In my previous three posts (“Greek Vocabulary – Definitions“, “Greek Vocabulary – Glosses“, and “Greek Vocabulary – Referents“), I discussed the differences between definitions, glosses, and referents. If someone is learning Greek vocabulary (or the vocabulary of any new language), it is important for that person to understand the difference in these terms.
Our goal is to translate/interpret the New Testament Greek text in a manner that our translation/understanding matches as close as possible to the author’s intentions. Yes, I understand that we will never know exactly what the author’s intended meaning was. However, there are certainly tools and methods that can help us approach the author’s meaning.
A Greek term’s definitions can help us limit the possible meanings, but the definitions alone cannot tell us what a word or phrase means. Similarly, a gloss simply gives us a possible (or several possible) English words that overlap in meanings in some contexts. However, glosses often add ambiguity instead of helping fine tune the meaning of a word in context.
Thus, I concluded that we should seek the referents for a Greek word or phrase, and translate/interpret in such a way that the referent is clearly communicated. Let’s look at some examples with the Greek term á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia).
We have already looked at the three usages of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in Acts 19:32, Acts 19:39, and Acts 19:41. (For the context, see Acts 19:29-41.) From the context, it is clear that the use of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in Acts 19:32 and Acts 19:41 refer to the same group that was filled with confusion and rushed into the theater in Acts 19:29, and it refers to the same “crowd” that Paul wish to see in Acts 19:30. Thus, if we want to make sure that people understand the common references, we could translate á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in the same way that we translate “crowd” in Acts 19:30.
However, from the near context, it is also clear that the use of the term á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in Acts 19:39 refers to a different group. We would have to know the historical and even governmental background to identify the group in Acts 19:39, but we could probably interpret this usage as “governmental body” or even “legislative body” or “regular assembly” (which is how the ESV translates it).
Most of the usages of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in the New Testament are similar to the one found in 1 Corinthians 1:2. (I’ll use 1 Corinthians as a test case.) In this instance, the author makes the referent to the term clear by using modifiers like “of God”, “in Corinth”, “sanctified in Christ Jesus”, and “called to be saints”. These phrases tell us that Paul is not addressing any group or assembly, but all the followers of Jesus Christ who live in Corinth.
The question is, unless specified in context, is there any reason to understand á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in any other way in the same letter (that is, once the author has defined what he means by the term). For example, in 1 Corinthians 4:17, the author makes it clear that he is referring to a different group (although that group may include the previous group). Similar arguments could be made for the usages of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in 1 Corinthians 7:17, 1 Corinthians 11:16, 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, 1 Corinthians 16:1, and 1 Corinthians 16:19.
But, what about the usages of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in other passages in 1 Corinthians 6:4, 1 Corinthians 10:32, 1 Corinthians 11:18, 1 Corinthians 11:22, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Corinthians 14:4-5, 1 Corinthians 14:12, 1 Corinthians 14:19, 1 Corinthians 14:23, 1 Corinthians 14:28. Is there any reason to find a different referent in these verses than the referent described specifically in 1 Corinthians 1:2?
Of course, once we determine referents in the various usages of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in 1 Corinthians, we then have one more important step… apply that referent to today. For example, if we determine that á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia) refers to all the believers in a certain city, is it then valid to apply that passage to a subgroup of all the believers in a city today?
Obviously, there is much work left. But, notice what has changed… by beginning our interpretation by determining the referent for each use of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¹Î± (ekklÄ“sia), we are no longer arguing or considering the various meanings of the English term “church.”