Duped on Ekklesia?

On God Directed Deviations Miguel posts You’ve Been Duped! Ekklesia Does Not Mean “Called Out Ones.” He quite justifiably identifies the etymological fallacy.

But in the comments, some folks are not so sure and don’t really see the issue. I can see why they don’t see it. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a reason the etymological fallacy is so common. It often works. That is, words that relate in form often do relate in meaning. Compound words often do reflect their individual components in the meaning of the compound form.

So it’s not a fallacy to define a word in a way that reflects its etymology. It’s a fallacy to define a word in that way because of that etymology alone. Having worked with reading Ugaritic, as well as several other Semitic languages from the ancient near east, I often used etymology. But that was just a starting point on a word that was obscure. The context rules in terms of the definition of the word.

So how might the issue of translating ekklesia as “called out ones” be important?

First let me note that there is a sense of “called out” in the definition of ekklesia. An assembly generally consists of people called out from amongst others who were not so called. I can feel that possibility in the various definitions. I suspect that might be how the word came to mean “assembly,” though I haven’t done enough research to be certain.

So if the word developed historically from a sense of being called out (classified as a guess right now), why not use “called out ones” as the definition today? Simply because that gives an incorrect emphasis. That is not the main sense of ekklesia as it is used in our literature. In general, I believe the sense of “called out” is only present in a limited sense. The key is in the gathering together, not in being called.

So even if we can see a sense of the assembly being called out (and I can), we need to focus on the gathering, and build the actual definition from the usage of the word.

The etymological fallacy is very attractive precisely because it is sometimes right and often partially right. The partially right cases cause the most problems.


2 comments to Duped on Ekklesia?

  • Nice analysis and helpful conclusions here!

    It’s instructive, I think, to see how word come into our English before we police our language too severely. The Vulgate does not use assimulāre the way we today choose to use “assembly,” which are words that seem still very very close semantically. For ὅλης τῆς ἐκκλησίας, the Latin translation is universae ecclesiae -in Romans 16.

    And in that same chapter, there’s ὁ οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως. Are we going to argue that we cannot talk about these other Grek phrases in terms of household-rules and political-city-state just because we think we know that Erastus whom Paul refers to is probably what we might call a city manager? There is a lot to understanding the parts of the Greek phrases that make up their whole. The OED editors note for us today that Fortherby wrote in 1620 to say that “Morall Philosophie… hath three parts: Ecclesiastickes, Oeconomickes, and Politickes.” Why would that prevent us from acknowledging that philo-sophy has to do with disciplined affections for wisdom, that gatherings of philosophers may have been due to their being called, that norms for extended families in homes may be described and prescribed, and that republics or democracies can be modeled after actual or ideal ancient Greek metropolitan communities and their governance?

    • Sounds reasonable to me. I think that sometimes we overdo challenging the fallacies, and thus create their opposite. I thus postulate an anti-etymological fallacy, which means rejecting a meaning just because it appears to come from etymology. :-)

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