Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pondering the Origins of the Church

The word "church" is several centuries and cultures removed from the word it is used to translate in the earliest Christian texts. "Church" and its various cognates through the centuries is descended from a Late Greek word (which I would describe as ecclesiastical Greek) kuriakon meaning "belonging to the Lord" or the "Lord's house"; from this word has come the Teutonic word kirche, Kirk (still used in Scotland), which is the equivalent of the English word "church." It appears that translators of the New Testament have pressed into service what is today a "brick and mortar" fully baptized Christian word in order to render into English the pre-Christian ekklesia, used in the earliest extant Christian texts. Paul uses ekklesia to describe a local gathering of Jesus people, and the basic idea of ekklesia is an assembly of people called out for some purpose. The original idea of the word, its secular use, survives in Acts 19:32, 39, 41, where it is translated assembly. Another word Paul uses to describe the people in the gathering is agioi, or "holy ones," usually translated "saints" (1 Cor 1:2).

      It is an egregious chronological error, an anachronism, to translate ekklesia as "church" because in the middle first century there was no organization in the sense that we use the word "church" today. Technically speaking what we know as the "church" arose with the creedal and theological councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, although earlier certain theological developments led up to the fourth/fifth century "church." In the earliest period, for which there are extant texts, there existed only local gatherings of Jesus people.
            Paul's gatherings were comprised of Judeans (Jews) and non-Judeans; in Paul's mythological thinking people in the gathering were made "holy" in Jesus, whom he believed to be the Anointed (i.e., Christ; 1 Cor 1:2). These gatherings met in private homes (Rom 16:3-5; Gal 1:1), and were free-wheeling assemblies not bound by formal rules, procedures, or guidelines. Paul described these gatherings in the following ways: "the gatherings of the Anointed in Judea" (Gal 1:22), "the gatherings of God in Jesus the Anointed in Judea" (1 Thess 2:14), "the gatherings of the holy ones" (1 Cor 14:33), or he referred to the gatherings by the name of the location or region they assembled, for example: "to the gatherings of Galatia" (Gal 1:2). His later disciples came to think in terms of a united phenomenon, such as "the household of God, which is the ekklesia of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15). Using the word "church" as a translation for ekklesia in this latter designation does not seem inappropriate. It is one of those evolutionary developments that led up to the church as it emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries.
            Paul did not invent the idea of a "gathering," for there was already a gathering in Jerusalem led by people he did not meet until some seventeen years after his conversion. Peter, James, and John (Gal 1:17-24), who earlier had been part of Jesus' inner circle (Mark 14:32-33), comprised the leadership of the Jerusalem gathering.
            It is improbable that Jesus invented the concept for these gatherings. The gospels do not portray Jesus forming small gatherings in the communities he visited. Ekklesia is used only three times in the gospels, and all three appear in Matthew. The first of these is a highly contested passage (Matt 16:16-19) where Jesus says to Peter, "You are Peter (petros) and upon this rock (petra) I "will" build my ekklesia." That is to say, the ekklesia, however translated or conceived, was something for the indefinite future. Ekklesia also appears in Matt 18:15-18, where it appears to relate to a formal religious organization with developed rules for disciplining "brothers"; hence it is not like the gathering reflected in the Corinthian correspondence. The passage Matt 16:16-19 is a Matthean insertion into a text borrowed from Mark 8:29-30. The primacy of Peter does not surface again until the third century and later. Hence these two segments in Matthew are best thought of as bolts out of the later ecclesiastical blue. In short, they are chronologically out of place.
            A more cogent occasion for the origins of the Pauline gatherings is most likely to be the widespread groups of private clubs and associations in the Greco-Roman world. In the early Roman Empire many belonged to private associations of one sort or another, based on common interests and needs. The broad purposes for people associating with such clubs were economic, religious, and social. There existed associations of the trades and professions (merchants, scribes, wood and metal workers), burial societies, dining societies, sports groups, groups of ex-servicemen, and some that were specifically religious. As the fledgling cults of the risen Christ emerged in the Roman world, it would be natural for likeminded persons in a given location to assemble together on the basis of their shared interest, following the model of private clubs and associations. Outsiders aware of such gatherings would have seen them as just one more private association.
            In short, what eventually became the church in Greco-Roman culture began initially as small independent gatherings around certain ideas about Jesus, the Anointed. The origins of these gatherings, which led in the fourth and fifth centuries to what became the Christian Church, had no one single point of beginning.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Works Consulted:
Ascough, Harlan, and Kloppenborg. Associations in the Greco-Roman World. A Sourcebook. Waco, TX: Baylor, 2012.
Ferguson. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.
Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Are there Gods among us?

It is not such an idle question as one may think. Many Christians believe that "entertaining angels unawares" is at least still possible even in the twenty-first century (Heb 13:2).  In other words they think that angels are actual heavenly entities who still walk among us in today's world.  Certain biblical texts support this way of thinking by describing humanoid angels interacting with human beings in the ancient world (Genesis 18:1-19:23; Judges 13:2-21; Tobit 5:4-5).
            The Greek Gods, for example, are well-known for their philandering ways; they descended from Mount Olympus in human guise on many occasions involving themselves in human affairs and having amorous liaisons with human women; similar activities are at least suggested by Genesis 6:1-2 where the "sons of God" (a sort of heavenly being) discovered that human females were fair to behold and "took to wife such of them as they chose." By contrast the God of Hebrew faith was more circumspect in his activities among human beings.  He descended from Mount Sinai and involved himself in human affairs, at times even taking on human form (Genesis 18:1-19:23, 32:24, 28, 30). He is described as having face, hands, and backsides (Exodus 33:11, 21-23), among other anthropomorphic characteristics such as eyes and ears, mouth, heart, arms, fingers and feet. He talks, writes, sees and hears, sits and rests, smells, whistles, laughs, walks, sleeps and awakes, and claps his hands.1
            Occasionally God is described as walking among human beings as an angel (Judges 2:1-4; 6:11-18; 13:2-22). More often God's presence in the world is portrayed by natural visible phenomena: a cloudbank (Exodus 16:10-11; Leviticus 16:2; Deuteronomy 31:15; Mark 9:7), fire (Leviticus 9:24), or a burning bush that was not consumed (Exodus 3:2-6; Acts 7:30-33). Frequently his presence is signaled by an unnatural light referred to as "the glory of the Lord" (Exodus 16:10; Leviticus 9:6, 23; Numbers 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Acts 7:2). One modern writer described it this way: "The 'glory (kabod) of Yahweh' was God manifesting Himself in the brightness of light, revealing His holiness and power to men."2 Sometimes glory is spoken of as an aspect of God, rather than God himself; that is, the glory appears with no reference to God's presence (Leviticus 9:6, 23).
            There is only one other figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition who has been described as God in human form: Jesus the Judean teacher of wisdom, who was called the Anointed (Christ). Only one passage in the early Christian canonical literature makes his identity as God even remotely possible, John 1:1-2. Other passages cited in this regard do not claim that he is God, but they do hold that he is a divine personage. In these high Christological passages there is always a clear distinction between the Anointed and God (Romans 1:3; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 1:1-4; Colossians 1:15-20). Later in the fourth century the Nicene Creed confessed what the church believed was the true identity of Jesus: "We believe in one God the Father…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father…"3
            Worshipping Jesus as God is rendered marginally respectable by the fourth-century Nicene belief in the Trinity (382 CE): "it is the faith that teaches us to believe in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. According to this faith there is one Godhead, Power and Substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; the dignity being equal and the majesty being equal in three perfect hypostases, i.e., three perfect persons."4 With three divine personages in the Christian pantheon, Christians had to find some way to ensure they were not really polytheists—hence the doctrine of the Trinity.
            If angels can walk among us, shouldn't Gods (if such there be) be able to do so as well?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1 Paul Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament (St. Paul, MN: Liturgical Press, 1955), 57-58.
2 Heinisch, Old Testament, 57.
3 Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27.
4 "The Synodical Letter of the Council of Constantinople," in H. R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils, of The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (second series; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), vol 14: 189.