The Diakon- Words in Major Greek Lexicons (including diakonos and diakonia)

The following is taken from chapter two of my paper entitled “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40-120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea”. See endnote 1 for the lexicons and dictionaries, etc, consulted for this chapter.

The Etymology of Diakoneō, Diakonia, and Diakonos 

The diakon-words are not common in Classical Greek, they are rare in the Septuagint, but they occur one hundred times in the Greek New Testament.[2] Their derivation is obscure; however several speculative ideas concerning their etymology have been suggested. These suggestions convey the idea of haste while discharging a duty on behalf of someone else. Robert Beekes’ in his Etymological Dictionary of Greek states that the noun diakonos is derived from either a lost verb, or else from the verb diakoneō, “which would be an iterative-intensive deverbative like egkoneō ‘hurry’.”[3] [4] He adds that the suffix dia may have given the meaning “from all sides” or “completely”. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon notes that diakoneō looks “as if the verb were compounded of dia and akoneō.”[5] This observation is unhelpful; however, as akoneō is completely unknown and not attested in any extant Greek literature or document.

Thayer states that the noun diakonos was formerly, and incorrectly, thought to have been derived from dia (“through”) + konis (“dust”) (cf. egkonien). The thinking here was that servants and messengers raised the dust in their hurry to fulfil their duties. Thayer also notes a conjecture made in Philipp Buttmann’s Lexilogus (German 1825, English translation 1835) that the diakon- words are derived from an obsolete verb diakō that is equivalent to diokō and means “pursue”.[6] Etymology does not necessarily give an indication of a word’s meaning or its usage, and a connection between diokō and diakonos is doubtful. Nevertheless John Collins claims that the diakon– words “never entirely cut loose from their etymological moorings in diokō ‘to pursue, chase, urge on’” and that “the diakonos-waiter, as much as the diakonos-messenger, is a runner, an in-between person or go-between.”[7] However, since the etymology of the diakon– words is dubious, we cannot use it to help our understanding. It is more helpful to look at actual usages of these words and concrete meanings.

Definitions of the Diakon– words in the Major Lexicons

German scholar Hermann W. Beyer wrote the entry for the diakon– words in Kittel’s influential Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.[8] Beyer states that the original concrete meaning of the verb diakoneō is “to wait at table”, and that this concept is “still echoed in its figurative meanings.” According to Beyer, diakoneō is first found in Herodotus where it has this concrete meaning. “Waiting at table” is also a meaning found in the Gospels (e.g. Matt. 8:15; Luke 12:37; John 10:40a). Beyer gives a second more general definition of diakoneō as “to provide and care for” and adds that “on the basis of these original senses, [diakoneō] has the comprehensive meaning “to serve”.[9] The lexicons are in agreement that the general definitions of diakon-words are “serve” and “service”.

The primitive church began using the diakon– words in a general way in the context of service and ministry, but gradually these words took on a more technical and prescribed meaning. Beyer prescribes that there is a strong approximation to the “concept of a service of love” in the verb diakoneō.[10] The German word “diakonie” (a transliteration of diakonia) has become the standard German term for Christian social work. The term was coined when Lutheran deaconess and deacon homes were founded in Germany in the nineteenth century with the aim of providing loving care to people in need.[11] Beyer’s association of diakon– words with love, or charitable service, appears to have been influenced by Willhelm Brandt’s doctoral thesis entitled Dienst und Dienen im Neuen Testament (Gèutersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1931) which is cited five times in his entry on diakon– words in Kittel’s Dictionary. Brandt argued in his thesis that diakonia in the New Testament refers to a service of love. He admitted that he was inspired to write his thesis after working with a community of German deaconesses, and experienced the loving care they showed to their patients and other community members.[12] Thus Brandt seems to have been influenced by this later German understanding of the ministry of deacons rather than by ancient Greek texts, including early Christian texts.

Martin Heimgartner, another German scholar, wrote the entry for “diakonos” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Ancient World where he gives the primary definition of the verb diakoneō as “’to serve’ (especially at table).”[13] However, like Beyer and Brandt, Heimgartner also believes that “in the New Testament, diakonia generally describes a service modelled on the brotherly love of Jesus . . . (Mark 10:45).”[14] There are some occurrences of diakon– words in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers where there is the performance of charitable service, or “social work”, which may have been motivated by love, and yet the diakon– words in these texts are more about “agency” in ministry rather than “love”.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, published in 1889 before Brandt’s thesis (1931) and before Beyer’s dictionary entry (1935), gives the primary meaning of diakonia as: “service, ministering, especially of those who execute the commands of others.”[15] It is the aspect of agency while working on behalf of another person, or on behalf of a congregation, in the execution or facilitation of some task, that seems to be at the heart of the church’s use of this word in the apostolic and post-apostolic period.

A Comparison of Diakon– words in the Second and Third Editions of Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon

Bauer’s second edition of the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, published in 1958, has one page in total for the three entries diakoneō, diakonia, and diakonos.[16] When Frederick W. Danker edited Bauer’s lexicon for the third edition, published in 2000, he took the research of John Collins into consideration. [17] Danker’s entries for diakoneō, diakonia, and diakonos, which take up two pages, reflect the semantic categories given in Collin’s book Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources.[18] It is interesting to note the differences between the two editions, especially the shift away from words primarily associated with serving and waiting at table in the older edition, to words associated with acting as an intermediary or agent in the later edition.[19]

In Bauer’s second edition, also known as BAGD,[20] there are five main definitions given for the verb diakoneō which are summarised in the first column of the table below. There are also five definitions for the verb given in the third edition, known as BDAG,[21] which are given in the second column. I have quoted just the first line or first few words of each definition, and have kept the original use of italics. The greater emphasis on acting as an intermediary is obvious in definition 1 of BDAG.

Diakoneo table 1

Table 1. Diakoneō in BAGD and BDAG

In commenting on definition 5 above, Danker takes a paragraph to discuss the problems concerning the usage of the infinitive diakonein in Acts 6:2, as well as the noun diakonia in Acts 6:1 and 5, and he cites Collins. The use of diakon– words in Acts 6 will be discussed in the next chapter of this essay.

As well as five main definitions for the verb diakoneō, there are also five main definitions given for the noun diakonia in both Bauer’s second and third edition. The definitions in the third edition somewhat follow the categories given in the second edition of Bauer’s lexicon, but show the influence of Collin’s research. For example, the definition of “table service” is still included in the third edition, but is less prominent than in the second.

Diakonia table 2

Table 2. Diakonia in BAGD and BDAG

Under the heading of diakonos are two main definitions in both editions. There are noteworthy differences between the definitions here, especially BAGD’s distinction between a masculine and feminine usage.

Diakonos table 3

 Table 3. Diakonos in BAGD and BDAG

To the second definition of diakonos, Danker adds the statement that the context determines whether the term, with or without the masculine articles, is used inclusively of women or exclusively. This clarifies the confusing and misleading separation of diakonos into a masculine and a feminine category in the second edition. Furthermore, Danker does not use the word diakonissa or deaconess anywhere in his definitions for diakon- words, as these terms were used later than the period that is covered in both BADG and BDAG. Nevertheless, the second edition included the anachronistic word “deaconess” and applied it to Phoebe. Danker further clarifies the meaning of diakonos by quoting Collins as saying, “Care, concern, and love – those elements of meaning introduced into the interpretation of the word and its cognates by Wilhelm Brandt – are just not part of their field of meaning.”[22]

The lexicons show that the diakon– words are used in a variety of ways for a variety of ministries. Danker’s and Collin’s understanding of the diakon– words, with their emphasis on agency, fits well with the broad usage of these words in the New Testament and the narrower usage in the Apostolic Fathers, as we will see. In the following chapters we will look at what these ancient Christian texts tell us about the diakonia of diakonoi.  First we will look at how the diakon– words are used in the New Testament book of Acts, especially in Acts 6 [here].


[1] The lexicons and dictionaries, etc, consulted for this chapter include: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Second Edition (BADG) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958); Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, (BDAG) revised and edited by F.W Danker, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Volume 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2010); Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TNDT), Volume 2, transl. Geoffrey W. Bromiley  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964); G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961, 1968); Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ), Ninth Edition, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989); Martin (Halle) Heimgartner, “Diakonos”, Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, Volume 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2004) 345-347; Wesley J. Perschbacher, (Ed) The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990); Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon (New York: American Book Co., 1889).

[2] Forms of the verb diakoneō, including forms of the participle, occur thirty-seven times in the New Testament and occur frequently in the gospels.  Diakonia occurs thirty-four times, and occurs frequently in Acts and Second Corinthians.  Diakonos occurs twenty-nine times.

[3] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Volume 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 328.

[4] The LSJ gives “to be quick and active especially in service” as the main meaning of egkoneō.
Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) 473.

[5] Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon (New York: American Book Co., 1889) 137-138.

[6] Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, 137-138.

[7] John N. Collins, “The Mediatorial Aspect of Paul’s Role as Diakonos”, Australian Biblical Review 40 (1992) 42.

[8] Hermann Beyer, “diakoneō, diakonia, diakonos, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 2, ed. Gerhard Kittel (1935), transl. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 82.

[9] Beyer, “diakoneō, diakonia, diakonos, 82.

[10] Beyer, “diakoneō, diakonia, diakonos”, 81.

[11] John N. Collins, “The Embattled Deacon Words”, The Pastoral Review 3.3, May 2007, 46-51, 50.

[12] John N. Collins, Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) 6.

[13] Martin (Halle) Heimgartner, “Diakonos”, Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, Volume 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2004) 345.

[14] Heimgartner, “Diakonos” 346.

[15] Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, 138.

[16] Bauer/Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, Third Edition, 184-185.

[17] Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, Second Edition, 229-231.

[18]  Collins, “Embattled ‘deacon’ Words”, 50.

[19] Paula Gooder, “Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins”, Ecclesiology, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2006),  33-56.

[20] An acronym of the surnames of lexicographers who contributed to the second edition: Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker.

[21] An acronym of the surnames of the lexicographers who contributed to the third edition, with Danker’s name in second position due to his extensive revisions: Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich.

[22]  Collins, Diakonia: Reinterpreting, 6.

The bibliography is here

© 6th of November 2014, Margaret Mowczko
Posted on the 16th of November 2014

Other articles based on chapters of my essay:

« Return to The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women

« Return to The Diakon– Words in Major Lexicons

« Return to 3 Views on the Ministry of the Seven Men in Acts 6

« Return to Phoebe a Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea 

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women

Part 2: Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon
Part 3: Phoebe’s role in Paul’s mission to Spain
Part 4: Deacons in the Philippian Church and Phoebe
Part 5: Deacons in the Ephesian Church and Phoebe as Patron
Part 6: Deacons and women in the Apostolic Fathers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion