The ‘Church’ at Mount Sinai

Moses returned from atop Mount Sinai and “assembled all the congregation of the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 35:1) The assembling of the congregation helps us understand the origin of the word “church.”

The first Hebrew word of Exodus 35:1 is the simple wordqahal (קהל), which means “to assemble.” The Hebrew Scriptures often refer to the people participating in the Temple service as “the assembly.” The “assembly of Israel” is a common Bible phrase denoting all Israel. In its noun form, the word qahal typically passes into the Greek LXX version of the Bible as the Greek word ekklesia.

Ekklesia is a common term throughout the Greek Old Testament Scriptures. It is generally used to speak of the assembled worshippers in the Temple or the whole assembly of Israel. However, when it occurs in the New Testament, English translators rarely render it “assembly.” Inexplicably, they translate it with the theologically charged term “church.”

The “church” translation of ekklesia has misled us. Because of the double standard in translation, it appears to most readers that “the church” is an exclusive New Testament term, a phenomena disconnected with the Old Testament. After all, the word never appears before the book of Matthew. But in reality, the word church does not appear in the Bible at all. By translating ekklesia as “church,” our English Bibles have made us think that “the church” is a completely new and different institution.

The word translated in Exodus 35:1 as “congregation” is the Hebrew word eidah (עדה). The same word is typically translated into the Greek LXX as the word sunagogay, from which we derive the word synagogue.

In the Gospels and epistles, ekklesia seems to refer to an assembly of people, while sunagogay refers to the place of Sabbath assembly. For example, we know that the believers refer to themselves as the ekklesia, but in 1 Corinthians 11:16, Paul refers to all the synagogues of Jewery (which includes believers and nonbelievers) with the same word. The early meeting places of the believers were synagogues. In James 2:2, the text says, “If a man comes into your assembly (sunagogay)…” The English translators of the New American Standard chose to translate sunogogay in this instance as “assembly” rather than “synagogue.” It seems they did not want to infer that believers were meeting in synagogues. In reality, they were, and they early believers called their places of assembly synagogues.

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