“The local church” in Acts 13:1

By | July 2, 2012

The Recovery Version of the Bible (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1991 & 2003) offers this translation of the first part of Acts 13:1:

Now there were in Antioch, in the local church, prophets and teachers… – RecVer (1991)

The translation “in the local church” is quite striking and unique among most English versions, which follow one of two other ways of rendering the Greek text here.

Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers… – KJV (1611)

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers… – RV (1885), ASV (1901)

The English Revised Version and the American Standard Version are somewhat more literal and closer to the wording of the original Greek than the King James Version, but neither comes close to what the Recovery Version has. The Greek text reads this way (for anyone who can read it):

Ἦσαν δὲ ἐν Ἀντιοχείᾳ κατὰ τὴν οὖσαν ἐκκλησίαν προφῆται καὶ διδάσκαλοι…

The particular phrase at odds in the translations can be transliterated this way:

kata ten ousan ekklesian

A painfully literal translation of this phrase would be:

according-to the being church

This makes as little sense to us today as it probably has to the translators who have gone before us. And perhaps that is why almost all the English versions either simply conflate the phrase with what precedes it (KJV and others) or translate “in the church that was there” (RV, ASV, supplying ‘there’ to help the reading). But neither rendering adequately addresses the difficulties in the Greek phrase.

Two questions about the Greek expression exist among Greek scholars: what does “the being church” mean, and what is the sense of the Greek preposition kata (‘according-to’)? Only the first of these is relevant to the unique translation in the Recovery Version (“the local church”), and thus, we should take a more careful look at it.

ten ousan ekklesian

Past scholars were struck by the unusual and apparently unnecessary presence of the participle form of the Greek verb for ‘be’ (ousan,’being’) in this verse. The participle in this position functions as an adjective, and what is striking is that Greek really does not need to express the verb for ‘be’ to say that something simply is, especially in an adjectival way as here. It is somewhat similar in English. We do not express the verb ‘be’ simply to provide modification to a noun. If we say something like “in the church that was,” we must be saying something more than that the church simply was. The presence of the modifier ‘that was’ implies something more, perhaps that the church is not what it once was, or perhaps something else. Likewise in Greek, the presence of the verb ousan (‘being’) as an adjective modifier of ekklesian (‘church’) has to suggest something more than simply ‘being.’ The RV and ASV supplied the adverb there to try to give some reasonable meaning to their literal translation “the church that was” and settled on “the church that was [there].”

Greek scholars began to notice this peculiar use of the verb be as a adjectival participle in the 1800s, and the increasing numbers of secular papyri (writing materials made from papyrus) from the early centuries of the Christian era provided several non-biblical instances of this use. There are a number of scholars who have documented these instances and have offered various interpretations for the use, but perhaps the best and most comprehensive treatment is found in Lake and Cadbury’s The Beginnings of Christianity, vol. 4 (1920). Luke alone uses this structure, and he does so first in Acts 5:17 (“the local sect of the Sadducess,” RecVer). Commenting on this first instance, Lake and Cadbury say, “The articular use of the participle [ousan ‘being’] elsewhere in Acts suggests that some more idiomatic usage lies behind the participle here” (p. 56). Rejecting the suggestion by others that the phrase means nothing more than “so-called” (hence, here, “the so-called sect”), Lake and Cadbury offer:

A more probable suggestion is that the participle is a redundant qualification referring to what was existent at the place mentioned or the time mentioned, for which our English equivalents would be ‘local’ and ‘current’ respectively. The papyri give evidence of some such idiom… (p. 56)

In their own rendering of Acts 13:1, Lake and Cadbury translate:

And there were in Antioch in the local church prophets and teachers… (p. 141)

Later scholars have echoed this understanding for the use of the adjectival participle of the Greek verb for ‘be’, most notably Nigel Turner (A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 3: Syntax [1963], p. 152) and F. F. Bruce (Acts of the Apostles: the Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary [1951], p. 140). Turner and Bruce are regarded as eminent Greek scholars, whose opinions are highly respected in the field of New Testament Greek. Bruce particularly endorses this view, and on Acts 13:1 he recommends the translation, “in the local church” (p. 252). Of course, this is exactly how the Recovery Version has translated this portion, following this now accepted view in advanced Greek scholarship.

In all fairness, I should point out that the RV and the ASV were notionally on the right track in their translations. Their addition of the word ‘there’ indicates that they sensed a local sense in the unusual Greek expression. However, their translations, which rely on an adverb, do not capture the adjectival nature of the participle in the original Greek idiom. Only ‘local’ adequately does that in this context and, because of that, it should be preferred. It is indeed the one rendering that is closest to the sense of the Greek idiom here, and that is why the Recovery Version has adopted it.

As an aside on the linguistics of this Greek expression, it is interesting to note that as early as 1807 this translation of the Greek idiom was offered in print. Jakob Eckermann, in his Erklärung aller dunkeln Stellen des Neuen Testaments, vol. 2 (1807), offers this translation of Acts 13:1: “In Antiochien aber waren in der dortigen Kirche damals mehrere Propheten und Lehrer…” [‘But there were in Antioch in the local (‘dortigen’) church at that time several prophets and teachers…’] (p. 229).

I am certain that less kind readers of the Recovery Version will accuse its translators of shamelessly promoting the teaching of one church in a city through this translation. But even the rendering of the RV and the ASV (“in the church that was there”) offers testimony that there was one church in the city of Antioch and thus supports this teaching. In fact, the rendering of the KJV (“in the church that was at Antioch”) does so just as well. What Greek scholarship has contributed, and what the Recovery Version incorporates, is a rendering of the Greek idiom that matches Luke’s use of it to reflect his understanding of the local expression of the early churches. Just as there was one Christian faith, one Christian gospel, and one Christian church on the earth, there was in each city where the gospel of this faith had been proclaimed one local church in expression. This is the thoroughgoing testimony of the New Testament writers, and not just Luke.