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Should “Ekklēsia” Really Be Translated as “Church” in the Bible?

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

Photo of an interior space in Khor Virap, an ancient monastery in Armenia. (photo by goinyk)

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.