῳ τελευτήσει (Ex 19:12)
“Keep yourself from going up to the mountain and touching something of it. Everyone who touches the mountain shall be put to death.”
The reference in Hebrews 11:28 is to the destroying angel’s passing over the people and “touching” them on the night of the first Passover. Here θιγγάνω is a synonym for “destroy” or “kill” and may shed light on how we should translate it in Col 2:21.
It is too bad that προσψαύω is so rare a verb. It occurs only once in the NT and not at all in the LXX. It also receives a very limited entry in the big Liddell-Scott dictionary, though ψαύω appears quite frequently in Classical Greek and once in the LXX. προσψαύω appears in Luke 11:46, a very vivid passage, where Jesus is in a verbal tussle with the Jewish religious leaders.
ὁ δὲ εἶπεν· καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς νομικοῖς οὐαί, ὅτι φορτίζετε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους φορτία δυσβάστακτα, καὶ αὐτοὶ ἑνὶ τῶν δακτύλων ὑμῶν οὐ προσψαύετε τοῖς φορτίοις (Luke 11:46):
“And he said, ‘Woe to you legal scholars, because you load burdens on people, burdens that are difficult to carry, and you yourself don’t touch these burdens with one of your fingers.”
A very vivid passage with a very rare verb.
Finally, we reach a very interesting verb: ψηλαφάω. Even its pronunciation suggests that it shouldn’t be rendered “touch,” but something like “graze” or “caress” or “grope for.” It is reminiscent for me of the Greek verb for “whispering,” ψιθυρισμός, which has been defined as an “onomatopoetic word for the sibilant murmur of a snake charmer.” In other words, it is all in the sound. So, how does “touch” “sound?” That is what the verb ψηλαφάω connotes to me, a sort of gentle touch or caress or a tender touching, quite unlike the more violent reading of θιγγάνω in Heb. 11:28.
ψηλαφάω appears four times in the NT, and in each instance this softer “touching” is meant. Jesus first uses the word memorably in Luke 24:39, after his resurrection, where he tells the disciples who he is and then he says, “Touch me (ψηλαφήσατέ) and see, for a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones.” We can imagine the disciples very tentatively reaching across to touch Jesus gently, perhaps with some fear as to what they actually will feel. But ψηλαφάω vividly captures both that reluctance and that action.
Then, Paul uses the word in his Areopagus speech in Acts 17:27, where he talks about people without the true God “groping around” (ψηλαφήσειαν) for Him. If we compare this usage with the preceding, we have both a similarity in meaning field (grope/gentle touch) though a completely different psychological reality. The disciples, probably, are fearful, yet hopeful; the non-believers are confused and in the dark. Both are “groping” after something.
One other reference to ψηλαφάω is significant. In the opening verses of I John, the author, perhaps trying to combat a primitive form of gnosticism that either had a Christian or Pagan origin, talks about the actual physical reality of Jesus Christ. In unforgettable words, the author says:
Ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς (I Jn 1:1)
“What was from the beginning, which we had heard about, which we had seen with our (own) eyes, which we had beheld and our hands have tenderly touched concerning the word of life…”
The translation is challenging not so much for the ψηλαφάω, which we can render either “touch” or “touch tenderly,” but because of the interesting intensification of verbs for seeing. The author first begins with the sense of hearing (ἀκηκόαμεν), but then moves to two levels or experiences of seeing (ἑωράκαμεν and ἐθεασάμεθα) before he gets to “touching” Jesus, the Word of Life. The fact that the author goes from “seeing” to “beholding,” suggests that he is loading the “touching” part with more than simply the common experience of feeling an object. He is trying to suggest that there was some kind of “touch” of Jesus that perhaps mystically connects the believer with Jesus, just like the seeing is not just seeing with the eyes, but is “beholding” (ἐθεασάμεθα) in a new way.
One memorable appearance of the noun form of ψηλαφάω is in the LXX of Exodus 10. In that passage the author is describing the plague of darkness that covered the land. Usually darkness is defined as the “absence of light,” but here the darkness is so dense and powerful that it is almost as if it has its own substantial existence. The darkness is described as ψηλαφητὸν σκότος (Ex. 10:21) or “tangible/palpable darkness.” It is darkness so real that if you extended your hand to touch it, it would feel as if it were a living entity. What does that kind of darkness “feel” like? The gift of ψηλαφητὸν encourages us to ask that question.
Thus, as we conclude this treatment of words for touch in the Bible, we see we have an incredibly rich harvest. On the one hand most of the references are to the common experience of touching things, even though they are put in a theological context since Jesus is doing the touching to heal people. But once you leave the comfortable world of ἅπτομαι, you enter into spaces of perhaps violent or disturbing touching (θιγγάνω), of a rare verb which Jesus uses in a controversial context, and finally, of a verb, onomatopoetic in its gentleness, that invites us to consider a more mystical understanding of touching and thereby connecting with the source of life.
Jumping and Leaping
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