THERE are words whose history it is peculiarly interesting to watch, as they obtain a deeper meaning, and receive a new consecration, in the Christian Church; words which the Church did not invent, but has assumed into its service, and employed in a far loftier sense than any to which the world has ever put them before. The very word by which the Church is named is itself an example—a more illustrious one could scarcely be found—of this progressive ennobling of a word. For we have ἐκκλησία in three distinct stages of meaning—the heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian.
In respect of the first, ἡ ἐκκλησία (=ἔκκλητοι, Euripides, Orestes, 939) was the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs. That they were summoned is expressed in the latter part of the word; that they were summoned out of the whole population, a select portion of it, including neither the populace, nor strangers, nor yet those who had forfeited their civic rights, this is expressed in the first. Both the calling (the κλῆσις, Phil. iii. 14; 2 Tim. i. 9), and the calling out (the ἐκλογή, Rom. xi. 7; 2 Pet. i. 10), are moments to be remembered, when the word is assumed into a higher Christian sense, for in them the chief part of its peculiar adaptation to its auguster uses lies. It is interesting to observe how, on one occasion in the N. T., the word returns to this earlier significance (Acts xix. 32, 39, 41).
Before, however, more fully considering that word, it will need to consider a little the anterior history of another with which I am about to compare it. Συναγωγὴ occurs two or three times in Plato (thus Theaet. 150 a), but is by no means an old word in classical Greek, and in it altogether wants that technical signification which already in the Septuagint, and still more plainly in the Apocrypha, it gives promise of acquiring, and which it is found in the New Testament to have fully acquired. But συναγωγή, while traveling in this direction, did not leave behind it the meaning which is the only one that in classical Greek it knew; and often denotes, as it would there, any gathering or bringing together of persons or things; thus we have there συναγωγὴ ἐθνῶν (Gen. xlviii. 4); συναγωγὴ ὑδάτων (Isai. xix. 16); συναγωγὴ χρημάτων (Eccles. xxxi. 3), and such like.
It was during the time which intervened between the closing of the Old Testament canon and the opening of that of the New that συναγωγὴ acquired that technical meaning of which we find it in full possession when the Gospel history begins; designating, as there it does, the places set apart for purposes of worship and the reading and expounding of the Word of God, the ‘synagogues,’ as we find them named; which, capable as they were of indefinite multiplication, were the necessary complement of the Temple, which according to the divine intention was and could be but one. But to return to ἐκκλησία. This did not, like some other words, pass immediately and at a single step from the heathen world to the Christian Church: but here, as so often, the Septuagint supplies the link of connection, the point of transition, the word being there prepared for its highest meaning of all.