Tuesday, August 12, 2008

church - etymology

Long story ... but I ran across the Online Etymological Dictionary. This is a neat little tool that gives you the etymological background of words. Of course I had to check a couple of words out, and I figured I'd share my findings with y'all over a couple of posts.

O.E. cirice "church," from W.Gmc. *kirika, from Gk. kyriake (oikia) "Lord's (house)," from kyrios "ruler, lord." For vowel evolution, see bury. Gk. kyriakon(adj.) "of the Lord" was used of houses of Christian worship since c.300, especially in the East, though it was less common in this sense than ekklesia or basilike. An example of the direct Gk.-to-Gmc. progress of many Christian words, via the Goths; it was probably used by W.Gmc. people in their pre-Christian period. Also picked up by Slavic, via Gmc. (cf. O.Slav. criky, Rus. cerkov). Romance and Celtic languages use variants of L. ecclesia.

(For abbreviations see below)
I found this definition very interesting. Here are a couple of observations:
1) the term church does not derive from the term ekklesia which is commonly translated church in the English translations of the Greek New Testament.
2) the term church is derived from an old tradition of calling the place where Christians meet, "the house of God." A tradition which apparently goes back to c. 300. See Spurgeon's quote for my view on this terminology.

So, what do we do with this information? The use of words changes over time, and their etymological root does not have to represent the current meaning. So is it useless? No. There is some historical interest in it. For example, in this case, we see that "houses of Christian worship" apparently existed since ca. 300. It also points to the strong possibility that the term the "Lord's house" is 1700 years old. This gives us some insight into the mutation of Christian customs over time. And, if nothing else, it is an interesting bit of trivia, so just enjoy it.

BTW ... the following is of interest also:

c.1200, northern England and Scot. dial. form of church, from O.N. kirkja "church," from O.E. cirice (see church).

Gk. Greek, Indo-European language spoken in Greece in the classical period, c. 8c. B.C.E.-4c. C.E. Among its dialects were Ionian-Attic (the language of Homer and the Athenian dramatists), Aeolic (used in Thessaly, Boeotia and Lesbos), and Dorian (the language of Sparta).
Gmc. Germanic, a branch of Indo-European, ancestral language of English, German, Dutch, Frisian, Scandinavian tongues and several extinct languages such as Gothic and Frankish.
L. Classical Latin, the Italic language of ancient Rome until about 4c.
O.E. Old English, the English language as written and spoken c.450-c.1100.
O.N. Old Norse, the Norwegian language as written and spoken c.100 to 1500 C.E., the relevant phase of it being "Viking Norse" (700-1100), the language spoken by the invaders and colonizers of northern and eastern England c.875-950. This was before the rapid divergence of West Norse (Norway and the colonies) and East Norse (Denmark and Sweden), so the language of the vikings in England was essentially the same, whether they came from Denmark or from Norway. Only a few of the loan words into English can be distinguished as being from one or the other group.
O.Slav. Old Slavic, another name for Old Church Slavonic (q.v.).
Russ. Russian, East Slavic language of Russia.
W.Gmc. West Germanic, the subgroup of Germanic comprising English, Dutch, German, Yiddish, Frisian, etc.; also the language spoken by the ancestral group during the presumed period of unity. I've made a family tree of the W.Gmc. languages here.


Alan Knox said...


It seems that some of the earliest English translations did not use the word "church" to translate the Greek term "ekklesia", specifically because of what you write about here. However, in the early 1600's, the King James translators were instructed to keep certain "ecclesiological" terms, including "church".

This is why our English Bibles today read "church" instead of "congregation" or something similar.


Maël said...

Very interesting Alan. Do you have a source for that information or is that from personal research? I need to look at what happened in the romantic languages, it should be interesting.

Alan Knox said...


Both personal research and other sources. I became interested in this when I noticed that some German editions of the Bible did not translate ekklesia with "Kirch" but with "Gemeinde" (community). I then began looking at early English translations and noticed something similar.

Concerning the instructions to the King James translators, here are two sources: The King James Bible and King James' Instructions to the Translators (notice that the second link is from a King James only site).


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