Why do some Bible translations use “church” and others “churches in Acts 9:31? Which is the correct reading?
I recently came across a difference between Bible translations that I feel greatly affects what the Bible teaches about the nature of the church. I found very little information regarding this, so I thought I would share what I have found so far in studying it.
The first 3/4s of Acts chapter 9 is the record of Saul’s conversion. Saul of Tarsus had menaced the church at Jerusalem after Stephen’s death, causing many believers to flee from Jerusalem to surrounding areas. But God had greater plans for Saul, and through a divine encounter on the road to Damascus Saul was wondrously converted.
Saul proved to be a controversial convert. Many Christians feared him because he had so recently persecuted them. He also proved zealous to the extreme, preaching so boldly that twice his enemies sought to kill him. He is sent back to his home in Tarsus to escape these threats.
This brings us to verse 31, which tells that state of the believers. The believers that had been centered in Jerusalem are now found throughout the regions of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Their faith and numbers continued to grow through the blessings of the Lord.
Singular or Plural?
When comparing different English translations of the New Testament, there is a marked difference in the opening words of Acts 9:31.
|King James Version||Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria…|
|New International Version||Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria…|
|New Living Translation||The church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…|
|English Standard Version||So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria…|
|New American Standard Bible||So the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…|
|Legacy Standard Bible||So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria…|
|Christian Standard Bible||So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…|
|American Standard Version||So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria…|
|New Revised Standard Version||Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…|
|Geneva Bible (1587)||Then had the Churches rest through all Iudea, and Galile, and Samaria…|
|Coverdale Bible (1535)||So the congregacions had rest thorow out all Iewry, and Galile, and Samaria…|
|Tyndale Bible (1526)||Then had ye congregacios rest thorowoute all Iewry and galile and Samary…|
|Douay-Rheims Bible||Now the church had peace throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria…|
While the King James Version and other older translations have a plurality of churches/congregations, almost all recent translations have a singular church.
The issue also appears when comparing the various Greek texts.
|Greek Text||Greek Word||Singular/Plural|
|Stephanus Textus Receptus (1550)||ἐκκλησίαι||Plural|
|Scrivener’s Textus Receptus (1894)||ἐκκλησίαι||Plural|
|Greek Orthodox (1904)||ἐκκλησίαι||Plural|
|Westcott and Hort (1881)||ἐκκλησία||Singular|
In my opinion, most commentaries that touch the subject do very poorly, as seen in this roundup of those found on BibleHub:
- Ellicott’s Commentary – “The better MSS. have ‘the Church’ in the singular.”
- Meyer’s NT Commentary – “Observe, moreover, with the correct reading ἡ μὲν οὖν ἐκκλησία κ.τ.λ. the aspect of unity, under which Luke, surveying the whole domain of Christendom, comprehends the churches which had been already formed (Galatians 1:22), and were in course of formation (comp. Acts 16:5).”
- Expositor’s Greek Testament – “αἱ ἐκκλησίαι—if we read the singular ἡ ἐκκλ. with the great MS. the word shows us that the Church, though manifestly assuming a wider range, is still one: Hort, Ecclesia, p. 55, thinks that here the term in the singular corresponds by the three modern representative districts named, viz., Judæa, Galilee, Samaria, to the ancient Ecclesia, which had its home in the whole land of Israel; but however this may be, the term is used here markedly of the unified Church, and in accordance with St. Paul’s own later usage of the word; see especially Ramsay, St. Paul, pp. 126, 127, and also p. 124.”
- Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges – “In the best texts the noun and all the verbs agreeing with it are in the singular number, and what is meant is the whole Christian body, not the various congregations.”
- Vincent’s Word Studies – “The best texts read the church; embracing all the different churches throughout the three provinces of Palestine.”
- Jamieson-Fausset-Brown – “Then had all the churches rest—rather, ‘the Church,’ according to the best manuscripts and versions.”
- Gill’s Exposition – “The Alexandrian copy, and some others, the Vulgate Latin, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions, read in the singular number, ‘the church’: but the several countries hereafter mentioned shows that more are designed…”
Lange’s Commentary has this footnote (note – the bracketed sections are in the original, not added by me):
- “Acts 9:31. H—ἐκκλησία—ἐπληθύνετο; this is the reading of A. B. C., and. as it has recently appeared, also of Cod. Sin. as well as of many manuscripts of the second rank, of the majority of the Oriental versions, and also of the Vulgate, and of Dionysius of Alex. On the other hand, the plural [text. rec.], (αἱ—ἐκκλησίαι (πᾶσαι E.) ει̇͂χον .. ἐπληθύνοντο) is found in E. G. H. and some other manuscripts. As the latter generally belong to a later period, and as most of the ancient versions exhibit the singular, this is far better attested than the plural, and has been preferred by Griesbach, Lachmann, Tischendorf and Bornemann [Stier and Theile, and Alford, with whom de Wette concurs. Meyer had, in earlier editions, espoused the opposite view, but in the last edition of his Commentary (3d, 1861) unhesitatingly adopts the singular as the original reading, and as ‘expressive of the apostolical conception of the unity of the Church.’—TR.]. The plural is to be regarded as an explanation. [The word ἐκκλῃσία, in the singular, used for the whole body of Christians, or the Church universal, occurs, e. g., in Matth. 16:18; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; Eph. 1:22.—TR.]”
William Kelly has this footnote:
- “The singular is read by ABC Vulg. Syr. Pst., Sah. Cop. Arm. Æthiop, Erp Arab., et al., as against the plural of the Text. Rec. HLP Syr. Hcl (and E, ἐκκλησίαι πᾶσαι).”
As you can see, many of the commentaries above support the singular church in Acts 9:31 on the basis of it being in the “better” or “best” manuscripts. This level of hubris is common after the rise of Higher Criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries. It assumes that the Bible texts used by Protestant and other non-Catholic groups (basically the Majority Text) since the earliest days of Christendom was seriously flawed with various corruptions and errors. It assumes that variant readings are superior to the historically accepted ones if their source document is (a) older or (b) deemed more trustworthy through various factors. Thus new Critical/Eclectic Greek texts are produced incorporating the textual changes.
Certain problems arise. First: there is a general assumption of doubt as to the reliability of the word of the traditional textual readings. Second: much of the criteria for determining alternative readings has openings for error. For example, the rule of “older is better” assumes the older document is less corrupt based on age, with little regard to any possibility that it could be more corrupt and less trustworthy. Three: the final authority shifted from the text itself to the opinions of scholars. Four: the temptation to achieve notoriety and prestige pushes scholars to seek corrections even when not warranted instead of supporting an established text.
The support for a singular church in Acts 9:31 comes primarily from accepting the “older is better” argument. It is argued that older manuscripts like the Vaticanus (4th century) or older translations like the Vulgate (4th century) contain the singular church. It further ignores other “old” manuscripts that support a plural churches, as in the Laudianus (6th century):
Since there are both “old” manuscripts that attest to a plural churches and a centuries-long tradition of interpreting the verse as such, it is disingenuous to ignore that there is a case to be made for its acceptability.
If the textual evidence is inconclusive, then let us look at the theology.
Usage of Ecclesia in Acts
Luke is an astute and careful chronicler of history. Time after time the language he uses has been tested and proven correct. I would contend that the same goes for his uses of the church or churches.
The chart below shows every use of ecclesia in the Book of Acts according the the Textus Receptus. I am including notes to show that each singular use of ecclesia refers to singular church, while each plural use of ecclesia refers to a plurality of churches. I also am including the references for ecclesia that do nor refer to the Christian church.
|Acts 2:47||εκκλησια||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 5:11||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 7:38||εκκλησια||Singular||The singular nation of Israel.|
|Acts 8:1||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 8:3||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 9:31||εκκλησιαι||Plural||The plural churches of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria|
|Acts 11:22||εκκλησιας||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 11:26||εκκλησια||Singular||The singular church at Antioch.|
|Acts 12:1||εκκλησιας||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 12:5||εκκλησιας||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 13:1||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Antioch.|
|Acts 14:23||εκκλησιαν||Singular||“each church” – churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe|
|Acts 14:27||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Antioch.|
|Acts 15:3||εκκλησιας||Singular||The singular church at Antioch.|
|Acts 15:4||εκκλησιας||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 15:22||εκκλησια||Singular||The singular church at Jerusalem.|
|Acts 15:41||εκκλησιας||Plural||The plural churches of Syria and Cilicia|
|Acts 16:5||εκκλησιαι||Plural||The plural churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Asia Minor|
|Acts 18:22||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Caesarea.|
|Acts 19:32||εκκλησια||Singular||The singular political assembly at Ephesus.|
|Acts 19:39||εκκλησια||Singular||The singular political assembly at Ephesus.|
|Acts 19:41||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular political assembly at Ephesus.|
|Acts 20:17||εκκλησιας||Singular||The singular church at Ephesus.|
|Acts 20:28||εκκλησιαν||Singular||The singular church at Ephesus.|
I contend that Luke’s use of the singular or plural ecclesia is instructive. When he refers to a singular church there is a singular local church to be the object. When he refers to plural churches there is a region or multiple cities containing many churches.
Excluding Acts 9:31, there is not a single other reference where a singular church refers to a anything but a singular local church. Acts 15:41 and 16:5 prove that a plural usage is acceptable and appropriate, and there appears to be no debate as to whether or no those be plural.
Acts 15 clearly shows that the singular ecclesia should refer to a local church and not a universal church. The church at Antioch is upset by the teaching of some visitors from the church at Jerusalem. In vs. 3, Paul and Barnabas are sent by the church at Antioch to the church at Jerusalem and stop and visit with other believers along the way. This shows at least two distinct churches, with other churches or gatherings along the way. In vs. 4, the church at Jerusalem welcomes Paul and Barnabas. In vs. 22, the church at Jerusalem decides to send men back to the church at Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. In vs. 41, Paul and Silas visit multiple churches in the regions of Syria and Cilicia.
So then, when the Book of Acts is examined as a whole it is clear that Luke purposefully and appropriately uses the singular and plural forms of ecclesia. When referring to a singular church in a singular city, he uses the singular. When referring to a plurality of churches in a region or groups of cities, he uses the plural.
Why then would he break from this consistency to use a singular church in Acts 9:31 to refer to many assemblies of believers in a region? Because he does not. Our survey shows that the plural churches must be the correct word based on how Luke uses it.
The traditional Baptist interpretation of the Scriptures holds that there a many local assemblies of believers that a called churches. It holds that each is autonomous in government. It rejects the ideas of a “universal” or “invisible” church as being incompatible with how the Bible describes the local assemblies.
If Acts 9:31 does indeed have a singular church, then it would stand against the idea of local congregations being individual churches. It would go against how Paul writes about to and about churches. It would go against how Christ deals with the Seven Churches in Revelation. It would open the door to ecclesiastical hierarchy. It would stand against autonomous governance of local assemblies.
If you are unfamiliar with the idea of ecclesia and church referring to local congregations and not a larger conglomeration of congregations, then I would challenge you to study how the Bible describes churches. If there are plural churches, there cannot be one universal church.
We are left to assume that an error has crept into Biblical texts. Where it came from we do not know but surely it came very early.
The question is whether church or churches is the mistake in Acts 9:31. The two are incompatible so one must be correct and the other false.
Yes, a case can be made from extent Biblical manuscripts that church is correct. Yet, that case is not as sure as it is presented. If there is logically an error that has been introduced, why not conclude that these manuscripts contain error? Can you conclusively prove otherwise?
I realize much will come down to opinion. Someone will read this and mock me as being foolish and ignorant regarding textual criticism and its intricacies. Yet, the nature of that field of study at its highest levels assumes that everything must be continually questioned. Why not question which word is appropriate in Acts 9:31?
My basis for accepting the plural churches in Acts 9:31 are as follows:
- There is a reasonable case to be made that it is the correct word based on textual history.
- It has been the standard interpretation for much of Christianity for much of the time.
- It is the correct word based on Luke’s consistent usage of it.
- It is consistent with the usage in the rest of the New Testament.
- There is more to gain by purposefully altering the word from plural to singular than vice versa.