157) Etymology of the word ‘Religion’

This article was first published 30th May 2018 in the German language.

(Etymology = the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning)

There are three verses in the English translations of the New Testament that use the word “religion”. The word is translated from the Greek: thrēskeía, meaning “ceremonial observances”.

Here are the verses:

Acts 26  
5 Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.

As surprising as this may seem, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee and then became a Christian believer. Through his encounter and revelation of Christ, he received a whole new paradigm for understanding Scripture and prophecy.

In modern Christianity, the Pharisees have a reputation for being the ones who were primarily legalistic and self-righteous. That’s not entirely wrong, but many of the Pharisees really wanted to do the right thing. However, their zeal for observance of the Law of Moses emphasized the practice of external ceremonial observance also reinforced and complicated by instructions of the Talmud and oral Torah (law).

James 1  
26 If any man among you seem to be religious (thrēskós), and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion (thrēskeía) is vain.


27 Pure religion (thrēskeía) and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Although the word “piety” is used in some translations, of the two verses above, it is the same Greek word: thrēskeía, which is translated as “religion” in most English translations. Other German translations such as the Luther Bible use the words godly-service (Gottesdienst)

James basically exposes the error of emphasizing external religious achievement, without emphasizing the inner quality of the heart. Without it, all religious efforts in the world are become worthless and even an offense against the cross.

The word “religion” originally comes from the Latin “religio” or “religare”.

Some have disputed the meaning of this, but essentially it carries the meaning of words like – to turn back – and – to bind and or to fasten. In plain language, it means to return to a heavy burden of bondage, i.e. under a yoke of slavery.

The meaning of a word depends on the meaning and the association that people have primarily given it, and so the meanings of words can change over time as the associations change. The basic meaning of the original word religion is largely lost or even forgotten. Today, the word “religion” is commonly understood as a word that conveys the meaning of the sacred practise of people’s faith and suggests a desire of the practitioner to better oneself before God and man. This is commonly perceived as a positive way to live.

But, the root meaning of the word “religion” does not convey such a good message.

The Latin influence came from the Latin Vulgate Edition, the Latin translation of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church and translated primarily by Jerome in 382 A.D.


The word religion, therefore, entered Bible translations much later in history than when the first manuscripts were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and later in Greek. Nevertheless, the original meaning of the Greek word: thrēskeía that we have seen refers to the meaning of ”ceremonial observances”.

The context of the above three verses shows the immediate connection of ceremonial observance to the Law of Moses, including the Levitical Priesthood, and the sacrificial system and festivals.

Remember that the New Testament epistles were written before AD 70 and were addressed to the local Christian groups in Jerusalem and spread from the eastern Mediterranean throughout the Roman Empire. These believers were predominantly Jews who had converted to the Christian faith. The Gentile believers followed later, some 10 to 20 years after Christ’s resurrection. They lived in a time when the law of Moses was still in effect alongside the New Covenant. These believers were under constant pressure of persecution from their own Jewish brothers and Gentiles.

Then there were the Judaizers who infiltrated the Christian groups and tried to persuade Christians to incorporate the Law of Moses back into their Christian faith. The Judaizers were a sect of early Christians who believed that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism as well in order to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. For the Judaizers, this meant, among other things, observing circumcision, the Jewish festivals, and the dietary regulations of the Law of Moses.

So during that initial period of almost forty years from the day of Pentecost up to sieg of Jerusalem approximately 67 A.D. many Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians were pressured and tempted to turn back to the law of Moses.

2 Thessalonians 2
2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. 3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

The day of Christ was imminent in the lifetime of the first generation of Christians. Before that great day came, Paul explained that there must first be a falling away. The Greek word used here is “apostasia”. Before the day of the Lord came there would be a great rejection, a willful turning away by those who professed Christ. It would be a rebellion. After they had joined with Christ, they would would eventually forsake him. It was a time when many gave up their faith. The apostasy which Paul wrote about to the Thessalonians was of great magnitude and would signal the coming of the end.

The Judaizers caused a big problem for these early Christians. Under pressure of spiritual manipulation, many Christians were tempted to turn back to the basic elements of the Sinaitic Covenant and the Law of Moses. Much of the New Testament writings contains exhortations to these early Christians to hold fast to the pure faith and not give in to the pressure from those whom Paul called “dogs and evil workers”

Philippians 3
2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.

The apostle Paul had much to say about this problem with the Judaizers.

Galatians 1
6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.

The word “perfert” here from the Greek literally means: to turn back.

These Christians were tempted to once again perform under the law of Moses in order to earn God’s blessing through works. They were fascinated by the fallacious arguments of those who spoke for the law of Moses. Paul said they had become bewitched as though they had been hypnotized.

Galatians 3
1 O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? 2 This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

The Law of Moses, reinforced by the Talmud and Oral Torah, was a system of right and wrong with blessings to be earned on the basis of obedience. The law of Moses dealt with blessings and curses.

The law of Moses was not about righteousness, (a position of total acceptance and oneness with God and His Divine nature) a gift bestowed on us by the faith of Jesus Christ alone.

Working and observing ceremonies to earn your way to righteousness becomes a heavy burden. It’s also impossible to achieve. This religious ideology appears to be effective, but it is a deceptive illusion and only provides temporary relief. Performing external rites and ceremonies with accompanying accoutrements such as prayers, chants, robes, laying on of hands, confessions, ceremonial ablutions, burning incence and candle’s, presenting sacrifices, can be used as aids towards this purpose to obtain a sense of right standing with God. Mostly “good works towards fellow man”, and anything we do to try and gain a sense of proper standing with God then momentarily serves to satisfying our sense of accomplishment and activates the mesolymbic dopamine signaling pathway in the brain. It’s the brain’s reward system. Our subconscious tells us we’ve done enough, dopamine is released, we feel better, relieved of guilt, we feel right. However, it works like drugs, and only provides a temporary feel good, feel holy, and is therefore addictive. We’ll need another fix soon.

Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people. Despite his communist ideology, this is a true statement. Tell the serious ‘addict of self-righteousness’ that grace has come in the person of Christ and it is like taking their drug away from them. They can respond vicious get really angry.

Please understand that doing good to others and expressing your pure faith because of what Christ has done for us is a beautiful and necessary fruit of our relationship with God. But it is a fruit and not a means of earning anything from God.

Righteousness by preformence is always followed by a feeling of guilt, fear and shame. Using a religious “fix” works temporarily until you really get tired of the heavy burden. Righteousness by performence is inversion of the right order. It’s like putting everything the wrong way around, wrong side up, inside out, upside down. It’s like putting the wagon in front of the horse.

I will now give my definition of the word religion;

‘Any man-made set of rules, rituals, and systems that requires adherence by which one believes they can become righteous and acceptable before a perceived angry or displeased God, and more holy and righteous than those who do not follow the same rules, rituals, and systems’.

Going back under a heavy yoke and burden where we become driven by fear of judgment, tormented by guilt trying to perform to appease a perceived angry God is not at all a reflection of what our heavenly Father intended for human life on Earth to be.

Matthew 11
28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Woe to him who introduces even only one rule to keep, by which they assume to earn right standing with God. They will quickly fall from grace and bring themselves back under a heavy yoke of slavery to that way of thinking and believing. No only by the finished work of Jesus, His death, resurrection, the abolishing of the Old Sinaitic Covenant, and ratification of the New Covenant in 70 A.D., all accomplished by His faith, all of humanity was redeemed unto eternal life, no one excluded. How we live our life’s on Earth now should become the fruit of this relationship, a perpetual increasing expression of His one and only commandment to love one another as He loved us. You decide how that practically applies to your everyday circumstances.