Reflections on τηρέω

Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains lists τηρέω in more than one semantic domain, one of which groups it with φυλάσσω (section 36.19) and explains the meaning as “to continue to obey orders or commandments — ‘to obey, to keep commandments, obedience.’”

The more I read Greek from the same period as the New Testament, the more I doubt that τηρέω actually had that meaning as a real possibility. LEH (Septuagint lexicon) does not list “obey” as a possible meaning of τηρέω. I don’t have access right now to BDAG, so I can’t check that one. What leads me to the conclusion that Louw and Nida have made a faulty connection here, though, is not other lexica. It is the contexts in which I find this word outside the New Testament.

The fields of meaning for τηρέω center around notions of maintaining, safeguarding, caring for… not right and wrong conduct. Τηρέω is in an important sense an opposite of λείπω (leave, abandon, forsake).

Take John 14:21, for example.

ὁ ἔχων τὰς ἐντολάς μου καὶ τηρῶν αὐτὰς ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαπῶν με

The sense here is probably, “The one who has my commandments and does not abandon them is the one who loves me.” Keeping the commandments in this sense implies remembering them, being aware of them, not forgetting or ignoring them, etc. While this clearly implies following the commandments, the emphasis is not on obedience—something that can be forced—but on willing faithfulness.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but I think it is an important one. There were other ways to talk about “obedience,” the kind of thing a servant does in relationship to a master, and this was clearly an accepted model for talking about the relationship between a person and God in early Christianity. Paul referred to himself as a δοῦλος Χρισττοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10), for example.

I am not arguing that this is a foreign image to early Christianity, but that the word τηρέω was not used for this purpose. When τηρέω was used in relation to commandments, the emphasis was on remembering them, being aware of them, safeguarding them, etc. It is a positive image, not one of dominance.

7 Replies to “Reflections on τηρέω”

  1. The basis for L&N is Barclay Newman’s little Concise Lexicon and I have a feeling that’s where their definitions come from:

    “τηρέω keep, observe, obey, pay attention to; keep under guard, keep in custody; keep back, hold, reserve; maintain, keep firm; τ. τὴν ἑαυτοῦ τραρθένον (if of an engaged couple) not to marry the girl to whom he is engaged or (if of one’s daughter) to keep his daughter from marrying (1 Cor 7:37).”

  2. Thanks, Carl. The sense you mention is what I see consistently outside the New Testament. I think some New Testament scholars have been too quick to derive definitions from a narrow range of literature, making it easy for theological concerns to cloud their judgment.

    The entry from L&N Newman that you quote, Mike, is a great example of this. What they give he provided as examples are really suggested translations, not carefully researched judgments on the semantic properties of the word τηρέω as seen in the larger literature.

    Does anyone have a copy of BDAG handy? Would you be willing to offer a comment about what it says? The previous edition (BAG 1979) does not list “obey” as an option. The closest it gets is saying that when used to speak of commandments τηρέω has the sense of keep, observe, fulfill, pay attention to.

    This seems quite reasonable to me, and I doubt Danker added “obey” to that list.

    1. Well, BDAG comes close to listing “obey.” Here are the definitions listed by BDAG:

      1. to retain in custody, keep watch over, guard
      2. to cause a state, condition, or activity to continue, keep, hold, reserve, preserve someone or someth.
      3. to persist in obedience, keep, observe, fulfill, pay attention to, esp. of law and teaching (LXX) τὶ someth.

      But even here, persisting in obedience isn’t the same thing as obeying–as you said, its a subtle distinction. Danker is right with you on this one.

      1. Wow. I’m surprised, and more than a little disappointed that he would use the word obedience. While his definition is otherwise quite good, I wish he had avoided that term. It gives the wrong impression.

      2. And when you take out “obedience” its not clear how different 3 is from 2. The words “esp. of law and teaching” could have been put in a subentry.

        For some parallel literature, here’s Moulton & Milligan:

        (1) lit. “watch,” “observe”: P Tebt II. 27843 (early i/A.D.) τηρῖ μ̣[ε] γ̣ά̣ρ, “for he watches me (?)” (Edd.). (2) “guard,” “protect”: PSI III. 1689 (B.C. 118) τηροῦντός μου σὺν ἄλλοις ἐπὶ τοῦ ἐμ Ποχρίμει βασιλικοῦ χώματος, P Oxy VI. 985 (accounts—2nd half i/A.D.) ἐργάτηι τηροῦντι τὸν οἶνον . . . (δραχμαὶ) δ̅. (3) “keep,” “preserve”: BGU IV. 114125 (B.C. 13) κἀγὼ τὴν φιλίαν σου θέλων ἄμεμπτ[ον] ἐματὸν ἐτήρησα (cf. 1 Thess 5:23), P Oxy XIV. 175723 (ii/A.D., after Hadrian) κόμισαι παρὰ Θέωνος μάν̣ι̣α (“vessels”?) δύο καὶ τήρησόν μοι αὐτὰ ἕως ἀναβῶ, ib. III. 53318 (ii/iii A.D.) ἵνα τηρήσωσι αὐτῶν τὴν δεξιάν, “that they should keep their pledge,” ib. VIII. 116016 (iii/iv A.D.) τὰ σεσύλληχα δὲ κέρμα τηρῶ αὐτὰ εἰς τὴν δίκην, “I am keeping for the trial the money that I have collected” (Ed.), and ib. X. 12987 (iv/A.D.) ἐγὼ μόνος (l. μόνον?) πάνυ ἐμαυτὸν τηρῶν ὑπὲρ τὸν ἀσφαλήν, “I have been keeping myself quite alone beyond the point of safety” (Edd.).

        A good parallel to 2 Tim 4:7 is afforded by Brit. Mus. Inscrr. Part III. No. 587 b.5 (ii/A.D.) ὅτι τὴν πίστιν ἐτήρησα: cf. Deissmann LAE2, p. 309. See also JTS vi. (1905), p. 438, for the suggestion that in Jn 2:10 τηρέω = “maintain,” “keep going”—“Thou hast kept going the good wine even until now.” (4) “reserve,” “set aside”; P Tebt II. 30228 (A.D. 71–2) τὴν γῆν τὴν ἀντὶ συ]ντάξεως ἡμεῖν ἐκ διαδοχῆς γονέων τετηρημένην, “this land which has been reserved to us instead of a subvention by inheritance from our ancestors” (Edd.), P Amh II. 7114 (A.D. 178–9) ὧν ἡ [κ]αρπεία τοῦ (ἡμίσους) μέρους τετήρηται τῇ προγεγρ(αμμένῃ) μου μητρί, “the usufruct of the half part of which was reserved to my aforesaid mother” (Edd.), and cf. P Oxy II. 237viii. 35 (A.D. 186) οἷς ἡ μὲν χρῆσ{ε}ις διὰ δημοσίων τετήρηται χρηματισμῶν, “to whom the usufruct of the property has been guaranteed by public contracts” (Edd.).

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