The idea of “seeing” was very important to Jesus's message all throughout the Bible. He used seven different Greek words for different aspects of seeing. He used these different words for a reason. In this article, I will each of those words and how it is used by him.
The Different “See” Words
There are six different words that get translated as "see" in Jesus’s teaching. They are, in order of frequency, eidon (εἶδον), blepo (βλέπω), horao (ὁράω), optanomai (ὁράω), noeo (νοέω), and theaomai (θεάομαι). Each word means something a little different. One of those words, the most common, eidon, has three different forms that Jesus uses for different purposes. My assumption is that Jesus always chooses his words for a specific reason. He doesn't use all these different words to show off his vocabulary. Nor does he use different words to avoid sounding repetitious. He uses a lot of repetition, intentionally, because it is memorable and because it can be funny.
Why do the Eskimos have forty-seven different words for “snow?” The use of many different words means that there are important distinctions to be made. The fact that today’s translators of the Bible don’t find these distinctions interesting tells me more about them than about Jesus.
Often in analyzing the various English translations of Jesus’s verses, it seems that the primary goal is simplifying his message. In areas of special knowledge, we all seek a simple account, but one that does not obscure the complexities of the topic. We want the uninformed to understand our exploration, but the expert to find no fault with it. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein in teaching atomic theory said it best: Everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
My fear, of course, is that we have made Christianity so simple that only the simple can trust it. Jesus was not a simple man. He did not say simple things. He did not teach only the simple.
To "See" is to "Know"
The most common word that Jesus uses to mean “see” is eidon, but a main part of this word’s utility is that it can mean "know," a bit like we use "I see" to mean "I know." This is a very entertaining concept, at least to me, and apparently, given his frequent use of this slippery word, to Jesus as well.
However, this Greek word creates problems in knowing what Jesus actually said in any given verse when it is translated into English. When we read the word “see,” it is often this word, but it can also be one of the five other words translated as “see,” each of which has a slightly different meaning. We have a similar problem when we read the word “know.” It might be this word, but it could also be another common Greek word that primarily means “know.” That word, however, means “knowing through learning” rather than “knowing by seeing.” These are two very different ideas, at least they were to Jesus.
Eidon is used by Jesus in a hundred and sixty-six verses. This word means "to see," "to examine," "to perceive," "to behold," "to know how to do," "to see with the mind's eye," and "to know." However, that count represents its two other common forms as well. This more common indicative form meaning only “see” was used in something closer to seventy-eight verses.
Its command form, idou, (ἰδοὺ) is used in fifty-two verses. This is an imperative verb but some describe it more like an adverb. It is often translated in the Bible as "behold!" But, of course, that is just Biblical talk for “look” or "see there."
Eidon gets really interesting in its past perfect form, oida (οἶδεν). This form is used by Jesus at least thirty-eight times but it may be more because the past perfect forms are even more irregular than the other irregular forms of this verb. The past perfect tense usually represents an action completed in the past. However, with this verb, what has been done in the past has a different meaning in the present. What we “have seen” in the past, we “know” today. So, this past perfect form is often, and maybe usually, translated as the present tense in English. This is true not only in the biblical translation but in a lot of ancient Greek literature. This is just the kind of wordplay that Jesus loves and cannot resist.
In translating this word, I tend to go with the simple "see" because "to see" also means "to know" in English as it did in Greek. Though I am tempted to translate the past perfect versions as "to know," Jesus often uses the "see" concept as part of his wordplay. For example, in John 10:4, Jesus uses "have seen," meaning, "to know," to refer to a voice, which is something that cannot be seen. Translating the word simply as “know” loses that connection. If we “have seen” the truth of this word, we know what it means.
To make this more confusing, various lexicons deal with this words differently. The non-Biblical lexicons are inconsistent in how they list this words. The most popular one, Liddel, Scott, and Jones, combines the listings for eido and oida, under oida, but the Middle Liddel separates them under eidon and oida.
In translating this word, I tend to go with the simple "see" because "to see" also means "to know" in English as these words do in Greek. Though I am tempted to translated as the past perfect versions as "know," often Jesus is using the "see" concept as part of his wordplay.
To Watch With Feeling
The fun that Jesus has with this word is often contrasting it with eidon, the sense of seeing to know. He often uses this word to indicate seeing without understanding. If both words are translated as “see,” we miss his point entirely.
The verb blepo (βλέπω) means "to see," "to look," "to look to," "to look like," "to rely on," "to look longingly," "to propose," "to beware," "to behold," and "to look for." These definitions are taken from the Liddel, Scott, Jones Lexicon (LSJ), which defines Greek words by how they are usually translated from ancient Greek. This verb is used by Jesus in a little over forty verses. Jesus specifically associated this type of seeing with the eyes in Mark 8:18.
From the definitions in LSJ lexicon, we can see that translators of ancient Greek prefer the English word, "look," for this word. However, in the KJV of the Bible, it is translated as "see" ninety times and "look" only three times, confusing it with other words for “see” not only in Jesus’s words but everywhere in the Bible The other popular translations (KJV) are "take heed" (used twelve times) and "behold"(used nine times). More recent translations are very similar except that "watch out" often replaces "take heed." This word takes a direct object, which some of our words for seeing, like "look," do not. To distinguish this verb from other “see” words, I have found “watch” to work well
As a command, the sense of this verb is, "Watch out!" And it is often translated in the KJV as "take heed" or “beware.” So this verb is used in the sense of a warning, often in the context of people waiting, that is, keeping watch in the hope or the fear of something that is coming. We can watch out for something good or something bad.
Though this verb sometimes gets translated as "behold," this confuses it with eidon, which is translated as “behold” in its command form. However, blepo is not translated as “behold” in commands but in indicative sentences and questions. Usually, since blepo is translated simply as "see" in sentences, this use of “behold” adds more confusion than clarification.
Jesus also uses blepo occasionally in the sense of looking at something and not recognizing it, as in "seeing and not seeing" in Matthew 13:14. This verse is interesting because it contrasts a lot of "perception" words. The KJV version of this verse is:
"And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:"
In this verse, the "see" and "seeing" are both blepo, but the "perceive" at the end, is the more common eidon, that I discuss last week, a word usually translated as “see.” I applaud the translation for recognizing that two different words were used, but in not translating eidon as see, they create another form of confusion. In this verse, Jesus is quoting the Septuagint, which guides his word choice.
Jesus changes this idea in Matthew 13:17, where he is not quoting the Old Testament. The KJV version of this verse is:
"For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them;"
In this verse, the first "desired to see" is eidon, the following "which you see" is blepo, and the final"have not seen" is again eidon. This gives blepo a more immediate sense of witnessing things in real time. Notice how the sense of this changes if we replace blepo with "watch":
Many prophets and virtuous longed to see what you watch and they did not see it."
To me, it seems like Jesus is drawing a line between the seeing of understanding and the seeing of just watching. The enlightened longed to see the proof of their eyes, but the people of Jesus’s time were just watching without understanding,
A different formula, however, is used in John 9:39, (KJV).
"For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind."
In this verse, all the "see" verbs are blepo. Translating all the verbs as “see” makes this verse seem to be about understanding, but the verb blepo doesn't have that sense. What happens when we translate blepo into "watch?" Here is my more literal translation.
"For a decision, I myself show up into this society, this one, so that the ones not watching might watch and the ones watching might become blind."
The "not watching" here is interesting because blepo takes on two meanings. Those who are not watching either don't think to watch or want to watch, the common people, but Jesus force them to watch so they pay attention. Those who are "on watch" however, the religious leaders of his day, are blind to what they should see. They are supposedly watching and waiting for the Messiah, but they cannot see him because their expectations blind them.
This is also the verb that Jesus uses to describe the Father watching into what is hidden or secret. It is used in three verses with that specific message. It is also the verb used to describe the son watching the Father (John 5:19).
“thy Father which seeth in secret”
When the literal translation is:
“that Father of yours, the one watching within the hidden”
As Jesus so often does, here he uses the many meanings of the preposition translated as “in” to make a play on words. That “in” can mean "in," "within," "with" (an instrument), "during" (time), “in the power of,” or "among." Jesus does not use the preposition meaning “into” which would have clearly indicated that the Father was seeing the hidden from the outside. This phrase means both that the Father himself is hidden (John 6:46) so he can watch what is hidden.
Jesus has fun with this word, contrasting it with seeing to understand. However, this does not mean he always uses it as a negative. Simply watching Jesus, without understanding, is valuable. As Jesus says in John 6:40, where the “see” is the watching of blepo.
“And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth (watches) the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”
To Look with the Mind
Ὁρᾶτε [20 verses](verb 2nd pl pres imperat act) "Take heed" is from horao, which means "to see with the eyes," "to look," "to observe," "see," "aim," "have sight," "behold," "keep in sight," and as a metaphor of mental sight, "discern," and "perceive." Jesus often uses it as a warning as we would use "watch out" or "look out."-- (CW) "See" is from a Greek verb, which means "to see with the eyes," "to look," and "to observe." It has the sense sighting something. Jesus uses this word often to mean "watch out" or "look out" as a warning so "watch" works more consistently.
To View at Play
This part of the article needs to be completed. The active for is used more than this form [15 verses] so both together make this the third most common verb translated as "to see."
θεωρῶν [15 verses](part sg pres act masc nom) "Seeth" is theoreo, which means "to view," "to see", "to look at", "to gaze," "to behold," (of the mind) "to contemplate", "to consider", "to observe (as a spectator)", "to gaze", "to gape", "to inspect (troops)" and, in abstract, "to theorize" and "to speculate." It originally means literally, "to be a spectator" or "to be sent to see an oracle." -- (CW) The Greek word translated as "see" is not one of the common words Jesus uses to mean "see." It is a fancier word that has more of a sense of viewing something as a spectator. This word is the root of the English word "theater." Jesus uses it most commonly to refer to people viewing him now but not seeing him in the future. Jesus also uses it to refer to people not seeing the spirit. Jesus also uses in the passive, acting like a noun, "this being viewed", or in a form where the subject acts on or for themselves, "the displaying of yourself".
To See with Your Own Eyes
A less common verb is optanomai (ὄψονται), which generally is in Greek literature translated as "to see," "to look," "to aim at," "to look towards," "to have sight," "to take heed," (in transitive) "to behold," "to perceive," "to observe," "to look out for," and "to be seen (passive)." However, Jesus only uses this verb thirteen times, but he uses it in a very specific way, in a very specific form for a specific purpose, and he uses it somewhat humorously.
Jesus uses this verb only in the indicative, future tense, and the middle voice. He uses it once in the singular, addressing one person, and every other time in the plural, addressing or talking about a group. The middle voice means that the subject is acting for or by themselves so his sense is "will see for yourself." However, this verb has the same root as the Greek word "eye," (ophthalmos) so "will see with your own eyes" comes the closest. It is a light-hearted way to make a promise about the future.
νοεῖτε [8 verses](verb 2nd pl pres ind act) "Perceive" is from noeo, means specifically "perceive by the eyes," "observe," "to perceive with the mind," "apprehend," "think out, "devise," "consider," (of words) "bear a certain sense," and "reflect." -- "Do ye...understand" is from a verb that means "to perceive with the eyes," "to perceive with the mind," and "to observe." We use the word "see" to have the same sense of physical seeing and perceiving with the mind. This is the root word for the key word in Jesus's teaching that gets translated as "repent" but which who actual meaning is "change your mind" or "change how you see."
To Gaze at or be Gazed at as a Spectator
The rarest of the Greek verbs that Jesus uses to mean "see" is θεαθῆμαι (theaomai), which means "to behold", "to gaze with a sense of wonder", "view as a spectator", "to see clearly," and "to contemplate." While this looks like a more common verb meaning "see," theoreo, it is from a active verb, theao (θεάω), which does not appear in the Bible in its active form.
This looks like Jesus uses it in ways that seem critical or humorous. Jesus uses both for seeing and being seen. Jesus only uses it in six verses. So few that we can look at all of them. This word sense of viewing something as a spectator. In English the sense might be "to gaze up" or, more humorously, "to gape at" or "to gawk at." This word is the root of the English word "theater." A Greek noun, theatro (θέατρο) is from the same root but that word doesn't appear to have been used in ancient Greek.
His first use is Matthew 6:1:
KJV: Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
Literal: Hold on, however, to that virtue of yours. You don't want to perform in front of people for the purpose of being gazed at by them. But if not, indeed you are not having remuneration at the side of that Father of yours, the one in the heavens.
KJV: What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
Literal: What did you go out into the desolation to gazed at for yourselves? A hollow stalk under a wind being waved?
Notice the the first use was the passive voice and the second the middle voice, someone acting for/on/by themselves.
His third use is Matthew 22:11:
KJV: And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:
Literal: Arriving, however, the king gazed at the ones reclining for himself, he saw there a person not having attired himself in attire for a wedding.
This is again in the middle voice.
His fourth use is Matthew 23:5:
KJV: But all their works are done to be seen by men: they broaden their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
Literal: However, they do all their deeds for this being gazed upon by these people. Because they broaden those protections of theirs and magnify those borders of theirs.
Here the form is a passive infinitive used as a noun because it has an article in from of it.
His final use is in John 4:35:
KJV: Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.
Literal: Did not you yourselves say that it is still four months and the harvest shows up. Look, I tell you. Raise those eyes of yours and gaze upon these places for yourselves because golden are they for harvest.
It also used it to refer to not seeing the spirit. Jesus also uses in the passive, acting as a noun, "this being viewed", or in a form where the subject acts on or for themselves, "the displaying of yourself".