The Agora
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Ask (Greek)

The NT has four words to signify "ask" or one of the synonyms of that verb. All of them are used frequently. It is no easy matter to sort out the different inflexions of meaning which these carry, but the effort is worthwhile because of the finer nuances of meaning which can then be traced in not a few places.

"Aiteo" expresses the idea of petition, asked by an inferior of a superior. This very clear implication of the word puts Trench ("New Testament Synonyms") in rather a flap because of Martha's appeal to Jesus: "I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee" (Joh 11:22). Trinitarian Trench does not like the implied notion that Jesus was not of equal status with his Father, and therefore he expresses himself somewhat scornfully about Martha's lack of spiritual insight. But, indeed, if the apostle John felt equally disapproving, would he have included this in his record uncorrected?

1Jo 5:16 is a very problematical passage using this word "aiteo". One problem arises from lack of nouns to the verbs. "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask (Jesus), and he (the Father) shall give him (Jesus) life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he (Jesus) should beseech (God) for it."

"Erotao" seems to have two distinct flavours:

  1. It is used as equivalent of the English "enquire". Thus, "Jesus asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?" (Mat 16:13). And in reply to the Pharisees' interrogation about his own authority, Jesus replied: "I also will ask you one thing..." (Mat 21:24). Similarly, concerning the disciples' mystification: "Jesus knew the disciples were desirous to ask him. Do ye enquire (seek) among yourselves of that I said, A little while and ye shall not see me...?" (Joh 16:19), to be followed by the assurance: "In that day ye shall ask me nothing (erotao, question, enquire)... Whatsoever (understanding) ye shall ask ("aiteo", petition) the Father in my name, he will give it you" (16:23).
  2. But this word is also used often as equivalent to "beseech". It describes importunity: The Syrophoenician woman pleading on behalf of her daughter (Mar 7:26); the rich man begging that his five brothers be warned (Luk 16:27). In this sense, often enough. It is rather surprising, then, to find it used of Jesus "praying Simon" to let him use the fishing boat as a pulpit -- a measure perhaps of how hard-pressed Jesus was by the crowd (Luk 5:3,1). And it is equally surprising to find Pharisees more than once beseeching Jesus to accept their hospitality (Luk 7:36; 11:37). Mere Pharisee hypocrisy? And in John 14:16 this supposedly Trinitarian gospel throws a spanner in the Trinitarian works with this word of Jesus: "I will pray (beseech, beg) the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter...", with reference to what could be expected at his ascension to glory!
"Eperotao" is the same as "erotao" with the intensive prefix "epi" added to it. Accordingly, it means either (a) specially earnest enquiry, (b) an insistent pressing interrogation, or (c) enquiry with a certain legal formality about it -- in this respect not markedly different from "punthanomai" below.

  1. Women chattering during the service about matters which provoke their interest are bidden pursue this earnest seeking from their husbands at home (1Co 14:35). It is this word which describes the eager thirst for knowledge on the part of the boy Jesus as he heard the learned elders in the temple and "asked them questions" (Luk 2:46). Somewhat remarkably, the same word comes in Mar 8:23 to describe Jesus' healing of the blind man by stages: "he asked him if he saw aught". The word implies a special eagerness on the Lord's part in the performance of this miracle. The symbolism here helps to explain. When a lawyer came "tempting Jesus", asking the question: "Which is the great commandment in the law?" (Mat 22:35), by using "eperotao" the narrative acquits him of hypocrisy or evil purpose.
  2. But there is no good meaning behind the summary phrase at the end of that day of debate in the temple: "No man durst ask him (press upon him) any more questions" (22:46). The same word describes the eagerness of the Pharisees to bring about his discomfiture: "He was demanded of the Pharisees when the kingdom of God should come" (Luk 17:20).
  3. Pilate's questioning of Jesus (Mat 27:11), and the high priest's interrogation of the apostles (Acts 5:27) both seem to give to "eperotao" a certain flavor of legal procedure. Yet not necessarily (there being another word for this: see below), for in both of these places it may be the intense feeling or strong pressure of these worldly men that is being described.
Lastly, "punthanomai" very clearly describes (a) the question put by a superior to his inferior, and (b) akin to this, the formal legal enquiry.

  1. It is the word used of the nobleman enquiring of his servants the precise hour of his son's recovery (Joh 4:52), of the prodigal's older brother asking for explanation of the unexpected celebration (Luk 15:26), and of the Roman soldier sent by Cornelius enquiring, as of one of an inferior race, the way to Simon Peter's house (Acts 10:18) -- yet it is also Peter's word, as from the Lord's representative, when meeting Cornelius: "I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me" (Acts 10:29).
  2. The "legal enquiry" aspect of "punthanomai" is readily discernible: the chief priests cross-questioning Peter (Acts 4:7), the Roman captain and Felix making enquiry about Paul (Acts 21:33; 23:19,34). But it is somewhat startling to find the same word used of Peter's eagerness to identify the traitor Jesus had spoken about: "Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him (to John), that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake" (Joh 13:24). Peter doubtless wished not only for inquisition but also summary condemnation of the guilty one.
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