Ekklesia and Kurakios

Time for a biblical Greek geek-out. It is pretty common knowledge that the word translated as “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia. What I did not know until recently reading from the book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is how we got to the word church instead. Clearly it is not a direct inheritance. Here’s the fascinating (to me) meanings behind each word:

When Christians first described their own collective identity, with its customs, structures, and officer-bearers, they used the Greek word ekklesia, which has passed hardly modified into Latin and its successor languages. Greek-speaking Jews before the Christians had used the same word to speak of Israel. Ekklesia is already common in the Greek New Testament: there it means ‘Church’, but it is borrowed from Greek political vocabulary, where it signified the assembly of citizens of the polis [city-state] who met to make decisions. So the ekklesia represents the polis, a local identity within the greater whole of Christianity or Christendom, just as the Greek polis represented the local identity of the great whole Hellas, ‘Greekdom’. Yet the Christian ekklesia has become more complicated, because the word can also describe the universal Church, the equivalent of Hellas, as well as the local – not to mention the fragments of universal Christianity with particular identities which call themselves ‘Church’, and even the buildings which house all these different entities.

There is a further interesting dimension of the word. If the ekklesia is the embodiment of the city or polis of God, lurking in the word ekklesia is the idea that the faithful have a collective responsibility for decisions about the future of the polis, just as the people of the polis did in ancient Greece. This creates a tension with another borrowing from Greek which has passed into several northern European languages, and which appears in English as the word ‘church’ or in Scots English as ‘kirk’. This started life as an adjective which emerged in late Greek, kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord’, and because of that, it emphasizes the authority of the master, rather than the decision of those assembled. The tension between these perspectives has run through the history of ecclesia/kirk, and is with Christians still.

It’s amazing how language can so succinctly sum up differing concepts of what the church – or maybe I should say ekklesia – should be. In the early days we were a group of people meeting to help each other making decisions as citizens of the Kingdom of God. In other words, it was very outward-focused or horizontally-focused, even while having strong praise and prayer elements of course. Then we shifted to a vertical-focus where church was primarily about us and God, an attitude that I think predominates most churches.

I also had a similar conversation with a friend this weekend regarding worship songs. His church basically won’t sing anything that isn’t entirely about ascribing attributes to God. Clearly we need a good dose of that and I definitely do not want to belittle praising God. I do want to go beyond it, though, and actually make commitments that impact my life, so I appreciate songs like Lincoln Brewster’s “The Power of Your Name” (the initiator of the conversation) or any of the many others that concretely say the kind of things that it means to follow Jesus.

It’s a big question and not a particularly clear one. I’m sure we’d all say that both elements should be true, but what is the primary purpose – the defining characteristic to the point that we would use that word to describe it – of the church? Is it like an ekklesia, an “outpost of the Kingdom” as I’ve heard some say? Or it is more like a kurakios, a sacred place for you to connect with God?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Tyler M. Tully

    I’ve never understood how a term like “ekklesia” (which is, as you pointed out, a people group, assembly, or a gathering for political purposes) could ever be identified or confused with kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord’ or the ‘house of the Lord.’ How could something which is tribe like ever be confused with something static?

    For me it is like taking the children of Israel wandering through the wilderness (here they are referred to as the ekklesia in the LXX) and trying to compare it to the Temple structure of Solomon’s time. The two just don’t jive at all.

    There are many scholars who believe that the word “Church” in the English language does not come from kuriake
    at all. In fact, when the word “ekklesia” is interpolated from the Latin, you find similarities to the Greek term ekklesia (e.g. French église, Italian chiesa, Spanish iglesia, Portuguese igreja, etc.) But it is only in the English, Celtic, Slavonic, and Germanic languages (those with Indo-European roots) we find a word that comes from pagan roots.

    “The word Church: The origin of the word is
    uncertain. In the Germanic and Slavonic languages it is found as follows:
    Anglo-Saxon, cyrica, circ, cyric; English, church; Scottish, kirk;
    German, kirche; Low-German, karke; Frisan, tzierke;
    Danish, kyrke; Swedish, Kyrka; Bohemian, cyrkew;
    Polish, cerkiew; Russian, zerkow. There was probably some word
    which, in the language from which the Teutonic and Slavonic are descended,
    designated the old heathen places of religious assembly, and this word,
    having taken different forms in different dialects, was adopted by the
    Christian missionaries. It was probably connected with the Latin circus,
    circulus, and with the Greek kuklos. Lipsius, who was the
    first to reject the received tradition, was probably right in his
    suggestion” (Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical
    Literature, Volume II, p.322).

    For instance, see: http://askelm.com/doctrine/d980927.htm

    Brewer, as well as others agree.
    “The etymology of this word [church] is generally assumed to be from the Greek, kuriou oikos (house of God); but this is most improbable, as the word existed in all the Celtic dialects long before the introduction of Greek. No doubt the word means ‘a circle.’ The places of worship among the German and Celtic nations were always circular. Compare Anglo-Saxon ‘circe,’ a small church, with ‘circol,’ a circle.”

    • It shows how nerdy I am that I found that fascinating. In all fairness, this text I was drawing from is a broad historical survey and he even frontloaded in the intro that he will state some things that are more his opinion and not always unanimous scholarly agreement.

    • overton

      Regarding Brewer’s skepticism, does one not appreciate that the Galatians were a Celtic people?

      • Tyler M. Tully

        word. but at the same time, the celtic predated the greek thought that came undoubtedly before the Gospel every arrived in Galatia.

        • overton

          exactly, and therefore, it may be reasonable to assume that over the course of the ensuing near-three hundred years, the Celtic word may have been absorbed into the vernacular–at least regionally.

          certainly the broader concept of sacred congregation, place, or condition of worship seems implied in each of the words.

          additionally, considering the Roman domination of the region, how is it that the Latin word, Ecclesia, escapes scrutiny in this discussion?

          • Tyler M. Tully

            Ecclesia is not a latin word, but a Greek word. Since Galatia was in the Eastern half of the Empire, and since Galatia was only founded by the Celts many hundreds of years before the epistle or the Romans, it stands to reason they used the term ekklesia in the form the Greeks used–as an assembly, political, etc. It is in the west that Latin is used exclusively by the Roman Empire, as opposed to the Greek that was used exclusively by the Romans in the Eastern Empire.

            I’ve been a student of Celtic mythology for a very long time, and always enjoy it. You are correct about the Celtic history of Italy, but do not forget that those were merely incursions, and at no time did the Celts establish any colonies or cities, but only sacked and went back to their own lands. So to say they ‘flourished’ hardly captures the historical reality.

            It is entirely possible if not probable that the word for church (for example) really comes from the Greek goddess Circe, who was the sun goddess and daughter of Helios. This god, Helios, is of course the driver of the sun chariot–and is synonymous with the later Roman version–Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun whom Constantine worshiped. This term embodies “circle” for several reasons, one of which may be not only the worship of the goddess but also of the sun, her symbol.

            Although there is no definitive conclusion, there is lots of circumstantial evidence that the term “church” is pagan in its etymology, and while we are at it, the word “ekklesia” is also. Both are a sort of assembly, and both incorporate worship. For instance, there was no separation between church and state in Rome nor in Celtic religions. So, in Greek ekklesias, before they would convene their assembly, they would often sing hymns to Caesar, eat meals or offer meal/wine sacrifices to their leaders, prostrate themselves, and also donate money similar to making offerings. At the same time, only ‘citizens’ of the polis could participate, and in later Roman times, this mean only the pater familias. Its entirely subversive and also revolutionary that Paul, in Romans, states that all believers are also part of a new ekklesia, and that they are all one in Christ, regardless of being slave, free, Greek, Jew, male, or female. These would have been interpreted as highly provocative by provincial authorities.

          • Tyler M. Tully

            Hey Ryan, I had posted a response to this earlier but now I can’t find it. Any idea where it is?

          • I have no idea where it went :s I got an email from Disqus saying that you posted it, it shows up in WordPress comments on the admin panel, just doesn’t show up in Disqus anymore (either the admin panel or this stream). I’ve copied it below:

            Ecclesia is not a latin word, but a Greek word. Since Galatia was in the Eastern half of the Empire, and since Galatia was only founded by the Celts many hundreds of years before the epistle or the Romans, it stands to reason they used the term ekklesia in the form the Greeks used–as an assembly, political, etc. It is in the west that Latin is used exclusively by the Roman Empire, as opposed to the Greek that was used exclusively by the Romans in the Eastern Empire.

            I’ve been a student of Celtic mythology for a very long time, and always enjoy it. You are correct about the Celtic history of Italy, but do not forget that those were merely incursions, and at no time did the Celts establish any colonies or cities, but only sacked and went back to their own lands. So to say they ‘flourished’ hardly captures the historical reality.

            It is entirely possible if not probable that the word for church (for example) really comes from the Greek goddess Circe, who was the sun goddess and daughter of Helios. This god, Helios, is of course the driver of the sun chariot–and is synonymous with the later Roman version–Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun whom Constantine worshiped. This term embodies “circle” for several reasons, one of which may be not only the worship of the goddess but also of the sun, her symbol.

            Although there is no definitive conclusion, there is lots of circumstantial evidence that the term “church” is pagan in its etymology, and while we are at it, the word “ekklesia” is also. Both are a sort of assembly, and both incorporate worship. For instance, there was no separation between church and state in Rome nor in Celtic religions. So, in Greek ekklesias, before they would convene their assembly, they would often sing hymns to Caesar, eat meals or offer meal/wine sacrifices to their leaders, prostrate themselves, and also donate money similar to making offerings. At the same time, only ‘citizens’ of the polis could participate, and in later Roman times, this mean only the pater familias. Its entirely subversive and also revolutionary that Paul, in Romans, states that all believers are also part of a new ekklesia, and that they are all one in Christ, regardless of being slave, free, Greek, Jew, male, or female. These would have been interpreted as highly provocative by provincial authorities.

          • overton

            I beg to differ.
            By the sixth century BCE, Celts had extensively
            settled northern Italy and were in constant war with the expanding Roman
            empire prior to the sacking of Rome in 390 BCE.

            Archaeological
            evidence now seems to indicate that many of the ancient stone roads
            attributed to the Romans were originally Celtic and constructed of
            wood—the ancient Irish word for road, still in use, is slighe from
            sligim, I hew. Latin contains a preponderance of Celtic loan-words
            connected with roads and transportation, such as vehicles like carpentum
            (from which is derived car and carpenter), carruca, carrus, essedum,
            rheda, petorritum, etc. Considering the existence of these, is it so
            outlandish to contemplate ecclesia, too, as another inheritance from the
            Celts?

            The work of linguistics Professor Calvert Watkins of
            Harvard, in studying old Irish, suggests a profound connection of the
            Celtic language with Vedic Sanskrit. Watkins believed its nominal and
            verbal systems represented a far truer reflection of the hypothesized
            parent tongue, from which all Indo-European languages developed, than
            Classical Greek or Latin.
            The Celtic association with Vedic culture
            may be more profound than many, for reasons or agenda of their own, are
            willing to grant.
            By way of example, the following link merits perusal:
            http://www.hinduwisdom.info/articles_hinduism/258.htm

            Determining what preceded what can not be absolutely determined by anyone. There can exist a temptation to skew facts to accommodate theory—something we witness on a near daily with the flood of ‘academic’ and ‘scientific’ research to support climate change denial. The field of religious scholarship may become equally mired by complications due to varying initial premises.–a topic worthy of greater discussion elsewhere.
            We ought exercise care lest we put the carrus before
            the equus.

            Peace to you.

          • Tyler M. Tully

            Thanks Overton. Unfortunately, the copy that Disqus posted via Ryan on this thread was not the finally updated and edited one I posted earlier. I’m enjoying the discussion.

            A couple of red herrings here. I said that the Celts did not flourish on the Italian peninsula, I stand by that. The Celts of that time were entirely tribal, unlike the Romans who were already into the Republic by after the time they were sacked. Thus, to say they were “at war” can denote that both were a type of nation against nation, when in fact, the Celts were much more of an independent ethnicity than they were a nation, unlike the Romans who were made up of many different types of ethnicities (although mostly Italian) and were in fact a nation state.

            Again, ecclesia is NOT a Latin term and it is not a Celtic or Gaelic term either. Its not used in Germanic as well. Its entirely a Greek word, not a Latin term. I stand by that assertion as well.

          • overton

            I have no real vested interest in the word ‘ecclessia’ one
            way or the other. The initial question raised about it was proffered
            within a broader context dealing with polysemy v absolutism.

            The discussion has veered somewhat, and that’s not a bad thing. Again, one
            may presume that at crux are a number of conflicting initial premises.
            Academics, scientists, and sincere seekers of truth hold an obligation
            to objectivity—there must always be some element of doubt, for as
            imperfect creatures in an imperfect realm we can never attain perfect
            knowledge. Richard Feynman explained it this way:
            “The first source of difficulty is this—that it is imperative to doubt; it is
            absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a
            fundamental part of your nature. To make progress in understanding, we
            must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or
            prooved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is
            unknown, not because you knew the answer. And as you develop more
            information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding truth, but
            that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
            …It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but
            also for other things; it is of great value to accept ignorance.”
            —Richard Feynman The Relation of Science and Religion

            Perhaps to stimulate some modicum of doubt,
            I submit the following from the NY
            Times

            “In an article last year (2000) in the British journal Anatolian Studies,
            English and Turkish scholars said the Galatian communities established
            in the third century B.C. constituted ”a new, significant and
            increasingly important geopolitical entity within Asia Minor” and this
            ”can hardly be attributed to a marginal, and politically, socially and
            economically unsophisticated people.” On the contrary, they wrote:
            ”The fact that their polities survived to be incorporated into the
            Roman empire would indicate the existence of highly developed social
            structures bound together by shared value systems. The European
            Galatians successfully adapted to their new environment, changing it and
            being changed by it.”
            —The authors of the article are Dr. Gareth Darbyshire of the Oriental
            Institute in Oxford, England; Dr. Stephen Mitchell of the University of
            Wales in Swansea,
            and Dr. Levent Vardar of the Turkish Department of
            Monuments and Museums in Ankara.

            “Through intermarriage with indigenous people, the
            originally tall and blond Galatians probably blended in with others
            around them. ”I don’t know how Celtic they would have looked, even in
            the time of Paul,” said Dr. Hicks, the Celtic specialist.

            But the Galatians were still speaking a form of the
            Celtic language for several centuries after Paul. In the fourth century,
            St. Jerome observed that the Galatians used a dialect similar to one
            spoken in the Gallic town of Trier, back in the Europe they had left in
            the third century B.C.”

            http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/25/science/archaeologists-find-celts-in-unlikely-spot-turkey.html

            again, PEACE to you

            _____________________________________________________________________________

            “Prove All Things, Hold Fast That Which Is Good” Sub libertate quietem

          • Tyler M. Tully

            Thanks

  • overton

    And what if it were Christ’s intention to convey all those connotations and meaning?
    Here’s a favorite geeky word, ‘polysemy’—[having many meanings; the fact of having or being open to several or many meanings]
    Is it not part of the mystery and genius of scripture that, somehow, we are able to
    recognize relevancy from a given passage in so many different situations?
    Texts read from varying levels of maturation or life experience continue to render new guidance and comfort.

    The quality to invite interpretation, and from that inspiration, testifies to a certain majesty.

    In attempts to establish absolutes, polysemy becomes lost.
    Scripture simplified to absolutes ceases to live. *

    The
    concept of polysemy reminds us that there are no absolutes in this
    life, as the Preacher reminds us: “To everything there is a season,
    and a time for every purpose under the sun..”–Ecclesiastes 3:1

    * (hence this writer’s objection to many of the
    newer Bible translations akin to the NIV)

    • That is another awesome word. I should try to hang on to that because I definitely am a proponent of the idea. Thank you!

  • Kristen Rosser

    Thank you for this interesting research! To me this raises an issue which has been brought up to me in the past– are we to consider ourselves “subjects” of the kingdom of God, or “citizens”? It is called a “kingdom,” which implies that we are subjects, having no power but submitting to our King– and yet this word “ekklesia” implies citizenship and the power of citizenship to determine what the “polis” is to be like.

    I think it’s both. Towards the Father God we are subjects, but in our relations to one another, we are citizens– and Jesus, who is both our First Citizen and our Prince, calls us His “friends.”