Today we have a rich religious vocabulary, filled with words like bishop, liturgy, and martyr. But some of these words actually meant something different or were very ordinary words when the Apostles first used them and then they were given their religious character through the preaching of the Apostles. Here are some ordinary-to-us words that meant something different in the times of the Apostles.
Now we understand a minister to be a leader of a congregation or someone in charge of a section of government. But it comes from a Latin word meaning “servant”. In the times of the Apostles, a minister was simply an employee paid to do a job. The Greek word here is leitourgos, which we will see in another form elsewhere.
This has a very specific meaning for us nowadays: someone who is killed for proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ. However, its origin is much more humble and universal. In Greek, martyr meant “witness”. Therefore, a martyr was just someone who was a witness. Witnesses give testimony in court, and this is what the early Christians had to do when Christianity was illegal. It’s come to have its very specific meaning because so many early witnesses of the Faith were put to death. But really, any time we give witness to the Gospel, we are a type of martyr.
In Greek, this word is martyrion. Clearly, it’s directly related to the word “martyr”. A testimony is the words of witnessing. We sometimes hear this word being used when a speaker tells about his or her journey of faith. This is correct! A testimony can be a story of our Faith working personally in our lives. Jesus Christ is a person, after all, so of course our faith will have a personal dimension. It also means speaking on behalf of the faith, and this, as we know, sometimes has fatal consequences.
This is easy! This is our participation in the Mass or Divine Liturgy. Liturgy, though, comes from the Greek work leitourgia which was the word for normal, ordinary, public works. It just means work! So, adding the divine element to it, as the Apostles did, we get our present understanding of liturgy– divine work. Therefore, a leitourgos, a minister, does the leitourgia, the work, the divine work, the Liturgy.
Today we know the Apostles as the Twelve, the men whom Jesus chose to closely follow him. It comes from the Greek word apostolos, meaning “one who is sent”. An apostolos is a representative. It is believed that apostolos is a direct translation of the Hebrew shaliah, which ancient rabbis said that “a man’s shaliah is as himself.” So apostles are Jesus Christ himself in the world through these men (and their successors). This also, then, points to priests acting in persona Christi. Much cooler when you know the full meaning.
We celebrate Pentecost as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and Mary in the upper room and they then went out preaching to all in their native tongues. This is spectacular in and of itself but when you understand what Pentecost was in the days of the Apostles, it becomes even more spectacular.
Pentecost was the Jewish annual harvest festival which all males were bound to observe in Jerusalem. So men from all over the world were present in Jerusalem on that day, and all spoke different languages. Originally an agrarian festival, by the time of the Apostles it had come to primarily be a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses.
Mike Aquilina, in his book The Apostles and Their Times, gives this understanding of the significance of Pentecost: “The first book of the Bible told the story of how the people of the earth became peoples opposed to one another…Pentecost, however, reversed the process, repaired the breaches, restored broken bonds and gathered the firstfruits– the tribes of Israel from their dispersion. Soon salvation would go out to the nations, the Gentiles, as well.”
Mostly we use this word now to denote the Eucharist. Its more basic meaning, though, is a fellowship between those who share a covenant. The word for this in Hebrew is chaburah and in Greek it is koinonia. A chaburah was usually held by a rabbi with his disciples or described a group of friends gathering for religious discussion and common prayer. The Last Supper was a chaburah. We can see, in this, the beginnings of our understanding of Communion. Jesus established a model for our communion at the Last Supper and a new covenant in the shedding of his blood. So now we understand Communion to be a super close bond between those of us who believe and between us and God. He is in us and we are in him. What a magnificent gift!
This word is used now to describe a denial of revealed truth or an adherence to a religious opinion that contradicts Christian dogma. It certainly has a negative connotation! However, the original Greek word hairesis had a neutral connotation that meant a personal choice or opinion. It was St. Peter who used the word with the qualifier “destructive”. He, and now we, understood that false doctrine was a choice, one that brought destruction and condemnation.
The times of the Apostles was a fascinating time in Church History, laying the groundwork for all the rich vocabulary, understanding, and faith that we have today. For more on them and their times, pick up a copy of Mike Aquilina’s book The Apostles and Their Times: Archeology, History, and Scripture Unveil What Life Was Really Like During the Apostolic Age.
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