Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

The Old Testament Use of Ekklesia

 

If you’ve been following along through the ongoing series on the doctrine of church, you’ve hopefully seen how carefully defining ones use and meaning of terms is important.  After laying the foundation for some of the historical facts regarding the nature of church, ekklesia, and synagogue, we turn now to the scriptural use of ekklesia.  For obvious reasons, the New Testament should be our primary guide for formulating our doctrine of church.

However, before we jump into an examination of the New Testament use of ekklesia, translated into English as church, we must at least provide an overview of the Old Testament use, particularly as it occurs in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  This translation is commonly called the Septuagint and is often abbreviated as LXX (70).  What we know as the Old Testament today was originally written in Hebrew and some Aramaic.  However, in the 3rd Century B.C. a group of 72 Jewish scholars were commissioned to translate the Old Testament into Greek, a more common and modern language at the time.  This translation is largely that which would have been in use and circulation during time of Christ and His disciples, which gives it bearing on the use and meaning of particular words, in this case, ekklesia.

Remember that we’ve already discussed the Greek translation, ekklesia, of the Hebrew word qahal.  However, it should be pointed out that of the 162 occurrences of qahal in the Hebrew Old Testament, approximately 96 times it is translated ekklesia in the Greek Old Testament (LXX), while approximately 45 times it is translated sunagoge (synagogue).  So once again we are able to see the overlap in range between ekklesia and synagogue.

One additional reminder is that, as we have seen, ekklesia and church are not exactly synonyms.  Ekklesia generally means an assembly, gathering, or congregation, while in a strict sense church most often refers to the people of God or a building where these people meet.  Conflating the two terms and there meanings has led to no shortage of difficulty.  There will be more to say on this, but for now we turn our attention to Scripture.

It won’t be practical to examine every single use of ekklesia in the Septuagint, however there are a few key, thematic uses as well as a couple of individual uses that will help provide understanding for how the New Testament uses the word, particularly as it is first used by our Lord in Matthew 16:18.  If we understand that Christ was not inventing a new concept with the statement, “I will build my ekklesia (church)” rather that He was utilizing an already familiar concept which He was now elucidating and re-framing, it will aid in our understanding of the church.

In his essay on the “Nature of the Church” in volume two of his works, Professor John Murray (1898-1975) provides some key thematic uses of ekklesia found in the Greek Old Testament that are most helpful in understanding the New Testament use.  He points out that the first use in the Septuagint occurs in Deuteronomy 4:10, “how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.”

In this passage we may observe that the assembly is called by God, i.e. He is the one calling for the assembling (gather).  Additionally we see that this is in reference to an actual gathering.  It was not a spiritual gathering of all who identified as Israel, nor did it include those who were scattered abroad in other countries.  It was an actual gathering of those physically present.  While in this assembly, the people were to hear the word of God and learn to fear Him all their life, particularly for the purpose of teaching their children.  In context, Moses is reminding the people of the Day of the Assembly, which occurred as the people assembled before God at Mount Sinai.  This brings us to our second significant use of ekklesia pointed out by Professor Murray.

Murray draws attention to the “day of the assembly (ekklesia)” and locates this occasion in Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; 18:16.  This Day of the Church is again a reference to the ekklesia gathered at Sinai.  This singular reference has an interesting trajectory that leaves one wondering whether it points forward eschatologically to a future, singular ekklesia or gathering, see especially Hebrews 12:18-29.  But more on that later.

Furthermore, Stephen references this exact occasion during his speech just prior to his murder and draws attention to the “congregation (ekklesia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).  So we are able to see how the New Testament corroborates our understanding of ekklesia in the Old Testament thus far.

Next, Murray points out that ekklesia in the Old Testament is a covenant gathering.  Here he cites numerous passages including: Exodus 19:5-25; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chronicles 13:2, 4; 28:8, 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chronicles 6:3, 12, 13; 7:8 (I would add 2 Chronicles 23:3).

The first passage of note, from Exodus 19, is the historical account of the Mt. Sinai gathering.  This has already been mentioned, but we’ll add that it was here where God established His covenant, commonly called the Mosiac Covenant, with the Nation of Israel.  The entire book of Hebrews is interested in the comparison and contrast between the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and New Covenant, ratified through the death of Christ.

The second passage, 1 Kings 8, deals with the blessing and dedication of the temple by Solomon.  The background of the prior covenantal events at Sinai are given in 1 Kings 8:9-11 and the setting places this dedication firmly within the promises given in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7).

The third passage, 1 Chronicles 13:2,4 supports our conclusion earlier that the assembly of Israel was an actual gathering and did not include those who were absent or separated for one reason or another.  Here, David speaks to the assembly of Israel concerning the brothers abroad “who remain in all the lands of Israel” that they might be gathered together with them.

The remaining passages from 1 Chronicles have Davidic Covenant implications as well while the passages from 2 Chronicles are the Chroniclers viewpoint of the temple dedication discussed earlier.

Finally, from Murray we may note the Septuagint uses that most likely frame our Lord’s use of ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:17.  He points out the following: Psalm 22:22, 25; Psalm 40:9,10.  We will examine these next time when we open up the words of Christ concerning His ekklesia  in the Gospel of Matthew.

In addition to these thematic uses, some additional passages should be noted which will aid in rounding out our understanding of ekklesia in the New Testament.  First is that the Old Testament ekklesia had entrance requirements.  This may be seen in Deut. 23:1-3 preventing entrance of emasculated males, those of illegitimate birth, and Amonites and Moabites.  Second, the Old Testament ekklesia was a war church.  This is asserted in these passages: Judges 20:2; 21:5; 21:8; and 1 Samuel 17:47.  Finally, there is an indication of a heavenly ekklesia as seen in Psalm 89:5.

The use of ekklesia in the Septuagint is broad and sometimes does not maintain its technical use or meaning, for that reason, some slight caution is warranted when attempting to derive meaning for the New Testament use.  Additionally, we need to understand the national flavor of the Old Testament ekklesia as it relates to Israel, as well as it’s inception and operation under the Old Covenant.

However, as pointed out here there are some noteworthy and informative backgrounds that can be gleaned from the Old Testament use and meaning.  With these passages, and there are others we could examine, we are better equipped to turn to the New Testament scriptures and understand what it means to convey with the word ekklesia.  Allowing it to speak and define on its own terms, in its own context, will ultimately provide us with a clearer picture of how Christ is building His ekklesia, both the form and the function.

What About the Synagogue?

 

In our last post in this series on the study of church or ecclesiology, we looked at the origin for the translation of ekklesia as church in the English Bibles through the work of Tyndale and his decision, along with Luther’s, to refuse to use the word church, opting instead for congregation.

Prior to that, we asked What is an ekklesia to see if the definition and Scriptural use matched our understanding of the word church.  We found that while ekklesia simply means a gathering or assembly (congregation is a possibility too), church in both its meaning and common usage most often refers to a people or building belonging to the Lord.  In that, we noticed that on the surface, church would seem to have more in common with synagogue, than it does with ekklesia, despite the semantic range overlap between these two. This will be our focus in this post.  To do this, I’ll need to refer to a few academic sources, which may lead us to discover more than a surficial relationship between synagogue and church.

In fact, evidence for  this deep relationship abounds.

Noted historian Philip Schaff states, “As the Christian Church rests historically on the Jewish Church, so Christian worship and the congregational organization rest on that of the synagogue, and cannot be well understood without it.” (Vol. 1 – pg 456)

Likewise, Jewish historian Alfred Eldersheim writes, “It was, surely, a wondrously linked chain of circumstances, which bound the Synagogue to the Church” (The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah, pg. 298) and also, “For the Synagogue became the cradle of the Church.  Without it, as indeed without Israel’s dispersion, the Church Universal (more on this later!) would, humanely [sic] speaking, have been impossible, and the conversation [sic?] of the Gentiles have required a succession of millennial miracles.” (pg. 299).

Furthermore, Sam Waldron in his seminary course, “Doctrine of the Church” at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary affirms that this connection is a modern observation as well when he defends the regulative principal of worship as it pertains to Old Testament temple and synagogue by writing, “I will stipulate that the church and its worship is patterned on the synagogue.” (Course Notes, pg. 171)

Each of these statements, and there could be many more, argue that the basis for what we have come to experience as “church” finds its historical origin in the synagogue.  This argument is assuming that church = ekklesia =~ synagogue.  Is that significant or merely hair-splitting?  Let’s see.

First, it would appear that if we are to rightly understand the form and function of the modern church, then it will be proper to understand what the synagogue is and how it functioned, particularly in first century Judea.  In other words, how do you know where you are and are going unless you understand where you have been?  To answer this, lets look at the origin of the synagogue along with its first century form and function, followed by its place in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.

Most historians and theologians assume that the synagogue developed after the Babylonian captivity (see Jeremiah and Ezekiel) when the first temple, Solomon’s, was destroyed in 586 B.C.  They suppose that at the time of Ezra the synagogue practice developed as a result of the crisis of a destroyed temple (~480 B.C.).  In this view, the synagogue became a replacement for the temple.  This may be true, but it has difficulty sustaining its point when we arrive at the first century A.D. because there we have BOTH the temple (Herod’s) and the synagogue.  In this period they were parallel and complementary, not competing, nor did one supersede the other.  In fact, as we will see, their functions were distinct and separate, nearly as distinct as one might see between say “Church and State.”

In his helpful book, Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, Julius Scott writes, “Most simply put, the synagogue developed as the center of Hebrew life after the loss of traditional institutes.  It was not a substitute for temple worship and services as such, but a supplement to them.”  (Pg. 139)  Scott would seem to affirm the origin of the synagogue as being post-exilic, which is certainly fine.  The point he makes is that the synagogue was never meant to be a substitute for the regulated worship of the temple, rather a supplement.

Contra to this popular view of the post-exilic synagogue development, Levine persuasively argues that the background for the synagogue was the “city-gate”.  He reasons this on the basis of similarity between the community functions that took place between both (“The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered”).  This connection is not a difficult one to make, particularly in light of the pervasive occurrence of the city-gate in the Old Testament.

He points out that at the city-gate “served as a marketplace (2 Kings 7:1) and as a setting where a ruler would hold court and where prophets would speak (1 Kings 22:10; Jer. 38:7).”  Additionally, Levine notes that one of the “primary functions at the city gate was judiciary.  City elders would assemble there to dispense justice.” (see Deut. 21:19; 17:5, 22:24).  Finally, he notes the significance of the city gate as the setting for personal affairs, Ruth 4:1-2, the place of a conquering king’s throne (Jer. 39:3, Jer. 1:15-16), a place for the king to meet with the people (2 Sam. 19:8-9; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Chron. 32:6), and finally religious functions (2 Kings 23:8).  Thus evidence for parallel activities, even the precedent for synagogue activities, may be found in studying the city gate.

Function

While pointing out the differences between some early names for this community building, proseuche and synagoge, Levine finds a common denominator in that, “first and foremost, the synagogue served the full range of needs of a particular community.  As documented in contemporary sources, such functions included political meetings, social gatherings, courts, schools, hostels, charity activities, slave manumission, meals (sacred or otherwise), and of course, religious-liturgical functions.”  Scott adds, “Synagogues, as the word implies, were gathering places.  The buildings were used for official public meetings, schools, tribunals of judgment, and social occasions.” (Pg. 144)

As to the Jewish synagogue, especially that in first century Palestine, the emphasis seems to be more on religious activity than community involvement, consistent with what we see in Scripture.  Scott points out some of these early synagogue functions as being, “first and foremost a place for reading Scripture and prayer. It was the synagogue, with its regular reading and interpretation of the Law and of the Prophets, and with its schools for the young, that wove the Scriptures into the fabric of life and experience of the people.” (pg. 140)

Form

Archeological evidence reveals that the synagogue architecture may have varied, but largely featured, “benches along all or most of the walls, the focus of each building was the center of its hall, much as was the plan in contemporary Hellenistic and Roman communal buildings. (Levine)

Scott adds, “There were no altars nor sacrifices in the synagogue; instead only the sacred books (scrolls) were absolutely necessary.  Although priests who were in attendance were usually selected to be the public readers and to pronounce the blessings, their presence was not required for synagogue service as it was for worship in the temple.  The revered leaders of the synagogue were the elders of the community and those with recognizable expertise in the law.  Synagogues were organized wherever there were enough men (ten) to constitute a proper assembly, whether in the land of Israel or beyond.” (Pg. 140)

While Scriptural evidence points to the oversight of a council, known as the Sanhedrin, the synagogue was basically a lay institution, because the priests were largely involved with the regulation of the temple.  Scott adds, “Actual leadership was in the hands of the elders, respected heads of families in the community. The major official was the archisynagogos, the chief of the synagogue who was in overall charge of its affairs. The hazzan (minister or attendant) was, in Jewish areas, an executive officer for the town as well as the synagogue.” (p. 143)

Liturgy

The worship services, if we may use that term, were often held multiple times on the Sabbath, as well as other days of the week such as Monday and Thursday.  Additionally, services were held on days of special assemblies, feast days, etc. (Scott, p. 141)

The order of worship, or liturgy, was basic but could last several hours.  These included, “recitation of the Shema, the daily prayer (Shemoneh ‘Esreh), and reading of the Law and the Prophets.  The reading was accompanied by a translation-interpretation (a targum), and frequently a sermon-homily.” (Scott, p.141)

Finally, we must note one of the reasons for the synagogue, at least providentially, was to provide an avenue for access to the gospel proclamation of our Lord and the apostles to the Jews.

In Scripture, we see Jesus and His disciples utilizing the existing structure of the synagogue while simultaneously proclaiming the formation of the ekklesia.  This should serve as a caution in our study on decrying the form and function of what we experience today as church vs. what constituted an ekklesia during the apostolic period.  Perhaps Philippians 1:18 is a good exhortation for us in this regard.

What can we conclude from this synagogue layer added to our understanding of the development of church?

While ekklesia does not seem to provide a clear pattern for development of our concept of church, synagogue does seem to have some striking similarities.  However, it must be noted that there have been some significant departures, most notably in the “liturgy”, governance, and sociopolitical aspects.  The synagogue was a Word-centered, lay-led, house of study (and later of prayer) that encouraged dialogue, questions, and multiplicity of speakers.  Likewise, it played a critical role in the community, serving as a location for social and political functions alike.

Having now laid some of the historical groundwork in our study, we will next turn to Scripture and explore how ekklesia is used along with its implications on our modern conception of church.