“Compassion” in the New Testament

Word Study on “Compassion”: splagchnizomai, splagchna

Opening Comments

The splagchn– word group has a strange transmission history from the older Greek usage to the later New Testament usage. Especially the use of the verb splagchnizomai in the New Testament, which is restricted to the Synoptic Gospels, has undergone a complete change from the original Greek usage — transitioning from a rather dark background in the human practice of ritual blood sacrifice (see 2 Mac 6:8 below) to its opposite, the anti-sacrificial (or self-sacrificial) practice of Jesus bringing God’s culture/kingdom into the world. The meaning of the words transform from the experience of sacrificially locating oneself against an Other — to be filled with wrath (orgizomai in the Greek) or “righteous indignation” against one’s enemy — to being moved to respond to the needs of an Other as neighbor — to be filled with compassion as exemplified by Jesus himself. What a change!

The primary source on this word group is the article by Helmut Köster in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Vol. VII, pages 548-59. Before giving a complete listing of the verses where these words occur in the Bible, I summarize Köster’s findings here. (Note: the article uses the original Greek and Hebrew alphabets, which I transliterate here.) First, the Greek usage of the noun splagchna:

In early Gk. lit. the noun occurs almost always in the plur. It originally denotes the “inward parts” of a sacrifice, and specifically the nobler parts as distinct from the entera (“entrails”), egkata, i.e., the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys, which are separated in the sacrifice and consumed by the participants at the beginning of the sacrificial meal. The word can then go on to mean the “sacrifice” itself. From the 5th cent. it is used anthropologically for the “inward parts” of man. . . . (p. 548)

Greek usage, at any rate in the pre-Christian period, does not view the splagchna as the seat of heart-felt mercy, as in later Jewish and the first Christian writings. There is no developed transferred use, and the word is never employed for mercy itself. This rather rough term seems none too well adapted to express Christian virtue or the divine dealings. (549)

The Greek usage of the verb is even more gruesomely tied to sacrificial ritual, with the later Christian usage of splagchnizomai completely without precedent:

The Verb. splagchneuō is based on the use of splagchna for the inner parts of a sacrifice and means a. “to eat the inner parts” (at the sacrificial meal), Aristoph. Av., 984 ; Dio. C., 37, 30; Dorotheus in Athen., 9, 78 (410b), and b. “to use the entrails in divination.” In secular Gk. splagchnizō occurs only once in an inscr. from Kos (4th cent. B.C.) in sense a. No transf. use has been found outside Jewish and early Chr. lit. (549; my emphasis)

Where did the Christian usage of splagchnizomai come from? The splagchn– word group is nearly absent in the Hebrew scriptures as represented in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures; abbreviated as “LXX”). The central Hebrew word for “compassion” or “mercy,” rahmim/riham, is primarily translated in the LXX by oiktirmoi and eleos. The splagchn– word group only begins to see usage in intertestamental writings like the Books of the Maccabees (almost exclusively the noun; one instance of the verb). But even Maccabees uses splagchna more in the style of secular Greek usage.

It is primarily with The Testimonies of the Twelve Patriarchs (Test. XII) that we witness the transition to the Christian usage:

Considering the usage of Test. XII as a whole, we find that splagchna, splagchnizomai, and eusplagchnos have completely replaced the LXX words oiktirmoi, oiktirō, and oiktirmōn → V, 160, 8 ff. They are thus a new translation of the Hebrew words rahmim/riham. (552)

And the most unusual aspect of usage in Test. XII is the shift to using the word for God’s actions:

The most important element in the new usage which begins in Test. XII is that the originally rather crude term splagchna can be applied to God Himself. At the end of the days stands the revelation of the splagchna of God ep’ eschatōn tōn hēmerōn ho theos apostelei ta splagchna autou epi tēs gēs, Test. Zeb. 8:2. (551-52)

Köster does not speculate why this transition happened. We might conjecture that it is because the Hebrew word for “compassion” or “mercy,” rahmim/riham, has to do with a visceral ‘moving’ deep in the human abdomen, that eventually becomes connected to the Greek word for “inner parts.” But regardless of why, we are now set up to see the specialized use of the splagchn– word group in the New Testament. Of splagchnizomai in the Synoptic Gospels, Köster writes:

The usage of Test. XII (→ 551, 14 ff.) is continued here. But outside the original parables of Jesus there is no instance of the word being used of men. It is always used to describe the attitude of Jesus and it characterises the divine nature of His acts. This use persists in the one early Christian writing which has the verb apart from the Synoptic Gospels, namely, the Shepherd of Hermas, where the reference is restricted to God alone, → 558, 5 ff. Finally, then, the verb splagchnizomai has become solely and simply an attribute of the divine dealings. (553)

“. . . no instance of the word being used of men.” It would be more accurate to say that it is used of Jesus (both divine and human) and by Jesus of characters in his parables. In the Synoptic Gospels (and nowhere else in the New Testament), splagchnizomai occurs 12 times: 3 in parables of Jesus, 4 in miraculous feeding stories, 4 in healing/raising stories, and 1 in which Jesus responds to a ‘shepherdless’ crowd by sending out disciples in mission. Here, then, is . . .

The Verse List

Verb: splagchnizomai, “have compassion”

2 Maccabees 6:8 At the suggestion of the people of Ptolemais a decree was issued to the neighboring Greek cities that they should adopt the same policy toward the Jews and make them partake of the sacrifices,

Matthew 9:36 (Prelude to the mission of the Twelve): When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 14:14 (Feeding of the Five Thousand): When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

Matthew 15:32 (Feeding of the Four Thousand): Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”

Matthew 18:27 (The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant): [Jesus said,] And out of compassion for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

Matthew 20:34 (Healing of two blind men): Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

Mark 1:41 (Jesus cleanses a leper): Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Mark 6:34 (Feeding of the Five Thousand): As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Mark 8:2 (Feeding the Four Thousand): [Jesus said,] “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.”

Mark 9:22 (Healing of a boy with a spirit): [The father of the boy said to Jesus,] “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Luke 7:13 (Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain): When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

Luke 10:33 (Parable of the Good Samaritan): [Jesus said,] But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.

Luke 15:20 (Parable of the Prodigal Son): [Jesus said,] So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Noun: splagchna, “compassion,” more often “heart” or having to do with “inner parts”

2 Maccabees 9:5-6 But the all-seeing Lord, the God of Israel, struck him with an incurable and invisible blow. As soon as he stopped speaking he was seized with a pain in his bowels, for which there was no relief, and with sharp internal tortures — and that very justly, for he had tortured the bowels of others with many and strange inflictions.

4 Maccabees 5:30 not even if you gouge out my eyes and burn my entrails.

4 Maccabees 10:8 They immediately brought him to the wheel, and while his vertebrae were being dislocated by this, he saw his own flesh torn all around and drops of blood flowing from his entrails.

4 Maccabees 11:19 To his back they applied sharp spits that had been heated in the fire, and pierced his ribs so that his entrails were burned through.

4 Maccabees 14:13 Observe how complex is a mother’s love for her children, which draws everything toward an emotion felt in her inmost parts.

4 Maccabees 15:23 But devout reason, giving her heart a man’s courage in the very midst of her emotions, strengthened her to disregard, for the time, her parental love.

4 Maccabees 15:29 O mother of the nation, vindicator of the law and champion of religion, who carried away the prize of the contest in your heart!

Proverbs 12:10 The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.

Proverbs 26:22 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.

Wisdom 10:5 Wisdom also, when the nations in wicked agreement had been put to confusion, recognized the righteous man and preserved him blameless before God, and kept him strong in the face of his compassion for his child.

Sirach 30:7 Whoever spoils his son will bind up his wounds, and will suffer heartache at every cry.

Sirach 33:5 The heart of a fool is like a cart wheel, and his thoughts like a turning axle.

Jeremiah 51:13 You who live by mighty waters, rich in treasures, your end has come, the thread of your life is cut.

Baruch 2:17 open your eyes, O Lord, and see, for the dead who are in Hades, whose spirit has been taken from their bodies, will not ascribe glory or justice to the Lord;

Luke 1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,

Acts 1:18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.

2 Corinthians 6:12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.

2 Corinthians 7:15 And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling.

Philippians 1:8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,

Colossians 3:12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Philemon 1:7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Philemon 1:12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.

Philemon 1:20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.

1 John 3:17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet closes his heart against him?

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