Idiotes – A Highly Intelligent Idiot?

Word of the Week

January 30, 2021

Doing Your Own Word Studies

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Idiōtēs – A Highly Intelligent Idiot?

Nobody wants to be called an idiot!  It’s a slur that implies stupidity, poor judgment, and foolishness. Psychiatrists used to employ it as a technical term for someone with a mental age of two years or less, but they have now switched to less offensive descriptions.  It still forms part of the standard vocabulary of insult, however.

Idiot in English is a way to accuse someone of low mental capacity, but the word actually comes from a Greek term that is not nearly as harsh.  The Greek idiōtēs was applied to the apostles Peter, John and Paul – hardly the type you would accuse of having a low IQ!

Calling someone an “idiot” meant something quite different in the first century.

We can discover the original flavor of the word by considering the three passages where it occurs in the New Testament

  1. Peter and John (Acts 4:13)


Arrested and jailed overnight for preaching in the Temple, Peter and John were hauled to the Sanhedrin for interrogation.  This council consisted of the chief priests, the power brokers, the professional scholars – the closed ruling circle of power for the Jewish nation. You would expect the two fishermen to be cowed by such an assembly.  Instead, they confidently announced that salvation was available exclusively through Jesus, who had risen from the dead.


The Jewish leaders were astounded by such fearlessness from men who were “uneducated” (literally, “without letters”) and “untrained” (idiōtēs).  The two men lacked the credentials that characterized this audience; they had none of the formal training of the legal experts.  They were outsiders who didn’t really belong in this company.


  1. Paul (2 Corinthians 11:6)

The apostle Paul was under fire from a collection of critics in Corinth who tried to promote themselves by undercutting Paul.  One of their tactics was to complain about his speaking ability.  He did not have the polished style taught in the professional schools of rhetoric, so they ridiculed him as an uncouth amateur.


In his rebuttal to these charges, Paul acknowledged that his training did not include the niceties of Roman rhetoric.  “But even if I am idiōtēs in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge” (2 Corinthians 11:6).  He may not have completed a degree in communications, but he lagged behind no one in his knowledge of God’s truth.


  1. Confused Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:16, 23-24)


The church at Corinth tended to allow their worship services to deteriorate into disorderly shouting matches.  People would announce prophetic messages from God or launch into discourse in an unknown language whenever they felt the urge.  More than one would all speak simultaneously.  Paul urges them exercise self-control and to speak in turn so their worship would be more orderly.


“What if an unbeliever or an idiōtēs arrives to hear this cacophony of words?  They will think you are crazy!”  In this context, an idiōtēs is someone who has not been initiated into the Corinthian church community.  He is an outsider who will not understand the inner workings of the group.

As you can see, idiōtēs in Greek is a lot different than idiot in English.  It describes someone who doesn’t belong to the inner circle, someone who has not gone through the formal training and orientation to participate fully in a group.

In classical Greek, idiōtēs meant a private citizen, one who concentrated on his own affairs rather than seeking public office or participating in civic life.  It described a layman rather than a specialist like a physician, philosopher or priest.

Paul was no dummy; he just hadn’t gone to the Greek university.  Peter and John were smart enough to write several books of the New Testament; they just hadn’t gone through the training to become scribes or priests.  Even visitors to the Corinthian assembly were not ignorant; they merely needed an explanation of the unusual shape of the service.

You may feel like an idiōtēs in the eyes of the contemporary world.  The political power brokers, the academic and scientific specialists, and the opinion-shapers of our society form an intimidating bloc that leaves little room for the claims of Christianity.  You may lack the keys to belong to that club.  But that doesn’t mean that you should cower in fear.

Like Peter and John, you can boldly share the truth you know about Christ, who actually rose from the dead and offers the only path of salvation.  Like Paul, you may not have a huge profile on social media, but you do have the truth which God has revealed.  Even if you are like the confused Corinthians, you have the Word of God to help you make sense out of a bewildering society.

Even an “idiot” can be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ!

Study Hint:

The word idiōtēs occurs so seldom in the New Testament that it’s hard to get a clear picture merely by using the do-it-yourself method.  In this case, there are two fruitful avenues to follow: (1)  Borrow from reference sources to find information on how it was used in older, secular Greek; and (2) pursue the cognate word idios, which will be the subject of next week’s word study.




Q: One of my favorite Bible teachers was talking about the episode in Acts 28:7-10, after Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta.  The chapter describes the healing of a prominent citizen and other sick people on the island.  The teacher said that verse 9 uses the Greek word therapeuō, which has the idea of receiving medical treatment.  In other words, Paul used divine healing but Luke was there practicing his skills as a doctor, and both were used by God.


Is this explanation accurate?


A:  The word therapeuō occurs 44 times in the New Testament.  I just looked at all 44 uses, and 28 of the verses use the word to describe Jesus healing people of all the diseases and demon possessions that troubled them.  Eight more passages describe the healing power that He gave to His disciples, and the book of Acts describes three miraculous healings by the apostles.  None of these involves medical treatment by a physician.  Only Luke 4:23 links the word with a doctor, when Jesus cites the common saying, “Physician, heal yourself” to describe the hostile attitude He encountered in His home town of Nazareth.

Bottom line:  I don’t see any basis for the idea that therapeuō indicates a doctor providing treatment for patients.  It seems more likely that Paul was providing supernatural healing for those who came to him.

Coming Up

Next week we will do a follow-up study of the Greek word that lies behind idiōtēs. Join us to find out what Christ claims as His very own personal property.

©Ezra Project 2021

4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure what it takes to be a technocrat these days, but I certainly never want to get to the place where the academic aspect squeezes God out of His rightful place. The techniques of Bible study are intended to help us understand what God has revealed about Himself, not to decide whether or not we accept what He has said.

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