the weblog of Alan Knox

The ekklesia of Josephus

Posted by on Jul 24, 2007 in definition, gathering | 6 comments

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 [ἐκκλησίαekklesia] to hear what God would say to it (them) … (Antiquities of the Jews 3:84)

… after gathering all the Jews into an assembly [ἐκκλησίαekklesia] … (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.


6 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-25-2007

    I have been thinking about this post and its related post The ekklesia and the kuriakon.
    The question I have is what did the apostles mean when they used the term ekklesia. If they used it similar to Josephus and meant the assembly existed only when it met, then how does that fit with Ephesians where Paul equates the ekklesia with the Body of Christ. For surely the Body of Christ is always existing and not just during our meetings. Also it seems the word community would not follow the same pattern as Josephus use of the word ekklesia. For a community exists both when its gathered or not, doesn’t it?

    In the post ekklesia and the kuriakon you stated that “It is not the word itself that is important. Instead, it is important how we use those words”. I would agree but I do find the word church is so loaded by 21st century classifications that we may have a hard time communicating the truth of ekklesia when using that word. We may mean the community of God’s people but the hearer often hears going to a Sunday meeting service in that big building with the cross on top.

    Also, what does it say about us when we have to put a word in front of the word church. Baptist church, home church, emerging church, I must say that they all grate on my ears. Do they not just advertise the fact that we are not united.

  2. 7-26-2007

    Jason,

    Thank you for the comment and the questions. I apologize for not answering yet. I am posting a blog this evening that I hope will answer most of your questions concerning ekklesia. If not, ask again in a comment on that post. I hope we can continue this discussion. It is very important.

    You asked: “Also, what does it say about us when we have to put a word in front of the word church”? I have had a post in draft for the last few months called “When adjectives divide”… maybe I should complete that post. I agree with what you said about these adjectives demonstrating our lack of unity.

    -Alan

  3. 7-13-2012

    Thank you for this insight. As Jason has indicated the word ‘church’ is now such a loaded term that I cringe every time I hear the word or have to use the word.

    But I think we have to go back, as best we can, to what Jesus was really on about. And what he was on about was to bring Israel back to God. There is no indication in any sustained way that Jesus wanted to start another Jewish sect – let alone a ‘religion’ – in fact the opposite appears more realistic.

    But like the word’ rock’, ‘church’ now has more to do with ideology than theology.

  4. 7-14-2012

    John,

    I still use the term “church,” but I’m very careful about the context that I use it, and I’m even more careful about how I define it for people.

    -Alan

  5. 2-21-2013

    To say that to disperse means to obliterate or delete seems inaccurate to me. For instance, white light dispersed means it is dispersed into the spectrum of colors, but that does not mean that white light no longer exist.

  6. 2-21-2013

    Kat,

    I think you’re example of white light is a good one. White light does not exist physically. There is not frequency for white light. Instead, white light is a combination (a gathering, if you will) of all other frequencies of light. When those frequencies of light are dispersed, you no longer have white light; you now have the individual frequencies: red light, orange light, yellow light, green light, blue light, violet light. White light only exists as a combination of the other individual frequencies of light.

    -Alan