The Church and the Kingdom
A New Testament Study
By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D
THE CHURCH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
THE WORD "ECCLESIA" IN THE NEW CHURCH
I. Inverse Method. - Meyrick (Smith's Bible Dictionary, 1893, s. v. "Church") remarks concerning the word ekklesia that the "ordinary classical meaning of the word (assembly called out by magistrate or by legitimate authority) throws no light on the nature of the institution so designated in the New Testament," etc.
For up to about that time it had been generally held that the "New Testament Greek" was so thoroughly Hebraized, or otherwise arbitrarily remodeled by the Evangelists and Apostles, as to make it virtually an independent speech, requiring a special dictionary and grammar. Differing, as it plainly did, in verbal and syntactical form from the classical, it was assumed that secular literature or usage could not contribute to its understanding. Reference was, therefore, had to the Septuagint use of the word
ekklesia, and beyond that to the Hebrew word qahal, which it sometimes translated. It was, thereupon, inversely and most illogically inferred that, since qahal sometimes means the whole Israelitish people and is sometimes translated by ekklesia, therefore ekklesia must always take on like breadth of meaning. Reference to the LXX., however, will show that the Greek translators of the Old Testament, so far from encouraging such an implication, have carefully precluded it. For when qahal has the broad sense it is never translated by ekklesia, but by another Greek word.
The reflex method of interpretation is hazardous and treacherous, at the best. In Cardinal Manning's "Essays" may be found a defense of the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation, based on the statement that in the LXX. trapeza is sometimes employed to designate an altar. Therefore, it is argued, the table (trapeza) at which our Lord and his disciples were sitting at the institution of the last Supper must be counted an altar, and the Supper itself a sacrifice. By a similar indirect process of reasoning, Dr. Edward Beecher reached the conclusion that since there arose a dispute among John
Baptist's disciples "about purifying," baptism must have referred to purification, rather than regeneration, as its central idea - and must thereupon be properly symbolized by washing rather than immersion.
The scholastic philosophers in Galileo's day were content to argue that since God makes all things perfect, and the circle is the perfect form, it follows that the heavenly bodies must move in circles. Galileo thought it wiser to look through his telescope and discover directly how they do move. It seems better for us, also, instead of "fetching a compass" upon this Greek word, in order to learn its real meaning, to ascertain, if we can, by help of like direct methods, what idea the word in question was intended by the writer to convey, and what idea it did actually convey to those addressed. This brings us to ask for
II. The Natural Method. - In Dr. J. H. Moulton's "Prolegomena" to his grammar of New Testament Greek, he begins with the remark that "as recently as 1895, in the beginning chapter of a beginner's manual of New Testament Greek," he had "defined the language as Hebraic Greek, colloquial
Greek and late Greek.... In the second edition, issued in 1904, 'common Greek' is substituted for the first element in the definition. The disappearance of that word 'Hebraic' from its prominent place in our definition of New Testament language marks a change in our conceptions of the subject nothing less than revolutionary" (p. 1). This "Judaic" or "Biblical" Greek was supposed to be "found in the sacred writings" alone, "and never profaned by common use"; it was reckoned, to use Cremer's phrase, as the isolated "language of the Holy Ghost."
But the researches of Deissmann in 1895, and others since, have brought to light a great mass of Egyptian papyri and inscriptions which conclusively show "that hundreds of words, hitherto assumed to be 'Biblical' - technical words, as it were, called into existence or minted afresh by the language of Jewish religion - were in reality normal, first-century, spoken Greek. . . . The Holy Ghost spoke absolutely in the language of the common people, as we might surely have expected that he would . . . the very grammar and dictionary cry out against men who would allow the Scriptures to appear in
any other form than that 'understanded of the people'" (pp. 4, 5).
He adds that the Greek language was, in the first century, uncommonly uniform; that "it covered a far larger proportion of the civilized world than even English does today" (p. 5); that it "was the only period when a single language was understood throughout the countries which counted for the history of the empire" - a circumstance which he, as an "old-fashioned" person, "ventures to reckon Providential" (p. 6). He thinks it certain that there were few, if any, of those who heard Paul speaking from the stairs of Antonia in Jerusalem "who could not understand the world-language, or even speak it when necessary"; and what was true of the Jerusalem crowd he thinks would be even more absolutely true of the people of Galilee or Perea (p. 8). He cites Professor Mahaffy, the renowned Greek expert ("Hellenism in Alexander's Empire," 139 ff.), who holds that while "among his intimates our Lord spoke Aramaic . . . yet his public teaching, his discussions with the Pharisees, his talk with Pontius Pilate, were certainly carried on in Greek." From this extreme statement as to the uniform Greek
character of Christ's public utterance, Dr. Moulton differs; yet he adds that "he takes the direction in which every student of Hellenism is driven." As to Paul, Dr. Moulton concludes that "he had probably used Greek from childhood with entire freedom, and during the main part of his life may have had few opportunities of using Aramaic at all." "Finally," he adds, "we have the Gentile Luke and the auctor ad Hebrceos, both of whom may well have known no Aramaic at all" (p. 10).
He sums up the discussion in these words: "What we can assert with assurance is that the papyri have finally destroyed the figment of a New Testament Greek which differed from that spoken by ordinary people in daily life throughout the Roman world" (p. 18).
But enough of citation on this head. I have given the latest impressions of competent scholars, based not on conjecture, but newly observed facts. They justify us in resorting confidently to common secular usage, rather than the remote Hebrew text or even the LXX., as the ultimate standard of interpretation of New Testament words; for even the LXX. must have referred to
such usage in the day of its translation! As that translation was made long before the New Testament era and the Greek ecclesia had existed as an institution long before the LXX., it will be safe to refer to the classical as well as contemporaneous or later authorities to learn the continuous and unchanging significance of the words used.
Before a more detailed study of the word ekklesia in its contextual relations, it may be well to look more broadly at the employment of the word in the New Testament, to learn whether the general principle of interpretation thus reached is fairly to be trusted in this specific case. Whether the word in question, that is to say, was used in its ordinary popular sense, or in a more restricted or artificial sense, may depend upon the question by whom, in addressing whom, and where the word was written. Let us, then, examine these particulars to learn
III. The Circumstantial Presumptions of the Case.
1. Local occurrence of the word. The word occurs 113 times in the New Testament. Nowhere in the Gospels, except in Matthew's record, and then only on two occasions. In the Acts, twenty-three times;
in the Epistles of Paul, sixty-one times; in the Epistle to the Hebrews, twice; in the Epistle of James, once; in the third Epistle of John and in the Revelation, twenty-one times. It is not found at all in Mark, Peter or Jude.
2. Influences affecting writer or speaker. Our Lord and all his Apostles were citizens of Galilee - familiarly known as "Galilee of the Gentiles." Matthew, who alone ascribes the word in question to him, was a publican, a Roman official, and therefore almost inevitably compelled to acquaintance with Greek. But, setting aside the Gospel allusion (which will be fully examined on its own merits later), it is noteworthy that the word is found almost exclusively in the writings of men of Gentile nativity or environment. The word does not occur at all in the Epistle of Peter. (The word "church" in 1 Peter 5:13 is not in the original, and has been expunged from the translation by the revisers.) We are confined in our inquiry, then, almost exclusively to the writings of Paul, Luke and John. Of these, the first was brought up in the Gentile atmosphere of Tarsus, the second was himself of Gentile birth and training, and the third (who uses
the word twice in his third Epistle - vs. 6, 9 - and often - invariably in the plural - in the Apocalypse) was, at the time of writing, a citizen of the Greek community of Ephesus.
3. Surroundings of persons addressed. The Apostles, to whom our Lord spoke when using the word, were all Galileans. Theophilus, to whom Luke addressed the Book of Acts, was clearly a Gentile, and perhaps a Greek.
A hint may be derived, also, from a study of the relative use of the word ekklesia by the several epistolary writers. It occurs but rarely in letters directed to churches of Jewish proclivity. In the Epistle of James, for instance, it appears but once (5:14); and is apparently used as a synonym of synagogue, earlier employed in the same Epistle (2:2). In Hebrews, again, it presents itself only once; and there in connection with paneguris (12:23). This added word carries with it an exceptional qualification of meaning which, taken with the context, transfers the whole subject of discussion into the heavenly world, beyond death, and so out of the region of earthly history and our present inquiry. (This is the conclusion of Thayer in his "New Testament Dictionary,"
of Sayford in the new Hastings' Bible Dictionary, and of other eminent Biblical scholars; and it affords the only satisfactory interpretation of the passage.)
It was to the Gentile church at Ephesus, and to those of neighboring Greek cities, that the Apocalypse was itself addressed. All Paul's writings, with the single exception of the Epistle to the Romans, were addressed to people resident in Greece proper, in Macedonia (which was also Greek), or in Asia Minor, where Greek institutions, speech and ideas were everywhere predominant. (Even as to Rome, Greek was so generally used that, according to Dr. Moulton, "a man need to have known little Latin to live in Rome itself.") It is particularly worthy of notice that in the only two Epistles where there is any tangible foothold for the broader interpretation of the word in question (according to the latest authorities), peculiar emphasis is laid upon the Gentile character of the persons addressed (Ephesians 2:11; 3:1; 4:17; Colossians 1:27; 2:13; 4:11, 12). The word to be interpreted appears then to have been almost always addressed, in the New Testament, in a Gentile language by Gentiles or Gentilized Jews to Gentiles. If there be any validity
whatever in the historico-grammatic theory of interpretation, the first step toward an authoritative apprehension of the idea intended to be conveyed, under such circumstances, would be an inquiry as to the possible existence of an established and familiar meaning of the word among a Gentile constituency. It can not reasonably be assumed that a Greek-speaking Jew, and particularly that such an intelligently self-adjusting writer as Paul, would stupidly or perversely employ a familiar word in a wholly foreign and unsuspected sense, borrowing such an extraordinary meaning from the Septuagint, of which they could not reasonably be presumed even to have heard.
In the cities of Greece, Macedonia and Asia Minor, Greek institutions and ideas prevailed; so that the people were familiar with the ekklesia itself as a concrete thing well known by name.
We may therefore proceed to inquire as to the meaning of the word in vernacular Greek, with the assurance that this was the meaning intended to be conveyed by it in the New Testament.
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