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Why do most English Bibles translate “ekklesia” as “church”?

Pietro Perugino
Pietro Perugino

Q. Why do English Bibles continue to translate the Greek “ekklesia” to “church,” considering that the two words are not etymologically related or connected? For example, translations such as the Tyndale Bible or Young’s Literal translate Matt 16:18 with the more literal “congregation” or “assembly.”

A. This is a very good question, which opens up for discussion larger issues that concern the very nature of what a translation is, as it involves reflection on both source language (in this case Greek) and target language (in this case English).

The meaning of a word depends primarily on the context in which it is used. This means that words are not static capsules carrying fixed meaning through time and across cultures. Rather, they are dynamic tools of communication that adapt to the usages we subject them to. For example, the Greek word idiotes, from which the English word ‘idiot’ originates, has changed meaning over time, so that we would hardly translate 1Cor 14:23 using this English word today (NRSV has instead ‘outsider’). Thus, the etymology of a word, while certainly important in its own right, cannot do much in helping us understand its meaning, which would be the first step in the process of translation. In principle, then, we may have to find a different, etymologically disconnected modern word, such as ‘church,’ to express the meaning for us today that ekklesia conveyed to the ancients.

The choice of a (modern) word aimed at transferring to us the ancient meaning(s) we have identified in the source language is determined by how the word in the target language behaves, so to speak, when we use it in ordinary speech. What frames of reference does it assume? What opposites does it evoke? For example, can we use the term ‘church’ today as a synonym for ‘synagogue’? Or for a democratic-like political assembly? The answer to both is no, which is why ‘church,’ as we shall see below, is an inadequate translation of ancient usages of the Greek ekklesia.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, the word ekklesia was used in various ways and for various types of both political and unofficial, or semi-public institutions. For Jews, it was one of seventeen Greek words used for what we today translate as synagogue. As such, it could be used for both public civic Jewish institutions and assemblies (as in Josephus; Ben Sira) and for what we would call voluntary associations (as in Philo). Ekklesia was, then, a term applied in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts to designate various types of institutional settings. The way the word ‘ekklesia‘ functions in these ancient discourses thus differs from how the term ‘church’ functions in common usage today; if we agree that a translation should communicate approximate meaning across time and culture then clearly this particular translation is inaccurate.

A historically more attuned translation of ekklēsia would be ‘assembly,’ since this word leaves open for a variety of applications in religio-political or semi-public settings and does not lock the meaning of ekklesia into an anachronistic frame of reference.

The question of why some English translations, such as the NRSV, still use the word ‘church’ to translate ekklesia is more difficult to answer. It is possible that this English word was chosen due to the fact that it may establish a sense of continuity between modern Christians attending church on the one hand and the first followers of Jesus on the other. From a historical perspective, however, such a translation is a disservice to the reader. It misrepresents the nature of these ancient institutions which Jesus’ followers belonged to and obscures their collective and institutional identity in relation to Jews and Judaism and to their non-Jewish neighbors.

  • Anders Runesson

    Anders Runesson is professor of New Testament at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study (Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001; The Ancient Synagogue From its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Source Book (Brill, 2008; with Donald D. Binder and Birger Olsson; and Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew: The Narrative World of the First Gospel (Fortress, 2016; September). He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting.