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.
“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