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A Greek Word for the Twitter Age: σπερμολογος (spermologos)

April 24, 2016

Here’s a fun Greek word: σπερμολογος (spermologos). It appears only one time in the Greek New Testament, and nowhere in the Septuagint. Here it is in its context, Acts 17:18:

τινες δε και των Επικουρειων και Στοικων φιλοσοφων συνεβαλλον αυτω, και τινες ελεγον· τι αν θελοι ο σπερμολογος ουτος λεγειν; οι δε· ξενων δαιμονιων δοκει καταγγελευς ειναι, οτι τον Ιησουν και την αναστασιν ευηγγελιζετο.

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with [Paul]. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

The NIV 2011 (above), NRSV, and KJV all translate σπερμολογος (spermologos) as “babbler.” HCSB has “pseduo-intellectual.” NASB has “idle babbler.” NET has “foolish babbler.” Not to be outdone, the Message offers, “What an airhead!”

Context determines meaning, which makes a word like this tricky, since it has no other uses in the Bible. The LSJ lexicon notes its use in, among other classic works, the play Birds by Aristophanes, where it refers to birds picking up seeds. In the 1st century B.C. history of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, σπερμολογος  describes a “frivolous” person. For the noun form LSJ offers, “one who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge, an idle babbler, gossip.”

BDAG has this: “in pejorative imagery of persons whose communication lacks sophistication and seems to pick up scraps of information here and there.” I also like its gloss of “scrapmonger”! In the part of the entry that covers the Acts verse, it says, “Engl. synonyms include ‘gossip’, ‘babbler’, ‘chatterer’; but these terms miss the imagery of unsystematic gathering.

Also helpful is Louw-Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains:

one who acquires bits and pieces of relatively extraneous information and proceeds to pass them on with pretense and show.

And then this gem, from the same source:

The term σπερμολογος is semantically complex in that it combines two quite distinct phases of activity: (1) the acquiring of information and (2) the passing on of such information. Because of the complex semantic structure of σπερμολογος, it may be best in some languages to render it as ‘one who learns lots of trivial things and wants to tell everyone about his knowledge,’ but in most languages there is a perfectly appropriate idiom for ‘a pseudo-intellectual who insists on spouting off.’

The implications for an easy-to-access information age are obvious–how much of the Internet is gathering information like seed and passing it on, without stopping to research and truly evaluate it?

We could pontificate, but back to Acts–this is what some Athenian philosophers called Paul: a σπερμολογος. The parenthetical statement in Acts 17:21, however, makes this the height of irony:

Αθηναιοι δε παντες και οι επιδημουντες ξενοι εις ουδεν ετερον ηυκαιρουν η λεγειν τι η ακουειν τι καινοτερον.

(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Did you catch it? Louw-Nida says a σπερμολογος engages in “two quite distinct phases of activity: (1) the acquiring of information and (2) the passing on of such information.” Acts 17:21 says the Athenians themselves (who leveled the σπερμολογος charge against Paul) spent all their time in two phases of activity: talking (#2 above) and listening (#1) to “the latest ideas.”

Moral of the story: check yourself before you call someone a σπερμολογος.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    April 24, 2016 4:38 pm

    A–looking at the word, I thought this was going to be some Biblical insight on male sexuality! 😮 Good insights!! (Doesn’t the Holy Spirit/Luke have a great sense of irony/humor??!!)

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