Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
1 Thessalonians 1:1 (ESV)
Church – was it really a church as we know it today? The Greek word is ekklēsia, perhaps you’ve heard it before. The most accepted western definition for ekklēsia is “church”, but unfortunately that’s not what it means. Ekklēsia in Classical Greek was used as a “town assembly” unrelated to a religious gathering. It’s a town hall meeting. This should come as a surprise. With that common understanding during the time of Paul’s letter writing, how did it become so tightly linked with the followers of Yeshua?
We know Paul wasn’t writing to the town assembly, so why did he use this word? In order to figure this out, we need to dive into the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and in it resides the word ekklēsia. If we want to know how the New Testament writers understood the word, then we need to know the Hebrew words from which it translated. This is because the writers of the New Testament were Hebrews, they were rabbinically educated people who thought and communicated like Hebrews, not Greeks.
The most common Hebrew word that translates to ekklēsia is qahal, which also means “assembly”, but what’s interesting is that 36 times qahal is translated as sunagoge. Ah, now we’re seeing the connection that Paul’s making. Paul, fluent in both Greek and Hebrew, sees the relationship between ekklēsia and sunagoge, but why doesn’t he just use the word sunagoge instead of ekklēsia? It would make more sense this way, especially when we realize that Christianity was just a sect of Judaism in the early years. Both Jews and Christians gathered in the same place – the synagogue. Well, we need to understand how the Greeks used the word sunagoge during this time, because after all, he’s writing to Greeks. Well it just so happens that the word sunagoge was also used by Greeks to represent any religious building whether it was for YHWH or for their many other gods, it didn’t matter. Paul wants to make sure his letters are addressing the followers of Yeshua, not Zeus.
But when the text is translated from Greek to English we begin to see a problem. Something else is going on here. Rather than using the word synagogue like we’d expect, Paul uses ekklēsia, and the translators push the word even further from its intended meaning by translating it as church. Why? Because the desire to separate you from your Hebrew/Jewish roots became a strong force during the Roman acceptance of Christianity, and has been thriving ever since. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.
Acts 7:38 (ESV)
This word, congregation, is the same word in Greek that was translated hundreds of times as church – ekklēsia. But why didn’t they translate it here, in Stephen’s speech, as church? They don’t want you to know that the “church” began in the wilderness with Moses, not in the Gospels. The “church” is the commonwealth of Israel, it is the synagogue, it’s the people of God, not a new establishment created by Yeshua.
It’s the same God in the Old and New Testament. His desire for us hasn’t changed. Remember the roots of where this adventure came from, and remember the tree we’ve been grafted into – the good tree – the commonwealth of Israel.