The Antithesis of Ekklesia: What is Church—Part 4

The Old Testament antithesis of ekklesia

You will recall that in part 2 of our series we showed how the word ekklesia was used in the Greek Old Testament quoted by Jesus and His followers. We saw that:

“Jews used ekklesia to represent ‘the qahal of Jehovah’ to signify, not an assembly of Israel upon some particular occasion, but the people of Israel as God’s people distinct from everybody else.”

It turns out that the Old Testament has a very specific word that it consistently uses as the antithesis of qahal in Hebrew, and ekklesia in Greek. You know that word as “gentile.” In Hebrew it is goyim (גוים) the plural for goy, and in Greek it is ethne (ἔθνη), the plural for ethnos.

The word-view of the Old Testament at a basic level is quiet simple—There is the nation of YHWH— His quahal or ekklesia; and there are the other nations—the goyim or ethne. It was a fundamental fact of ancient near eastern understanding that each nation belonged to a particular god who was responsible for their care and well-being.

Understanding this background is essential for understanding the Old Testament and much of what goes on in the New Testament. An important part of this perspective is that the king was expected to convey the god’s desires to the people, and to represent the people before their god.

(This background is so important that we will spend much time explaining its relevance in future posts. But for now I don’t want to distract us from our goal of understanding ekklesia.)

Israel was unique because their “god” was unique–the creator God of all things, physical and spiritual. For now it is important to understand that the Old Testament nation of Israel was viewed as the special possession of YHWH and that the “other nations” of the world were viewed as collectively and categorically different. In the Old Testament it is very clear that the antithesis of the ekklesia of YHWH was the other nations. The goyim or ethne.

What is the plural of “nation?”

This seems like a silly question. Of course the plural of nation is nations, right? Well, for some reason most Bible translators and N.T. Greek instructors don’t seem to think so! Standard practice (as shown by Mounce’s popular textbook and others) is to render ethnos as “nation” when it is singular and “Gentiles” when it is plural! Why is this?

The reason is not hard to figure out. Gentile is an English word that means non-Jew (note that it is singular). In the Old Testament you had Israel, the nation of God, and you had the other nations. In this context it can make sense to refer to the other nations as Gentiles, since by definition they were not Israel. While we can understand the reason behind the practice, we should note that translating ethne as “nations” or “other nations” always makes sense throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

The New Testament antithesis of ekklesia

Sadly, while the habit of translating ethne as “Gentiles” may make some sense in the Old Testament, it generates confusion when we come to the New. (I have already written a bit about this in my posts; “Are you a Pagan Christian,” and “The Christian Nation.)

The error of translating ethne as Gentiles and not nations, or other nations, renders some of the great truths of the New Testament almost illegible. It certainly has affected our understanding of the nature of the ekklesia of God. The reason for this is that ethne continues its service as the antithesis of ekklesia throughout the New Testament. The problem is that in the course of the New Testament the identity of the ekklesia of God is dramatically changed.

Verses such as 1 Corinthians 12:2, and Ephesians 2:11, make no sense when ethne is rendered as Gentile. The key to our conundrum is to remember our Lord’s words:

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation [ethnos] producing its fruit.”—Matthew 21:43

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9 thoughts on “The Antithesis of Ekklesia: What is Church—Part 4

  1. I think it would be better to continue translating ethne as Gentiles in Acts 15. Acts 15 presupposes a distinction between Jews, and non-Jews, so if that distinction is lost, then so is the original meaning of the passage.

    For example, assume that Jews and non-Jews who don’t recognize Jesus as King are now altogether “nations” and is also the opposite of ekklesia like you say. Then James would be asking not to trouble those who are separate from the nations (v. 19), and petitioning for a letter to be written to these people separate from the nations about abstaining from idols, sexual immorality, strangled meat, and blood (v. 20). To those who were once Jews, and now a people separated from them, this letter would be ridiculous. A person who is now identified with ekklesia who was once a Jew would say, “Duh, of course we don’t do those things.” But to those who now identify with ekklesia who were once non-Jews, this would seem like a new standard of morality. It therefore makes little sense for James to ask people to write to an assembly of citizens about abstaining from things that they already know to avoid. It would make better sense if James was wanting to write a letter to Christians who were once non-Jews, and needed to hear something new. To cover up this distinction (between those who were once Jews, and those who were once non-Jews) in Acts 15 is to cover up the meaning Luke is conveying to us.

    Since nation does not immediately call to mind in English a distinction from Jews, and though it is possible to translate ethne as nations, the distinction would be better seen in English if we translate ethne as Gentiles, since Gentiles is from the Latin for nations, and specifically means non-Jew (see definition 1 in OED).

    • Thanks Joseph, for sharing. There are a couple of things that I think you may be overlooking. First neither Greek nor Hebrew had a word equivalent to “Gentile,” meaning non-Jew. You might like to check out this link: http://www.ccel.org/node/7503/46158 for independent confirmation. It turns out that “Gentile” is another case of transliteration distorting scriptural understanding. In this case, like pastor, it is taken from the Latin. In this case “gentilis,” meaning clan, tribe or nation, as you note. Using the English word for non-Jew in place of translating the simple meaning of ethnos or goy, can only be justified by placing theology over linguistics when translating.

      It can easily be demonstrated that translating ethnos as nation makes a perfectly lucid reading of Acts 15 by simply reading a translation that does so: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2015&version=DARBY

      I realize that what I am saying is uncomfortable for many, and seems unfamiliar. There are several theological systems which are dependent on maintaining the Jew/Gentile distinction. I suggest that no matter how uncomfortable it is, we must let scripture determine our understanding of theology, rather than the other way around. Darby is is to be commended for not allowing his theology to influence his translation in this instance at least.

  2. Thank you for your post on this Christopher. Some very interesting points. Is it possible from your Greek knowledge to say “a people set apart”?

    I found these passages from Romans relevant to the above:

    11:11 Let me put another question then: have the Jews fallen for ever, or have they just
    stumbled? Obviously they have not fallen for ever: their fall, though, has saved the pagans in a way the Jews may now well emulate.

    11:15 Since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, do you know what their
    admission will mean? Nothing less than a resurrection from the dead!

    11:16 A whole batch of bread is made holy if the first handful of dough is made holy; all the branches are holy if the root is holy.

    11:17 No doubt some of the branches have been cut off, and, like shoots of wild olive, you have been grafted among the rest to share with them the rich sap provided by the olive tree itself,
    11:18 but still, even if you think yourself superior to the other branches, remember that you do not support the root; it is the root that supports you.

    I believe that the Jews are like our elder brother – we can thank them for our salvation!

    • Perhaps the majority of the Jewish nation were being likened by the Lord to the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal – remaining under the law and stubbornly relying on what they think they have earned, and consequently choosing to remain outside the new nation. Of course almost all the first Christians were former Jews – some understood their new citizenship, but some caused serious problems when they tried to hold onto their old “nationality” – something which Paul counted as dung once he came to know Jesus as his king and the new identity he had been given. Paul makes it clear that in Christ there is one new man – a new race(?) – comprising former Jews and Gentiles. When Jews either singular or en masse (perhaps in some great move of God in the end times?) come to acknowledge their true king they are brought into this new version of the human race/nation. Although the Jews were the people he actively claimed as His for the enactment of His purposes, they are no longer so. Christians – former Jews and Gentiles are now his chosen people. However because of His faithfulness and grace it appears that He will take steps to bring as many Jews as possible into Christ before the end. However their entrance into this new state will be on the same grounds as for any Gentile and those who decline the invitation will be as any those from any other nation.

        • I agree with you dear sister; they are Christians, exactly the same as non-Jewish Christians and I understand they are growing in number. I believe that there is no biblical justification for making a distinction or insisting on having a separate identity- just the opposite as this is what Paul resisted – so there may well be unintended negative consequences. (I wonder what he thought when the apostles allocated to themselves the Jews to evangelise, and Paul & Barnabas were given the rest of the world!! Gal 2:9).When he was being all things to all men I do not think he believed that his actions (e.g. fulfilling a Jewish vow) endorsed racial differences, just that some of them were spiritually neutral and so could be have their uses.

    • Thérèse, I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you are asking concerning “a people set apart.” Who do you want to apply that to, or are you asking if that would serve as a translation in a particular verse?

      As far as Jews being our elder brothers, it depends on the context. That would certainly be true of the Old Testament saints. In today’s world there is confusion between the racial and religious significance of “Jew.” This is sometimes compounded by the “Jewish State” of Israel. As I understand it a religious or political Jew has no standing (on the basis of that religion or allegiance) with our king. Any racial Jew can be my brother assuming they have submitted to the king in whom our brotherhood is based.

      The root referred to in Romans 11:16 is our King Jesus, not Israel. Anything or anyone not attached to that root is spiritually dead. He is also called the rock, and the chief corner stone. The ekklesia of YHWH is built on the Rock–the confession that Jesus is king.

      I hope I am making sense here. If not please ask further questions, and please clarify your question concerning “a people set apart.”

  3. As usual, I have appreciated your insights on the Scriptures based on your knowledge of Greek. Languages are not my strong point. Nevertheless, I can praise the Lord for leading me to similar conclusions about separation from the nations just based on the teachings of our King as normally translated in English, plus some help from fellow citizens of the Kingdom.

  4. Thank you John. You bring up a good point. The Holy Spirit works with us and through the citizenry to bring us into His truth. A willing heart yielded to the king is of far more service in hermeneutics than an understanding of Greek and Hebrew. I am grateful for whatever small part he may allow me to play in that process.

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