OH, THAT WRETCHED WORD ‘CHURCH’

English translators of the scriptures saw the New Testament with religious (catholic) lenses. So these obeyed the politico-religious powers and consistently translated the Greek word ekklesia into a current religious word, ‘church’ which everyone already knew, being taught and accepted as truth, instead of the real meaning of the Greek word, which is assembly or gathering—a word in the Ancient World which had no religious or institutional connotations at all. None.

This is clearly shown by the translators’ inconsistency in translating the same Greek word by assembly or gathering three times in Acts 19—the story of Paul’s gospel stirring up the silversmiths in Ephesus—instead of the c… word! Check me out. I kid you not.

Ekklesia always meant assembly or gathering in the Ancient World of the New Testament period. When Paul wrote to those gatherings of Jesus’ people in the New Testament period, he qualified the word ekklesia by e.g., the ekklesia in God the Father and His son at . . . . (wherever—Corinth, etc) or similar language. It had to be distinguished from all the other local gatherings—religious, political or commercial which abounded in great numbers.  Get it?

And if Paul was talking about more than one gathering of believers, he used the plural, ekklesiai, gatherings. So we read about the “assemblies or gatherings of Judea” and not “the gathering of Judea”. John does not address any “assembly of or in Asia” in the Book of Revelation but as “the seven gatherings in Asia”. Seven! And that’s because they are assemblies not denominations or institutional religious organisations.

In fact, a strong case can be made that ekklesia originally meant “a gathering actually gathered” so that when the assembly broke up there was no longer a gathering. For example the riotous assembly, Acts 19:41. Naturally for a group of believers meeting regularly it would continue in their minds as a spiritual gathering, a virtual one, which had a (hopeful) continuity while not meeting—though could never be guaranteed that it would gather again exactly the same as it did the previous time.

So it’s like our parliaments which sit for a period but then when not sitting, there is no parliament. And a city council is really only a council when it is meeting. The employees are not the actual council, are they?

William Tyndale in his groundbreaking 16th Century English New Testament translation, rendered ekklesia as ‘congregation’ which then had no traditional religious connotation. This led to his being persecuted and strangulated by the religious establishment—that’s 1534 English history.

So why did the English Bible translators three times translate ekklesia as ‘assembly’ in the story in Acts (Acts 19:32, 39, 41)? The word church clearly wouldn’t fit these three meeting contexts. But wearing their religious glasses, they consistently translated the Greek word in other contexts as ‘church’ as if this Roman Catholic term was its equivalent and not as the word was understood in the Ancient World.

A century later, the translators of the King James Version (KJV)  were commanded by James the King of England to abide by about 14 conditions one of which the Greek word ekklesia had to be translated as church. They had no option but to do what James wanted so he could maintain his political agenda. They did translate the word as assembly in the Acts 19 story.

You may be interested to know that now we can use a recent scholarly translation called World English Bible (WEB) which translates the Greek word ekklesia with the English word assembly in the New Testament. In this version, the word ‘church’ cannot be found.

What has kept English translators so long to correct this?

Tradition! which obscures the word of God.

We may ask: why did the apostles use the Greek word ekklesia (gathering) and not other words which had a similar meaning? They did not use the word synagogue for the obvious reason that their gatherings were distinguished from those of the Jews.

Now, the Hebrew word qahal (=gathering, assembly) had been used in the Old Testament over 100 times and in the Greek translation of the OT (called the Septuagint or “LXX”) this Hebrew word was translated ekklesia (gathering). The early New Testament writers widely used the LXX and so probably chose this word which was also used by Jesus (see Matthew 16:18 and 18:17—the only places in the 4 gospels).

7 responses to “OH, THAT WRETCHED WORD ‘CHURCH’

  1. Thank you, Ian. Here is a bit more on meaning for now: The specific word, sunagoge [not including variations or forms on the root, such as those I shared earlier], appears about 50 times in the Messianic Writings [Daniel Gruber-Messianic terminology instead of New Testament — also sometimes Apostolic Writings]. Its meaning seems to be weighted a little more towards a meeting place, rather than just a meeting or gathering, but not completely. For example, in Acts 13:43, Luke says that, “When the sunagoge broke up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.” Since Luke does not mention either an earthquake, a riot, or an explosion, we can assume that it was not a building that broke up. It was a meeting. That is what sunagoge means in this verse.

    Since the word today designates something that is specifically Jewish and specifically religious, people today assume that it carried that same designation at the time of Yeshua. We have already seen [on previous pages]
    that it did not carry that meaning in the Greek world. Nor does it carry that meaning in the Messianic Writings. …

    ….

    For us today, the phrase “synagogue of the Jews” is redundant. For us today, any synagogue is “of the Jews,” i.e. Jewish. But the Greek phrase which Luke used was not redundant for him or for his readers. The word sunagoge did not denote or imply anything Jewish. It did not even denote or imply anything religious. It just meant “meeting” or “meeting place.” That is why Luke had to identify [Acts 13:5a, Acts 14:1a, Acts 17:1, Acts 17:10] what kind of sunagogai they were going to.

    ~ A Good Church is Hard to Find,
    pp57-58 of COPERNICUS AND THE JEWS

    • Thanks Marleen for the explanation. I appreciate your work and locating the Acts 13:43 passage. The ISBE vol 4 p676, gives the entomology as “syn + ago, to come together, congregate.” Isn’t it fascinating that ‘synagogue’ originally meant ‘meeting’ but became institutionalised by the Jews just as the Grk word ‘ekklesia’ eventually became a place rather than the meeting. And so it is today, regrettably.

  2. Thanks Marlene for your helpful comment. I believe the one instance is to be found in the Letter of James in chapter 2 and verse 2 where the Greek word συναγωγὴν is transliterated straight into English as sunagogue and used for believers gathered together.

    • Thanks, Ian. When I look that up online, I see mostly “assembly” and a bit of “meeting” on that; which version of translation do you mean? The World English Bible (as you mentioned earlier, the WEB)?

      This is helpful for meaning.
      Mt. 13:30
      Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather together/sunagagete the wheat into my barn.'”

      Mt. 13:47
      “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and gathered/sunagagouse all kinds of fish.”

      • My mistake Marleen. In James 2:2 the original Greek is συναγωγὴν and not ekklesia — and of course translated as assembly or meeting, and thanks for the other 2 passages from Matthews gospel.

  3. Correction for clarity: So translators preferred to render “synagogue” if a context gave a negative tone but “church” if the tone was more in line with what the church institution wanted for its reputation.

    I’m trying to remember. I think there is a place where the Greek is synagoge and they went with “church” anyway.

    (I’ll see if I can find the book.
    I got used to finding things he wrote online.
    But the website is down.)

  4. I very much enjoyed reading the above entry; hardly anyone knows this (about the word church being anachronistic), it seems. A man named Daniel or Dan Gruber wrote in-depth about this — with the words ekklesia and synagoge. The word that should be translated as synagogue is used for believers in the Greek scriptures, but not very often. Maybe only once. But tradition did as you say, obscured what was written. So it was preferred to say “synagogue” if something had a negative tone and church if the tone was more in line with the institution.

    I apologize I don’t remember off the top of my head where the example(s) can be found of what I mean in the Bible.

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