Liturgy is not simply what we habitually do

It is common to speak of liturgy as though it is little more than what we habitually do, thus on a comment on another website, someone commented:

And: is liturgy the same as “form?” Would a Baptist church that still plays hymns and has a set format still be liturgical?I think the answer is yes.

But, when we—meaning Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, etc–speak of Liturgy, that is not simply what we mean. We also do not simply mean that Liturgy is only the work of the people, as though by doing a linguistic analysis of ancient Greek we can ignore the later use of the word in its Hebrew context. What do I mean by its Hebrew context, after all it is GREEK??!! Well, let us look at a quote about the use of the word liturgy in its Greek/Hebrew context:

Liturgy (leitourgia) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen. Its elements are leitos (from leos = laos, people) meaning public, and ergo (obsolete in the present stem, used in future erxo, etc.), to do. From this we have leitourgos, “a man who performs a public duty”, “a public servant”, often used as equivalent to the Roman lictor; then leitourgeo, “to do such a duty”, leitourgema, its performance, and leitourgia, the public duty itself.

At Athens the leitourgia was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense, such as the office of gymnasiarch, who superintended the gymnasium, that of choregus, who paid the singers of a chorus in the theatre, that of the hestiator, who gave a banquet to his tribe, of the trierarchus, who provided a warship for the state. The meaning of the word liturgy is then extended to cover any general service of a public kind. In the Septuagint it (and the verb leitourgeo) is used for the public service of the temple (e.g., Exodus 38:27; 39:12, etc.). Thence it comes to have a religious sense as the function of the priests, the ritual service of the temple (e.g., Joel 1:9, 2:17, etc.). In the New Testament this religious meaning has become definitely established. In Luke 1:23, Zachary goes home when “the days of his liturgy” (ai hemerai tes leitourgias autou) are over. In Hebrews 8:6, the high priest of the New Law “has obtained a better liturgy”, that is a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.

So in Christian use liturgy meant the public official service of the Church, that corresponded to the official service of the Temple in the Old Law.

Let me note several points. First, it is common in various circles to speak of liturgy as the “work of the people.” However, note that the classical Greek usage was not of the work of the people, but the contributions of those who were well-off who supported public works. Note that though one could argue from its component parts that leitourgia meant the “work of the people,” the actual usage of the word in classical Greek was not that of the “work of the people,” but the work of some, and the compound words derived from that spoke not of the public, but actually of a personal duty rendered on behalf of or for the public, in the form of the State.

This points out the problem of using merely linguistic etymology to decide the meaning of words. It can be every bit as misleading as saying that the word “handsome” means that it fits well in the hand. That was its original meaning, after all. But to try to claim that a handsome man fits well in the hand (yes I can hear the horrible puns coming) is as ludicrous as claiming that somehow the Church of the New Testament understood the word liturgy as meaning merely the “work of the people.”

Second, whatever the meaning of the word “liturgy” in classical Greek, it is irrelevant. When a word crosses over from one culture into another culture, the important point is how the receiving culture views that word, not how the contributing culture used to view it. This is where many make a serious mistake; this is where Strong’s concordance has some serious limits; this is where philological studies can lead people very much astray.

The word liturgy crossed over from Greek culture to Hebrew culture, and then the Hebrew understanding of the word crossed back into Church culture—whether Middle Eastern, Greek, or Roman. So, what was the Hebrew understanding of the Greek word “liturgy?” The place to look is the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. You see, when a translation is done, the translators choose the words in the guest language that they think best represent the concept in the original language. Thus the important definition is NOT the definition in the guest language or even the philological definition. The only relevant definition is the definition in the original language, and the concept of why the translators used the word in the guest language to translate the concept from the original language.

It is in not understanding that the only relevant definition is the definition in the original language that so many make a mistake. So, what is the relevant definition of leitourgia in the Hebrew culture of the Septuagint? And, what does that tell us about the Church’s concept of the word liturgy?

=== MORE TO COME ===

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