Ekklesia/Qahal (English word “chuch”)

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POSTED 07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

I have heard that there really is no such thing as “the Church” in Scripture, and that the Hebrew and Greek terms used in the Bible can support this. Can you help me with this issue?

Some form of this summary appears in a wide array of articles and publications by Outreach Israel Ministries and Messianic Apologetics

In the Apostolic Scriptures no reader can deny how ekklēsia is used as a term to define the Body of Messiah, and so by extension it is rendered as “church” in most English translations of the New Testament. But whether this is an appropriate rendering or not is something critical to ask, because when many people encounter the word “church” they think not of a living and breathing group of Messiah followers, but instead of a building with a steeple.[1] TDNT offers some rather important remarks on the term ekklēsia:

“Since the NT uses a single term, translations should also try to do so, but this raises the question whether ‘church’ or ‘congregation’ is always suitable, especially in view of the OT use for Israel and the underlying Hebrew and Aramaic…‘Assembly,’ then, is perhaps the best single term, particularly as it has both a congregate and an abstract sense, i.e., for the assembling as well as the assembly.”[2]

This Christian commentary says that “assembly” would be the best, consistent translation for the word ekklēsia.[3] The Septuagint, or ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible dating three centuries before Yeshua, frequently translates the Hebrew word qahal, or assembly/congregation, as ekklēsia. Qahal is one of the main Hebrew terms for “assembly” or “congregation” used in the Tanach, which almost exclusively refers to Israel. TWOT informs us that “usually qāhāl is translated as ekklēsia in the LXX.”[4] When the martyr Stephen speaks of “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, KJV), tē ekklēsia en tē erēmō, “the church” here he is speaking of is actually the assembly/congregation of Israel.

The Hebrew word qahal is used in the Tanach to describe the people of Israel. TWOT indicates that “qāhāl may…designate the congregation as an organized body. There is qehal yiśrā’ēl (Deut 31:30), qehal YHWH (Num 16:3, etc.), and qehal ělōhîm (Neh 13:1) and then at other times merely ‘the assembly’ (haqqāhāl). We encounter…‘the assembly of the people of God’ (Jud 20:2). Of special interest is the phrase ‘congregation of the Lord’ (qehal YHWH) of which there are thirteen instances (Num 16:3; 20:4; Deut 23:2-4; Mic 2:5; 1 Chr 28:8). It is the nearest OT equivalent of ‘church of the Lord’[5] (emphasis mine).

When the Apostolic writers used the Greek word, often rendered as “church” in our English Bibles, they did not see the ekklēsia as a separate assembly or group of people removed from Israel. They considered the ekklēsia to be Israel, perhaps better viewed as an Israel maximized by the arrival of the Messiah, the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).

It is not surprising by any means that one of the lexical definitions given for the word ekklēsia does in fact include “Israel.” Thayer states that “in the Sept. [ekklēsia is] often equiv. to [qahal], the assembly of the Israelites.”[6] BDAG further summarizes that not only does ekklēsia correspond to the “OT Israelites assembly, congregation,” but asserts how it was used by the early Messianic Believers “in Greek-speaking areas for chiefly two reasons: to affirm continuity with Israel through use of a term found in Gk. translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, and to allay any suspicion, esp. in political circles, that Christians were a disorderly group.”[7] This is because in an entirely classical context ekklēsia could have been used to describe a civil assembly, such as that of the Athenians,[8] or even the Roman Senate. It is unfortunate that ekklēsia in most Bibles has been translated as “church,” whereas it would be best rendered as either “assembly” or “congregation,” with people able to have an easier time seeing that when Yeshua said that He came to “build” His assembly (Matthew 16:18), it is undoubtedly connected with the Father’s promise to “rebuild” Israel (Jeremiah 33:7).[9]

There are many references one will find in a diverse array of technical commentaries on the New Testament, where linguistic and theological connections between ekklēsia and qahal are made.


NOTES

[1] Note how there are various people one will encounter in the Messianic community, who will not use the term “church” because they somehow think it has pagan origins. But we do not readily use the term “church” to describe God’s people on theological grounds, and the confusion it frequently can cause. When “the Church” is typically referred to in the editor’s writings, it is primarily to refer to a religious institution.

Consult the FAQ on the Messianic Apologetics website “Church, word of pagan origin.”

[2] K.L. Schmidt, “ekklēsía,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abrid. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 397.

[3] Christian translations that render ekklēsia as “assembly” include Young’s Literal Translation and the Literal Translation of the Holy Bible by Jay P. Green. The Complete Jewish Bible by David H. Stern often uses phraseology like “Messianic community.”

[4] Jack P. Lewis, “qāhāl,” in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:790.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 196.

[7] Frederick William Danker, ed., et. al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, third edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 303.

[8] H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 239.

[9] Consult the editor’s article “When Did ‘the Church’ Begin?”, which includes discussion on the linguistic connections between the verbs banah and oikodomeō, employed in Jeremiah 33:7; Matthew 16:18; and Jeremiah 33:7 (LXX).