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Should “Ekklēsia” Really Be Translated as “Church” in the Bible?
by Dr. B. Brandon Scott
Translations can obscure things instead of revealing them. Today I want to tackle the word ‘church’ that we find in Paul’s letters.
An Italian proverb says, to translate is to betray (traduttore, traditore). This is even more true when translations become traditional, fixed, and sacred. People can think that a translation is the original. A translation is never a substitute for the original.
In modern English the noun ‘church’ has a range of meanings. It primarily refers to a building for public worship, while at other times it is synonymous with Christianity, in the sense of the church universal. Finally, it can mean a denomination. Significantly, none of these meanings correspond to the Greek word ekklēsia, traditionally translated ‘church.’
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Greek ekklēsia translates the Hebrew קְהַ֖ל (qahal), which means ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering.’ Judges 20:2 illustrates this meaning:
And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand men on foot that drew the sword.
New Testament usage follows the Septuagint.
The basic meaning of the Greek ekklēsia is assembly or gathering. In ordinary Greek it most often refers to the citizens of a city gathering to decide political issues and less frequently to an assembly of the devotees of a god.
‘Gathering’ works as a gloss in every usage in the New Testament and is much better than the traditional ‘church,’ because the modern meaning of church does not align with the ancient Greek. ‘Church’ is an ecclesial word, while ‘gathering’ is neutral. Ekklēsia is not a religious word.
Paul’s letter to a gathering
The earliest usages of the word among the followers of Jesus Anointed (traditionally translated ‘Jesus Christ’) are in the letters of Paul, the envoy. The address from the letter to the Corinthians is typical. “To the gathering of god which is in Corinth.” The addressees are “the gathering of god.” Since the ancient world was full of gods, we should ask, “Which god?” We unconsciously respond with “our God, the one true God.” But Paul’s usage draws directly on the Septuagint and those he is addressing are people who have shifted allegiance from one god or gods to the g-d of Israel. In the context of the Roman Empire, that shift in allegiance has political consequences.
The gathering is in a particular place. It does not exist in the abstract but in the particularity of the act of gathering in an actual place. It concretely embodies the people of g-d.
Ekklēsia /gathering may be a Pauline invention. The word is missing from the opening address of the Letter to the Romans. The community of Jesus followers in Rome may not have been familiar with the term ekklēsia, but would have been more familiar with ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones.’ The word ekklēsia occurs five times, but only in chapter 16, where Paul addresses those whom he knows. Chapter 16 may not even be part of the original letter to the Romans but added later.
How should we view these gatherings? They were small, normally five to ten people, maybe at times as many as twenty. They were occasions for eating, drinking, and discussing. They bear no resemblance to modern worship services, but more resemble church suppers. The move to formal worship did not occur until the third century.
‘Church’ in the Gospel of Matthew
Ekklēsia /gathering does not occur in the gospels except for two uses in the Gospel of Matthew. This absence from the other gospels is extraordinary. The famous example is in Matthew 16:18. First (in the King James Version):
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.
Now my translation:
I declare to you, “You are Rocky and upon this rock I will house-build my-gathering (of the g-d of Israel).”
The second translation sounds and means something very different than the first. Petros in Greek is not a proper name but a nickname, and there is a word play on the nickname. Another word play occurs in the word the KJV translates as ‘build.’ It means to build a house and the early communities of Jesus Anointed gathered in houses. This brief saying in Matthew is resonant with allusions missing in the traditional English translation.
How did ‘church’ become the translation for ekklēsia?
This is a twisted tale. The fifth century Cappadocian (central Turkey) Christians called their communities Kyriakos oikos (the Lord’s house). They had a major influence on the translation of the Bible into Gothic, an old east Germanic language. The Goths rendered Kyriakos oikos as ciric. In old English that became kerk, and then in English ‘church’ and in German Kirche.
There is one more anomaly in this tale. In the King James translation of the Hebrew scripture (so-called ‘Old Testament’), the translators consistently employed the gloss ‘assembly,’ while in the New Testament they used ‘church.’ Thus, they obscured the connection to its Jewish roots. Anti-Semitism hides in the strangest places.
Seeing ‘church’ as a small gathering, most often in a home, around eating, drinking, and discussion suggests a shift away from institution to small groups based on personal relations.
To be faithful to the New Testament, we should consider moving in this direction.
If we are translating christ as anointed should’t we go the whole way. Jesus is itself a translation of Josh the shorter form of Joshua and messiah also means the anointed one. So Jesus Christ the Messiah becomes Josh the anointed, anointed one.
I have long thought that in anointing neophytes rather than insisting on circumcision we see the origins of Christianity – “we call ourselves the anointed …” etc – in the aftermath of the Jewish war and destruction of the temple. It certainly makes more sense of the silence, the absence of evidence between Paul and the second century.
I have always thought the word “church” is an unhelpful one in the context of the earliest gatherings, and for years encouraged the use of “assembly.” The word church is just too loaded with emotions and expectations and presumptions. They are all enemies of dispassionate inquiry and encourage people who are just starting to look at how church came to be how it is, to read back into those earliest days a structure that took decades and centuries to create. At times it feels like we need to start again with a whole new vocabulary in order to convince people that what they think has always been, had its own beginning and likely it was a very different concept! (But how exciting if we could help people to reimagine..(and how interesting that even in the choice of church over assembly, we see that insistence on wiping out the Jewishness of Jesus and those who first followed his teachings: definitely reason enough to go back to “assembly!”) Thank you for this.
Brandon’s summary statement: “Seeing ‘church’ as a small gathering, most often in a home, around eating, drinking, and discussion suggests a shift away from institution to small groups based on personal relations”
reminded me of when teaching at a college, a group of faculty and staff created what we called our “alterna-church.” We met every Sunday in one of our homes, gathering first for breakfast followed by readings from the bible and other sacred texts, sharing and praying together as we went. It was the most moving and intimate kind of Christ-community I’ve ever been in; and for the first time, my husband was’ at home’ with this expression of “church”. There were moments of both joy and tears, and a deep caring for one another.
James Edwards has a good point, one I have often ruminated over. “Jesus” is a transliteraton (not translation) of the Greek, which in turn is a transliteration of the Aramaic. A literal translation of “jesous christos” would be “Joshua the oily one.” BTW, my next blog is on “Christ” and it is already in the que for next month.
For Helen Mathis. I think “church” as translation makes more sense beginning in the third century, because there it means more and more the building where the community meets with the bishop. The shift from house to building (baselica in Greek, cathedra in Latin) was almost surely necessitated by the growing numbers. But what was loss was the small group.
I’m always hestitant to say what I think these discoveries mean for the present situation. Our time and situation is so different from the first or second centuries, or the fourth and fifth centuries, that is hard to say how they apply. Answering that question takes a lot of hard work. We are too often tempted by the simple analogy. Mary Beard, the eminent Classicist, at the end of her book SPQR asks what can we learn from the ancient Romans, the topic of her book. Her answer is that we can learn nothing DIRECTLY–they have nothing to teach us directly. But by learning about the ancients we can learn about ourselves. And that is very valuable. It gives us a different way to ask questions. I think what Beard has to say about the ancient Romans is also true about the bible and the early followers of Jesus, or the ancient creeds, for that matter.
Helen Mathis’s remeninence is on target. I too was part of such a group and it was very meaningful. I wrote about it in the conclusion of my book “Reimaging the World: An Introduction the Parable.”
Thank you for this “new” old way of considering the entity now called church. Fellowship and discussions would add so much with the sharing of ideas. Group learning. More for me to consider further. Thanks
We do harm to understanding Scripter without studying the history of things, how things came to be and why do people believe what they believe. The word “church” didn’t appear on the scene until the 13th century. It is an English word that is not connected in any way to the biblical Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. The Jews had no concept of “church.” They, for thousands of year’s before the arrival of Jesus, and after, used the word congregation to refer to a gathering of believers or the body of believers as a whole. Whenever Jesus entered a structure to teach, he either taught in the Temple or a synagogue. Paul never spoke of going to the local “church” he always went to the local synagogue.
Jesus, Paul or any other New Testament writer ever used the English word “church.” I am speaking of the original texts, not any translation. Wycliff nor Tyndale used the word “church” in their English translation, using the proper word congregation to represent believers. As I started earlier, there is no Hebrew or Greek word that can be translated into the word “church.” If you transliterate the English word “church” into Greek, this is the result,” xiupxi.” This word does not exist in the Greek language, in fact, it is not even a word.
Why does the KJV use the word “church?” Because the translators were forced to use the word. What most people don’t know is that allowed the work, that came to be known as the KJV, for different reasons, none of which had anything to do with ensuring a better, proper or more accurate translation of Scripture. His four main reasons for allowing and approving of this work were:
To perpetuate the concept of the “Divine right of Kings.”
To make the work the “official Bible” of the Anglican Church. James was an Anglican. In the Anglican Church, the king was also the head of the Church.
To continue the hierarchy of the Anglican Church, which ensured that the Anglican Church had the authority over all teaching and doctrines of Scripture, which meant that all of the laity had to listen to, believe and obey the Anglican Church. Many don’t realize that the Anglican Church is no more than a sister Church to the Roman Catholic Church, with some minor differences.
To eradicate the Geneva Bible, The Geneva Bible was by far the most popular Bible among many of the clergy and the majority of the population, which could afford one and the cost of the Geneva Bible made it accessible to many people.The Geneva Bible staunchly opposed the “Divine Right of Kings” and showed that all people were equal in the sight of God, be it a king or peasant. The Geneva Bible had footnotes, explaining things, with the idea that any person could read and understand difficult things taught in Scripture for themselves, rather than being held hostage to whatever the clergy taught. It took the authority of what Scripture taught out of the control of the “Church.”
There were 15 rules the KJV translators had to abide by to have the work approved and allowed.
Rule 1 ensured that the KJV would only be a revision of other works, not a new translation.James wanted the Bishops Bible to be the main source of the revision.
Rule 6 ensured that there would be no marginal footnotes explaining Scripture, only in the case of explaining certain Hebrew or Greek words.
As far as the word “church” being used in this revision, Rule number 3 explains why the KJV uses the word.
Rule 3 The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz, the Word Church not to be translated Congregation!
This is why the word “church” is used in the KJV! Not because it is the best word! Not because it is an accurate word! Not because it is a legitimate biblical word! King James specifically insisted that the word “church” be used! Most, if not all of the men who worked on producing the KJV knew that the word “church” had no place in any translation of Scripture, but their hands were tied! They had no choice!
The first thing James did after the KJV began to be published was to outlaw the printing of the Geneva Bible within the realm. Later on, he forbade the Geneva Bible from being imported!
Eventually, no publisher in any European country would print the Geneva Bible, because it was no longer popular. The original settlers up until the Pilgrims all used the Geneva Bible. But by the middle of the 1600s the numbers of settlers had dramatically increased and they all brought the KJV. The colonies were not allowed by the crown to publish bibles and had to import them. It wasn’t until Sept 12, 1782, after America became a nation, that Congress authorized the printing of bibles. This explains why the KJV gained such a foothold in this country. Time has also shown us that the KJV is not the best English translation available today.
I sincerely appreciate and believe your historical accounting regarding the KJV and pray a more accurate and honest translation would come forth than any we have to present day.
I believe Matthew 28:19 needs to be revisited as a more likely trinitarian forgery than even the Johannine Comma and that God would be glorified if we could get to the bottom of it.