So I've just given a presentation on the workings of the ancient Athenian ekklesia at the Pnyx, and I thought I'd use up a little precious time which I ought to use reading about Plato and Aristotle on the role of tragic theater in society discussing the appropriation of the language of the Athenian democracy by the early Church, including the authors of the New Testament.
There are two particular words I am thinking of here: ekklesia and kerux. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that these words are consistently translated one way in 'Bible Greek' and another way in 'secular Greek' when Bible Greek and secular Greek are the same language! In secular Greek they are "assembly" and "herald" respectively, but in New Testament translations they are usually "church" and "preacher." Now, these are perfectly ordinary words in the Greek, but their usage by the Athenian democracy was so prominent in the literary tradition of Greece that I cannot imagine that the Greek speaking Christians in the first century who first began to use these words didn't have classical Athens in mind, so let's start from the beginning and have a brief discussion of the history of these words, and what the choice of these words might tell us about the early Church's self-understanding and its message to the world.
Ekklesia is a compound of the prefix ek, meaning 'out,' and the noun klesis, a calling. In ancient Athens, this term was applied to the democratic Assembly of the people: the adult male citizens were 'called out' from all over the city-state to attend the Assembly and determine how the city should be run. How were they called? By heralds (kerukes), naturally.
Now, there are obvious reasons for the early Church to choose this language to describe what happened. 'Heralds' (i.e., preachers) went throughout the world to call us together, into the 'Assembly' (i.e. Church) of the saints. This Assembly does not, of course, deliberate on matters of foreign policy, or anything of the sort. But it is 'political,' in an unusual, other-worldly sense. This Assembly is composed of the citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Furthermore, although the idea of the Church being governed democratically is a post-Reformation invention and does not seem to have occurred in the early Church, there is something inherently democratic, as the Greeks understood democracy, about the Church: everyone is invited. Now the Athenians and the other Greek democracies invited a very limited 'everyone' to their Assemblies - excluding women, children, slaves, and foreigners - but they nevertheless considered it to be everyone, and were very proud of this. They were especially proud of their inclusion of the poor, since these were the ones the oligarchic city-states excluded. The early Church was inclusive to a degree never seen before, including also slaves, women, children and even 'barbarians' (in this time period, this meant those who lived outside the realm of civilization, where civilization is synonymous with the Roman Empire).
Also, we know from the description of Church meetings in 1 Corinthians 14 that just as the herald stood before the Assembly and asked "who wants to speak?" at every meeting, so at the meetings of the early Church just any citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven was permitted to share his knowledge and experience of God. This too is very 'democratic.'
There are other words for gathering in Greek, but the New Testament uses them rarely, preferring this 'democratic' language, and I think it does this for a reason. I believe that that reason is connected with all of the similarities just listed, but above all with the idea of being 'called out' from among the world into the Kingdom of God. Paul writes, "But how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher [kerux]? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15, HCSB) The Church (Assembly) has sent preachers (heralds) throughout the world to call everyone into the great Assembly (Church) of the citizens of the Kingdom of God.Posted by Kenny at April 12, 2006 1:11 PM
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