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I was researching the difference between "dead and "asleep" when I found this

1 Corinthians 15:6 - What does "Fallen Asleep" really mean?

It answered my question, but left me with another question. Before you read my question, please understand that I have no education of the Greek language. Just a Christian clicking around translation sites (like King James Online Study Bible and BibleHub Interlinear) trying to gain a better understanding of God's word.

John 11:11-14

11 He said this, and then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep (koimaō G2837), but I’m on my way to wake him up”. 12 Then the disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep (koimaō G2837), he will get well.” 13 Jesus, however, was speaking about his death (Thanatos G2288), but they thought he was speaking about natural sleep (hupnos G5258). 14 So Jesus then told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, (apothnēskō G599)

According to @Mark_K, his answer (in the post I reference at the beginning), hupnos means "sleep", and is never used metaphorically as "dead" And, koimaō means "sleep", but is commonly used metaphorically as "dead". In verse 11, Jesus is using koimaō metaphorically to say that Lazarus is dead. Verse 12 shows that the disciples don't pick up on this, and they think Jesus means Lazarus is asleep. Verse 13 points out that the disciples have misunderstood. And in verse 14, Jesus uses apothnēskō, to plainly say Lazarus is dead.

This makes sense and helped a lot, but is there an explanation for why a completely different Greek word (thanatos G2288) is used in verse 13 which also means "dead".

Meaning, if these verses touch on the fact that there was a misunderstanding about what Jesus has already said is there a reason to introduce another word for "dead", thereby creating the possibility for more confusion. (of course it could just be me that's confused).

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  • Excellent question, well researched. Up-voted +1. This is what SE-BH is here for. Much appreciated.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 20:34
  • Per @Der Übermensch's answer, they are not completely different words but share the same root, thnéskó (Strong's 2348 meaning to die). Thanatos means "death" and is the noun form of thnéskó. Apothnēskō is a compound verb (from apo and thnéskó). Like thnéskó, it also means "to die" but is used in place of thnéskó in the present, future, and aorist tenses (see information under LSJ definition of thnéskó). FYI I am also "just a Christian clicking around translation sites trying to gain a better understanding of God's word."
    – Nhi
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 14:50
  • Thanks Nhi. I just posted some very similar thoughts under @Der. It took me several hours to break down his answer, but in the end it achieved the goal.... I have a better understanding of God's word and a small pebble (maybe just a grain of sand) has been added to my Greek scale. Thanks everyone!
    – matt
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 15:09
  • Your question leads to me to consider why apothnēskō is in the aorist tense, which is used to indicate actions that occur at "one-point-in-time." I wonder whether it is because Lazarus' dying was not an event with an ongoing result/effect (state of being dead), which would warrant the use of the perfect tense, but rather one that marks a point of transition between two states of being? The Greek tenses here and elsewhere provide a lot of food for thought.
    – Nhi
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 15:52

2 Answers 2

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And in verse 14, Jesus uses apothnēskō, to plainly say Lazarus is dead.

This makes sense and helped a lot, but is there an explanation for why a completely different Greek word (thanatos G2288) is used in verse 13 which also means "dead".

Actually, the noun θανάτου (from the lemma θάνατος) and the verb ἀπέθανεν (from the lemma ἀποθνῄσκω) are related.

First, ἀποθνῄσκω is composed of the preposition ἀπό and the verb θνῄσκω. As Thayer notes,1

In composition2 ἀπό indicates separation, liberation, cessation, departure...

We can think of ἀποθνῄσκω as a more intensive form of θνῄσκω, but both can and do mean “to die”. In fact, take note of this Synoptic parallel where a conjugation of ἀποθνῄσκω is used in one gospel and a conjugation of θνῄσκω is used in the other gospel, although both are referring to the exact same historical occurrence.

Mark 5:35 Luke 8:49
While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (NKJV) While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.” (NKJV)
Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἔρχονται ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀρχισυναγώγου λέγοντες ὅτι Ἡ θυγάτηρ σου ἀπέθανεν· τί ἔτι σκύλλεις τὸν διδάσκαλον Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἔρχεταί τις παρὰ τοῦ ἀρχισυναγώγου λέγων αὐτῷ ὅτι Τέθνηκεν ἡ θυγάτηρ σου· μὴ σκύλλε τὸν διδάσκαλον

A conjugation of θνῄσκω is used several times in John 11–12 in reference to Lazarus:

  • 11:21: ἐτεθνήκει
  • 11:39: τοῦ τεθνηκότος
  • 11:41: ὁ τεθνηκὼς
  • 11:44: ὁ τεθνηκὼς
  • 12:1: ὁ τεθνηκώς

Although θάνατος and θνῄσκω might not appear related, when you examine the conjugations of θνῄσκω in a conjugation table, it becomes apparent that they are derived from the same root.

This is θνῄσκω conjugated in the active (ενεργητική) voice, future (μέλλοντας) tense, indicative (οριστική) mood:

enter image description here

This is θνῄσκω conjugated as a participle (μετοχή) in the active (ενεργητική) voice, 2nd aorist (αόριστος β) tense, neuter (ουδέτερο) gender:

enter image description here

You can see that θνῄσκω and θάνατος actually share the same root: θάν-, and therefore, they are not completely different Greek words. Their relationship is essentially no different than the English words “die” and “death” (for lack of a better analogy).


Footnotes
1 Thayer, p. 59, ἀπό, V.
2 i.e., when it is joined to another word to form a compound.
References
Wilke, Christian Gottlob. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Trans. Thayer, Joseph Henry. Ed. Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.
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  • 1
    So, not only do I have virtually no knowledge of the Greek language, apparently I also struggle with the English language…..I had to look up “lemma”. But that gives you an idea of where I’m at (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) This is a fire hose of information and will take a bit of time for me to process. I will literally have to take each Greek word in your answer and change them to the transliterated form, so that I can even begin to make sense of the ideas you are providing.
    – matt
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 12:59
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    Having said that, sites like this and Christianity Stack Exchange, have been a big part of my increased understanding of the Bible, and my growing faith. So, thanks for the info (you too @Dottard).
    – matt
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 13:00
  • ... except that Jesus uses the word κοιμάω (sleeping) to describe Lazarus which this answer does not address.
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 20:40
  • The word is quoted in the text he quotes - John 11:11-14
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 1:07
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    @der. After spending an inordinate amount of time reviewing the information you provided….I’d like to up vote your answer. I referred to thanatos as a “completely different word” than apothnēskō, and you walked both of them back to a common root. The charts blew a meningeal fuse….so I’ll just trust you on that info. (Yeah, I had to look up the word meningeal….I was just trying to run with the big dogs) I should upvote it an additional +1 for forcing me learn about “lemma”
    – matt
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 15:03
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First, our English word "cemetery" comes directly into the language from the Greek, koimeterion = "a place of sleeping".

The NT writers frequently employed the euphemistic metaphor of sleep to designate death. The pertinent word (verb) here is κοιμάω (koimaó) which is used in the NT in two senses:

  1. literal physical sleep, eg, Matt 28:13, Luke 22:45, John 11:12, Acts 12:6.
  2. as a metaphor for death, or being dead, eg, Matt 27:52, John 11:11 (see V14), Acts 7:60, 13:36, 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51, 1 Thess 4:13, 14, 15, 2 Peter 3:4. See also Dan 12:2.

This is an exhaustive list of all the instances of koimaó in the NT. The distinction between the two meanings is easy to pick.

Other words used like this include:

  • καθεύδω (katheudo) is used of literal sleeping (Matt 8:24, 13:25, 25:5, 1 Thess 5:7, etc), but also of death, Matt 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52
  • ἀφυπνόω (aphupnoo) is used only of literal sleep just once (of Jesus) in Luke 8:23
  • ὕπνος (hypnos) is used of literal sleep (never of death), Matt 1:24, Luke 9:32, John 11:13, Acts 20:9, Rom 13:11 (this last from a spiritual sleep)

Thus, the Greeks had numerous words meaning "sleep" or "sleeping". Two of these words (as listed above) also were used to denote "death".

There are various explanations as to why the NT writers and Jesus used the concept of sleep to denote death. Here are some of reasons presented in the general literature. [Note that these are speculative because the NT is silent about this.]

  • a person sleeping lies in the same position as a dead person [Indeed, the verb κοιμάω (koimaó) is closely related to the verb κεῖμαι (keimai) = to lie down or recline; but that does not explain καθεύδω (katheudo).]
  • a person cannot be communicated with when asleep or dead
  • Jesus simply "awakes" a person at the resurrection of the dead, 1 Cor 15:6-51, 1 Thess 4:13-18, John 5:28, 29, etc.
  • it is an OT metaphor found in Dan 12:2 -

And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, but others to shame and everlasting contempt.

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  • There are a series of misunderstandings in this thread which are very common among bible students who have not done any study on the subject of lexical semantics. I am up voting this post because it has not included anything dubious. It may not speak directly to the question of the OP but it avoids the most common fallacies. Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 0:19

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