The adoption and use of the word ΕΚΚΛΗΣΙΑ in the early Christ-movement

Philip F Esler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


This article engages with two recent monographs and three shorter publications to offer a fresh approach to the origin and some aspects of the use of the word ἐκκλησία in the Christ-movement of the first century CE. It argues that the word was first used as a collective designation by mixed groups of Greek-speaking Judean and non-Judean Christ-followers who were persecuted by Paul. Their intimate table-fellowship (especially of the one loaf and one cup of the Lord’s Supper) was regarded as involving or risking idolatry and thus imperilling the ethnic integrity of the Judean people. These Christ-followers adopted the word ἐκκλησία from instances in the Septuagint where it meant not ‘assembly’ but ‘multitude’ or ‘group’, most importantly of all in 1 Sam. 19.20. As Paul founded new communities in the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean that were recognisably similar to Greco-Roman voluntary associations, the word acquired new connotations that reverberated with the role of ἐκκλησίαι as civic voting assemblies in the Greek cities. Paul’s groups were not anti-Roman, nor did he believe that the Christ-movement would replace ethnic Israel, but rather that the two would co-exist until the End. The Pauline view on this matter finds theological endorsement in a 2015 document from the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-130
Number of pages22
Issue number1
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Apr 2021


  • Ekklesia
  • Assembly
  • Paul
  • Christ-groups
  • Table-fellowship
  • Charismatic phenomena
  • Circumcision


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