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
Missouri State University
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.
Regarding the present topic, I'm thinking that some of your readers might be interested in Hal Taussig's In the Beginning was the Meal: Social Experiment & Early Christian Identity (Fortress Press, 2009). It's been awhile since I read it. The jacket reads, "This cutting edge monograph sheds new light on the social context of early Christian gatherings" and the innovation that was taking place in the Augustan age(paraphrase) "illuminating the origins of Christianity itself..."
Sorry, forgot to sign my post.
But unfortunately, there is still no reason to assume that there was a Jesus at all. Show some proof. The Gospels and Acts are not proof. They are literature, and provably derived at that.
Charlie, have you ever read anything to support that these gatherings took place in Jewish temples? Some rabbis write about Gentiles who attended Jewish temple gatherings were called "God-fearers." Are you familiar with that phrase? Would you count that as an influence of Christian gatherings (ekklesia)?
Does any of your research indicate one way or another whether or not Jesus was Torah observant? (that he kept that mitzvahs, dietary laws, etc?) Also- did Jesus keep the Sabbath?
The reason I ask is because it does seem as if some sort of "Sabbath observance" seems to have been a key reason for why the early believers in Jesus were inspired to congregate regurlarly.... do you see it that way? Why do you think the early Christians were reluctant to set up a temple in which to conduct their gatherings? I know that's speculative, but the word temple is not normally associated with the early Christians church gatherings- I guess they wanted to separate their identity from the Jewish temple.
Isn't church just another word for temple?
Thank you so much, Elizabeth
PS: Unrelated question: have you ever seen the supposed discovery of an ossuary (bone box) containing the bones of James, the brother of Jesus? I read that it made the rounds in the United States to various universities and museums- how likely do you think the contents really belonged to James?
Thank you Gene for mentioning Meals and their social context in Greco-Roman antiquity, and Hal's book (there are others--Dennis Smith did a dissertation on the subject at Harvard and later published it as a book, The Corinthian Christians were eating a community that Paul said was not the "Lord's Supper" (1 Cor11:20).
Good afternoon Robert,
Sure there were! Eight different people named Jesus are mentioned in Josephus' writings (by my count; I may have missed a few). But if you are saying that there was no person like Jesus described in the four canonical gospels I would have to agree. In any case there would have to be four persons, for each gospel describes a different figure. But of course there could have been only one person erroneously described in four different ways. I see no reason, however, to doubt that there was such a person on whom the evangelists hung their theological tracts. See pages 179-188 of my book The Wisdom of Jesus for a summary of what little may be known about this historical figure. And you may also be interested in my epilogue "Pondering the Unreliability of the Gospels" (pp. 189-96).
So far as I know there are not a great number of synagogue remains in Israel/Palestine in the first century (I know of three Gamla, Masada, Herodium). In the early period Christian gatherings were not associated with synagogue meetings. From the gospels Jesus does not appear to have been Torah Observant and he did not observe the Pharisaic Sabbath rules. I have never heard the word "temple" associated with early Christian groups. "Church" is not another word for "temple" in the early Christian vocabulary from my reading. The James ossuary: The Israeli Antiquities Authority concluded that the inscription on the bone box was a modern forgery. A few scholars think of it as genuine but most (almost all) have given up on it (R. Van Voorst, "James." NIDB,3:182.
Wow Charlie! A non-observant Jew attracting multitudes of followers and twelve disciples... Are you also saying the disciples were non-observant as well?? That's a stretch, for me anyway.
One last question, and I don't know if you can answer it or not. In your research of the early Greco-Roman "church" gatherings... Did any of them have anything to do at all with observing some kind of holy day of the week, such as the Sabbath? If not, when did that become the main purpose of going to church? I was always taught that the purpose of having church was so that the followers of God could have a place to worship on a certain day of the week.
Many thanks, Elizabeth
See Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. The notion that a man named Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all is pure poppycock.
I don't know if Jesus during his lifetime attracted "multitudes of followers." In the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as breaking Sabbath rules and healing on the Sabbath (Mark3:1-6) and his disciples were accused of working on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). In First Corinthians 16:2 the Corinthians apparently "gathered on the first day of the week. And Acts20:7 again there is a gathering on the first day of the week. But the first day of the week for gathering is most clear in Didache 14 (in connection with Acts 20:7), where the first day of the week (if it is) is called the Lord's Day, an expression that is also found in Revelation 1:10.
Yes, Jesus is "portrayed" as breaking Sabbath rules, but according to Rabbi Michael Skobac and Rabbi Tovia Singer- there is no such rule against performing a healing on the Sabbath and never has been. Christians can tell you what the Gospels say about Sabbath rules and the Phraisees reaction to them- but do Christians ever take the time to actually study the mitzvahs themselves? Probably not. I think a rabbi would certainly know more than I do what can and cannot be performed on the Sabbath. So the question for me is- what is that story even doing in the Gospel of Matthew? Other than make the Pharisees look evil and conniving? As we've discussed previously, the Gospel writers' caricatures of the Pharisees are very unflattering. I agree with Rabbi Skobac's insight- it is highly unlikely that Jesus had this contingent of Pharisees were constantly following him around, sniping about his practices and observance of the law.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
You could be correct about the healing on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6) not being a genuine tradition but I am not sure what early sources your two rabbis are using to talk about rabbinic traditions in the first century. The dating of the earliest rabbinic source material as far as I know is no earlier than the second century. See "Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5, page 602. There is a bibliography on page 604. Jesus and the Pharisees as portrayed in the NT appear to be engaged in family arguments--that is to say they had a lot in common and were interested in the same issues.
How would you critique this short definition of the formation of the church?
The disciples of Jesus experienced a powerful personal transformation in his presence. Subsequently, Paul and others had similar experience
and defined it as 'it is Christ who lives in me.' This experience included a hope that the Messiah would soon return, so no one thought much of needs for organization. The groups continued to meet informally for meals, worship, and mutual encouragement. As decades went by the need for some forms of organization were felt more acutely, and positions of authority developed to which the more conservative, structured, and intellectual followers gravitated. At the same time a mystic orientation was replacing an experiential spirit centered way of expressing faith. One result was the development of the mass. Further the intellectuals brought philosophical reasoning into ways of expressing faith and one result was the concept of the Trinity.
The end result was the disappearance of any hope of walking the paths of Galilee with Jesus.
Good afternoon Gene,
I like it although in places it tends a bit toward idealism and romanticism. For example, your first sentence seems suggest that you can see inside the disciples heads and quantifies their emotional reactions to Jesus ("powerful personal transformation in his presence"). We actually have no sources that would permit such a judgment. But your idea of less complex to the development of institutions is surely what must have happened to judge from the sources that we do have.
In all the numerous church sermons and education classes (Sunday school) I attended in my early life, I never heard such an enlightened critique of the formation of the Christian "church". But then none of those teachers had the opportunity of the vast education you clearly afforded yourself. Mankind has basked in the advantages afforded to teachers like yourself.
Thanks for taking the time & effort to educate us!
Good Morning Jim,
You are kind to an old man! Thank you! My early education in high school (Greenville, Miss) tried to provide me with a good foundation in the 3Rs but nothing in the 4thR (religion)--I candidly admit I was not a delight to the hearts of my teachers. After high school my education was shaped in a Southern Baptist college and afterward in a Southern Baptist Seminary--I would describe it as much less than a critical approach to religious traditions. After seminary I shifted to a critical approach at USC and Claremont Graduate University (then Graduate School). Today looking back leads me to say: I wish I could do it all over again.
How about your own academic odyssey?
Good evening Charlie,
In a future blog, if you feel inspired to do so- would you briefly explain what happened at Southern Baptist Seminary that made you realize it was less than critical approach to religious traditions? I would be interested to hear what series of events led to your shift to a critical approach at USC and Claremont Graduate University. Or if you've already written about it, let us know that too.
Don't worry- I'm not going to ask why you weren't a delight to the hearts of your teachers! (Although I can't imagine that being a reality)
Many, many thanks! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
It was not a dramatic Aha! thing. It was a gradual growing awareness in the pastorate after seminary. I purchased a set of the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible and began reading entries in preparation of sermons. I discovered that I had been well prepared to serve as pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, but had not been given all the tools and information I needed for independent thinking--in short there was a lot more information on the Bible and the world and religion than I had been introduced to. It was then that I decided to continue my education in an academic institution outside of denominational circles.
Anyone attracting crowds of 5 Thousand at a time when Jerusalem was not much bigger would be covered extensively by Josephus but was not. Especially if it was raising dead people and feeding with a couple baskets. Who reported all the incidents in the Gospels many having no witnesses (Transfiguration or walking on water) who may have reported them? The assumption that Jesus lived is backwards. Assume he DID NOT and prove that he did. The Scrolls (Eisenman) and gnostic texts (my books) Show beyond question that there was not only no Jesus, but that James was Master. I spent years forming the case. 'Misreading Judas' and 'The Bible says Saviors' are both on Amazon. Email and I provide pdfs for free.
Why do you assume that Jesus did not exist, on the one hand, but are completely duped in thinking that the reports about crowd numbers in Acts are exact historical data rather than, at the very least, are exaggerations if not outright fiction?
Well, now we're on the same page finally. Richard Pervo is all I need to know about Acts: His 'Mystery of Acts' and Robert Eisenman showing that 'Judas' and 'Stephen' were covering James. All the heroic adventures came from the likes of Virgin or Homer, down to small details. So, along with interpolated Josephus, why is ANY of the Gospels/Acts taken for anything more substantial than a good bedtime novella? I know a mystic living Master (Gurinder Singh, rssb.org). Check THAT out and see how 'Jesus' stacks up.
Good Morning Robert,
As I said, I am not working on Judas at the moment; I have other things on my plate and have no intention getting caught up in your crusade. You seem very evangelistic for your ideas and apparently need to have everyone agree with you. There is a process for doing what you want. Submit a paper to an appropriate section of the Society of Biblical Literature and formally engage those currently working on Judas. I am not.
You might be interested in the following book: Keith, Chris. Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014).
I doubt that a group of Pharisees followed Jesus around, but he did show up at gatherings (called synagogues in the gospels) where Pharisees and scribes of Pharisees were the respected teachers.
Apparently the Pharisees were not uniform. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 22b) lists seven types:
1. Shikmi - ostentatious self- presentation. 2. Nikpi - exaggerated humility. 3. Kizai - calculated behavior. 4. Pestle - head is always bowed. 5. What is my duty? - always looking for a virtuous behavior. 6. For love - action for love of God. 7. From fear - action for fear of God.
Perhaps all seven kinds were around in the first century.
Since Rabbis are telling you this about the rules of Judaism, why do you take the Gospels' story as true history?
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