Precursors of Paul's "faith" language

The use of the “faith” word group is widely attested in extrabiblical Greek but with a less specific semantic domain than the NT uses of the word. The word group is quite ancient: The adjective πίστος is found in Homer (8th century B.C.), the noun πίστις is found in Hesiod (approximately 6th century B.C.), and the verb πιστεύω is found in Aeschylus (5th century B.C.). Although there are legitimate nuances which can be differentiated in particular contexts, the general meaning of the word group is an expression of trust or confidence, owing to the derivation of this word group from the verb πείθω/πείθομαι (“persuade” and “obey” respectively). The expression of trust referred to by the particular words in the group can be active or passive: It can be trust directed outwardly towards an object, or it can refer to a quality which engenders trust in or receives trust from others. These nuances can be seen in the different categories of meaning possible for the verb πιστεύω: trust, put faith in; comply; believe that, feel confident that; have faith; entrust.[1] The noun πίστις “connotes persuasion, conviction, and commitment, and always implies confidence, which is expressed in human relationships as fidelity, trust, assurance, oath, proof, guarantee.”[2] The adjective πιστός reflects these same nuances and can generally mean “faithful, trustworthy” in the passive sense or “believing, relying on, loyal” in the active sense.[3] One important distinction from a contemporary understanding is that the πιστ- word group was not primarily focused on cognition or similarly what could be termed mental assent. Rather it primarily focused on conduct; the earliest uses of this word group concern an agreement or bond and thus have a social orientation.[4] Nor was it solely a religious term as in the NT; the word group was used in religious contexts but not primarily; this context was not central or foundation as it came to be in the NT.[5]

The LXX uses this word group to translate the verb אמן, especially the hiphil and niphal stems, and related cognate words, such as אֱמוּנָה, but this presents a slightly skewed picture if this is the only evidence considered, as אמן was only one of many words to describe the relationship between man and God. Other words like בטח (“trust, be confident”), חסה (“take refuge”), קוה (“await, hope”), יחל (“wait, cause to hope”), and חכה (“to wait for, be patient”) were also used commonly to express the breadth and depth of the human-divine relationship.[6] Even so, the use of the πιστ- word group in the LXX and its central focus in the NT is lexically and semantically warranted:

The LXX and NT were right when they related their term for faith (πιστεύειν) to the OT stem אמן, for in this word is expressed the most distinctive and profound thing which the OT has to say about faith. . . . The significance of the OT view of faith may be seen in the fact that, as an expression of the particular being and life of the people of God which stands both individually and collectively in the dimension of a vital divine relationship, it embraces the whole span of this form of life, even to the final depths which are disclosed only when, under the threat to human existence, certainty in God releases new energies of faith and life.[7]

The simplest meaning of אמן is “to be firm, trustworthy, safe.”[8] The niphal of אמן means “to be reliable, faithful,” which is applied to both God and humans in the OT.[9] The related noun אֶמוּנָה similarly means “steadfastness, trustworthiness, faithfulness.”[10] Important theological uses are found in Isa 7:9 and 28:16; in each instance there is a call to trust within difficult circumstances which then leads to a future beyond.[11] This prefigures well the important NT nuances of the terms. It is a fair summary that “the אמן word group describes a living act of trust, and also the dimension of human existence in a historical situation. The terms do not step outside the realm of the personal.”[12]

  1. “πιστεύω,” LSJ 1407–1408.  ↩

  2. “πίστις,” TLNT 3:110.  ↩

  3. “πιστός,” BDAG 820–821.  ↩

  4. “πιστεύω, et al.,” NIDNTTE 3:760.  ↩

  5. “πίστις, πιστεύω,” EDNT 3:92; R. Bultmann, “πιστεύω, et al.,” TDNT 6:179.  ↩

  6. “πίστις, πιστεύω,” EDNT 3:92; A. Weiser, “πιστεύω, et al.,” TDNT 6:183; J. P. Healey, “Faith: Old Testament,” ABD 2:744.  ↩

  7. A. Weiser, “πιστεύω, et al.,” TDNT 6:196.  ↩

  8. “אמן,” HALOT 63.  ↩

  9. “πιστεύω, et al.,” NIDNTTE 3:762  ↩

  10. “אֱמוּנָה,” HALOT 62, which notes other meanings as well.  ↩

  11. “πιστεύω, et al.,” NIDNTTE 3:762–63.  ↩

  12. “πιστεύω, et al.,” ibid. 3:764.  ↩