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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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i. Ἐκκλησία, συναγωγή, πανήγυρις.

There are words whose history it is peculiarly interesting to watch, as they obtain a deeper meaning, and receive a new consecration, in the Christian Church; words which the Church did not invent, but has assumed into its service, and employed in a far loftier sense than any to which the world has ever put them before. The very word by which the Church is named is itself an example—a more illustrious one could scarcely be found—of this progressive ennobling of a word.1 For we have ἐκκλησία in three distinct stages of meaning—the heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian. In respect of the first, ἡ ἐκκλησία (== ἔκκλητοι, Euripides, Orestes, 939) was the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs. That they were summoned is expressed in the latter part of the word; that they were summoned out of the whole population, a select portion of it, including neither the populace, nor strangers, nor yet those who had forfeited their civic rights, this is expressed in the first. Both the calling (the κλῆσις, Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 1:9), and the calling out (the ἐκλογή, Rom. 11:7; 2 Pet. 1:10), are moments to be remembered, when the word is assumed into a higher Christian sense, for in them the chief part of its peculiar adaptation to its auguster uses lies.2 It is interesting to observe how, on one occasion in the N. T., the word returns to this earlier significance (Acts 19:32, 39, 41).

Before, however, more fully considering that word, it will need to consider a little the anterior history of another with which I am about to compare it. Συναγωγή occurs two or three times in Plato (thus Theoet. 150 a), out is by no means an old word in classical Greek, and in it altogether wants that technical signification which already in the Septuagint, and still more plainly in the Apocrypha, it gives promise of acquiring, and which it is found in the N. T. to have fully acquired. But συναγωγή, while travelling in this direction, did not leave behind it the meaning which is the only one that in classical Greek it knew; and often denotes, as it would there, any gathering or bringing together of persons or things; thus we have there συναγωγὴ ἐθνῶν (Gen. 48:4); συναγωγὴ ὑδάτων (Isai. 19:16); συναγωγὴ χρημάτων (Ecclus. 31:3), and such like. It was during the time which intervened between the closing of the O. T. canon and the opening of that of the New that συναγωγή acquired that technical meaning of which we find it in full possession when the Gospel history begins; designating, as there it does, the places set apart for purposes of worship and the reading and expounding of the Word of God, the ‘synagogues,’ as we find them named; which, capable as they were of indefinite multiplication, were the necessary complement of the Temple, which according to the divine intention was and could be but one.

But to return to ἐκκλησία. This did not, like some other words, pass immediately and at a single step from the heathen world to the Christian Church: but here, as so often, the Septuagint supplies the link of connexion, the point of transition, the word being there prepared for its highest meaning of all. When the Alexandrian translators undertook the rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures, they found in them two constantly recurring words, namely, עֵדָה and קָהָל. For these they employed generally, and as their most adequate Greek equivalents, συναγωγή and ἐκκλησία. The rule which they seem to have prescribed to themselves is as follows—to render עדה for the most part by συναγωγή (Exod. 12:3; Lev. 4:13; Num. 1:2, and altogether more than a hundred times), and, whatever other renderings of the word they may adopt, in no single case to render it by ἐκκλησία. It were to be wished that they had shown the same consistency in respect of קהל; but they have not; for while ἐκκλησία is their more frequent rendering (Deut. 18:16; Judg. 20:2; 1 Kin. 8:14, and in all some seventy times), they too often render this also by συναγωγή (Lev. 4:13; Num. 16:3; Deut. 5:22, and in all some five and twenty times), thus breaking down for the Greek reader the distinction which undoubtedly exists between the words. Our English Version has the same lack of a consistent rendering. Its two words are ‘congregation’ and ‘assembly;’ but instead of constantly assigning one to one, and one to the other, it renders עדה now by ‘congregation’ (Lev. 10:17; Num. 1:16; Josh. 9:27), and now by ‘assembly’ (Lev. 4:13); and on the other hand, קהל sometimes by ‘assembly’ (Judg. 21:8; 2 Chron. 30:23), but much oftener by ‘congregation’ (Judg. 21:5; Josh. 8:35).

There is an interesting discussion by Vitringa (De Synag. Vet. pp. 77–89) on the distinction between these two Hebrew synonyms; the result of which is summed up in the following statements: ‘Notat proprie קהל universam alicujus populi multitudinem, vinculis societatis unitam et rempublicam sive civitatem quandam constituentem, cum vocabulum עדה ex indole et vi significationis suae tantum dicat quemcunque hominum coetum et conventum, sive minorem sive majorem’ (p. 80). And again: ‘Συναγωγή, ut et עדה, semper significat coetum conjunctum et congregatum, etiamsi nullo forte vinculo ligatum, sed ἡ ἐκκλησία [==קהל] designat multitudinem aliquam, quae populum constituit, per leges et vincula inter se junctam, etsi saepe fiat non sit coacta vel cogi possit’ (p. 88). Accepting this as a true distinction, we shall see that it was not without due reason that our Lord (Matt. 16:18; 18:17) and his Apostles claimed this, as the nobler word, to designate the new society of which He was the Founder, being as it was a society knit together by the closest spiritual bonds, and altogether independent of space.

Yet for all this we do not find the title ἐκκλησία wholly withdrawn from the Jewish congregation; that too was “the Church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38); for Christian and Jewish differed only in degree, and not in kind. Nor yet do we find συναγωγή wholly renounced by the Church; the latest honorable use of it in the N. T., indeed the only Christian use of it there, is by that Apostle to whom it was especially given to maintain unbroken to the latest possible moment the outward bonds connecting the Synagogue and the Church, namely, by St. James (ii. 2); ἐπισυναγωγή, I may add, on two occasions is honorably used, but in a more general sense (2 Thess. 2:1; Heb. 10:25). Occasionally also in the early Fathers, in Ignatius for instance (Ep. ad Polyc. 4; for other examples see Suicer, s. v.), we find συναγωγή still employed as an honorable designation of the Church, or of her places of assembly. Still there were causes at work, which led the faithful to have less and less pleasure in the appropriation of this name to themselves; and in the end to leave it altogether to those, whom in the latest book of the canon the Lord had characterized for their fierce opposition to the truth even as “the synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 3:9; cf. John 8:4). Thus the greater fitness and dignity of the title ἐκκλησία has been already noted. Add to this that the Church was ever rooting itself more predominantly in the soil of the heathen world, breaking off more entirely from its Jewish stock and stem. This of itself would have led the faithful to the letting fall of συναγωγή, a word with no such honorable history to look back on, and permanently associated with Jewish worship, and to the ever more exclusive appropriation to themselves of ἐκκλησία, so familiar already, and of so honorable a significance, in Greek ears. It is worthy of note that the Ebionites, in reality a Jewish sect, though they had found their way for a while into the Christian Church, should have acknowledged the rightfulness of this distribution of terms. Epiphanius (Hoeres. xxx. 18) reports of these, συναγωγὴν δὲ οὗτοι καλοῦσιν τὴν ἑαυτῶν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ οὐχὶ ἐκκλησίαν.

It will be perceived from what has been said, that Augustine, by a piece of good fortune which he had no right to expect, was only half in the wrong, when transferring his Latin etymologies to the Greek and Hebrew, and not pausing to enquire whether they would hold good there, as was improbable enough, he finds the reason for attributing συναγωγή to the Jewish, and ἐκκλησία to the Christian Church, in the fact that ‘convocatio’ (== ἐκκλησία) is a nobler term than ‘congregatio’ (== συναγωγή), the first being properly the calling together of men, the second the gathering together (‘congregatio,’ from ‘congrego,’ and that from ‘grex’) of cattle.3 See Field, On, the Church, i. 5.

The πανήγυρις differs from the ἐκκλησία in this, that in the ἐκκλησία, as has been noted already, there lay ever the sense of an assembly coming together for the transaction of business. The πανήγυρις, on the other hand, was a solemn assembly for purposes of festal rejoicing; and on this account it is found joined continually with ἑορτή, as by Philo, Vit. Mos. ii. 7; Ezek. 46:11; cf. Hos. 2:11; 9:5; and Isai. 66:10, where πανηγυρίζειν == ἑορτάζειν: the word having given us ‘panegyric,’ which is properly a set discourse pronounced at one of these great festal gatherings. Business might grow out of the fact that such multitudes were assembled, since many, and for various reasons, would be glad to avail themselves of the gathering; but only in the same way as a ‘fair’ grew out of a ‘feria,’ a ‘holiday’ out of a ‘holy-day.’ Strabo (x. 5) notices the business-like aspect which the πανηγύρεις commonly assumed (ἥ τε πανήγυρις ἐμπορικόν τι πρᾶγμα: cf. Pausanias, x. 32. 9); which was indeed to such an extent their prominent feature, that the Latins rendered πανήγυρις by ‘mercatus,’ and this even when the Olympic games were intended (Cicero, Tusc. v. 3; Justin, xiii. 5). These with the other solemn games were eminently, though not exclusively, the πανηγυρεις of the Greek nation (Thucydides, i. 25; Isocrates, Paneg. 1). Keeping this festal character of the πανήγυρις in mind, we shall find a peculiar fitness in the word’s employment at Heb. 12:23; where only in the N. T. it occurs. The Apostle is there setting forth the communion of the Church militant on earth with the Church triumphant in heaven,—of the Church toiling and suffering here with that Church from which all weariness and toil have for ever passed away (Rev. 21:4); and how could he better describe this last than as a πανήγυρις, than as the glad and festal assembly of heaven? Very beautifully Delitzsch (in loc.): ‘Πανήγυρις ist die vollzählige zahlreiche und inbesondere festliche, festlich fröhliche und sie ergötzende Versammlung. Man denkt bei πανήγυρις an Festgesang, Festreigen und Festspiele, und das Leben vor Gottes Angesicht ist ja wirklich eine unaufhörliche Festfeier.’


1 Zezschwitz, in his very interesting Lecture, Profangräcität und Biblischer Sprachgeist, Leipzig, 1859, p. 5, has said excellently well, ‘Das Christenthum wäre nicht als was es siegend über Griechenthum und Römerthum sich ausgewiesen, hätte es zu reden vermocht, oder zu reden sich zwingen lassen müssen, nach den Grundbegriffen griechischen Geisteslebens, griechischer Weltanschauung. Nur sprachumbildend, ausstossend was entweiht war, hervorziehend was griechische Geistesrichtung ungebührlich zurückgestellt hatte, verklärend endlich womit das ächtmenschliche, von Anfang an so sittlich gerichtete Griechenthum die Vorstufen der göttlichen Wahrheit erreicht hatte: nur so ein in seinen Grundbegriffen christianisirtes Griechisch sich anbildend konnten die Apostel Christi der Welt, die damals der allgemeinen Bildung nach eine griechische war, die Sprache des Geistes, der durch sie zeugte, vermitteln.’

2 Both those points are well made by Flacius Illyricus, in his Clavis Scripturoe, s. v. Ecclesia: ‘Quia Ecclesia a verbo καλεῖν venit, hoc observetur primum; ideo conversionem hominum vocationem vocari, non tantum quia Deus eos per se suumque Verbum, quasi clamore, vocat; sed etiam quia sicut herus ex turbâ famulorum certos aliquos ad aliqua singularia munia evocat, sic Deus quoque tum totum populum suum vocat ad cultum suum (Hos. 11:1), tum etiam singulos homines ad certas singularesque functiones. (Act. 13:2.) Quoniam autem non tantum vocatur Populus Dei ad culture Dei, sed etiam vocatur ex reliquâ turbâ aut confusione generis humani, ideo dicitur Ecclesia, quasi dicas, Evocata divinitus ex reliquâ impiorum colluvie, ad cultum celebrationemque Dei, et aeternam felicitatem.’ Compare Witsius In Symbol. pp. 394–397.

3 Enarr. in Ps. lxxxi. 1: ‘In synagogâ populum Israël accipimus, quia et ipsorum proprie synagoga dici solet, quamvis et Ecclesia dicta sit. Nostri vero Ecclesiam nunquam synagogam dixerunt, sed semper Ecclesiam: sive discernendi caussâ, sive quod inter congregationem, unde synagoga, et convocationem, unde Ecclesia nomen accepit, distet aliquid; quod scilicet congregari et pecora solent, atque ipsa proprie, quorum et greges proprie dicimus; convocari autem magis est utentium ratione, sicut sunt homines.’ So also the author of a Commentary on the Book of Proverbs formerly ascribed to Jerome (Opp. vol. v. p. 533); and by Vitringa (p. 91) cited as his.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1577,G3831,G4864.]

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