Why Paul never used the word synagogue to describe the movement he inspired and chose ecclesia instead—the Greek word we translate as church.
The short answer is that he couldn’t use the word synagogue for a variety of legal and administrative reasons. Ecclesia was a better fit for their role as a para-synagogue organization within the Jewish umbrella.
There is a second option but not so strong as the first one. Paul thought of ecclesia as defining his concept of Messianic Judaism a restorative movement claiming back to the time of Ezra.
Church as in a separate entity from Judaism happened in the second century. It is not a good descriptor for when it was a fledgling first-century Jewish sect. Paul and the majority of New Testament writers understood the movement as part of the Jewish rubric. Our English Bibles traditionally fail to discern this difference in our translations.
The rest of this article is devoted to unpacking all these conclusions.
Was the Corinthian gathering a synagogue, assembly, or a church?
Paul, along with all the New Testament texts except one, never described any local Messianic Jewish institution as a synagogue. Ecclesia, ἐκκλησία, was the preferred choice. The exception is one instance in the Book of James, where James addresses diasporan Jews and cautions them against favoritism inside a synagogue.1 James, the first institutional leader of the fledgling movement, wrote from Jerusalem an open letter to all Jews residing outside of Israel regardless if they were messianic or not. James is no surprise. His writing is an anomaly that always throws the critical reader for a loop.
New Testament translators, Christian theologians and historians typically translate ecclesia into English as church. This translation strengthens traditional assumptions that do not exist during this early period.
The use of the word church within English Bibles misguides the reader about the most primitive forms of Messianic Judaism that later transformed into Christianity. The problem lies in finding an alternative word in the English language that captures the first-century intent. After a careful look, there is no equivalent. It is a problem of the limitations of our English language.
Assembly comes closest. It is the best solution among not so good choices of English words that translate ecclesia, ἐκκλησία, for this period. It also nears the meaning of its Hebrew counterpart, qahal, קהל, used by many first-century groups in Israel major. More on this to follow in a few paragraphs.
Why the use of the word ecclesia over synagogue?
If Paul granted the Jewish faith such importance, wouldn’t he have addressed the Corinthian assembly as a synagogue of believers? Instead, he, along with 99% of the New Testament writers, deliberately chose the Greek word, ecclesia, which in the Christian mind, refers exclusively to Christianity—a brand distinct from Judaism.
There are three possible answers to this.
Ecclesia as a para-synagogue organization
The early Messianic community, though Jewish, did not have conferred authority as a synagogue. The ancient Synagogue had legal powers and recognition from both the Jewish community and the Roman Government that Messianic Jews did not possess.
The synagogue was more than a study and worship center. This institution had powers to free slaves, imperial authority to send money to the Temple, religious courts, halls for political gatherings, accommodations for Jewish travelers, meals (both ritual and customary), and an agency for charitable distributions.2
Although we see remnants of some of these offices in the Corinthian assembly, such as the slave-owner relationship (The letter to Philemon by Paul), sending money to Jerusalem (I Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:27), and liturgical observance, the Corinthian assembly does not fit into a comprehensive synagogue framework. Paul had no authority nor did the Corinthian assembly have the right to call itself a synagogue from a legal or institutional perspective.
Rather, they were a para-synagogue organization. Ralph J. Korner, a professor of biblical studies and academic dean at Taylor Seminary, believes this is the proper interpretation. He researched the relationship between the words synagogue and ecclesia in the context of the early church and concluded:
When it comes to the extramural implications of Paul’s collective designation of his Christ-followers as ekklēsiai, there are at least two ways in which diasporic non-Messianic Jews may have viewed Paul’s ekklēsia associations. First, if Philo’s mention of Jewish ekklēsiai in Egypt is indicative of a broader use of the word ekklēsia within the Diaspora for Jewish associations, then Paul’s communities could have been perceived as trans-local extensions of a Jewish synagogal entity, that is, of semi-public Jewish associations named ekklēsia.3
He further added:
If Paul’s ekklēsiai were perceived as public institutions, then Paul’s claim to have been flogged five times by Jews gains more clarity (1 Cor 11:23). If Paul’s ekklēsia associations were seen as being diasporic “satellites” of public Judean ekklēsiai, then Paul would have been received by Jews in the Diaspora as acting in some fashion as an ambassadorial archisynagōgos. This would have made any disputes which arose between Paul and a synagogue association matters of an intra-muros concern, and any religiously oriented issues disputed therein matters of public concern that also involve the realm of Jewish politics and jurisprudence. A judicial response, such as flogging, would not have been outside the realm of due process possibilities. This provides one more factor by which to explain why Jewish communities would have felt justified in flogging Paul, and, on the flip side, why Paul would have acquiesced to such treatment. . . 4
In conclusion, I would suggest that irrespective of whether Paul’s communities were perceived as “satellites” of Judean ekklēsiai or as diasporic Jewish associations, his designation of them as ekklēsiai would have served to minimize Jewish perceptions of his communities as being “other” relative to “Judaisms” within the matrix of pluriform Second Temple Judaism (and vice versa). The widespread use of ekklēsia terminology within the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds granted Paul’s trans-local associations an increased missional relevance within the Diaspora and in particular would have served, not least at the institutional level, to locate them socially with Jews, Jewishness, and “Judaism.”5
This is the safest and most qualified explanation.
Ecclesia as a sign of restorative Judaism
Ecclesia, and especially its Hebrew counterpart, קהל, qahal, appeal to its original Jewish roots. The word implies that the movement was recapturing the essence of the traditional Jewish faith founded by Ezra. This spirit was very much the motivation behind the various Dead Sea Scroll communities surrounding and connected to Jerusalem.
This option is very much theoretical because of lack of evidence. However, the very concept needs exploration. It is too tempting to leave alone.
The first part of this theory has to rest on a very controversial and unproven assumption–ancient synagogues were created in the diaspora and later transported back to Israel major by diasporan Jews visiting or resettling in Israel. Once again, this thought comes with great caution. The editor of the leading book on the origins and rise of the synagogue The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E. would argue against this:
“In response to the most basic of these questions, nearly every region of the Mediterranean world has been proposed as the birthplace of this institution, as has every period, from the age of the Patriarchs to the Late Roman period.” 6
For the sake of looking at the relationship between standard Judaism and the earliest Jewish Christians from multiple possible perspectives, we will temporarily assume that the synagogue originated outside Israel. We will take this assumption to its logical end.
The puritanical Jewish first-century communities responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls did not refer to any of their institutions as synagogues—that is a Greek word, and they didn’t like gentiles or anything foreign to the traditional Jewish experience. This collection of movements situated in various regions of Israel, Syria, and possibly Egypt, chose two Hebrew words used for assembly: qahal, קהל, or sometimes edah, עדה.
עדה, edah–congregation is especially found in the earlier books of the Bible. It is used almost exclusively in the five books of Moses and less in the later works found in the Hebrew Bible. On most occasions it is translated as synagogue συναγωγή. Rarely, is it translated as ecclesia, ἐκκλησία. Synagogue in the Jewish Bible refers to a congregation or gathering. It is not referred to as an institution or have any special religious significance. The institutional form comes later and remains today a mystery as to its origins and early evolution.7
Qahal, קהל, is found in the later books of the Old Testament but rarely found in the earlier parts. The special importance of this word may be traced back to the book of Nehemiah when Ezra reconstituted the form of Jewish liturgy and life among the qahal.8 This event was a critical point of reconstituted Judaism after the first destruction of Jerusalem and their exile.
These two Hebrew words are firmly planted in the Mosaic code for religious assembly in Israel. If one uses the communities responsible for publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls as evidence for first-century life, they took great pride in their purity, limited or completely restricted contact with anyone outside of the Jewish community, and thought themselves restorative to the ancient Hebrew faith. They felt they were the faithful remnant in an age of rampant corruption in the Jewish identity. In my opinion, they would have found the synagogue as an admixture of Greek culture and Jewish faith offensive—especially that it allowed for Gentiles to attend. Even Jesus Himself reflected this tension where He hardly associated with Gentiles and focused on the Jewish people (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:22-24).
The Dead Sea Scrolls on numerous occasions reference themselves as the qahal, קהל. The Septuagint typically, but not exclusively, translates this word as ecclesia, ἐκκλησία.
Although Jesus himself referenced and attended synagogues, He never inferred membership or leadership within them. He did mention and advocate dialogue with the ecclesia (Matthew 18:17). This unusual reference insinuates a structured form of Jewish leadership and authority that He ascribed to.
Thus, when Paul and the early Messianic movement began, they adhered to the more rigorous Hebrew identity established in the Judaean hills, and especially Jerusalem. They saw themselves as restorationists or completionists of the ancient historical faith. Attachment to the Synagogue paradigm would suggest they were an evolution of the Jewish diasporan Greek world. It would then place Messianic Judaism as a later phenomenon based on Greek principles and influence, and also detached from the original Jewish identity—a condition that Peter, Paul and the rest of the Messianic movement wanted to avoid.
Ecclesia then was juxtaposed against the synagogue. The one claiming the inheritance of the ancient faith while the other was a later development.
I really like this theory but there are further problems associated with it. Some could further postulate this theory as a basis for replacement theology. The idea that the Christian Church has replaced the Jewish people as the authoritative reference for divine representation and spiritual discourse. A direction that leads to many historical examples of inhumanity.
This assumption is an attempt to define the thoughts and motivations behinds the earliest Jewish Christians like Paul. Nothing more.
The early church had repudiated its original Jewish identity immediately
There are Christians and even Christian leaders who espouse this point of view. It is completely untenable. This position can only be established through willful or accidental ignorance of the facts.
The Synagogue and the New Testament
The New Testament writings assume the synagogue as an unquestioned and authoritative institution in both Israel and the diaspora. In other ancient pieces of literature this institution is referred to as houses of prayer, schools, temples, and sabbatheioi. 9
Paul’s close relationship with Judaism and the Synagogue
Although the Gift of Tongues Project has extensive articles on this topic already. If you want details, this is found throughout the Tongues of Corinth series.
Wherever Paul went, he first went to the synagogues to preach the news of Jesus death and resurrection throughout the diaspora.
He boasted he was from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, and a student of Gamaliel—one of the most revered Jewish leaders of the first century. Not only this, but his biography states that he was once ardently anti-Christian10 and was empowered to capture and imprison them. If they were not put to death, they were punished by the synagogues. (Acts 26:10-11 and also Acts 9:2)
This does not come as a surprise from this period. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that there was a heightened sense of purity and structure within certain sects of Judaism during this time. Any deviation from tradition or association with the Gentile world were considered a serious threat to the Jewish identity. This could easily turn to violence. Paul experienced this firsthand on a certain visit to Jerusalem. They accused him of bringing Gentiles into the Temple and subsequently suffered a beating and narrowly escaped death. (Acts 21:27ff)
At least one synagogue or all in Corinth felt Paul was a threat to their identity. If Paul’s message was not an internal matter, they would have ignored him and gone about their local affairs. An important example was a synagogue leader by the name of Sosthenes who brought Paul before a civil leader by the name of Gallio on the accusation that Paul had seriously compromised the Jewish faith. Gallio, being of Greek or Latin culture and background, refused to make any judgement since it was not related to the laws of the city. The crowd took Gallio’s perceived apathy as a judgement against Sosthenes. Sosthenes was beaten by the crowd in response.
On the other hand, one of the noted converts of Paul was a synagogue leader by the name of Crispus (Acts 18:8). He was one of only two people that Paul personally baptized in Corinth (I Cor. 1:14).
The messianic assemblies of Jews inspired by Paul was a para-synagogue organization woven deeply into the fabric of first-century Judaism. Yes, Paul did allow Gentiles to attend, but the institutional structure was entirely Jewish. Any understanding of the rites and liturgies of pre-80 AD Christianity must be understood from this perspective. ■
This is part 3 of a series on praying in tongues within ancient Judaism. The previous article, Christianity’s Big Split from Judaism dealt with the fact that Christianity was born at least after 80 AD. Before that period, it was still a Jewish sect. Part 1 on Praying and Hymns in Tongues was the introduction.
- James 2:2
- for an overview see Synagogue Life. For more details, see Lee I. Levine. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. Yale University Press. 2001. Pg. 29
- Ralph J. Korner. Ekklēsia as a Jewish Synagogue Term: Some Implications for Paul’s Socio-Religious Location as found in Journal of The Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting from the First to the Seventh Century. JJMJS No. 2 (2015) Pg. 76
- IBID Ralph J. Korner. Pg. 77
- IBID Ralph J. Korner. Pg. 78
- The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E. Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder, Birger Olsson eds. Leiden: Brill. 2014. Pg. 11
- This is based on my own word study comparing approximately 200 instances of ἐκκλησία, ecclesia and, συναγωγή, synagogue with the Old Testament Hebrew equivalents.
- Nehemiah 8:2 and 17
- see E. P. Sanders. Common Judaism and the Synagogue in the First Century, as found in Jews, Christians and Polytheists in the Ancient Synagogue. Steven Fine, ed. New York. 1999. Pg. 5 and Lee I. Levine. The Ancient Synagogue : The First Thousand Years. Yale University Press. 2001. Pg. 135ff
- he called them followers of the Way