‘Ekklesia’ and Revolution


Authentic translation is important these days.   People have a right to know they’re not being cheated with second rate or ideologically biased versions of core texts.  The latest English translation of the liturgy reacts to the slightly gung-ho, plain, confidently-modern translation of the last thirty years, and has preferred an authenticity based on the principle that if it looks and sounds more like the Latin original it must be more authentic.  Insofar as, occasionally, you have to flip back to the Latin to work out what on earth a phrase means, this is successful in a slightly twisted way.  However it is a strategy which systematically avoids one of the real challenges of translating ancient text and the meaning of its words, namely how to determine and represent which layers of meaning in a word are ‘really’ the closest to the surface.  In text that has been used and adapted in a huge variety of contexts over many centuries, those layers are like the excavations of Troy.  Which level of the dig represents the ‘true’ Troy?  All of them, in fact authentically represent a facet of what Troy has been.  But without multidimensional imaginations we cannot present Troy in a way that does it justice.

The issue of ‘surface’ is all the more complicated with words, because, although we talk about ‘the mind of the Church’ as if there was a solitary intender, timelessly intending one clear cut thing with each phrase, this can never actually have been the case.  Though every generation will have its dominant authorities and those authorities’ favoured meanings, these will not necessarily represent the favoured meanings of all generations, before or since.  This is why, sometimes, a fresh translation choice can reveal forgotten layers that are helpful to a new generation.  It may be different from the received understanding, but it is not necessarily inauthentic in that deeper sense, which renews our connection with the multidimensional meanings of the ages.  The current new translation, when it is at its best, strives to achieve this goal through its chosen strategy and occasionally does so.


I want to begin with a trivial example from the liturgy and continue with a less trivial one that goes far beyond it.  I have met a number of people who complained about the former translation of the Creed beginning, ‘we believe…’.  That seems at first glance obviously an ideological ‘mistranslation’ of the Latin, ‘credo’ by the generation of tree-hugging let’s-all-hold-hands and-abrogate-our-personal-responsibility-for-believing-things generation of reformers.  Recently I had a conversation with a fellow classicist, who was giving this as an example of one of the things wrong with the former translation.  He was, however, surprised when I suggested that the translators had been thinking of the original context of the creed, in its earliest forms, namely the collective profession of the fathers of the first two world-wide councils (at Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381).  The creed of the ancient councils does indeed begin ‘pisteuomen’ or ‘we believe’.  This seeming mistranslation was actually uncovering an older layer of context and meaning.

We can follow this example a little further.  It seems (sorry to be even more nerdy than usual here) that the formula of the councils was first adapted for the rite of baptism of individuals to begin ‘I believe’.  Then, at some point in the ninth century (I’m a bit vague about the date), a Greek patriarch decided that this baptismal profession should be incorporated into the Eastern liturgy.  The new practice was then followed by the Latin Church in the West.   Thus our archeology offers us two different speech acts with the creed, an individual profession of baptismal faith  (renewing the membership card each week) or a collective statement of the faith that defines us as ‘Church’, and ourselves as belonging to it.  One clearly tracks actual liturgical history more closely and one takes us closer to the roots of the text, but neither is inauthentic.  Whether either makes it any easier for an ordinary Christian to believe a sentence including the word ‘consubstantial’ is a moot point.


The word that I really want to talk about, though, is Ecclesia, or (in its Greek form) Ekklesia, usually translated into English as ‘Church’.  Now I have no wish to deny that for a substantial part of Western history ‘Church’ has often meant a quasi-autonomous political body, consisting of clergy and religious, claiming laws, property-rights, immunities and jurisdictions independent of nations, states or kingdoms.   Nor would I want to deny that Popes have, since the Middle-Ages, consistently claimed a universal jurisdiction superior to that of nations, states, kingdoms and other Christian collectives.   It is equally clear that for most of the last ten centuries there has been a clear theoretical structure of obedience to religious superiors, referred to New Testament texts, rooted in monastic practice and mirroring structures of fealty in the world of medieval monarchs.  Those theoretical structures, of course, have been consistently balanced by the harsh realities of who actually has power (of whatever kind) at any point in history.

Then, in more recent times, ‘The Church teaches’, has been most often intended by its users to refer to whatever instructions on belief or action are produced from Rome with papal approval.   All of these I would take to be common uses of the word Church, that at first glance sit slightly uneasily with the Second Vatican Council’s alien, democratic language of ‘the people of God’.  When we Roman Catholics shut our eyes and imagine ‘Church’, we tend to see priests in black, bishops in purple, cardinals in red and popes in white – though perhaps occasionally also a Church full of people at Mass.  All I want to do here is to see what happens when we dig around the word ‘Ekklesia’.   What other layers of meaning can we recover?

Qohelet – The Assemblyman

The word family first becomes embedded in our tradition in the Greek translation of the Jewish writings and in particular the Jewish text, Qohelet, translated into contemporary third century Greek as ‘Ekklesiastes’ or ‘the assembly-man’.   The later tradition of the Rabbis will bypass the Greek period and look back to the great assembly in sixth century Babylon.  But here, in a Jerusalem flourishing under the successors of Alexander the Great, an act of translation takes us into the common political structures of Greek cities.

In some shape or form the ‘ekklesia’, or assembly of the people, was an important feature of civic life in the Eastern Mediterranean, whether the city was an independent state, or whether it was part of a larger empire.  At least since the sixth century BC, a significant number of the independent city states had tended to evolve away from monarchical government, to an (occasionally uneasy) balance of power between the richer propertied classes and those not so well off: labourers, farmers, artisans, shopkeepers – though in time, successful merchants and entrepreneurs could swing between the two.  Among the best-attested examples of such city-states are Rome, Athens and Sparta.

In Rome, by the third century, the propertied class still held most of the cards in the Senate, while the peoples’ representative (the tribune) sat on the door-step, made speeches and occasionally exercised a veto.  The people had some limited legislative powers, and they also had their say when it came to voting for the chief magistrates (from among the Senators) who would actually run the city and lead its armies, year by year.  This albeit uneven balance of powers contrasts with the extreme case of ancient Sparta, where the Helots  (effectively a slave race) worked the land for the highly disciplined Spartans without representation.  The Spartan elite, at least as described by Athenian admirers and detractors alike, lived an ascetical, communal life-style designed around a constant preparation for war, governed by a council of elders.

It is because of Athens, though, that the word ‘ekklesia’ acquires its strongest political overtones and its association with rule of ‘the people’ or ‘the many’.   By the second half of the fifth century a series of reforms had prised control of the city from the propertied councillors of the Areopagus and given the running of the city to magistrates and a council, chosen by lot, whose task was to carry out the decisions of the popular assembly, taken by vote, several times a month.  Needless to say, in this era, you needed to be over eighteen, a male and a freeborn citizen to attend the assembly.  In the last thirty years of the century there was a bloody power struggle between Athens and Sparta over Athens’ control of the Eastern Mediterranean city-states.  As the other Greek cities aligned themselves with one or other, while the dominant issue was whether or not they wanted to continue paying taxes (or protection money, depending on your viewpoint) to Athens, a key issue was also whether they wanted rule by the elite (oligarchy) or rule by the many (democracy) on the Athenian model.  The war between the big players thus generated some bitter civil wars in a pattern that remains familiar in global politics today.

The writings, literary and philosophical, produced by Athenian authors of that fifth century became foundational texts for the Greek-language based civilization that developed under Alexander and his successors.  The term ‘ekklesia’ thus inevitably carries with it something of the baggage of the common  experience of rule by the ‘demos’, the people.  Its use by Greek-speaking Jews in that period, perhaps points to the overlap between that experience and their own as a people without kings or nobles, who had had to reconstruct their religious and political identity after years of exile under a foreign power.


Why use the label ‘ekklesia’ for the early Christian assembly (‘qahal’)?  In the old Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the alternative translation ‘synagoge’ is often preferred for the ‘qahal’ of the people.  Perhaps one element of the Christian choice is that it differentiates their assembled community from the existing assemblies of their fellow Jews.    But the range of implications also sits well with the idealized Jerusalem community of Acts, sharing all things in common, and, under the leadership of Peter, setting up a centre of religious authority that challenges the aristocratic establishment, the High Priest and his privy council.  It also provides a fit for Paul’s communities scattered around the Mediterranean, few of whose members belong to their cities’ elites.

In contrast, Jesus’ title of ‘Messiah’ implies a narrative of kingship and indeed throughout the Gospels, we hear him speak of the ‘Kingdom of God’.  Yet the words that Matthew attributes to Jesus to describe the community that Peter will lead are ‘and on this rock I will build my ekklesia’.   How does this fit?

We can note his repeated, fierce insistence on abandoning desires for status and on the equality of all his followers before the judgment of God.  We see his support and encouragement of the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and his challenge to those who have religious or economic power.  For all that we believe his death means far more, the most plausible causal explanation for his execution is that attributed to the High Priest in John’s Gospel: he was a threat to political stability in Jerusalem.   The spirit-inspired Christian ekklesia and the ekklesia of the earthly polis are not two entirely separate worlds.

…And Citizens

There is a further, social, parallel.  One key element in the development of the state in Rome and Athens (and many other places besides) was the breaking up of older power structures and the – at least notional – breaking down of kinship ties.  No more kings or tyrants.  Duties towards the republic of Rome or the city of Athens must take precedence over duties to family members.  We have a new identity as cives, politai, citizens.

Thus at the end of the sixth century Cleisthenes introduced a series of key reforms that broke up the four blood clans of Athens into ten artificial tribes, each representing the three areas of city life.  From now on potentially lucrative civic duties would be assigned not by favour, but by lot.  Cleisthenes was assassinated, but the reform stayed.

One of the early legends of Republican Rome offers a fable of the extreme demands of civic duty.  The consul Lucius Brutus has foiled a plot to bring back the royal family and destroy the new republic.  His own son is discovered to be among the conspirators.  Lucius shows his credentials as a true republican and executes his son.   Pretty horrible.   But, as I sit in Beirut, in a country whose politics is intertwined with familial and tribal interests that paralyse movement towards more open representation and are opening a space for renewed factional violence, the principle behind the reforms of Cleisthenes and the action of Lucius, seems like a very deep piece of ancient wisdom.

These ancient examples of the artificial disjoining of natural ties and ancient power structures in favour of loyalty to an impartial, egalitarian state prefigure and provide stimulus to the European political enlightenment.   To the Church of the nineteenth century struggling with the disempowerment and violence of revolutions, they seemed to belong to a hostile and bloody new world that had abandoned ancient wisdom and ancient traditions.   As we have seen, something of that view is making a return, with the critique of ‘the culture of death’ and the contrast of family values versus state values.

Yet Jesus’ own radical challenge to a four-hundred-year-old political and religious order has pre-echoes of enlightenment.    And he too tells his followers they must hate mother, father, sister, brother, for the sake of him and for the sake of the Gospel.  However important family may be, if we are to live together successfully in this new community, it cannot always be the most important thing.  The words of our text already carry out of the past a message of religious and political enlightenment.

Epieikeia, the Church’s best kept secret

In the city-state, law is the leveller that ensures fair treatment regardless of family, position or income.  Many cities had their legendary law-givers, Numa in Rome, Lycurgus in Sparta, Solon in Athens.   But law needs interpretation.  Who, then, may interpret?  Aristotle, the great commentator on political and ethical life, sees law initially as something to help train citizens who do not yet know how to act well.  Necessarily the laws are limited and simple.  But there comes a point at which the citizen is mature, and not only knows the law, but has, through practice, acquired insight into the mind of the law-giver.  For Aristotle, the fully-rounded member of a city does not simply obey the letter of the law, but rather creatively and intuitively extends the known laws beyond their limits to cope with new situations.  He calls this creative ethical intelligence ‘epieikeia’, reasonableness.  Our capacity for it is a part of what makes us human, reasoning animals, even if not all of us manage to be complete moral agents.

This key aspect of what it means to be a mature citizen and participate fully in the life of the city is perhaps most strongly echoed in the New Testament tradition in the language of the spirit, given to each new member of the ekklesia.  This gift gives us insight into the mind of Christ, enables us to discern our way well.  Aristotle’s insight finds its way into the Western tradition via Aquinas, where it is labelled ‘prudence’.  Such prudence is not the exclusive property of official lawgivers, who are exercising their own insight into the mind of Christ, but belongs to all mature citizens of the kingdom in the ekklesia.

Back to Translation

            ‘Church’ is a word we use a lot, and not just in the liturgy.  It is what the New Testament says we are a part of.  But how are we to imagine it and how are we to imagine our part in it?  The layers of ekklesia/church now open to us offer us a richer set of alternatives ranging from the majesty of gothic imperial to the revolutionary band of fellow citizens.  Awareness of this creative disjunction of meanings may enable Catholics to recognize more easily the authenticity of the other pathways taken by the post-reformation Churches and by secular political movements.  It may also help us understand what it means to renew ourselves, without the fear that doing something differently necessarily means betraying our heritage.