Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe

By Abraham Johannes Malherbe | Go to book overview

DID THE CHURCHES
COMPETE WITH CULT GROUPS?

E. A. Judge


How Words Confound Ideas

Why should we talk of “cult-groups”?1 Our dictionaries do not recognize the term. It is not a good translation for any ancient one.2 Presumably then we are devising it for modern ends. Our tidy minds, no doubt, seek an analogy for the churches.

But their name, ekklesia, already told its own story. For every civilized man in the Roman world ekklesia is the meeting of the sovereign body, the citizens assembled to decide things. In each city where Paul established his new ekklesia, there was already an old-established one.3 It was potentially confronting. We have altogether lost the historic force of this replication. “Church” and “Parliament” (or “Congress”) seem to have little in common. Even churches that still call themselves “assemblies” may well have lost the point.

It is easy to see why. Ekklesia does not go far enough. The origin, range and purpose of the new “assembly” is radically different from that of its civil homonym. The Lord’s ekklesia is not merely a meeting, but the community itself that is formed through it. Luther did better to trade in the elliptical “church” (Kirche, Greek

for “community” (Gemeinde).4

Every German locality has two communities, the municipal Gemeinde and the Evangelical (and/or Catholic) one. This matches exactly the

1 This paper retains the rhetorical style of the one read by Dr B.W. Winter on my behalf at the 1998 SBL International meeting in Cracow. The text has been only slightly adjusted, while the footnotes have been added and section four filled out from its previous summary form. It is offered in appreciation of the studies fostered by A.J. Malherbe at Yale on the cultural setting of the NT churches, and in anticipation of the article “Kultgemeinde” for the RAC.

2 P. Foucart, Des associations religieuses chez les Grecs: thiases, éranes, orgéons (Paris: Klincksieck, 1873) i—5:

comes closest.

3 J.Y. Campbell, “The Origin and Meaning of the Christian Use of file Word

JTS 49 (1948) 130–42, reprinted in Three New Testament Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1965) 41–54, for the implausibility of deriving the NT use from that of the LXX.

4 T. Rendtorff, in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie 3 (Basel: Schwabe, 1974) s.v.

-501-

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