Do you know what COVID-19 looks like?
If you were to look closely – and I mean really closely – with a scanning electron microscope, you’d see a shape like this:
The virus is a bundle of proteins and RNA, held together with fats which dissolve when you wash with soap. It is called a coronavirus because some of the proteins stick out like the points of a crown.
Here’s the curious thing: crown is essentially the same word as corona. I hadn’t made that linguistic connection before last month. I knew that corona was a shape made around the sun in a total eclipse, and that the beer of the same name has a logo with a crown on it. But I do love learning, and I especially love words, so I investigated.
The root words
The word corona goes back a long way, and has cognates in many languages. This is because corona is Latin for ‘crown’,
which sounds like the ancient Greek κορώνη (korṓnē) for ‘curved’,
but means more like the ancient Greek κορυφή (koruphḗ): ‘garland, wreath or crown’.
The two Greek words look and sound a bit similar, but are not identical.
κορώνη sounds like corona and actually means all kinds of things which are not crowns but which have hooked or curved features. For example: crows, door handles, the tip of a bow on which the string is hooked, the curved stern of a ship, but also various other examples.
κορυφή, which is nearer in meaning, also indicates the top of a head or a mountain, the vertex of a triangle or a most excellent thing.
You could see how both words could combine in people’s minds to mean a physical crown. A curved reward for excellence, placed on the top of someone’s head.
I couldn’t stop there though.
As a biblical scholar, I wondered whether these Greek words appear in the New Testament at all. After all, crowns certainly do.
It turns out, they don’t. Not properly. If you want more on this, see ‘a diversion for etymologists’ below.
Perhaps the root of the word is not the way to look at this. Perhaps we should look at the word ‘crown’ itself in the Bible if we want to learn something interesting.
This is, in fact, where the studying becomes more relevant and helpful.
The Hebrew of the OT and the Greek of the NT are full of examples of crowns and references to crowning. Overwhelmingly, these crowns have positive connotations.
Kings are crowned.
Esther receives a royal crown.
Mankind is crowned with glory and honour (Psalm 8), with love and compassion (Psalm 103), with everlasting joy (Isaiah 51) and with beauty instead of ashes (Isaiah 61).
Paul and James and Peter talk of crowns of reward for those who persevere (1 Corinthians 9, 2 Timothy 2, James 1, 1 Peter 5).
The most startling crown though was the crown which Jesus wore in the gospels.
It was not an athlete’s garland or a royal circlet. It was a cruel crown.
A crown of thorns. A crown which mocked him and humbled him.
A crown I would never want to wear.
A crown, however, which arrests the attention of all who look at it. What is that doing there? A reverse crown. An anti-glory moment. Pure humiliation.
We’ve just experienced the most unusual Easter of our lifetimes. A crowned virus threatens us and mocks our normal routines. Those in power are shown to be as weak as the rest of us, and the new heroes are the small people in society. The ones who keep us alive, fed and resourced.
Coronavirus has turned society upside down and shown us where crowns truly belong.
Not with the strong, but the weak, the humble and the ones who love at all costs. Where we once wanted to celebrate the biggest and bravest, we find common respect for and applaud those who give everything for others.
A crown of thorns is not a sign of humiliation when you consider it properly. It is a sign that God comes alongside those who offer everything and does exactly the same.
A diversion for etymologists
The koine Greek of the New Testament uses two other words for ‘crown’. Most of the time στέφανος (stéphanos) indicating a reward, and a few times in Revelation διάδημα (diádēma), a royal crown.
In Luke 12 ravens feature as a topic for consideration: even without sowing or reaping they are fed. The word used in the Greek in Luke is κόρᾰξ (kórax), cognate with κορώνη – the nearest you’ll find to corona in the New Testament.
I did find that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint – which predates the New Testament writings, our two Greek corona terms are used a handful of times.
κορώνη is used in Jeremiah 3:2 where the word actually refers to a kind of highwayman. Not particularly helpful, you’d suppose. It is possible that a highwayman is being compared to a crow or raven, of course, reaping where it did not sow.
κορυφή is found six times in the Septuagint, each time used to translate the Hebrew lemma root רֹאשׁ (rosh) demonstrating some variations in meaning found across both words:
- the summit or peak of a mountain (Exodus 17: 9,10; 19:20)
- top of the head (Genesis 49:26, Deuteronomy 33:16)
- the head itself (Proverbs 1:9).
Lovely. What does all this prove though?
It tells me that the roots of the word ‘corona’ do not have a helpful biblical background if you want to prove anything. There is not even a clear connection with רֹאשׁ as this lemma is used 599 times in the OT, and only translated to κορυφή on six occasions.