Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived during the first century. In his various books he tells his version of the history of the Jewish people leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70.
Not only was Josephus a contemporary of the biblical authors, but he shared a similar background. He was a Jew writing in the Greek language in the first century. Thus, by studying Josephus, we can better understand how certain Greek words were used at that time.
For example, the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekkleia) is normally translated “church” in the New Testament. However, the English word “church” has a broad range of meanings. Where does the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) overlap in meaning with the English word “church”? Josephus can help us understand the relationship between the meanings of these two words.
In many passages in his writings, Josephus employs the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekkleia) to indicate the physical assembling of all of the Hebrews:
… he called the multitude into an assembly [ἐκκλησία – ekklesia] to hear what God would say to it (them) … (Antiquities of the Jews 3:84)
… after gathering all the Jews into an assembly [ἐκκλησία – ekklesia] … (The Jewish War 7:412)
In other passages, Josephus employs the same term to indicate a physical gathering of a subgroup of a larger group:
… and after coming to Samuel and finding an assembly [ἐκκλησία – ekklesia] of prophets of God … (Antiquities of the Jews 6:222)
Then Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, made an assembly [ἐκκλησία – ekklesia] of the two tribes … (Antiquities of the Jews 8:222)
… after bringing into an assembly [ἐκκλησία – ekklesia] three hundred officers who were under an accusation … (Antiquities of the Jews 16:393)
From these passages, it seems that Josephus used the term ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) much like we use the English words “assembly” or “meeting”. In fact, in Josephus’ use of this term, the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) did not exist once the meeting or assembly was dispersed:
… and when the assembly was dispersed, they [the men], their wives, and children continued the lamentation … (Antiquities of the Jews 3:306)
After the king had spoken these things to the multitude, he dispersed the assembly … (Antiquities of the Jews 8:122)
So, it seems that to Josephus, when people were brought together into a physical gathering, they formed an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). When the meeting adjourned, the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) ceased to exist. The people still existed in the same relationships with one another and with God, but the assembly did not exist.
This is not a complete discussion of the use of ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in Josephus. It is certainly not a complete discussion of the use of ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in first century Greek literature. There may be other uses, and there appear to be other uses in the New Testmaent. However, even this cursory look at the use of ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in Josephus should help us as we consider the meaning of ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in the New Testament.