July 22, 2006

Ekklesia and the Etymological Fallacy

Not long ago, I wrote a post suggesting that the New Testament may have consciously made use of the language of Athenian democracy, especially in its usage of the words ekklesia and kerux. JollyBlogger has now posted on the etymological fallacy in our understanding of the ekklesia (HT: Parableman). The etymological fallacy occurs when an interpreter uses a piece of information about the history of a word which was unknown to the author or, at least, which the author was not thinking about in his usage of the word. For instance, although I am aware that the word 'gay' originally meant happy, if you use that piece of information to interpret me as somehow asserting that all homosexuals are happy, you commit the etymological fallacy.

In my post on ekklesia, I pointed out that ekklesia is derived from ek plus klesis and thus has the etymological definition of "those who are called out." What JollyBlogger wants to draw our attention to (and what I hope was apparent in my original post) is that when the authors of the NT used the word ekklesia, the definitions going through their minds was not "those who are called out," but something else. What I suggested in my post is not that we should translate the word as "those who are called out," but that at least some of the NT writers (and the other early Christians who used the term) may have (and, in my view, probably did) self-consciously adopt the term from the socio-political arrangements of pre-Roman Greece.

The lexicon entry JollyBlogger cites does point to this usage, which would have been well-known at least to Greeks (would it have been well-known to Jews?) in NT times. However, the lexicon goes on to point out that "it is important to understand the meaning of ekklesia as 'an assembly of God's people.'" I agree that this is the correct interpretation, but I don't think it is right to treat this as a separate definition and translate the "of God's people" part. The intended audience of the New Testament books would probably have seen ekklesia and thought "assembly" or "meeting" or "gathering," and known only from context that we were talking about the Church. Sometimes the context is such that in order for English speakers to understand, we must add information that isn't part of lexicography strictly speaking, but additional contextual information. However, I don't think this is such a case. I don't think that if Paul writes "to the Assembly of God at Corinth" there will be any confusion with the Athenian Assembly (though there may be some confusion with the Assemblies of God denomination, which presumably got its name from this verse or a similar one). Even if it doesn't say "of God" in the text, I think Assembly with a capital A is enough for most readers to figure it out from context. The lexicon rightly points out that "a translator must beware of using a term which refers primarily to a building rather than to a congregation of believers" - in other words, the traditional translation "church" is a little questionable (linguistic research would be needed to determine if people interpret its use to refer to the building or the people - to assume that it refers only to the building in modern English based on its germanic root would be, again, the etymological fallacy).

Some people have suggested that the word already had some religious overtones due to its usage in the Septuagint (I don't know a lot about that). If this is so, then "congregation" might actually be a good translation.

At any rate, the important point JollyBlogger is making is that in all likelihood, the connection between ekklesia ('church') and eklektos ('elect') is nothing more than a pun, despite all the theological emphasis some Christians place on it. (Note that eklektos has only one kappa where ekklesia has two: LSJ says eklektos isn't even from the same root as ekklesia; it's from eklego.) I like to think it is an intentional pun, but I do not have strong evidence for this. A quick glance at my concordance shows that the two words never appear in the same verse. We ought not, on the basis of this etymology alone to connect the Church with the Elect. The etymology doesn't prove that, and the etymology of ekklesia is not necessarily the best place to start in building an ecclesiology. Of course, the Church is connected with the Elect, but we need to look at the text, and not just the etymology to show that.

Moral of the story: beware the etymological fallacy! Words today don't always mean what they meant in Shakespeare's day, and words in the NT don't always mean what they meant in Plato's day. Just because we can take a word apart and show what words it is derived from, doesn't mean we know what it means: the fact that conscience comes (I imagine) from the Latin 'con' meaning with and 'scientia' meaning knowledge has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. This, of course, is a fallacy that we classicists (especially those who do not yet own a copy of BDAG and work from LSJ when reading the NT) are particularly prone to. On the other hand, there is a great benefit in having the classical background as the original authors may have also had that background and it may have influenced their word usage (a favorite example of mine is that there is good reason to believe that Paul was familiar with Plato, directly or indirectly, and especially his Republic). However, it requires a lot of argument to show that, and it can't just be assumed that because the word came into usage in such-and-such a way (hundreds of years before the time of writing) it has a certain meaning.

Posted by Kenny at July 22, 2006 11:10 PM
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It may be more than a pub, since the author may be aware of the etymology or have enough sense of it. If I speak of a butterfly flying like the movement of butter, I'm doing more than punning. I don't know if there's a name for that kind of figure of speech, but it's not that the word 'butterfly' means "fly that is like butter", and it's not just a pun. It's a recognition that it's a formerly compound word whose component words still exist. I think what you say in the last paragraph illustrates this well.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at July 24, 2006 12:07 PM

Jeremy: point well taken. By the way, concerning the etymology of 'butterfly', I had been told that it was originally 'flutterfly' and had become 'butterfly' due to a misprint in an early addition of Webster's Dictionary, and always found this anecdote rather humorous. However, I've just consulted OED on the subject and found that this is not the case and 'butterfly' does, for reasons unknown, actually come from 'butter' and 'fly.' Hmm...

Of course, since ekklesia and eklektos don't actually come from the same component words, juxtaposing those words would be either a pun or a false etymology. Interestingly, false etymologies were a common feature of classical Greek rhetoric, a practice which is satired in Plato's Phaedrus, so they may also appear in the NT. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of, for instance, ekklesia and klesis or ekklesia and the verb ekkaleo (a word which doesn't actually occur as a compound in the NT) would be a play on the true etymology as you suggest. When I say I suspect it is an 'intentional pun,' I mean, for instance, that I suspect that the juxtaposition of the words eklektos and ek + kaleo (uncompounded) in 1 Peter 2:9 is intentional. If this was Paul, I would suspect that he also intended us to notice the connection with the etymology of ekklesia, but I understand (not having read Peter's epistles in the original Greek, or studied them very closely in English) that Peter is not given to this kind of wordplay. I haven't actually been able to find other good examples.

Posted by: Kenny at July 24, 2006 12:33 PM

If Karen Jobes is right, I Peter doesn't use such good Greek as to be impossible for a fisherman who grew up reading the Septuagint would be able to do. I don't know if that sort of pun would be out of reach.

Apart from those considerations, I do think it's pretty unlikely given the separated preposition.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at July 24, 2006 05:47 PM
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