Updated: Jun 18, 2020
This week's Bible Word is the Greek noun zoe, which means “life”. This word appears in the Gospel (Jn 11:1‑45) of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, year A, where Jesus tells Martha that He is the “resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25).
The noun zoe is one of a group of 8 other related words, all with meanings related to life and living. The noun zoe and the verb zao (“I live”) account for close to 90% of the total occurrences in the New Testament. These Greek words give us the English words: “zoo” and “zoological”, as well as the name Zoe.
In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, zoe refers to life as existence, including the duration of human life. In the Odyssey book 3, the wise and generous king Nestor says that he will offer hospitality to strangers “while I live [zoo] and children after me are left in my halls”. Zoe also characterises life as having the capacity for self‑movement, as opposed to objects that move purely mechanically – so Plato in his Laws, says “we are to think of a thing as alive [zen] when it moves itself”. Elsewhere, zoe can refer to a way of life, as Herodotus describes the Scythian young men who want to return to their homeland with their Amazonian wives, saying “now therefore let us no longer lead a life [zoen] of this kind”. This sense of the quality of life is also mentioned by both Aristotle and Plato, who make a distinction between zoe and another Greek word, bios, the latter having the sense of occupation or purpose in life. In his Timeaus, Plato says that “the one who neglects education…continues a lame existence (zoen) in their lifetime (biou)”; Aristotle’s Politics says that a slave is a partner of his master’s zoes, in the sense that he resides with the family, but not of his master’s biou – in that he does not share his master’s career.
So, we see that most of the focus of zoe is on the natural, material realm of existence. Even though the gods have immortal zoe, the difference from human life is one of duration (in other words, endless life) rather than of quality. Later developments in the Hellenistic world (especially in neo-Platonism and Gnosticism) applied greater spiritual value to zoe – but they mostly characterise this zoe as distinct from, and not accessible in, human life, taking an opposite view from the materialism of the secular literature. Instead, Platonists thought of life as the soul’s temporary sojourn in a mortal body. As we will see, the Bible’s use of zoe rejects both these senses of the Greek literature: the materialist-only view of zoe, but also the idea that zoe can only be achieved beyond the obstacle of human existence.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, zoe is almost exclusively the Greek word used to refer to life, in its various senses. Bios accounts for only around 3% of occurrences in the LXX, all of them in the Wisdom literature and in later histories.
The Hebrew Scriptures take a different perspective from the Greek literature – because they regard God as the source of all life. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes into Adam the breath of life [zoes], so that he becomes “a living [zosan] being”. God is the One Who gives both life and death (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7).
God alone is life; indeed, He is the very definition of life and existence. He refers to Himself in Exodus 3:14, as ehyeh asher ehyeh; we might render this almost untranslatable phrase as: “I am (or will be, or cause to be) what I am (or will be, or cause to be)”. He is described 15 times in the Hebrew Scriptures as the “living God” (Theou zontos). The Lord refers to His own life as a mark of the truth of His words, as in many places, He says “As surely as I live” (for example, Ezekiel 17:16 and 33:11). He even encourages Israel to swear “as the Lord lives” to earn His blessing, in Jeremiah 4:2. In contrast, pagan gods and idols “have no breath in them” (Jer 10:14).
Human beings desire God to give them life. The refrain “give me life” [zeson me] occurs 13 times in Psalm 119, with another 3 phrases referring to God providing life. Long life is a blessing from God: in Psalm 21:4, the king “asked life [zoen]” of God, and God “gave it to him, length of days for ever and ever”. Proverbs 3:2 says that both length and quality of life are a reward for keeping the commandments, whereas in Psalm 26:9, disobedience brings death, an end to life. And God is capable even of restoring life, so that his people may repent and return to Him. We see this dramatically in the extended image of God breathing life even into “dry bones” in Ezekiel 37:1-14.
This ethical dimension of life is presented most starkly in Deuteronomy 30:15-16, where Moses sets before the people a binary choice: death or life; evil brings death, but obeying the Lord’s commands will cause the people of Israel to “live [zesesthe] and multiply”. And later in Deuteronomy, the law is described as “not an empty word, but your life [zoe]” (Deut 32:47). So we see that life is not just physical existence, but when lived in God’s “way of life” (Ps 16:11), has a spiritual or ethical quality, which can become a path to conquering even death, as when the Psalmist says that the Lord has “delivered my soul from death… that I may walk…in the light of the living [zonton]” (Ps 56:13).
The New Testament takes this spiritual view of life still further, but does not ignore the life of this world. Instead, there is a continuity between life in this world and eternal life, both being described by zoe. Because of the saving power of Christ, neither human existence nor the body ends at death. Therefore, the New Testament conception of zoe rejects both the materialism and the dualism of the secular Greek world – locating zoe both in this world and the next.
Both the noun zoe and the verb zao retain their basic meaning of referring to human existence, often as distinguished from death, for example, when the Apostle Paul prays that Christ will be exalted in him, “whether by life [zoes] or by death” (Phil 1:20). Living, as opposed to dying, is at the heart of many of Jesus’s healing miracles, including when Jesus assures the official that “your son lives [ze]” in John 4:50. And indeed, the New Testament shares the Hebrew Scriptures’ insistence that all life depends on God for its creation and continuation: “In Him we live and move and have our being”, as Paul says in Acts 17:28.
Zoe and zao also refer, just as in the Hebrew Scriptures, to both duration and quality of life: - in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man that he enjoyed good things during his lifetime [zoe]” (Lk 16:25). - the prodigal son squandered his inheritance by living [zon] recklessly (Lk 15:13).
But the New Testament’s predominant focus is not on zoe’s material concerns, but on a zoe life that is transformed through Jesus Christ. So Jesus tells us that true life (zoe) does not consist in an abundance of possessions (Lk 12:15); and that man does not live on bread alone, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 in His response to the Tempter in Mt 4:4 and Lk 4:4. The Apostle Paul exhorts his readers to live for God (Rom 14:8), for He is the only source of life. Such a re-orientation of human life requires a death to the current way of living, as the Apostle explains in Galatians 2:20: “no longer I who live [zo], but Christ who lives [ze] in me”. This transformation will make us “alive [zontas] for God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11), so that our hope is not “for this life only” (1 Cor 15:19).
Such a new life is possible only by uniting ourselves to Jesus, whose resurrection is the source of that new life. He is described as “alive” over 20 times in the New Testament, and we are “saved by his life [zoe]” (Rom 5:10), so that “we live with him”. This latter phrase translates the infrequently-used Greek verb suzao, which occurs only 3 times in the New Testament, in Rom 6:8, 2 Cor 7:3 and 2 Tim 2:11.
Jesus is therefore the “author” of life (Acts 3:15), not only in his resurrection, but because He is the pre‑existing Word, through Whom all life came to be in the beginning. As the prologue to John’s Gospel explains, “in Him was life [zoe]” (Jn 1:4). Jesus “has life [zoen] in Himself” in Jn 5:26. He shares this life with His Father, the “living God” [Theou zontos]. This latter phrase is as common in the New Testament as it was in the Old, occurring another 15 times.
Jesus is the source of “eternal life” (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 5:20). That explicit phrase (zoe aionion) occurs 42 times in the New Testament, plus another 24 occurrences, where the use of zoe or zao, clearly refers implicitly to the life to come. But eternal life is not only something to be hoped for in the future; it also can be experienced in the present: to some degree, we have it already, through Jesus, even if that life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). 14 of the instances of the phrase “eternal life” are associated with a verb in the present, rather than the future tense. Jesus says (Jn 5:24) that the one who hears his message and believes has already “passed from death to life”. As a result, we who are disciples can be described as “living” [zosan]: we are a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1), and “living stones” (1 Pet 2:4), who have a “living” hope (1 Pet 1:3). Therefore, there is a continuity between the zoe of this life and the next – not least because all life is omnipresent to God: He is the “God of the living [zonton]… for to Him all are in fact alive” [zosin] (Lk 20:38).
A beautiful illustration of this truth is found in a word used only twice in the New Testament: the verb zogreo means “catch alive”; it appears when Jesus tells Simon that he will be catching men rather than fish (Lk 5:10). Without knowing the underlying Greek word, we would fail to see this nuance, because most translations do not express the idea of being caught alive. But it enhances this metaphor of being brought to Jesus – because He wants all of us to be caught alive, so that we can be alive in Him, and live forever in His kingdom.
The Apostle Paul loves to make a play on words, to express the contrast between the old zoe life, lived for ourselves only, and the new zoe life in Christ. One example is in Romans 8:11-13, where the Apostle says that we must not “live [zen] according to the flesh”, but instead put to death the deeds of the body, so that we will be able to “live [zesesthe]…by the Spirit”. And we will be able to do this because God will “give life” to our mortal bodies through that same Spirit. This latter sentence uses a variant verb, zoopoeio, which occurs only 11 times in the New Testament, 7 of them in Paul’s letters. So the Apostle has played on 3 different senses of the word “life” in these 3 verses: first, life as mere human existence; second, the promise of new life in Christ and His Spirit, made possible by the third sense, the action of God Who gives life to our mortal bodies. Similar word play, contrasting unredeemed human life with the life of Christ, is evident in Rom 14:7-9, 2 Cor 4:11 and 2 Cor 5:15.
But it is above all in the Johannine writings – which collectively account for nearly half (66) of the total New Testament occurrences of zoe – that the idea of zoe is most richly expressed. - Zoe occurs 36 times in John’s Gospel – more than any other book. - Zoe is Jesus’s mission to the world (“that they may have life” – Jn 10:10), and John’s Gospel is written so that those who believe may have life through His name (Jn 20:31). - Zoe can only be found in the person of Jesus: knowing Him is life (Jn 17:3). - Jesus’s zoe life permeates His activities: He is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6); “the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25); He has “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). He also infuses His zoe life into everyday things, transforming them: He offers “living water” (Jn 4:10; 7:38) and “the light of life” (Jn 8:12); He is “the bread of life” (Jn 6:35, 6:48). - In the book of Revelation, Jesus is “the living [zon] one” (Rev 1:18), and images of life abound, from the Book of Life into which the elect are written (Rev 3:5; 13:18; 17:8; 20:12, 20:15; 21:27), to the Crown of Life which the faithful receive (Rev 2:10) and the Tree of Life (Rev 2:7; 22:14, 22:19). The “water of life” is free to anyone who thirsts (Rev 21:6), and flows through the streets of the New Jerusalem at the end of time, with its source being the throne of the Lamb (Rev 22:1-2). This beautiful image links the “living water” of John’s gospel, which Jesus promises in this life to anyone who asks (Jn 7:37-38), to the life that has no end, in His heavenly kingdom.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
1. First, do we understand that our life is not centred on “bread alone”, or material possessions? We live in a materialist culture, focused on wealth, power, fame and consumption. How successful are we in turning from these false Gods, to choose life rather than death? (Deut 30:19)
2. Second, do we recognise Jesus as the only source of true zoe life? Are we seeking Jesus, to know Him and live in deeper relationship with Him – for He has promised that to know Him is to have eternal life (Jn 17:3)? Or, like the Jews in John’s Gospel, are we searching elsewhere for life, and failing to find Jesus? (Jn 5:39-40)
3. Finally, do we rejoice that we have the promise of eternal life, or are we living like those who have no hope? Pope Francis said (Evangelii Gaudium, 6) that “there are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter”. Are we among them? When we encounter the greatest enemy, death, do we grieve like those with no hope (1 Thess 4:13), or trust in Jesus who is the “resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25)?