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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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In the Acts and Epistles (Authorized Version and Revised Version ) the English word ‘assembly’ occurs as follows, but in each instance a different Greek noun is translated by it.

1. In Acts 19:32; Acts 19:39; Acts 19:41 ‘assembly’ (ἐκκλησία) stands for the tumultuary mob gathered by Demetrius and his fellow-gildsmen in Ephesus to protest against the teaching of St. Paul, which was destroying the business of the shrine-makers. Though ἐκκλησία strictly denotes an assembly of the citizens summoned by the crier (κῆρυξ), this was a mere mob, with all a mob’s unreasonableness: ‘Some cried one thing, and some another, for the assembly was confused, and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.’ So runs St. Luke’s ‘logical, complete, and photographic’ narrative, (For a similar description of a Roman gathering, cf. Virgil, aen. i. 149: ‘Saevitque animis ignobile vulgus.’) In Ephesus the man revered for his piety and worth was the Secretary of the City (γραμματεύς [see Town Clerk]), who calls the gathering a riot (στάσις), and a concourse (συστροφή). If Demetrius and his gildsmen had just ground of complaint, they should have earned their case before the proper court, over which the proconsul presided, for the present gathering was outside the law, and had ‘no power to transact business.’ He, therefore, referred them to the lawful (Authorized Version ) or regular (Revised Version ) assembly (ἡ ἔννομος ἐκκλησία), which is ‘the people duly assembled in the exercise of its powers’ (Ramsay). The Revisers’ change of ‘lawful’ into ‘regular’ is perhaps hypercritical; for in practice, under the Roman rule, the distinction is not appreciable.

2. Acts 23:7 : ‘The assembly [Revised Version ; Authorized Version the multitude] was divided’ (ἐσχίσθη τὸ πλῆθος). The reference is to the council (πὰν τὸ συνέδριον, Acts 22:30) summoned by Lysias the tribune of the Roman garrison in the tower of Antonia, consequent upon the tumult in the Temple, and St. Paul’s arrest. We are not to understand a regular sitting of the Sanhedrin, but an informal meeting for what is known in Scots Law as a precognition (‘a meeting of the councillors, aiding the Tribune to ascertain the facts’ [Ramsay]). As Lysias called the meeting, he probably presided and conducted the business. This would account for St. Paul’s ignorance of the fact that Ananias was the high priest, and explains his apology. As to the charge made against him, the Apostle conducted his defence in a way that won for himself the sympathy of the Pharisees. It is a needless refinement to find here difficulties of an ethical kind. ‘Luke saw nothing wrong or unworthy in this, and he was best able to judge. Paul was winning over the Pharisees not merely to himself but to the Christian cause. Paul states the same view more fully in Acts 26:6-8 where there is no question of a clever trick, for there were no Pharisees among his judges’ (Ramsay, Pictures of the Apostolic Church, 1910, p. 283). The result of this defence was that τὸ συνέδριον became τὸ πλῆθος.

3. James 2:2 : ‘If there come into your assembly’ (Authorized Version and Revised Version margin; Revised Version and AVm [Note: Vm Authorized Version margin.] ‘synagogue’: εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν).-James, writing ‘to the twelve tribes scattered abroad,’ uses the old familiar word ‘synagogue,’ which had become hallowed in the ears of the Dispersion by associations of worship and fellowship. This usage is a delicate indication (unintentional on the writer’s part, of course) that the Christian meeting had its ties not with the Temple, but with the synagogues which for ages had nourished the faith of Israel.

4. Hebrews 12:23 : ‘Ye are come … to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (Revised Version ; μυριάσιν ἀγγέλων, πανηγύρει καὶ ἐκκλησίᾳ πρωτοτόκων ἀπογεγραμμένων ἐν οὐρανοῖς). In classical usage πανήγυρις is the festal assembly of the whole nation, gathered for some solemnity, such as the Olympic Games. But the word occurs only here in the NT, though it is found in Septuagint Ezekiel 46:11, Hosea 2:11; Hosea 9:5, Amos 5:21. The passage has given rise to considerable variety of interpretation, indication of which may be seen in Revised Version text and margin. The difficulty is to determine how many classes are referred to.

(a) A. B. Davidson (‘Hebrews,’ Bible Class Handbooks, in loco) holds that the only subject is angels, and translates: ‘to myriads of angels,-even a festal assembly and convocation of first-borns enrolled in heaven.’ In this interpretation he is followed by A. S. Peake (Century Bible, ‘Hebrews’).

(b) On the other hand, Westcott (Hebrews) contends for two classes-angels and men; and renders the passage: ‘to countless hosts of angels in festal assembly, and to the Church of the first-born enrolled in heaven.’ So also Farrar (Cambridge Bible for Schools) and Edwards (Expositor’s Bible).

Against this latter interpretation, it may be pointed out that men are mentioned separately-‘and to the spirits of just men made perfect’-and it is improbable that the groups occur twice. ‘Tens of thousands’ is an almost technical term for angels; and, though ‘firstborn’ is not elsewhere applied to them, it is a quite natural name for the sons of God. Besides, if living Christians are referred to, as this interpretation seems to imply, it is awkward ‘to speak of their coming to a company which includes themselves’ (A. S. Peake). On the whole it appears better to abide by the first interpretation. It is the picture of noble souls returning home to God, and welcomed with the ‘joy that is in the presence of the angels of God.’ Students of Dante will compare the corresponding passage in the Convivio: ‘And, as his fellow-citizens come forth to meet him who returns from a long journey, even before he enters the gate of his city; so to the noble soul come forth the citizens of the eternal life.’ Bernard’s great hymn (Neale’s translation) ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ may also be cited as instinct with the spirit of Hebrews 12:23.

W. M. Grant.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Assembly'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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