Meekness in Discussions on Femininity and Masculinity
In a previous article, I looked at all the New Testament verses that use the Greek noun and adjective which refer to meekness: prautēs and praus. These words are used in Matthew’s Gospel and by the letter writers Paul, James, and Peter. In Matthew 11:29, for example, Jesus is quoted as saying of himself, “I am meek (praus) and humble in heart.”
In my previous article, I argued that meekness was not an especially feminine virtue despite how more than few people interpret “a gentle (praus) and quiet spirit” in 1 Peter 3:4. But I’ve recently come across some Christians who use their concept of praus to promote a masculine expression of Christianity. These Christians refer to blog posts that emphasise a nuance of “strength” in the words “meekness” (prautēs) and “meek” (praus).
Dozens of blog posts written by Christians mention warhorses while attempting to explain (revise?) the meaning of praus. The argument in these blog posts is that praus has a military association and has a sense of might or toughness. These ideas appeal to some Christian men.
For example, a website with the name Praus makes these statements.
“The word praus comes from ancient military training. The Greek army would find the wildest horses in the mountains and bring them in. After months of training, they sorted the horses into categories: some were discarded, others were put into ordinary duty. The fewest of all graduated and were put into service. When a horse passed the conditioning required for service, its state was described as praus.”
Does the word praus come from, or originate with, ancient military training? If it does, I can’t find ancient evidence for it.
These thoughts written by Sam Whatley are posted on a website called River Region’s Journey.
“The Greek word praus (prah-oos) was used to define a horse trained for battle. Wild stallions were brought down from the mountains and broken for riding. Some were used to pull wagons, some were raced, and the best were trained for warfare. They retained their fierce spirit, courage, and power, but were disciplined to respond to the slightest nudge or pressure of the rider’s leg. They could gallop into battle at 35 miles per hour and come to a sliding stop at a word. They were not frightened by arrows, spears, or torches. Then they were said to be meeked. … To be meeked was to be taken from a state of wild rebellion and made completely loyal to, and dependent upon, one’s master.”
Other articles on other websites make very similar statements, there’s plenty of plagiarising going on, but doesn’t “to be meeked” simply mean “to be tamed”?
Xenophon on “Meek” (Praus)
None of the numerous blog posts I visited cite ancient sources for the claims about meek warhorses, but a few mention Xenophon’s name. Xenophon (c. 430 BC–354 BC) was an Athenian military leader, historian, and philosopher. He loved all things equestrian and wrote two treatises on the art of horsemanship.
Xenophon lived centuries before the time the New Testament was written and he wrote in Attic Greek, not in Koine Greek which is the original language of the New Testament. Language evolves over time, and how an Athenian used Attic words in the early fourth century BC is not necessarily the same as how Jewish Christians used Koine words in the first century AD. Nevertheless, let’s look at how Xenophon used praus and its close cognates.
I found several passages where Xenophon uses prau– words. The first three passages are about gently training horses (On Horsemanship 9.3, 9.5, 9.10), the fourth is about gentle farm animals (Economics 15.4), the fifth passage is about taming a growling sheepdog (Memorabilia 2.3.9), the sixth passage is about cosseted, tame fish (Anabasis 1.4.9), and the seventh is about amiability between soldiers and between warhorses (Cyropaedia 2.1.29).
On Horsemanship 9:3
“Accordingly, at the moment of mounting, the rider should take care to worry [the horse] as little as possible; and when he is mounted, he should let him stand still longer than is otherwise usual, and then direct him to go by the ‘most gentle’ (πρᾳοτάτοις/ praotatois) aids. Then let him begin at a very slow pace and increase the speed with the same gentle help, so that the horse will not be aware of the transition to a quicker motion.”
On Horsemanship 9:5
“If you want to correct a spirited horse when he is going too fast, do not pull him suddenly, but quietly check him with the bit, ‘soothing’ (πραΰνοντα/ praunonta) him, not forcing him, to a quiet pace.”
On Horsemanship 9:10
“It should also be known that a horse can be taught ‘to be calm’ (πραΰνεσθαι/ praunesthai) by a chirp with the lips and to be roused by a cluck with the tongue. And if from the first you use with the cluck aids to calm him (τὰ πραέα), and with the chirp aids to rouse him, the horse will learn to rouse himself at the chirp and ‘to calm down’ (πραΰνεσθαι/ praunesthai) at the cluck.”
In Xenophon’s Economics, the character Isomachus makes this comment about domesticated farm animals, “As you know, we call those creatures noble that are beautiful, great, and helpful, and yet gentle (πραέα/ praea) towards men.”
“Had you a sheep dog that was friendly to the shepherds, but growled when you [the master/ owner] came near him, it would never occur to you to get angry, but you would try ‘to tame’ (πραΰνειν/ praunein) him by kindness.”
“After this Cyrus marched four stages, twenty parasangs, to the Chalus river, which is a plethrum in width and full of large, tame (πραέων/ praeōn) fish; these fish the Syrians regarded as gods, and they would not allow anyone to harm them, or the doves, either.”
“Cyrus also took care that [soldiers] should never come to luncheon or to dinner unless they had had a sweat. For he would get them into a sweat by taking them out hunting; or he would contrive such sports as would make them sweat; or again, if he happened to have some business or other to attend to, he so conducted it that they should not come back without having had a sweat. For this he considered conducive to their enjoying their meals, to their health, and to their being able to endure hardships, and he thought that hardships conduced to their being ‘more reasonable’ (πρᾳοτέρους/ praoterous) toward one another, for even horses that work together stand ‘more quietly’ (πρᾳοτέρους/ praoterous) together. At any rate, those who are conscious that they have been well drilled are certainly more courageous in the face of the enemy.”
From these passages, we can see that prau– words may be translated into English as “most gentle,” “soothing,” to calm down/ be calm,” “gentle,” “to tame,” “tame,” and “more reasonable/ more quietly.”
I could not find any ancient source that mentions or alludes to implicit ideas of strength or fierceness in the word praus or a source that indicates an intrinsic, or original, military sense. I could not find these ideas in modern books either, with one exception. In The New Testament Commentary – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, written by Max Anders and published by Holman in 1999, the author makes this comment:
“Warhorses in the ancient world went into battle trained to protect their master. They were under the total and instantaneous control of their rider. War horses were described as being meek. Their strength was under total control.” (Google Books)
Unfortunately, even in this book, a Bible commentary, there is no citation given.
(Update: The meek warhorse idea is also in the book Praus: A Parable for Winning the War Within by Hunter Lambeth.)
Good warhorses are strong and fearless in battle but also compliant and tame with their riders and handlers. In Cyropaedia, Xenophon uses the word praus for warhorses, but not in connection with toughness or in connection with fighting battles against enemies. Rather the context is horses standing calmly with other horses when not in battle.
Aristotle on Praus and People
Xenophon seems to have mostly used prau– words in the context of animals: for people gently training animals and for tame or domesticated animals. But these words were commonly used in ancient Greek texts, including the New Testament, to describe the mild and gentle nature of people in relationships with other people.
Aristotle wrote around the same time as Xenophon and in Attic Greek. In Rhetoric 3.2 (1380a), he uses prau– words several times in a discussion where he contrasts anger with the meekness or mildness of men, and he defines “making mild” as “the quieting and appeasing of anger.”
In Nicomachean Ethics 4.1-5 (1125b-1126a), he says that meekness, or a mild temper (πραότης/ praotēs), is the mean, or midpoint, between anger and an unnamed opposite extreme. For Aristotle, being praus was not about strength but about humility. Because of this humble element, he did not always regard meekness as a virtue as Christians do, and he thought that meekness had a tendency towards “deficiency.” Nevertheless, he observed,
“Now we praise a man who feels anger on the right grounds and against the right persons, and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time. He may then be called gentle-tempered (πρᾶος/ praos), if we take gentleness (πραότης/ praotēs) to be a praiseworthy quality—for ‘gentle’ (πρᾶος/ praos) really denotes a calm temper, not led by emotion but only becoming angry in such a manner, for such causes and for such a length of time as principle may ordain although the quality is thought rather to err on the side of defect, since the ‘gentle-tempered man’ (πρᾶος/ praos) is not prompt to seek redress for injuries, but rather inclined to forgive them.”
Jesus somewhat fits with this description. However, unlike Aristotle, Christians see humility and forgiveness as good things, not defects.
Praus in Early Jewish Literature
Looking at how Xenophon and Aristotle used praus has limited value if we want to understand how the word was used in the Greek New Testament. It is more relevant to see how Jewish authors writing in Greek used praus in literature that is roughly contemporaneous with the New Testament. Here’s a sample.
In 2 Maccabees 15:12, which was written sometime between 150 and 120 BCE, Onias the High Priest is presented as “virtuous, good, modest in all things, gentle (πρᾶον/ praon) of manners, and well-spoken.
In the Testament of Abraham 1.3, possibly written in the first century CE, it is said that Abraham lived all his life “in quietness (hēsuchia) and gentleness (πραότητι/ praotēti) . . .” (Cf. 1 Peter 3:4.)
In Against Appion 1.29 §267, Josephus (b. 37 CE) used the word praoteroi/ πρᾳότεροι to describe the attitudes of people who had been badly treated by the king of Egypt; they had a reason to be angry and hateful but had rather grown “milder.”
In Jewish Antiquities 19.3 §330, Josephus describes Herod Agrippa’s manner as “mild” (πραῢς/ praus). He then explains how Agrippa is praus: he was “equally liberal to all men. He was humane to foreigners, and made them sensible of his liberality. He was in like manner rather of a ‘gentle and compassionate’ (chrēstos kai sympathēs) temper.” In §333, Herod Agrippa addresses a man who had slandered him and speaks to him “quietly (ērema) and gently (πρᾴως/ praōs).”
In these examples, gentleness or mildness is a virtue of both notable, respected leaders and of oppressed, disadvantaged people. And there seems to be a sense of calm dignity in their mildness. I can’t see that the analogy of warhorses adds anything to our understanding of praus words in these passages.
“Meek” (praus) implies neither weakness nor strength
Gentleness and courage are not mutually exclusive—meekness is not to be likened to weakness—and this is evident in the way the word is used in the New Testament. (See here.) On the other hand, there is no implicit sense of strength in the word praus. And, unlike what the “meek warhorses” blog posts say, Xenophon does not indicate that praus has a military origin or military association any more than it has a farming origin or association (cf. Econ. 15.4). Moreover, there is not the slightest hint of either association in how the New Testament authors use prau– words.
Prau– words are not uncommon in ancient Greek. They typically refer to a gentle, mild, or regulated temper, and in the context of animals, including horses, praus typically means “tame.” For Christians, the trait of meekness, like the traits of humility and submissiveness, are positive virtues. And while self-restraint may well be required on occasion, these three traits, plus a readiness to forgive, are essentially about putting aside or relinquishing power in relationships. Praus is not about exerting strength or maintaining power in relationships.
Furthermore, people with little or no strength can be meek. Many of the original audience of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, those who heard Jesus say, “The meek will inherit the earth,” had little political power or social clout (cf. Psalm 37:1-11).
Meekness is a quality of mild-mannered and self-controlled gentlemen and gentlewomen, and it is a quality of animals that are tame or gentle with humans. It is neither a masculine nor a feminine virtue, but is one of many Christian virtues. Being praus is not an expression of manliness or machismo, and it is the antithesis of arrogance, anger, and aggression.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and a native Greek speaker, understood what praus meant. In around AD 110, while on his way to Rome to face martyrdom, he wrote about meekness, humility, and non-retaliation towards antagonistic unbelievers.
In response to their anger, be gentle [or meek: praeis]
In response to their boasts, be humble
In response to their slander, offer prayers
In response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith
In response to their cruelty, be civilized
Do not be eager to imitate them
Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters
And let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord … (Ign. Eph. 10:2-3a).
(I hope to find the exact source, assuming there is one, of the “meeked warhorses” claim in the blog posts. If you know the ancient source, please let me know so I can add it to this article.)
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 Prautēs is the noun (“meekness/ gentleness”) and praus is the adjective (“meek/ gentle”). Prautēs is pronounced “prah-ee-tis” (or “prah-oo-tays” with Erasmian pronunciation). Praus is pronounced “prah-ees.”
 The warhorse idea even appears in the Wikipedia entry on Matthew 5:5 here.
 Xenophon uses the related adverb in Anabasis 1.5.14: “Clearchus, however, was angry, because, when he had barely escaped being stoned to death, Proxenus was talking ‘lightly’ (πράως/praōs) of his grievance …” (Perseus Digital Library)
 “On Horsemanship 9:3” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “On Horsemanship 9:5” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “On Horsemanship 9:10” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock, transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Economics 15.4” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 4. E. C. Marchant and O. J. Todd (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1979) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Memorabilia 2.3.9” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 4. E. C. Marchant (Transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1923) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Anabasis 1.4” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 3. Carleton L. Brownson (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1922) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Cyropaedia 2.1.21” in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 5. Walter Miller (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1914) (Perseus Digital Library)
 I include the following excerpt that mentions the tractability of warhorses, but Xenophon did not use prau– words here: “… you must see that the horses get enough food to stand hard work, since horses unfit for their work can neither overtake nor escape [in battle]. You must see that they are ‘docile’ (euchrēstoi: serviceable, useful, tractable), because disobedient animals assist the enemy more than their own side.”
“On the Cavalry Commander 1.3″ in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 7. E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1925) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Rhetoric 3.2” in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22. J. H. Freese (transl.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and London: William Heinemann, 1926) (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Nicomachean Ethics 5.4 (1125b.25-1126a.1)” in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, H. Rackham (transl.) (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, 1934) (Perseus Digital Library here and here.
As another example of usage, Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian writing in the 400s BC, speaks well of the moderate behaviour and gentleness (πραότητα) displayed by Brasidas, a Spartan officer (4.108.2-3).
 A Greek text of 2 Maccabees 15 is online at Kata Biblon here. English translations of 2 Maccabees 15:12 are on Bible Gateway here.
 Testament of Abraham, Montague Rhodes James, volume 2 of Texts and Studies: Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature, J. Armitage Robinson (ed) (Cambridge University Press, 1892), 77. (Archive.org) An English translation is on the New Advent website here.
 “Against Appion,” in The Works of Flavius Josephus, William Whiston (transl.) (Auburn, Buffalo: John E. Beardsley, 1895). (Perseus Digital Library)
 “Antiquities of the Jews” in The Works of Flavius Josephus, William Whiston (transl.) (Auburn, Buffalo: John E. Beardsley, 1895). (Perseus Digital Library)
 Deirdre J. Good writes that in Hellenistic Greek,
… leaders are called praos. Religious pioneers, statesmen, politicians and governors either commend themselves as meek or receive this accolade from others. As the philosopher Isocrates [To Nicocles 23] and the historian Josephus show, demonstrating compassion toward the less fortunate indicates that a praos man is likely to belong to nobility. Good, Jesus the Meek King (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press, 1999), 5.
 Here is the LSJ entry for πραΰς (Attic spelling: πρᾶος). The LSJ entries for the noun πραΰτης (Attic spelling: πραότης) and for the related verb πραΰνω are here and here.
 I’ve used The Apostolic Fathers, Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition), edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 190-191, for this quotation but have formatted the lines differently.
Like Ignatius, the author(s) of the Didache (the circa AD 100 church manual) also understood meekness:
But be meek (praus), since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be patient, merciful, innocent, quiet and good, trembling at the words that you have heard. Do not elevate yourself, or let your soul become overconfident. Your soul must not be joined with the lofty, but abide with the just and lowly.
Didache 3.7 (my translation)
© Margaret Mowczko 2020
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Postscript: August 31, 2021
Kenneth Bailey on praus (Greek) and ׳ānǐ (Hebrew)
Kenneth Bailey explains one difference between praus and the Hebrew word that is sometimes translated as “meek.”
The Hebrew word, ׳ānǐ, (poor/ humble) has to do with obedience in accepting God’s guidance. The Greek term praus (“meek”) refers not to a person in the presence of God but rather describes relationships between people.
Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. p.73.
It is likely that some Jewish authors writing in Greek used praus with the sense of ׳ānǐ for want of a closer synonym (e.g., Matt. 5:5 cf. Psa. 37:1-11).
Postscript: August 26, 2022
Jordan Peterson on Meekness and Swords
Jordan Peterson has said in a talk on the Bible, and in various interviews (such as this one), that the meek, in the context of “the meek will inherit the earth,” are “those who have swords, and know how to use them, but choose to keep them sheathed.” He seems to have been influenced by the sometimes unhelpful HELPS Word-Studies.
Peterson doesn’t base his interpretation on the Greek of Matthew 5:5, or on the original Hebrew in Psalm 37:11, but on what makes sense to him. Even though he doesn’t read Greek or Hebrew, he thinks his interpretation is much better than what it says in English translations. Furthermore, the way he elaborates on his interpretation makes a mockery of the message of Psalm 37 and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, especially considering that many people in Jesus’s audience had very little political or social power.
Ignatius, quoted at the end of my article above, and the authors of the Didache, quoted at the end of the footnotes, see things differently from Jordan Peterson. As did Jesus who associated meekness with humility (or, lowliness) in Matthew 11:29, and not with restrained power or strength, let alone swords. Jesus, Ignatius, and the authors of the Didache saw meekness as a counterpart of humility.
1. Excerpt of a grave stele of Dexileus, an Athenian equestrian, who was born in 414 BC and who fell in battle near Corinth in 394. More about this stele on Wikimedia.
2. Marble relief circa 438 BC–432 BC from the north frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival. # 613459729 © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
“A Gentle and Quiet Spirit” is not just a Feminine Virtue
All my articles on meekness are here.
All my articles on 1 Peter 3:1-7 are here.
“Come to Me”: A Commentary on Matthew 11:28-30
63 thoughts on “The Greek Word ‘Praus’ and Meek Warhorses”
The discussion of praus immediately made me go to perhaps the most famous verse about someone described as meek (actually ‘very meek’): Numbers 12:3. (Advert for http://www.stepbible.org which makes this easy). The LXX uses praus sfodra as the description of Moses. Praus is used in a number of places in the LXX, and the corresponding Hebrew word a.nav is translated as ‘humble’, ‘poor’ or ‘afflicted’ in those contexts.
Then, of course, the one who is greater than Moses both described himself as praus and showed himself as that in the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (again praus in LXX). The use of the donkey is a specific repudiation of the image of riding a warhorse.
To be praus is an aspect of being Christ-like, and thus is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit.
Thanks for this useful, extra info, David. Understanding praus is not as tricky as some people claim.
The important question is why people feel the need to have ‘praus’ as something to do with might and toughness. Are men who promote this, paradoxically, afraid of seeming weak? In contrast, Paul , whose life demonstrates a significant level of real-world toughness, nonetheless witnessed to the truth that God’s strength is made perfect in his weakness.
If I might add another couple of thoughts in this area. I recall a long time ago hearing it said of someone that “he was gentle in the way only a very big man could be.” Is machismo based on fear rather than real strength?
The news came through in the last day or so of the death of Jim Packer. Like Eugene Peterson who died in 2018, I get the distinct impression that these great men of God were humble, i.e. ‘praus’.
To be ‘praus’ should be the ambition of every Christian man (and woman), but it does not denote ‘might’.
As I briefly mentioned in the article, it is worrying that some Christians are attempting to frame traits such as humility and meekness in terms of strength. While there may be times we need to draw on inner strength to be amicable and kind with people who rub us the wrong way or are downright mean, if we are truly “meek and lowly in heart” like Jesus, being gentle and humble shouldn’t be a huge effort. It should be who we are as people who have been conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
Also, I think being humble and meek requires losing and relinquishing power. I think this is where some Christians have a problem, especially those in individualistic societies.
I first came across the idea of meek warhorses in a twitter thread that began with the tweet “I don’t follow a meek & mild Jesus, I follow the bold, strong, & courageous Jesus.” Yikes!
The way David describes meekness as “gentle in the way that only a strong man can be is exactly what I think of when someone describes a warhorse – strength but, restraint and control.
Hi Jon, the point isn’t really what war horses are like, the point of the article is to investigate the meaning of praus. I could not find any source where an ancient writer uses prau– words with a sense of strength when speaking about horses.
In this first comment, David says that the equivalent word in Hebrew means “humble, poor, or afflicted.” These are not desirable traits in warhorses. David doesn’t mention strength, restraint, or control.
In his second comment, he says that tough men like Paul can also be meek. Both weak and strong people can be meek. But the word praus itself does not have a sense or implication of strength.
David (and I) disagree with the statement, “he was gentle in the way only a very big [or strong] man could be.” This is not how praus is used in ancient texts including the New Testament.
I’ve tried to understand “praus,” too. I wish I’d have found your work, Marg, before writing about being “tamed” in an historical fiction novel I wrote about a tragic true story involving my great grandparents from the year 1872 which actually occurred on a road named “Tama,” pronounced “Tame-uh” by the locals. Toward the end of the book, the word “praus” is included and scripture is quoted as “The tame shall inherit the earth.” (“Shadows of the Summer Solstice: A Legend about a Farmer and the Green Ribbon Murder.” shortened to “The Green Ribbon Murder” for Kindle. )
Right, what counts for the definition of meek is what can be discerned from its use in Scripture. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to map the Hebrew to the Greek (and vice versa) and the LXX can come in very handy for this.
P.S. Since all of the authors of the books of the NT were Jews, except perhaps Luke, I have seen (and agree with) the claim that it is helpful to think of the books of the NT as being written in Judeo-Koine Greek. That is, just using a Koine Lexicon can be misleading as many of the ideas are Hebrew concepts in Greek clothing, such as Hades in the NT not referring to the Greek concept of Hades but rather to the Hebrew concept of Sheol and the authors simply used the “closest Greek word” available.
Context is always the key to working out the meaning of any word. In the New Testament, praus and prautēs occur alongside words that mean humble, quiet/calm, kind, patient, peaceable, forbearing, etc. Though it is also used with perseverance once and with self-control once which can require inner strength. I honestly don’t think praus is an enigmatic word.
I do not either. I keep being surprised when some wearing blue glasses (masculinist worldview) see blue texts in Scripture in places I cannot imagine before they do it.
There is no such thing as Judeo Koine Greek. It’s just Koine Greek and that’s all. Just because most of the NT writers were Jewish doesn’t mean they had a special dialect of Koine. Any scholar with his/her weight in gold that knows KG will tell you the same.
James, you could have worded your comment more gently, dare I say, more πράως.
Apart from a few semiticisms—the frequent use of ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν and of the impersonal ἐγένετο, Hebrew/Aramaic loan words, and constructions such as πληθύνων πληθυνῶ in Genesis 3:16, for example—I don’t see compelling evidence for a distinction between the Koine used by circa first-century Jewish authors and non-Jewish authors.
Perhaps these observations of Daniel Wallace are useful:
“Semiticisms affect the style of the NT, while the syntax is still Hellenistic Greek [of which Koine is a subset]. Syntax is something external to an author—the basic linguistic features of a community without which communication would be impossible. Style, on the other hand, is something internal to each writer. (p.27)
Wallace goes on to say, “To a large degree, the style [of the NT] is Semitic, the syntax is conversational/literary Koine (the descendant of Attic), and the vocabulary is vernacular Koine.” (p.28)
Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 27 & 28. (Wallace’s use of italics.)
I am no scholar, but I think it unwise to assert that there is just Koine Greek. Ancient Greek had many dialects and it would be very surprising if KG did not have the same. As a largely spoken language, is was a lingua franca among diverse people. Inevitably it would have been flavoured by the mother tongues of its speakers. The equivalent today would probably be English. We know that this has lots of variations. In India there is ‘Hinglish’, and in the southern USA, ‘Spanglish’. The USA and the UK are famously “two nations divided by a common language”.
For Jews, it is not unreasonable to think that how they used KG would be influenced by the LXX, its vocabulary and phraseology. This is true of English. Many scholars cite William Tyndale (rather than, e.g. Shakespeare) as having the greatest influence on modern English. That is because he translated the Bible into his English (from the Midlands, I think). The use of this in the KJV and other translations of the time have then shaped our use.
There are, as Marg says, semitic influences in the NT – perhaps more than she cites. One was spotted in my NT class by a fellow student who knows Arabic. Hebrew will intensify an action by using an infinitive with a finite verb. You find the same in the NT (with a participle). We might translate literally, “rejoicing, he rejoiced”.
There are some more interesting cases. A prime one is how the LXX translates the Hebrew word ‘chat..tat’. If you look at Leviticus 5:6 this word occurs as referring to ‘sin’ which is committed and as the ‘sin offering’ which is brought to the Lord. The LXX translates both as ‘amartia’. LSJ has no meaning of this word as ‘sin offering’, but the LXX clearly does. How does this affect 2 Corinthians 5:21? Was Paul thinking (as some say) in Aramaic and then translating into KG? The NIV thinks so – see its footnote to the verse.
🙂 The example I gave from Genesis 3:16 is a participle followed by a finite verb. This kind of verbal repetition is done in a few slightly different ways in the LXX and in a few New Testament books.
There were different dialects of pre-Hellenistic Greek, dialects that developed over centuries in the functionally independent Greek city-states. But Koine was more standardised, thanks to the legacy of Alexander the Great. There were arguably local “flavours” of Koine (e.g., Alexandrian Koine) but not local dialects.
Any time there is a new idea, a possible response is that it is preposterous. Once one has a way to understand a specific Scripture text, it can feel threatening to discuss a different way to understand that text.
It turns out that there are many 1st Century Jewish idioms and technical terms used in the books of the NT, but since they are such, no one is required to believe that they even are such, they can continue to stick with the Greek meaning. An analogy would be if someone today says it is raining cats and dogs and someone in the future wonders why animals should be falling from the sky because they misunderstand the idiom!
When this type of thing gets into religious areas, whoa! I gave the example of hades/sheol, as I thought that was easy to see, but there are many more I could give, each possibly goring someone’s ox. That seems to be a tangent to the original discussion, so I defer unless Marg wishes.
I agree, Donald. The idea of a Jewish Greek is not as cut and dried as James seems to think it is.
This was so enlightening! I love *real* stories about ancient customs and what we can learn from them. It is distressing to see how some stories are without merit, and are simply presented as fact. I am better equipped to ask teachers for their sources and references now; too many lies are perpetuated because they “sound good” and tickle the ears …. hmmmmmmm, maybe that warning is in the Bible someplace (2 Tim 4:3 comes to mind)?
Hi Pauline, It disturbs me too that fanciful ideas are passed on as facts among Christians.
While I was writing this post I kept thinking of the “bald prostitutes” idea. Once upon a time, someone was scratching their head over 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, a difficult passage to exegete. This person had a brain-wave and thought shorn or bald prostitutes explained 1 Corinthians 11:5-6. The “bald prostitutes” idea gained traction among Christians even though there’s zero historical evidence for the prostitutes being bald in Corinth or anywhere else in ancient world.
In his commentary of 1 Corinthians, Gordon D. Fee writes, “It was commonly suggested that short hair or a shaved head was the mark of the Corinthian prostitutes (cf. e.g., Grosheide, 254). But there is no contemporary evidence to support this view. (It seems to be the case of one scholar’s guess becoming a second scholar’s footnote and a third scholar’s assumption.)”
Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 511 fn80.
On the other hand, there is evidence that Roman wives who committed adultery could have their hair cut short as a humiliating punishment. (I’ve written about this here.) And there’s evidence that some early Christian women cut their hair very short and renounced their sexuality when they devoted themselves to ministry.
Please see Philip B. Payne at https://www.pbpayne.com
or check out his scholarly book entitled: Man and Woman One in Christ or the second edition “conversational” book entitled: Why Can’t women Do That? breaking Down the Reasons Churches Put men in Charge.
Sometimes what we do not know can hurt us.
Hi Laura, I own, and have read, and often refer to Philip Payne’s book “One in Christ.”
I always love your articles and the comments.
Any one who has studied linguistics, translation and exegesis knows that all words have a range of meaning. The English word “fire” has a different technical meaning when associated with a firing squad vs when shouted in a crowded movie theater. Equestrian Konia vocabulary’s technical nuances probably have little in common with the meaning of words in other contexts as you have pointed out.
One of the truly unfortunate biases of most high tech communication is that in the lack of face to face non-verbal cues tends to make comments appear harsher and aggressive. James could have been more gracious to David but maybe he was in a rush.. It is always important as brothers and sisters that we demonstrate our love for each other in word and deed.
Having said that and not wishing to “pile on David” I think that the goal of understanding the scriptures exegetically is to try to understand them as their first intended audience would have. The NT with the possible exception of the gospel of Mathew and the epistle of James was undoubtedly written to non-Jewish believers and should be understood in that context.
I have seen well meaning preachers use a Strongs concordance to try to define the nuance of a word based on the Hebrew word that the LXX translators used to figure out the underlying words that Jesus used in the gospel accounts. Hebrew and Aramaic although similar are distinct languages and Hebrew was a dead language to the Jews who wrote most of the NT. If you think of other similar languages say Greek and Latin you can see what I am getting at. although I struggle with all languages (I’m dyslexic) I can read the NT and LXX in Kona Greek I’m lost if I pick up the Vulgate. There is linguistically at least the same amount of difference between Hebrew and Aramaic.
So although his comment was not as gracious worded as I would have liked in the end James is correct stick to the Konia, it was the language that the intended audience of the NT understood.
In the quotations given above, Xenophon is not using praus in a technical equestrian sense. He is telling trainers, handlers, and/or riders to be gentle and soothing when training horses. And in Cyropaedia, Xenophon uses exactly the same word for “more reasonable” soldiers as he does for horses who stand “more quietly.” (Perhaps take another look at the examples.)
Unfortunately, I don’t understand your comment about Koine. I don’t disagree with James, just with his tone. And his pedantry isn’t warranted. I want people to be kind in their comments. Still, my response somewhat backs up what James has said. Also, we are all talking about Koine in our comments.
I agree that we need to understand what the books and letters of the New Testament, written in Koine, meant to the original audiences. The purpose of my article is to expose the unsubstantiated “meek warhorse” claim in order to understand how the New Testament authors use praus. (Xenophon is the only author I could find who uses prau– words when speaking about horses.)
In my previous article, here, I focus more on the Koine of the New Testament.
I’m sorry I guess I should of worded my response/comments better. Thank you for your prompt reply.
Although it is somewhat of a sideline, might I defend myself. I object to the idea that KG is a single thing. Just as Greek in the classical period had many dialects, so KG must have had the same – if not more so. There would have been variations in space and time. This could include understandings of words. In comparison, consider how the adjective ‘smart’ is understood on either side of the Atlantic. Or how the British student, who had some pencil to erase, raised eyebrows among his American fellow students in asking for a ‘rubber’. So, when reading KG we need to allow for dialect.
A second point to make in response to Billy is that it is probably the case that the Church in the NT period was a thorough mix of Jews and Gentiles. Many of the Jews would have been Hellenised Jews, as evidenced by the Greek names of those who were clearly Jews. Many of the people specifically named in the letters are Jews. Rodney Stark (“The Rise of Christianity”) asserts (with arguments) against “scholarly opinion” that Hellenised Jews continued to be a source of converts to the fourth Century. Hellenized Jews who attended synagogue would have heard the LXX every Sabbath.
The NT frequently quotes the LXX. More interesting is when allusions to the OT are made. Revelation has no direct quotations, but I am told its 404 verses contain over 600 allusions to the OT. That would be unlikely if its main audience were Gentiles with no exposure to the OT.
The relation beween Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and the language spoken in 1st century Judea/Galilee is an interesting one. I think you are incorrect to see a huge difference between the Biblical language and the language of ordinary people. Although the NIV uses ‘Aramaic’ to refer to the language of, e.g. The inscription on the cross or Jesus to Paul in the vision, in the Greek, these are actually Ἑβραϊστί and Ἑβραΐς. If one goes to the OT for references to ‘Aramaic’ as a language, in the LXX the reference is to ‘Συριστί’ – ‘Syrian’ (a.ra.mit in Hebrew).
I think Hebrew and Aramaic are more closely related than Greek and Latin. In particular, they share the same word-root basis. I have started the long journey of learning Biblical Hebrew (which has given me, by the way, very significant sympathy for those with dyslexia, as I sit with the letters swimming on the page!). As you look up vocab. in Strongs, you come across that from the parts of the OT written in ‘Aramaic’. They are almost identical.
Two more points:
– the Alexandrian Jews did find the need to translate their Scriptures into Greek. However, they did this perhaps 400 years (less for some) since the Hebrew was written. They did have a good knowledge of both the original and the target language.
– however, the non-Greek speaking Jews did not feel the need to preserve how the Hebrew text should be read until the 8th century when the Masoretes developed the vowel pointings etc. I would be surprised if 800 years before the Hebrew text was not reasonably comprehensible.
In short, I do think the LXX is a useful resource for understanding how a 1st century Jews used KG.
Marg, have you come across ‘Jesus the Meek King’ by Deirdre J. Good? I recommend it. Good makes the case that praus is a quality of controlled strength, the opposite of someone in a position of power playing the tyrant. In as much as an equestrian equivalent might be drawn (which is very limited), it is the notion of a disciplined and controlled stallion. However, of greater relevance is the application to an authority figure demonstrating restraint and avoids the exploitation of power. Humility, as you know, was a despised quality or situation in life, while praus was commended. The recent trend to translate praus as humility is very regrettable – meekness and humility are very different notions.
Thanks, Tim. I’ll see if I can get a hold of it.
Meekness may sometimes involve self-control, or strength, but not always. And I agree that meekness and humility are not the same, but both qualities are mentioned together in a few NT verses, including Matthew 11:29.
I came across this article today:
It gives a clue as to why some would want to be able to find elements of militarism in the word ‘praus’.
Thank you for the article! I have heard it as “bridled ferocity”, as though meekness in Jesus’ case was that stallion being restrained. The implication is great power and strength being controlled.
You have caused me to consider that Jesus did not act with microagressions or barely restrained violence. And so there is nothing gendered about being meek.
You have clearly done a lot of work to find the source of these angry militaristic horses. It’s shocking to me there’s no references in Holman’s commentary – it’s like this is some idea that has been plagiarised around for a ‘wild at heart’ gendered theology.
Thanks, Lenny. I appreciate your comment.
I’ve had a bit of pushback from both friends and critics who maintain that praus has a sense of restrained strength, or strength under control. This idea may be the context of a sentence or paragraph that contains a prau– word, but I can’t see that a sense of strength, let alone fierceness, is implicit in the word itself. I also can’t see that the ideas of strength or fierceness are behind the verses where prau– words are used in the New Testament.
Thank you for the helpful article. I have heard Praus as strength under control. I think what everyone is missing is the source of strength.
Meekness is being gentle, while have the strength of a living God inside of us. I would argue that the phrase is correct but miss interpreted. That strength is reflected in the fruit of His Spirit. Gentleness, patience self control etc
Most theology goes astray when we place the object in ourselves instead of the God who we were created to Glorify.
I agree, Josh. I still think that, like humility and submission, there is an element of putting aside strength and laying down power, but paradoxically that means relying on strength from God.
First of all, I’d like to thank you for your thorough analysis. I haven’t read through all the comments and replies yet, but I intend to. I want to give a brief response before I lose sight of my thoughts or let them be swayed by other comments. It feels as though this is a passive attempt to right a potential wrong that ‘praus’ is being miss-labeled as inherently masculine by emphasizing the nuance of implied strength. I agree that this word is, in fact, a universal virtue that applies to both masculine and feminine. I believe in the biblical context, men needed to be corrected on their misunderstanding of the word more than women. I believe that could be true today, as well. I believe the nuance that can apply more accurately to each of your examples is in ‘control.’ But unlike self-control ‘praus’ has an essence of external impact. Meekness does not imply “no anger” it implies control of said “anger” based on external moral influence. If it were up to us we would retaliate but we place ourselves under the moral subjection of a greater power. In Christianity that greater power is the example and direction of Christ and His teachings. Strength is certainly a part of the example of warhorses because they are strong creatures. But as you mentioned the Jewish Christians had no “strength/power” in the context that they heard these words. This point shows that you are aware that that context in which this word is being used doesn’t mean physical strength or masculine power. And as indicated earlier I don’t believe it is an inner-strength either. ‘Praus’ can better be defined by “an obedience to a greater external strength”. In the case of horses, it’s their rider. In the case of men in a combat regiment, it is the code that they adhere to, spoken, and unspoken. In the case of the fish, it is the Syrians. In the case of the farm animal, it is their caretaker. In the first century, women had no choice but to accept a submissive role to an outside authority. Men on the other hand believed they were that authority. Men needed to know then and still need to be taught that God’s moral law is the authority and that we should be obedient to that law. And like one of your examples stated we need to be obedient to the slightest nudge of our Master’s voice, not be weak but be ready to do His will no matter how chaotic the world around us appears. I could be wrong but this is how I see the word ‘praus’ as needing to be understood today. This applies to males and females alike. Tame may be the best translation but not how we see tameness today. We see tameness as removing a wild nature. Tameness in the sense of meekness; is retaining the wild spirit while placing it under willing sudjection to an outside authority. In the Christain sense, the ultimate authority, God.
Hi Nick, Thanks for your comment.
My article has a narrow focus and is the result of trying to find the basis for the idea that the ancient Greeks used praus when speaking about training wild horses to become obedient war horses. This idea is repeated in numerous articles written by Christians. To date, I still haven’t found a reference for this idea that continues to be confidently asserted by some.
As with kindness, humility, and being submissive, I don’t think praus is a mystery. It seems some Christians are overcomplicating it. However, the purpose of my article is not to engage in a broad discussion on meekness; rather there is a narrow focus: It asks and answers the question, Does the word praus come from, or originate with, ancient military training of war horses?
One more quick comment: The first-century Greco-Roman world was not just patriarchal. Society was stratified in various ways and there were plenty of men who had little to no authority, men who were slaves and paupers, for example. Conservative estimates are that a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, and many members of churches were many slaves and paupers. Women with a degree of wealth, especially those from the upper classes and those who lived in Roman colonies and places such as Macedonia, had more power than most male slaves and paupers.
A little off-topic, sorry, but the use of the word ‘patriarchal’ is itself an illustration of how words change meaning. If a current meaning might be ‘relating to or denoting a system of society or government controlled by men’, its origin is more precise in ‘rule by fathers’. This was a true state of affairs in the extended Roman household.. The ‘pater familias’ had significant power over the other members of that household even, in theory, the power of life and death. That autocratic authority extended to all,including adult children and the servants and slaves. Then that model was applied to the nation as a whole, with the ‘patrician’ class acting exerting authority as ‘fathers of the nation’. So, rule was not just only ‘by men’, but by a small set of men.
This, incidentally, puts Ephesians 6:1-4 in an interesting light. ‘Children’ here are ‘offspring’ not ‘not yet adults’, so includes adult children – and the reference to the fifth commandment makes this clear. I don’t hear many who use Ephesians 5:22ff to say wives are subordinate also saying that adults need to obey their parents – including their mothers, which is not part of the patricarchal system.
Thanks, David. I’m a person who points out that the household codes and the 10 Commandments require adult children (including grown men) to obey their fathers and their mothers. These texts weren’t speaking about young children. I also point out that the household codes require slaves (including grown male slaves) to obey their male and female slave masters.
I write about this here and here.
As you probably know, the pater familias did not have as much power (potestas) in the first century CE as in previous centuries. And more and more, women were marrying sine manu, so that they did not come under the legal protection and control of their husbands. This way they could retain any personal property or inheritance for themselves. On top of that, the reforms of Augustus gave citizen wives, under certain conditions, even more legal autonomy. There were several social dynamics, patronage is another, that enabled some women to have power and influence in the first century. We see some of these women in the New Testament. I write about this here.
It appears there are misunderstandings on both sides. Please, continue to correct or clarify, as you see fit. I was reading this post as an attempt to correct an error (or potential error) in the use of the word ‘praus’ as a word used to describe war horses. I have read similar articles to the kind you have mentioned. I can’t remember if they had further citations. I will pay closer attention from now on. Where I feel like we are finding our disconnect is this: this article seems to deconstruct the Christian commentator’s interpretation of the word ‘praus.’ I agree with you that the word has carried a corrective masculine tone with an emphasis on strength under control. I also agree that these notions seem to be false in that they are not the primary nuance of the word. What I felt was missing from the article was a logical reconstruction of how the word was intended to be understood. Now, I know this can be subjective but it is worth discussing. My reply was an attempt to draw a link between the way this word was used in the contexts you provided. I did not intend to imply that the Syrians were being described as being praus, but the fish. Ironically this is the one usage that logically fits the least. Aside from maybe dolphines and some larger aquatic mamals, fish in general are not “tamed.” In this time culture they we likely similar to Koi fish. Even today we keep fish as pets but no one in their right mind would think they are actually “tamed”. That brings up the issue we are all discussing. It is nearly impossible to understand completely they intended nuances of various words. What will people think of the words “cool” or “groovy” in a hundred years. Is every usage a subjective messure of temperature or an uneven/wavy surface. If all these examples are from the same Kione-Greek era, they offer us an oppertunity to look for similar themes. The best way to do that is to remove the current interpretation and look for new alternatives that could fit in best into every usage. Much like in mathmatics when when create a formula to derive a particular answer we try multiple variations to test for consistently accurate answers. Unless you are a ancient language scholar you have to trust the integrity of the rest of the passage and assume your own inaccuracy but it can be very insightful.
Where I find this most frustrating in scripture is when a word is translated into a particalar word one way until it is used in the same sentence as another word that fits better. The words ‘moichao’ and ‘porneia’ are often both translated adultry until they are put in the same sentence. Likewise, when the same English word is used when two different Greek words are used in the same sentence. The word love is used in John 21 the word love is used for both ‘agapao’ and ‘phileo’ making it nearly impossible for basic readers to see the variations in nuances that impact their intended meaning. It isn’t until we strip it back and look for an alternative that we can see the possibilities.
So, I truly appriciate your diligence in seeking a more accurate usage of this word. I definitley see a need for this word to be rediscovered and more accuratley applied to our current understanding of the word meek. The only way to truly correct a logical error is to go back to the point of error, correct, and then move forward.
Hi Nick. A few quick thoughts:
~ I have never seen a citation in articles that make the war horse claim, and I’ve looked hard for them. I suspect the claim is made up, a fabrication.
~ I don’t say this: “… the word has carried a corrective masculine tone with an emphasis on strength under control.” Or perhaps I am misunderstanding you. Praus has neither a masculine or feminine sense.
~ Xenophon gives the reason why the fish in the Chalus River are praeōn (“tame”). I’ve seen tame fish that are unafraid of people and can even do simple tricks. However, I make a distinction in the article between the use of praus words describing animals (“tame”) and people (“mild-mannered”), simply because we expect more of people and don’t usually call people “tame.” I make statements to that effect a couple of times in the article.
~ I think I’ve given a clear indication in the article about what praus meant in and around the first century, and therefore what it means in the New Testament. The quotation of Ignatius further demonstrates its meaning. Plus, I have other articles about meekness in the New Testament. The focus of this article is deliberately narrow.
~ Out of interest, which translations render porneia as “adultery”?
Thank you. I found this article while searching for a citation regarding the warhorse example for meekness. Seeing that you also have not been able to find anything definitive is a great help, and I can stop going down this rabbit hole and get on with my lesson preparation.
That’s good to hear. I’m glad my descent into the praus-warhorse rabbit hole was not a waste of time and that others can benefit from it.
Thank you for your work on this passage. Recently, I did a podcast for my church on 1 Peter 3, and it was a struggle for me. I almost called my Pastor and told him I couldn’t do it, but I believe in God and I figured I needed to tackle those verses. I am thankful for the work done by you and others to get to the meat of the meaning of scriptures.
I’m glad my work has been helpful to you. 🙂
I’m genuinely amazed this particular article is as popular as it is considering the very narrow topic. When I was writing it, I thought no one else would be interested in it, but it gets about 100 views a week. I thought it would get 100 views a year.
Thanks for the great article. I’m writing a personal development book, and while researching masculinity I came across the warhorses interpretation of meekness which eventually led me to your article.
Based on your article, I’ve come to a slightly different interpretation, and would love to hear what you think about it.
I agree that praus is not at all about fierceness, and is only tangentially related to strength in as much as it is about restraint, and strength is just one of the things that can be restrained. I think that ‘tame’ comes closest to the intended meaning, but only if we look at ‘tame’ from a different perspective. I think that Xenephon’s quote, ‘even horses that work together stand more quietly together’ gives us the best angle from which to understand this slightly different meaning of tame.
I think that in current parlance ‘tame’ has a slightly pejorative tone. To be ‘tamed’ often means to be subjugated by another, to be forced to bend to the will of another, and thus it gains its association with ‘weakness’ and being humbled. But when Xenephon’s applies ‘proaterous’ to horses standing together, there is no hint of being subjugated to anyone, and therefore, no hint of being humbled.
How would horse behave if there were not being ‘proaterous’? They would be skittish, and reactive, and squabbling, and fighting for dominance and for self-defence. The absence of skittishness (easily activated fear, heightened perception of threats) also applies to the Syrian fish, and it also applies to all other cases of taming animals.
Animals who have been tamed, have learned to be less fearful around humans, and thus their interactions with humans are much less likely to trigger fight or flight reactions—that’s the primary attribute of taming. The optional, secondary attribute is willing co-operation with humans. Not all tame animals obey commands—they just won’t bite you or flee from you.
Being able to control/master one’s fearful/angry emotional impulses is about being more reasonable. The tame animal sees that there is no reason to be afraid. Xenephon’s soldiers who endure hardships together are more reasonable toward one another, leading them to be “more courageous in the face of the enemy.”
And so, praus is primarily about wise/reasonable self-control, where reason is the master and the emotions are the subjugated. It then acquires a second layer of meaning when applied between beings. A tame animal submits their emotions to their reason, while at the same time submitting to the will of their owner. The same applies between people: the poor/afflicted, must use their reason to control their impulses to react angrily to their unfair, impoverished conditions because if they don’t control themselves the rich and powerful will punish them. They must submit to the will of the rich and powerful, and begging for scraps is the most rational strategy available to them, so they use rationality to tame their internal impulse to revolt, while at the same time allowing themselves to be tamed by the rich.
Moses chose to tame his own impulses in order to be tamed by (subservient to) God.
I think that interpreting praus to mean “use of rational self-control to prevent unwise expression of emotional impulses to revolt against circumstances” can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’s use of praus in the phrase, “The meek will inherit the earth.” While many of Jesus’s followers were poor and powerless, they would not necessarily have been wilting flowers. He is reported to have consorted with members of the underclass: tax-collectors, prostitutes, fishermen—there are likely to have been some rough and tumble characters amongst them, quick to anger and to violence.
Additionally, revolution against the Romans was a constant presence in those times. There would have been many passionate revolutionaries among Jesus’s followers, looking to him as the Messiah who would lead the revolution and defeat the Romans.
Thus Jesus’s instruction to be praus/meek can be understood on a personal level—it is beneficial to get your emotional reactions under control—and also on a political level—control your desire for revolution. The latter doesn’t necessarily mean ‘give up completely’, just ‘don’t do anything rash’. This perspective helps us understand the incident where Jesus overthrows the tables of the money-changers in the temple, which definitely cannot be seen as the action of someone who is ‘meek’, but rather as the use of controlled aggression as part of a rational plan.
Sorry, for how long this is. I appreciate you taking the time to read it.
Hi Lau, Here are a few comments.
~ I agree with your description of “tame” here: “Animals who have been tamed, have learned to be less fearful around humans, and thus their interactions with humans are much less likely to trigger fight or flight reactions.”
This is how the word praus is often used in the context of animals. The fish weren’t obedient. And taming can occur without intentional activity of humans.
~ I like how you say that praus is “only tangentially related to strength in as much as it is about restraint.” This is exactly right, especially in the context of human relationships.
~ I’m content with the word “tame” and am not reading as much into it as you. It’s not a word usually applied to people, only animals. I don’t think it’s pejorative when applied to animals. (I wouldn’t apply it to people.)
~ Note this postscript which has relevance to Moses.
~ I’m not sure that Jesus was cautioning people about wanting a “revolution” when he used the word praus. However, many in his audience in Matthew 5:1-11 were hoping for a better, more just world. Turning over the tables was not in any way an example of being praus. But I agree that being praus is the antithesis of doing anything rashly.
Understanding praus is not as complicated as some suggest. The real problem is that we don’t have an English word that adequately translates praus. The Greek word often pops up in statements about the behaviour of respectable people such as Abraham, for example, who is described as having lived all his life “in quietness (hēsuchia) and gentleness/meekness (praotēs-πρᾳότης) …” (Testament of Abraham 1.3)
I stand by my conclusion, “Meekness is a quality of mild-mannered and self-controlled gentlemen and gentlewomen, and it is a quality of animals that are tame or gentle with humans.”
The “warhorse” thing goes back a while, because I first heard it in the early 1990s.
Besides the gendered thinking that factors into it, I think that for readers and writers in the U.S., there is also a frequent cultural narrative that romanticizes wildness and unrestrained passion and scorns self-control and gentleness, a desire to see oneself as an unfettered pioneer in a wilderness rather than a gentle member of a community. Sadly, too, in my country there’s a romanticizing of the quickness to resort to violence. “Don’t tread on me, because I will make you regret it” – There’s a belief that a quickness to lash out at a slight is somehow a virtue.
In my teens and formative years, I raised livestock and working dogs, so I never understood ‘tame’ to have anything to do with strength or weakness, nor with effeminacy or other gendered qualities. When I wrote on praus, I wrote about an animal that is praus isn’t driven to action by fear or appetite. I wrote about how Americans like to romanticize wild animals (mustang, wolf) and envy their “wildness,” but a wild animal may live in fear, in a survival mode. Its response to danger is to fight or flee. I said that many people live like wild animals, lashing out at others or fleeing because we permit our fears and appetites to ride us and control us. If I were as tame and gentle as a good working dog, I would know to hold my tongue. If I were even as tame as a cat, I could purr and relax and be content and gentle or perhaps playful in my dealings with others, because I wouldn’t be acting out of fear first. I tried to deconstruct how pejoratively we see ‘tame’.
I think you’re right that the issue isn’t that praus is hard to understand (it isn’t) but that we don’t have an English equivalent. ‘Tame’ and ‘meek’ each carry pejorative meanings today. In the U.S. at least, ‘gentle’ has begun to, as well. The term is treated in a very gendered way, and men bristle at being referred to as ‘gentle.’ “I’m not gentle; I’m wild and strong and dangerous.” That idealizing of “wildness” makes no sense to me (having grown up on a farm) but it is definitely something my compatriots, men especially, want very badly to find in Scripture.
The “bridled wild stallion” exegesis (of unknown origin) completely missed the point of why people tame either animals or their own passions. We don’t tame a horse so that we can channel its “wild strength” in some macho way. We tame a horse (ideally, with gentleness) so that it won’t be skittish and afraid, so that it won’t hurt itself and others, so that its fears won’t keep it from its purpose. In the case of a human being, we are living a life of purpose that God (or that we, without God) define, but we can either exercise self-control and gentleness in living it, or lose our purpose by shying away or by lashing out in aggression at every perceived threat, like a frightened animal.
I also think it’s fascinating how often people will see military metaphors in the NT without considering how the Roman military functioned. When Ephesians uses military metaphors, for example, the writer clearly had in mind the Roman square, in which all the soldiers work together as an interdependent unit, defending each other, and to put yourself first is to leave the person beside you (who you were supposed to be shielding) exposed; the context for military metaphors when they actually do appear in the text is entirely different from the ‘rugged, masculine, individual warrior wearing the full armor of God’ that people seem to have in mind when they (mis)read it.
Anyway, besides a gendered idea of strength, I think that the cultural connotation of “wildness” is also in play when that exegesis of the bridled warhorse is offered.
Thank you for your research. I wonder if the warhorse idea was first suggested in the book *Wild at Heart.* I don’t know for certain that it was mentioned in its pages, but that was a bestseller in the early to mid 90s and it felt like every Christian man and certainly every youth pastor in the U.S. had read it back in the 90s. (It was a book about reclaiming masculinity, strength, and wildness, and it was very influential on evangelical Christian thinking in my country.)
Ah, it was not Wild at Heart. I was wrong. That was published in 2001. I first heard the warhorse thing from a youth pastor in 1994 or 1995.
It may not have been “Wild at Heart” which introduced this idea, but the book seemed to me to reflect precisely what you describe as defining masculinity not so much in Biblical terms, rather in terms of an idealised, perhaps ‘wild west’ narrative, of the self-reliant frontier man, who has a fight in a bar and then has a drink with the man he has been punching.
I should say that my exposure to the book was limited. I did not make it past the first chapter or so as its argumentation was so clearly specious. I recall some criticism of film in its portrayal of men (probably meaning films which show men as caring and sensitive) but then singing the praises of (Sir) William Wallace. However, the book seemed ignorant of the little we know of the 13th Century figure, and to be based on the portrayal by Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’.
Any account of a Christian masculinity must be concerned to promote the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Full disclosure: I am a Brit.
David, I didn’t get past the first chapter either.
I love your point about the fruit of the Spirit.
This is excellent, Stant: “praus isn’t driven to action by fear or appetite”
And this: “We don’t tame a horse so that we can channel its “wild strength” in some macho way. We tame a horse (ideally, with gentleness) so that it won’t be skittish and afraid, so that it won’t hurt itself and others, so that its fears won’t keep it from its purpose.
I appreciate your thoughts here.
There is no Praus without the contrast of the wild strength first being a potential. Gentleness is only applicable if the person is capable of the opposite as well.
Without their ability to impose will, there is no gentleness.
Similar to never having darkness or light. Without darkness, one cannot know what light is and vice versa.
Hello J. Sinanin, What do you base your idea on that there is no praus in human behaviour without strength, let alone “wild strength”? What Greek texts indicate that this is the case?
Strength does not contrast with praus, and it’s not the opposite of praus.
Praus is occasionally used in texts as the opposite of being angry, but more often, it simply refers to a gentle, soft, mild mannered temper. And as I say in the article, meekness can be regarded as midway between anger and arrogance on one hand and despondency and passivity on the other.
You’re overthinking it, J. And your importing ideas that have little to do with how ancient Greek authors thought about the word and how they used it, especially in the context of human behaviour which is the context the New Testament authors have in mind.
Also, Gentleness is my normal mode of behaviour. It rarely requires effort.
I posted this article in mid-2020, and even though it has been viewed 10,537 times since then (I just checked the statistics), no one has come up with a Greek text that shows it refers to wild horses or to restrained wild strength.
I’m sure you’ve found older sources, but I came across a source from 1896, “Humility: The Beauty of Holiness,” by Andrew Murray, in the Preface.
“A closer look at the word meek: The Greeks called their horses praüs, or meek. When the horse got to the level of training where it would obey the master (the rider) no matter what was going on, it could be trusted in the heat of battle not to do something stupid or foolish. Once the rider knew that he could trust the animal, and it would obey him no matter what, he called it a meek horse even though it might be a powerful, thoroughbred stallion, capable of killing enemies in the battle.”
The warhorse illustration, even if incorrect, precedes even the bloggers!
Thanks so much for this, Josh! I’ll see if this remark about horses is in my copy of Murray’s book, and I’ll probably add a note about it in the article.
Hi Josh, I’ve looked at two older editions of Murray’s book on humility and cannot find any reference to horses (or killing) at all. See here for example: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/57121
By contrast, the prefaces I’ve read finish with “… meekness and lowliness of heart are the chief mark by which they who follow the meek and lowly Lamb of God are to be known.” The sentiment in this statement from Andrew Murray is a far cry from the meek warhorses’ idea.
Perhaps the preface you’ve read was written by a more recent author. Would you be able to check this for me? I’d love to know more about this.
My guess is that the paragraph you’ve quoted comes from an “updated” edition, perhaps even the recent 2016 edition.
I’ve done a bit more digging and have discovered that what you quoted is a footnote in the 2016 publication, Humility (Updated, Annotated): The Beauty of Holiness.
This footnote is not Andrew Murray’s words and I’m sure he’d be dismayed these words have been added to his book. It does not reflect Murray’s views.
As far as I can tell, the footnote is garbage. When applied to animals, praus typically means “tame.”
I apologize! I didn’t realize that the footnote was not original, though I should have done a better job checking. I was only hoping to contribute something to the discussion.
That footnote is what brought me on a search, uncovering your blog. I tried to explore the Greek word in some biblical language sources that I own and could not find anything about “strength,” “war horses,” or the like. Rather, much suggested the opposite. Your article here was incredibly helpful in settling this!
Thank you for your careful scholarship.
No need to apologise. It’s useful to me to see how this idea is being disseminated.
Can you see who the author of the footnotes is? I only have limited access to the book online.
It’s not immediately clear if the footnotes originated in this edition, but the editors for this edition are Heather Thomas and Ruth Zetek.
I’m sure you’re probably tired of other peoples opinions by now so don’t feel a need to respond if I’m just rehashing what’s already been discussed. I wanted to add another perspective on a very important topic and the specific angle you have approached it with. I have read the article and all of the comments as well as some of your related articles. Admittedly I wanted to believe the “bridled warhorse” and “sheathed sword” interpretations as they appealed to me rather innately but as an investigator I wasn’t satisfied with that conclusion and so I found myself here. Because the warhorse analogy has been thrown around so much I thought I might give my perspective on that…. I grew up working for my Grandpa who was a very well respected horse trainer in the area for decades. He specialized in problem horses and used biblical principles to achieve amazing results. Because he was so well respected he trained one of the biggest mounted patrol units in the USA for many years. These horses had to be adept at facing all kinds of adversities you would find in an unruly crowd of people so we made large obstacles including wind tunnels and a ring of fire! The goal was the same as training a trail horse for a young kid….You wanted a reliable horse with a gentle disposition who would listen intently to you (the rider) while greatly limiting the affect of outside forces on the horses ability to respond to the riders will.
I say this to illustrate the point that I believe the “war horse/sheathed sword” approach is not necessarily wrong in a certain perspective (after all, Peter was never rebuked by Jesus for carrying a sword but only when he impulsively used it was he rebuked) BUT this approach can lead someone to miss the mark if they are not careful (I was a prime example) ….. I’m not debating the physical nature/history of the word “Praus”. You and others are clearly more educated than I am in ancient Greek, however The physical understanding can at times lead to an over simplification or even an over complication and miss the mark for the spiritual understanding which in the end is the purpose and goal.
Jesus begins to climb the mountain in Mat 5 for His flagship message “sermon on mount”. He starts by going through, in a sense, levels of conversion with the goal being the “Kingdom of Heaven” as well as being “salt” and “light” to this world now. He starts with being poor of spirit “ptochos” the poorest of the poor, completely destitute and helpless in that society. We go up a couple levels (for lack of a better word) as we take the lessons of “poor in spirit” and “mourning” with us and we come to “meekness”, this has to be more than just gentle/tame because when your “ptochos” you dont have much of a choice as you are often operating on survival instincts (Prov 18:23 the poor man uses supplications but the rich answer roughly). But as you grow and overcome and “climb the mountain” there begins to be more to you and naturally you become more able, formidable, capable. Of course any self respecting able bodied man would love to think of himself as becoming a war horse at this point or a sharp sword sheathed in anticipation. The problem with this is it can tend to direct ones focus away from the goal and onto “outside forces” (who are you going to war with?/who or when will the sword become unsheathed and cut off someone’s ear?) Rather the focus must be on going to war with and conquering “the self”, “the outer man” , the human instinct of of impulsivity/survival/ carnal nature…..”Lau” in the comments I think begins to hit this point to his credit. Human nature tends to want to conquer the world and conquer others before conquering the self/being conquered by God and replacing one own nature with God’s nature. HOWEVER …. there is good news for people like me who really struggled with the warhorse/sheathed sword not being the conclusion of the matter….conquering the self is denoted in most religions as a higher victory than anything else you could conquer in this life. Many secular philosophers and scholars recognize this as well. Plato said “The first and greatest victory is to conquer the self”. Proverbs 16:32 says “He who is slow to anger is BETTER than the mighty and he who rules his spirit is BETTER than he who conquers a whole city”.
True balance is not being safely perched in the middle (that is just plain naivety), true balance is having the understanding and wisdom to balance both ends of the chaotic extremes and bring them into an orderly and peaceful harmony. Likewise “meekness” is not just merely the absence of harsh, impulsive and wild unrestraint but rather the conquering of these undesirable self qualities through much effort and yes even sometimes going through the “Wind tunnels” and the “ring of fires” of life so that in due time as 1 Peter 5 says:
“But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish (set firm ones mind), strengthen (make strong ones soul), and settle (put on a strong and unmovable foundation) you”.
The thing about Praus is there is a contrast involved within the definition. It’s not just a horse that is tame. Not a horse that was born tame, or born domesticated. It’s a horse that used to be wild, but now has learned to manage that aggressive wildness inside of them. Or was previously wild at one point, but is now voluntarily controlling that wildness while still having it in them. It’s a contrast in the meaning of it.
Like the phrase by Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far”. It’s not just “speak softly” (tame horse) or just “carry a big stick” (wild horse) but both! You see the contrast?
It’s like a martial artist, if you think about how those people are very disciplined, it’s an art of discipline, and self control. That’s why it’s so good for kids. It teaches them to “tame the wild horse within them”.
There is nothing moral about being harmless (very unfortunately). I’ve come to realize this. I used to think I was an outstanding moral guy, because I was extremely adamant about showing others that I was polite, harmless, and nice. But then when I started working at jobs and going out in the world more, and coming across more and more people who did not reciprocate that upmost politeness back to me that I treated them with, I started to get bitter and resentful. Bitter and resentful is what creates evil people. The people who do horrible crimes like Columbine are the true weak ones, and they do it because of bitterness and resentment built up that they do those bad things. They were reasonable people in the beginning, but the sad case it’s that the world was not reasonable to them and they didn’t have a way to handle it.
Not all people are as reasonable as you and I are. I wish that was the case, and I hate to say it, but there are evil people out there who are aiming down while we are aiming up. These people are devoted to mayhem, while we are devoted to the opposite.
One time the Canadian minister of foreign affairs said about Milosevic in the former Soviet Union in Yugoslavia on the horrible things being committed against human rights there he said he didn’t have the imagination for that kind of evil. He thought he was signaling his virtue, but really he was just saying his cowardice and historical ignorance. Because if you’re going to be a minister of foreign affairs for an entire country of people, then you better darn have an imagination for that kind of evil because anyone who does wins! They’ll beat you. And you are supposed to protect that whole country of your people. In that case, the Milosevic will win. If Milosevic type of people didn’t exist in the world, I would love that, but he was there, and was a real person who did horribly bad to people, so we have to be realistic unfortunately.
Praus is like “those who carry a big sword and know how to use it but *keep it sheathed* will inherit the earth”.
Carl jung said every human is like a beautiful tree that reaches to Heaven but also has roots that go all the way down to hell. This is Praus! The contrast there!
The Beauty and The Beast!
I found this all out recently, I am 31 years old, and one of the nicest and most humble guys I am told. But I just learned about this whole underside, and it’s true. I believe this is what Praus is about!
It’s a warhorse that “stands calmly while *not in battle*”. Contrast. It’s not just a horse that doesn’t know how to do battle.
It’s not “calm”, it is “to calm down”, which implies that it was not previously calm at one point. Contrast.
It’s not “tame, but it is “TO tame”, which implies it was not tame at one point. Contrast!
It’s like being the rider and the wild horse within yourself. To tame the wild horse by becoming the rider, instead of just the wild horse and trying to dominate people into submission or for you to just maintain control in relationships (like you said).
If you have children, Think of a good parent: you don’t want to always submit to your child, but you don’t want to be too strict or even aggressive with discipline on them.
It’s about knowing when to chirp your own self (to calm yourself) but also knowing when to cluck yourself (to rouse yourself when proper).
I just had these thoughts when I came across your article! That was a very interesting read! I love history, etymology, Greek stuff, Christianity, and many of the tie you talked about. I will bookmark your site and I will be back! I hope I didn’t sound like I was trying to be clever with you! Or to disagreeable or in a rude way! I just thought I would state my opinion on it because I’ve been researching a lot about this lately and it’s changing my personality and worldview (or helping me discover my personality as a whole honestly)!
Branch, believe what you want, but praus typically means “meek” or “gentle.” And in the case of animals, “tame.”
You’re reading way too much in the idea of horses standing together. According to the context of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia 2.1.21, these horses are standing together quietly after they’ve been working, when they are not in battle. The contrast of this is horses standing together in an unruly manner. The other example in this paragraph is soldiers eating together in an unruly manner after they’ve been training hard.
Praus is not the opposite of being evil. And to say or imply that it’s the opposite of wild, misses the mark. As I say in the conclusion of my article, and with the machismo idea of warhorses in mind, praus is the antithesis of arrogance, anger, and aggression.
People who don’t know Greek have made up all kinds of scenarios to explain what they think praus means. But if these scenarios don’t help us to understand what the word really means and how the New Testament authors used it, what’s the point? It confuses and aggrandizes something that is neither complicated nor grandiose.
In the New Testament and early Christian usage, praus has a sense of humility. The author of the Didache (circa 100 CE), a native speaker of Greek, elaborated on praus.
“But be meek (praus), since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be patient, merciful, innocent, quiet and good, trembling at the words that you have heard. Do not elevate yourself, or let your soul become overconfident. Your soul must not be joined with the lofty, but abide with the just and lowly.” Didache 3.7
Note that the “meek will inherit the earth” is a quotation from Psalm 37:11, and that the Hebrew word translated into the Greek as praus means humble and lowly. (See postscript 1.)
I mention Jordan Peterson’s sword idea in postscript 2 above.
Understanding the Greek word praus and how it was used in the New Testament is not complicated. Much of what has been recently written and said about praus by non-scholars, especially the analogies, is contrived rubbish.
“the unfading beauty of a gentle (praus) and quiet spirit … is precious in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4).” More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/gentle-quiet-spirit-1-peter-3/
My mother had a huge library and was well read in religion and associated lore. She told me once that she’d found a scholar who claimed that “meek” in this context was better translated as “carefree.” As applied to horses, perhaps “fearless” would be more precise, if the horses were trained for battle. “Unafraid” might be the best compromise meaning, for both horses and people. Surely, we must face the times ahead of us fearlessly.
Hi J Guenther, I’m not sure what context you’re referring to in your second sentence, but there are Greek words that can mean “carefree,” “fearless” (courageous, brave), and “unafraid,” and praus really isn’t one of them.
In the New Testament and in other early Christian and Jewish writings, praus (“meek”) is often paired with words that can mean humility and quietness. The context is usually not about being unafraid.
In the passages I’ve cited above that are about horses, the context indicates that “unafraid” is not a meaning or nuance of praus. Allow me to repeat a line from my article:
“From these passages [in Xenophon that mention horses and other animals], we can see that prau– words may be translated into English as “most gentle,” “soothing,” to calm down/ be calm,” “gentle,” “to tame,” “tame,” and “more reasonable/ more quietly.”