The Root of Paul’s Ekklesia …Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, A Gathered People, Church, Hebrew Bible, Mission, Patternism, Unity, Worship
Though Alexander Campbell advocated a dispensational hermeneutic in relating the so called “Old Testament” and New Testament his views are far more nuanced than most of his heirs in the Stone-Campbell Movement. Campbell recognized that it is simply impossible to properly understand Paul apart from the Hebrew Bible. Sounding incredibly modern, Campbell wrote in the Preface of the Living Oracles that a student of the Greek New Testament would be better served by spending hours reading and studying the Septuagint (LXX) to understand Paul than virtually any other commentary or discipline.
Paul wrote in Greek, Campbell said, but did so with a thick Old Testament and Jewish accent. In fact a significant problem with the King James Version, he said, was that the King’s men did not recognize the “special character” of NT Greek. Paul’s language has “the body of Greek but the soul of Hebrew.” A look at the most recognized Greek lexicon, BDAG, confirms Campbell’s insight. The LXX is more than a source of words and shaper of syntax, rather it is even more fundamental as supplying the worldview or structure of thought that is used within the New Testament.
The influence of the LXX on the NT is enormous and simply cannot be exaggerated. All the words that we recognize as significant doctrinal words in the “New Testament” are first encountered in the LXX and had been there for hundreds of years by the time of Jesus, Paul and the early Way, as James noted that “Moses was read in every city” (Acts 15.21). These words are themselves translations of Hebrew and they carry with them meanings that arrive out of the Hebrew text not classical Greek. So we find “faith,” “grace,” “covenant,” “mercy,” “love,” “righteousness/justification,” “redemption,” “salvation,” and many more. One important word is the word “church.” The New Testament, and Paul in particular, did not simply invent the “doctrine” of the “church” out of thin air, as I have written about in two blogs on how the Hebrew Bible shapes the notion of “church.” I hope you will check them out here: Old Testament Roots of the NT Doctrine of Church, Pt 1; and Old Testament Roots of the NT Doctrine of Church, Pt 2.
Hebrew Root of Paul’s Ekklesia
In my blog “Who Are We? Perhaps Not Christian: Luke’s Designations for the Followers of Jesus,” I showed that Luke uses the word ekklesia as a traditional Jewish word. Likewise it is not a word or idea that Paul came up with because of his missionary work. The apostle Paul inherits more than a word in ekklesia rather he inherits a whole perspective, a theology, or as we usually say, a doctrine.
Many make the mistake that Campbell cautioned against way back in the 1820s. They read Paul’s use of ekklesia as if they were reading Plato rather than Deuteronomy, the Psalms and Chronicles. Thus Robert Banks in his book Paul’s Idea of Community (many house church and “progressive” folks hold his work in esteem, and his work has value though in many ways he is not correct) argues that the word ekklesia simply means merely assembly without much theological/doctrinal content. There are a couple places where this classical Greek meaning seems to be in view in the NT. However, this position has been examined critically in many writers and does not work in Paul nor the rest of the NT by and large.
Indeed Paul did inherit the concept of ekklesia. The word ekklesia appears around 100 times in the LXX, twenty-two of those in the Apocrypha. The root of the concept of ekklesia lies with the Hebrew qahal. The word qahal is translated in the LXX as synagoge 35x (and used of the “church” in James 2.2) and ekklesia over 70x. When we examine the 100 or so times ekklesia is used in the LXX some interesting things emerge. Nearly every one of them refer to Jews (Psalm 26.5 and Ezekiel 32.22-23 being exceptions) that are actually assembled in reference to God or the torah (for example Deuteronomy 9.10; 18.16; 23.1ff and 31.30). Thirty-three times in 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles ekklesia refers to Israel gathered as a worshiping community (in many of these texts ekklesia is used as a concrete noun for the people). In the Psalms and Sirach ekklesia is used of groups of Jews gathered for worship (cf. Pss 22.22,25; 26.12; 35.18; 40.9; 68.26; 107.32 and Sirach 15.5; 21.17; 24.2; 38.33; 39.10; 44.15).
The last book of the Hebrew Bible is 1-2 Chronicles and in its Greek translation uses ekklesia quite a lot. There were three great days of “church” in the “Old Testament:” the day Israel was gathered before God at Mt. Sinai; the day Israel was gathered before God at the dedication of the Temple by Solomon and the day Israel was gathered before God and renewed as the people of God at Hezekiah’s Passover. I will offer a few examples from the day of the Temple.
According to the Chronicle’s telling of the story, the Temple dominates the end of David’s life and consumes the first years of Solomon’s reign. Indeed Solomon’s story in 2 Chronicles is taken up by the Temple. Thus from 1 Chronicles 22 to 2 Chronicles 7 everything is about the Temple. Significantly the building of the Temple follows Solomon’s miraculous gift of wisdom (2 Chron 1-3). The Ark of the Covenant is brought to Zion in a great ceremony. Just as at Sinai, all Israel gathered “at the festival that is in the seventh month” (2 Chron 5.3). Israel breaks out in loud and joyous praise and worship singing a Psalm with instruments. And “the house of the LORD was filled with a cloud, so the priests could not minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God” (5.13-14; 7.1-2). It is not only Mt. Sinai redone but the Tabernacle redone (Ex 40.34-38). At this point Solomon turns and blesses “the ekklesia/church of Israel” (6.3). Standing before the Presence of the Lord (i.e. Altar and the Cloud), Solomon in the presence of the “ekklesia of Israel” (6.12, 13) and prayed to, and worshiped, the God of Abraham. Similarly in Hezekiah’s Passover a great gathering/ekklesia was called (2 Chron 30.2, 4, 13, 17, 23, 24, 25) for the purpose of worship and renewing the people of Israel as a whole … the Passover is sort of a “reconstitution” of Israel itself. When ekklesia is used it is never a mere assembly but a manifestation of the people of God in the Presence of the Lord.
Looking at Paul
Most biblical scholars today will say that ekklesia was not a technical word among Jews in Jesus and Paul’s day, rather it was a loaded term. We might want to think of the word “American” as a possible analogy. The word “American” is not, in fact, a technical term for a citizen of the United States. Technically citizens from Mexico, Canada, Panama, and Brazil are also Americans. But in most common usage “American” is a loaded term and not a few people would imagine that it is indeed a technical term for citizen of the United States. Just so there are a number of words that have the same basic analogous function in Second Temple Judaism, ekklesia is among those (Philo and Josephus tend to use the term as the LXX does).
If what we have explored above has any validity at all, and I think it does, then this informs our understanding of Paul in many ways and places. The people reading the LXX in Paul’s gatherings are no stranger to the word ekklesia linguistically nor as a concept. I want to suggest that we find Paul using the word ekklesia in four ways against the backdrop of his inherited understanding of that word.
- ekklesia can simply refer to the people of God as an entity.
- ekklesia can refer to all the disciples, or the people of God, in a specific geographical area.
- ekklesia can refer to all the disciples, or the people of God, in the world. (in these first three usages ekklesia is practically equivalent to “the people” [ho laos] which it is used in conjunction with in numerous LXX texts. That is like using the word “American” noted above which most will interpret as citizen of the USA thus ekklesia of God, for example, is practically like using the word “Israel” and indeed Paul can use the phrase “Israel of God.” “the people” is not just a loaded phrase but indeed a technical one and always refers to Israel)
- ekklesia can refer to a small gathering of disciples who are a local manifestation of the people of God.
Let me provide a few illustrations. In full continuity with the LXX Paul uses ekklesia in the following places that carry significant theological weight.
“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism, I was violently persecuting the ekklesia of God” (Gal 1.13)
“For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the ekklesia of God” (1 Cor 15.9; cf. Phil 3.6)
In these texts Paul recognizes that there was something called ekklesia before his own encounter with the Messiah, therefore Paul was not the first to appropriate this term for disciples. Likewise Paul’s usage in these passages clearly does not mean a mere local assembly of people as in the classical Greek sense. Rather what we have in these passages is an identification with the historic people brought to God and by God. As in 2 Chronicles the ekklesia of Israel was simply Israel constituted as the laos of God. Paul had attacked not mere groups of people rather he attacked people of God as an entity. The word ekklesia does not replace the word, much less the concept, Israel. Rather it stands for Israel, the people of God.
We can see how Paul does this (what I claimed in the last paragraph) by his interweaving of the second usage of ekklesia in the list above with two other distinctly Old Testament terms for Israel. In 1 Corinthians we can observe Paul wrapping #’s 1 and 2 above into one, that is all the disciples in a specific location identified with the concept of the people of God
“To the ekklesia of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Messiah Jesus, and saints by God’s call …” (1.2)
Those who, unlike Paul and his readers, that are unfamiliar with the Hebrew Bible simply miss what Paul has done. As Campbell said, a few hours reading the LXX does as much for understanding Paul as ten hours with a commentary (provided one actually learns the vocabulary). Here in the space of a single sentence Paul has directly applied one loaded term and two technical terms straight out of the Septuagint directly to the disciples in Corinth. The two technical terms further modify the loaded term. The terms are ekklesia, kletoi, and hagioi.
In the LXX, Israelites are the “saints.” On that great day of ekklesia at Mt. Sinai, by the act of God’s grace, the refugees from Egypt became the saints. Israel, that rebellious and faithless people, were declared to be Yahweh’s holy people (Ex. 19.6; Lev. 11.44, 45, etc, etc). Israelites were thus the saints (Num 16.3; Deut 33.3; Pss 16.3; 34.9; 89.5; Isa. 4.3; Dan. 7.18, 21, 22, 25, 27; etc). Saints was a common term in Jewish literature of the time finding its way into the Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch and throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the LXX, Israel is the “called.” This is the idea of “election” or even ‘the elect” (hoi eklektoi). This idea is in fact basic to the biblical teaching on Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Israel is the called ones or chosen ones (1 Chron 16.13; Pss 89.3; 105.6; etc.)
In 1 Corinthians 1.2, the “saints” and “the called” refer to the very thing ekklesia does. Paul is designating all the disciples in the geographical area of Corinth with two terms that are the sole preserve of Israel in the LXX. In using them Paul is identifying the Corinthians with Israel. As Kevin Giles notes in What on Earth is the Church? An Exploration in New Testament Theology, the ekklesia of God must bear the same force as the previous terms.
Thus in 1 Corinthians 1.2, Paul does not use “ekklesia” as mere assembly. Nor does he appropriate the term in contradistinction with the people of God in the “Old Testament.” Rather Paul uses the terms specifically to identify the Corinthians with Israel, the people of God. It is not replacement but identification with. This is plainly evident as we read through the material of 1 Corinthians. Coming to chapter 10 we notice what is so frequently overlooked. The apostle places is Gentile converts squarely within the Israelite Story making no distinction at all. “I do not want you to be unaware brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses …” The heritage of Israel is now the heritage of these Gentiles, they are “our ancestors.” The Corinthians have become part of the one people of God. As Christian Beker notes in his classic, Paul the Apostle, “the church, in its Jewish-Gentile unity is the proleptic dawning of the future destiny of Israel, but it is not Israel’s replacement” (p. 316).
Paul’s use of “church” is shaped by his “Old Testament” theology! A lot can happen when we follow Alexander Campbell’s advice and read the New Testament through the Hebrew Bible. Or a Gerhard von Rad said bravely in the heart of Nazi Germany, there are many paths into the New Testament but only one that opens the proper meaning. That is the path that goes through the “Old Testament.”
It has not been the purpose of this blog to write a complete “doctrine” of the church. My goal is far more limited. I want to caution us against two disastrous misconceptions both rooted in a failure to enter Paul through the Hebrew Bible.
For some people the doctrine of the church is merely organization (elders, deacons, name, etc). While we cannot say that Paul has zero interest in such matters we can say that such matters are not very prominent, and indeed simply absent from most of Paul’s letters.
Some conceive of “church” as something different and separate from the Old Testament and Israel. The is patently not true of the book of Acts and, as I have argued here, it is simply not true of Paul’s Epistles either. For Paul his apostolic ministry is rooted in the mission that God gave Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Israel, God’s saints, were to be a kingdom of priests and a light unto the nations. Now the Jewish Messiah has come and Paul in his own mission to the nations is doing what Israel was called to do … that is to get the Gentiles to come worship the God of Israel because the King has come. In the Hebrew Bible in the new age the peoples of the world will join Israel in worshiping Yahweh as the true God.
The ekklesia is that renewed Israel of God that now includes Gentiles as children of Abraham, grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel, now “fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise in Messiah Jesus” (Eph 3.6) no longer “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2.11-13). Paul does not use the word “church” to distinguish believers in the Messiah from Israel in the so called Old Testament. Rather he uses that loaded word precisely to identify believers in the Messiah WITH Israel in the so called Old Testament. It shows the continuity of the One People of God … the Children of Abraham.
The “root” of Paul’s ekklesia is the Old Testament. It is Israel. It is the promise to Abraham. “[R]emember that it is not you [gentiles] that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11.18).
In fact the root of Paul’s ekklesia is so Old Testament in his concept, that we can say the ekklesia is the eschatological people of God as gathered before God in worship and as we witness to the coming glory of God which we celebrate in the present. Paul is able to use the work ekklesia in four ways but all are the threads of a single rope that starts in the Hebrew Bible. The ekklesia is the gathered by the call and grace of God people, who like in ancient Israel, stand in the Presence of God calling the world to join us in the worship of the Creator and King of all.