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Jesus and Ekklesia by Elizabeth Evans Shively

Q. Did Jesus indicate that he wanted to form a Church separate and antagonistic to the Israelite religion of his time?

A. Jesus could not have envisioned the institutionalized and hierarchical organization that the word “church” denotes today. Some even doubt that Jesus envisioned any continuing community, because he preached the imminent end of the age.

Also, the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) appears only twice in the Gospels (Matt 16:18; Matt 18:17). while it occurs 62 times in Paul’s writings, suggesting that Paul, rather than Jesus, developed the idea. Nevertheless, some observations indicate that Jesus did envision a continuing community.

First, a teacher’s gathering of a perennial community was not an extraordinary custom in Jesus’ day. The Teacher of Righteousness shaped a community at Qumran in order to preserve teaching, simultaneously expecting the end of the age.

Second, the Gospels record Jesus’ teaching on an indefinite period during which his followers must discern how to live in a hostile world (Mark 13:9-13. He calls the twelve disciples to follow him and instructs them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), covering a variety subjects like divorce, anger, and love for one’s enemies, which assume that people are living in relationship to others.

Third, there is no evidence that Jesus was antagonistic to the Jewish religion, or that he passed on teaching characterized by antagonism to his followers. Jesus himself was a Jew who proclaimed that he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17), he quoted Jewish scriptures (Matt 4:1-11), taught in synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee (Matt 9:35; Luke 4:44), and traveled to Jerusalem to keep the Jewish festivals (John 2:23; John 10:22). Indeed, Jesus envisioned Israel’s restoration (Matt 15:24; Luke 13:34).

Rather, Jesus was antagonistic towards certain ideas and actions of the Judean authorities. He frequently denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 15:1-12; Luke 11:37-54), and displayed his criticism of the temple authorities when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables, the incident which precipitated his arrest (Mark 11:15-19).

Fourth, the first community of believers was a sect within Judaism rather than a group that separated itself from Judaism. Acts 2:42 records the practice of this first community, each aspect of which preserves Jesus’ teaching and actions: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (see, for example, Matt 6:9-13; Mark 14:22-25).  As this community proclaimed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and attracted Gentiles, though, it had to work out its relationship to Judaism, generating fraction and tension. Sadly, the Church through the ages has periodically expressed antagonism to Jews, misusing the Bible and misunderstanding Jesus’ mission in the world. We would do well to keep in mind that Jesus’ greatest teaching was about love.

Elizabeth Evans Shively, "Jesus and Ekklesia", n.p. [cited 22 Mar 2018]. Online:


Elizabeth Shively

Elizabeth Evans Shively
Lecturer, University of St. Andrews

Elizabeth Evans Shively is a lecturer in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews’ School of Divinity. She is also a Bible Odyssey editorial board member. Her research interests include the Synoptic Gospels and New Testament apocalyptic thought.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A designation describing a set of practices centred on the worship of YHWH, which developed out of the ancient Israelite religion in the late Second Temple period.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The southern kingdom of Judah.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

A hypothetical source of sayings about Jesus conceived to explain common materials in Matthew and Luke.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A religious subgroup.

A message usually delivered orally by a religious leader.

A mysterious figure mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls who is commonly believed to have been the founder of the community (Yahad) at Qumran.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Matt 16:18

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Matt 18:17

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Mark 13:9-13

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Matt 5-7

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Matt 5:17

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Matt 4:1-11

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Matt 9:35

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Luke 4:44

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John 2:23

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John 10:22

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Matt 15:24

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Luke 13:3

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Matt 15:1-12

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Luke 11:37-54

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Mark 11:15-19

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Acts 2:42

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Matt 6:9-13

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Mark 14:22-25

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