April 12, 2006

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

The Language of Athenian Democracy in the New Testament

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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Thanks, Kenny. This is the teaching I was brought up on. I actually thought that the use of the word 'church' was worldly and a little racy. Hard to believe, eh.

Posted by: Suzanne McCarthy at April 13, 2006 2:49 AM

Wow. I have heard the ecclesia points you have made countless times, and loved them for years.

So, how come I've never heard your points on kerux?!

Very cool! I will have to mull on this for a while.

Thank you.

Posted by: codepoke at April 13, 2006 5:04 AM

Nice concise post. I too love the kerux info. And the way you have drawn everything together into a unified extended metaphor. Throw us more pearls, Kenny! We need you!

Posted by: Lingamish at April 13, 2006 6:15 AM



Posted by: SAMANTHA HARRIS at May 22, 2006 10:36 AM

Samantha, if you don't read ancient Greek I don't know what to recommend for study of the linguistic issues (unless you want to LEARN ancient Greek, in which case I like Hansen and Quinn's Greek: An Intensive Course as a text book, but I think it might be rather difficult to teach yourself with; there may be a better book for that, but keep in mind that it will be easier to go from classical to Koine than the other way around). If you do know at least a little Greek, the resource to use on classical Greek is, hands down, Liddell, Scott, and Jones's A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ for short). I use the 'intermediate' version (aka the 'Middle Liddell') most of the time, but for hard issues the big one (aka the 'Great Scott') is available online from Perseus. I actually don't have any specifically koine focused Greek lexicons that I like. The only ones I know of are specifically Bible lexicons and tend to incorporate the theological views of the editor and not simply the bare linguistic data.

As far as the workings of the Athenian ekklesia, there are very readable articles that are good about citing the classical sources and don't require a lot of prior knowledge available from the Demos project. Good luck!

Posted by: Kenny at May 22, 2006 5:29 PM

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