It’s all Greek to me

buote_history_column

Back in the middle of the last century when I first started my college education, Walter Kroy had a room in the dormitory, just two doors away from mine. He later married a Catholic girl. Since he was not Catholic himself, he had to learn a little about the Catholic Church. The vocabulary was confusing to him, so he sat down and wrote a glossary of all these new terms. 

For those who have grownup Catholic, the vocabulary is nothing new. Now I am going to show that our vocabulary is something very old!

The first word we will look at is CHURCH. In the world of Greece, Rome, and Egypt 2,000 years ago, the concept of church did not exist as designating a building for worship, nor as a local congregation of believer/worshipers, nor as a wider association between local congregations. The Greek word which the first century Christians used for their group gatherings was ekklesia. That word survived and is present and can be recognized in French (eglise), Portuguese (igreja), Italian (chiesa), Spanish (iglesta), etc.

Nearly 300 years later, when the Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius allowed Christianity to be a legal religion, there was a building frenzy to erect Christian places of worship. The general terms for these buildings was the Lord’s house (ho otkos Kyriekos). Over time, this was shortened to simply the Lord’s (Kyriekos). This Greek word survives in modern languages also: in German (kirche), Slovak (cirkevne), Danish(kirke), English (church), etc.

Note clearly, these words are not translations, but are the original Greek words in modern guise.

Before the time of Constantine and the declaration of 313 A.D. known as the Edict of Milan, the ordinary place of gathering and worship for Christians was a Christian home which we now call a domestic church, and the leader of the gathering was an elder man of the community (presbyteros), or the senior male of the household (paterfamilias). In Greco-Roman society, the paterfamilias had certain religious privileges and responsibilities, so it was a natural step for the Apostles and their successors to ordain that these same fathers and elders be the religious leaders of the Christian gatherings. These two designations have also come down to us without translation. The ancient Greek word presbyteros exists in modern French (pretre), Icelandic (prestur), Norwegian (prest), English (priest), etc. The ancient Latin word paterfamilias exists in modern French (pere), German (vater), Spanish (padre), Dutch (vader), Portuguese (pai), English (father), etc.

The meaning of these two words in the Christian community as “one who offers sacrifice” is known because sometimes the Latin and Greek words for the pagan counterparts (sacerdos and hiereus) were used interchangeably for Christian leaders of worship. In fact, the Latin term is still found in the sacerdote of Italian and Portuguese, and it used to be found in our own Anglo-Saxon and Middle English as Sacred. The Greek hiereus is found in the English word “hierarchy” meaning “rule by priests.” The office of bishop (episcopos) is mentioned four times in the New Testament. The office of deacon (diakonos) was the first order established by the Apostles. Episcopos, presbyteros, and diakonos are all masculine nouns and every time they appear in the New Testament referring to church offices, they are found in the masculine form. In writings after the New Testament we sometimes find feminine forms like diakonessa or presbyteressa which simply refer to the wives of deacons or priests.

At the Last Supper, Jesus “took bread and gave thanks” (kai labon arton eucharistesas, (Lk 22:19). We still call our rite of giving thanks to God the Eucharist. Sometimes also we call this ministry the Liturgy (leitourgia).

At the Ascension, Matthew notes the commission given by Jesus to teach “all nations, baptizing them” (panta ta ethne, baptizontes autous, (Mt 28:19).

For us 21st-century Catholics living in the United States, words like church, priest, father, bishop, deacon, Eucharist, Baptism, etc. used in the context of our religion seem quite ordinary and modern, but in reality, they are the identical Greek words used by Catholics of the first century without translation. They have simply undergone an evolution of spelling and pronunciation. Recognizing these words as part of a very old vocabulary helps us recognize the continuity between first-century Christians and 21st-century Catholics: we are one and the same.

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Diocese of Fall River and a frequent contributor to The Anchor.



© 2020 The Anchor  †  887 Highland Avenue  †  Fall River, Massachusetts 02720