An instructive synonym

In the last post we met the word sigē (NIV “hush”), which Luke uses as a synonym of hēsuchia (NIV “quiet”) in his account of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem.  When we look at the other occurrences of the noun sigē and the verb sigaō in the New Testament, we discover that this root is used in a way similar to hēsuchia/hēsuchazō.  It can mean simply “silence,” the absence of speech or sound, but it can also describe a person voluntarily not saying or doing something they otherwise might.

The one other use of the noun sigē is in Revelation: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”  This clearly envisions the absence of speech or sound.  So do several uses of the verb sigaō:
– When the crowds in Jericho tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, that is, to stop shouting “Son of David, have mercy on me”;
– When the Jewish leaders aren’t able to trap Jesus with the question about paying taxes to Caesar:  “Astonished by his answer, they became silent“;
– When Peter, freed from prison by an angel, has to motion for the surprised people in Mary’s house to be quiet so he can tell them what has happened.

More often, however, the verb sigaō describes a person not saying something they otherwise might.  Luke, for example, reports that after the Transfiguration, the disciples who were with Jesus on the mountain “kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”  This doesn’t mean that after the experience Peter, James, and John didn’t speak at all.  They just didn’t talk about what they’d seen on the mountain, not until later.

Similarly, Luke describes how the council in Jerusalem became silent (sigaō) when they heard Paul and Barnabas describe what God had done among the Gentiles.  Significantly, as we saw last time, Luke uses the verb hēsuchazō instead in an identical context earlier in Acts:  When Peter described how God led him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, the apostles and believers fell silent (ESV; NIV “had no further objections”).  This reassures us that the use of sigaō by writers such as Luke (and Paul, as we’ll soon see) can help us understand the intention behind hēsuchazō.

In his benediction at the end of Romans, using sigaō once again in this second sense, Paul speaks of the mystery that was kept secret (ESV; NIV “hidden”) for long ages past, but which has now been revealed and made known.  What’s in view here is once again not the absence of speech (no secret to share), but restraint on speech:  The mystery was waiting to be revealed at the right time.

This brings us to Paul’s controversial comments in 1 Corinthians about maintaining good order in worship.  There has been much discussion about his statement that “women should keep silent (sigaō) in the churches.”  I would argue that we need to understand this statement in light of the two uses Paul makes of this term a little earlier in this same section.  Regarding those who would speak in tongues, Paul says, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet.”  And regarding prophets, he says, “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.”  We’ll explore the implications of all this in our next post.

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One thought on “An instructive synonym

  1. Pingback: Does the Bible forbid women to teach or have authority over men? (Part 3) | Understanding the Books of the Bible

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