This post is the fourth in a series where I note Septuagintal passages of interest to students of Christian origins; e.g. texts where the New Testament quotes an LXX reading significantly different from the Masoretic reading, or texts where the LXX reading is needed to make sense of a NT text.
In this post, I want to explore the way the LXX uses the term ἐκκλησία and related words (e,g, ἐκκλησιάζω). It is common among laypeople, and even many theologians and Bible scholars who should know better, to act as if the “church” is a “New Testament entity.” Both dispensationalists and supersessionist covenant theologians have tended to speak of the Church either replacing Israel in the NT (supersessionists), or existing in sharp discontinuity with Israel (classic dispensationalists). I believe this is because a) they have not taken into account the LXX’s use of ἐκκλησία (translating Hebrew qahal), and b) have been influenced by English versions which translate ἐκκλησία in the NT as “church” while translating qahal in the OT as “congregation” or “assembly,” thus obscuring the continuity.
Uses of the Word in LXX
One good way to point out the continuity is to see how Acts 7:38 speaks of Moses being ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμω. But, the data from the LXX’s usage of ἐκκλησία should be more than enough to establish it. Here are some relevant texts:
The gathering of Israelites at Sinai to enter the covenant is called an ἐκκλησία (Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16). Similarly, the people are assembled to hear the Law every seventh year at the Feast of Booths (Deut 31:12, ἐκκλησιάζω). First Kings (3 Rgns) 8:14, 22, 55, 65 likewise describes a large festal assembly led by King Solomon (cf. similar uses throughout Ezra/Nehemiah and, really, throughout the LXX.)
- Similarly in Judges, the word refers to Israel’s legislative assembly of tribal leaders (20:2; 21:5, 8). Judith 6:16, 21 uses it to refer to a more locally based assembly that conducts a legal investigation.
- Judas Maccabeee is said to gather a large ἐκκλησία of soldiers (1 Macc 3:13). Elsewhere in 1 Maccabees, a civic ἐκκλησία makes national policy decisions.
- 1 Sam (1Rgns) 19:20 speaks of an ἐκκλησία τῶν προφητῶν (assembly of prophets), presided over by Samuel.
- Psalm 88:6 (89:5MT) speaks of the “church of the saints,” or the assembly of the holy ones (ἐκκλησία ἁγίων). Similarly, Ps 149:1 has the ἐκκλησία ὁσίων.
- Our name for Ecclesiastes (ἐκκλησιαστής), of course, derives from the translation of qohelet. At the least, it refers to someone who is a member of the assembly. This is the meaning in Plato’s Apology, where οἱ ἐκκλησιασταί is placed in apposition with οἱ ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ(25). Elsewhere, it appears to be used of someone who may have presided over meetings of the assembly, akin, perhaps, to a modern parliamentarian. NASB’s translation, “Preacher,” however, is an anachronism that makes Jesus facepalm.
- Thus, the LXX commonly uses ἐκκλησία to refer to Israel as a gathered nation in civic or legislative assembly—not too different at all from the Classical usage referring to citizens’ assemblies in the polis. Elsewhere it speaks simply of any type of gathering (soldiers, prophets, etc.).
Elsewhere in the New Testament
Another passage in the NT deserves mention. Acts 19 contains three uses of ἐκκλησία, none of them referring to “the church,” and all of them regularly translated by English versions as “assembly.” Acts 19:32, 39, 41 all refer to an Ephesian assembly that met in the theater at Ephesus. It was really more of a lynch mob than a duly constituted civic assembly. In fact, 19:39 contrasts it with a “lawful assembly” (ἔννομος ἐκκλησία).
When we translate Acts 19:32 in Christianese, we get a verse that describes some “churches” I have seen:
ἄλλοι μὲν οὖν ἄλλο τι ἔκραζον· ἦν γὰρ ἡ ἐκκλησία συγκεχυμένη καὶ οἱ πλείους οὐκ ᾔδεισαν τίνος ἕνεκα συνεληλύθεισαν.
In English: “So, folks were shouting different things, and the church was a mass of confusion and most of the people didn’t know why they had come together in the first place.” 🙂
Similar funny things can happen when you translate Acts 19:41 in Biblish:
καὶ ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἀπέλυσεν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν.
“And when he had said this, he destroyed the church.” Oh no! 😦
When we translate the word as “church” in one place and “assembly” in another place, we end up obscuring a contrast that Luke likely intended his audience to hear. The followers of the Way in Ephesus are being portrayed as an orderly and divinely sanctioned counter-assembly to the chaotic illegal assembly of the Ephesians.
The translation of ἐκκλησία in modern English New Testaments—“church”—is not very helpful, since “church” is specifically religious and carries connotations that do not attach to the word in its original contexts. It also introduces a disconnect between the assemblies of early “Christians” and those of their Israelites forbears—a disconnect that may run counter to the intentions of early Christians who used the term to describe their meetings.