It turns out translating ekklesia is not as easy as it seems. In part 1 of our series we saw that the English meaning of “church” has to do with a building, even though most followers of Jesus recognize this is not what it means in the Bible. We also saw that 1st century Greeks used the word in a political context.
In part 2 we examined how ekklesia was used in the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint, quoted by Jesus and the New Testament authors. We saw that Jewish readers understood ekklesia not as an assembly of Israel upon some particular occasion, but the people of Israel as God’s people distinct from everybody else.
Since the English word “church” does not normally convey either of these ideas, our task here in part 3, is translating ekklesia into an English form that conveys the 1st century understanding.
Is re-translating ekklesia necessary–Why not keep using “church?”
Hoskyns and Davey (see part 2) hold that “church” is a perfectly good word due to its lack of cognates in English. They believe we only need educate people on its New Testament usage. I am not comfortable with this for at least two reasons; first, it is most commonly associated with a building; secondly it leaves those who do not understand Greek completely dependent on their teachers and not the Bible itself. Most importantly it is devoid of the political/national significance that Hoskyns and Davey so clearly point out.
So what are we to use instead? “Citizens” certainly comes close, but being plural cannot fill in grammatically for the singular ekklesia. “Citizenry” comes closer, but sounds somewhat archaic. “Electorate” has a nice ring to it, and I especially like its linkage to the fact that we are the elect of God. Finally there is the fact that we have not mentioned before: In at least one New Testament reference, ekklesia clearly refers to a group of people antagonistic to our king’s people. This tells me that the classical Greek idea of “assembly” was still present, at least vestigially, in the minds of the New Testament authors.
My suggestion for translating ekklesia…
As a result of these considerations I tentatively submit that “assembly of citizens” be used in place of the English word “church.” It has the advantage of being a singular entity that retains the Ambassadors’ sense of a group, and at the same time emphasizes the group’s political/national nature. The only thing that is not entirely pleasing is the lack of economy in replacing one Greek word with three in English.
To test our hypothesis let’s try it out on a few passages to see if we get any value added over using “church.” First let us look at an extended passage where the use of ekklesia is singular and not clearly referring to any individual local assembly. In this passage I am simply cutting and pasting “assembly of citizens” for each occurrence of ekklesia, and “king” for each occurrence of christos. (For a full understanding of my translation of christos please see the book, The Problem with Christ.)