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Jesus and Ekklesia by Elizabeth E. Shively

Q. Did Jesus indicate that he wanted to form a Church separate and antagonistic to the Israelite religion of his time?

A. Jesus could not have envisioned the institutionalized and hierarchical organization that the word “church” denotes today. Some even doubt that Jesus envisioned any continuing community, because he preached the imminent end of the age.

Also, the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) appears only twice in the Gospels (Matt 16:18; Matt 18:17). while it occurs 62 times in Paul’s writings, suggesting that Paul, rather than Jesus, developed the idea. Nevertheless, some observations indicate that Jesus did envision a continuing community.

First, a teacher’s gathering of a perennial community was not an extraordinary custom in Jesus’ day. The Teacher of Righteousness shaped a community at Qumran in order to preserve teaching, simultaneously expecting the end of the age.

Second, the Gospels record Jesus’ teaching on an indefinite period during which his followers must discern how to live in a hostile world (Mark 13:9-13. He calls the twelve disciples to follow him and instructs them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), covering a variety subjects like divorce, anger, and love for one’s enemies, which assume that people are living in relationship to others.

Third, there is no evidence that Jesus was antagonistic to the Jewish religion, or that he passed on teaching characterized by antagonism to his followers. Jesus himself was a Jew who proclaimed that he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17), he quoted Jewish scriptures (Matt 4:1-11), taught in synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee (Matt 9:35; Luke 4:44), and traveled to Jerusalem to keep the Jewish festivals (John 2:23; John 10:22). Indeed, Jesus envisioned Israel’s restoration (Matt 15:24; Luke 13:34).

Rather, Jesus was antagonistic towards certain ideas and actions of the Judean authorities. He frequently denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 15:1-12; Luke 11:37-54), and displayed his criticism of the temple authorities when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables, the incident which precipitated his arrest (Mark 11:15-19).

Fourth, the first community of believers was a sect within Judaism rather than a group that separated itself from Judaism. Acts 2:42 records the practice of this first community, each aspect of which preserves Jesus’ teaching and actions: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (see, for example, Matt 6:9-13; Mark 14:22-25).  As this community proclaimed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and attracted Gentiles, though, it had to work out its relationship to Judaism, generating fraction and tension. Sadly, the Church through the ages has periodically expressed antagonism to Jews, misusing the Bible and misunderstanding Jesus’ mission in the world. We would do well to keep in mind that Jesus’ greatest teaching was about love.

Elizabeth E. Shively, "Jesus and Ekklesia", n.p. [cited 2 Dec 2022]. Online:



Elizabeth E. Shively
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies , University of St. Andrews

Elizabeth E. Shively is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews and is the author of “The Servant(s) in the Gospel of Mark and the Exegetical Formation of Early Christian Identity” in M. Lyons and J. Stromberg eds., Isaiah’s Servants in Early Judaism and Christianity (Mohr Siebeck, 2021).

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A designation describing a set of practices centred on the worship of YHWH, which developed out of the ancient Israelite religion in the late Second Temple period.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

A hypothetical source of sayings about Jesus conceived to explain common materials in Matthew and Luke.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A religious subgroup.

A message usually delivered orally by a religious leader.

A mysterious figure mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls who is commonly believed to have been the founder of the community (Yahad) at Qumran.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Matt 16:18

18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Matt 18:17

17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentil ... View more

Mark 13:9-13

Persecution Foretold
9“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before gover ... View more

Matt 5-7

The Beatitudes
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.2Then he began to speak, and taught them, s ... View more

Matt 5:17

The Law and the Prophets
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

Matt 4:1-11

The Temptation of Jesus
1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwar ... View more

Matt 9:35

The Harvest Is Great, the Laborers Few
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the k ... View more

Luke 4:44

44So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

John 2:23

23When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.

John 10:22

Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,

Matt 15:24

24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Luke 13:3

3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

Matt 15:1-12

The Tradition of the Elders
1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For the ... View more

Luke 11:37-54

Jesus Denounces Pharisees and Lawyers
37While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table.38The Phar ... View more

Mark 11:15-19

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
15Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in th ... View more

Acts 2:42

42They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Matt 6:9-13

9“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.10Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.11Give us this day our ... View more

Mark 14:22-25

The Institution of the Lord's Supper
22While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; thi ... View more

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