Catechesis in the New Testament: St. Luke

As churches recover the language of catechesis, it's useful to know the biblical origins of the word. "Catechesis" is derived from a great New Testament word, the Greek word katēcheō, meaning to teach, inform, or instruct. It's more or less synonymous with other words meaning to teach or instruct (such as didaskalia), so we shouldn't try to impose a later, more technical sense of the word. Still, we can learn a lot by examining each of its usages.

In the New Testament, the word or its variants occur 8 times—four by Luke and four by Paul. In this post, we'll look at Luke's, and next, we'll look at Paul's.  

First, though, it may help to get a sense of the etymology and range of meaning. katēcheō comes from combining the preposition kata, meaning "down" or "towards," with ēchos meaning "sound, noise, news, or fame" (where we get the word "echo").

Blue Letter Bible lists this range of meaning:

  1. to sound towards, sound down upon, resound

    1a. to charm with resounding sound, to fascinate
  2. to teach orally, to instruct

  3. to inform by word of mouth

    3a. to be orally informed

Of course, we have to avoid the etymological fallacy of importing the total range of meaning into each instance of the word. But still, it's interesting to note the range of meanings—especially that first sense of "echoing" or "resounding," perhaps in a charming or fascinating way. In the classical world, rhetoric was one of the most important disciplines to learn. At its worst, it could mean enticing speech devoid of truth—the "sophistry" that so many philosophers railed against, or used for their gain. But at its best, rhetoric meant eloquence united to truth. Truth was inseparable from goodness and beauty—thus, true speech was also beautiful. Augustine in particular will develop the sense of delight as an important aspect to preaching and teaching. The truth teaches not by hitting us on the head but by getting inside us and captivating our hearts.


Okay, moving on to the Luke's usages of the word "catechesis." The first is from the intro to his Gospel.

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (κατηχήθης). 
— Luke 1:1–4

I love this beginning to Luke's Gospel. We don't know much about "Theophilus"—whether he was a real person or a sort of proto-typical "God-lover" (Theo-philus). But the meaning of the passage is clear: Luke has gathered first-hand accounts of the events that "have been fulfilled among us." He does this, moreover, so that his hearers may with greater certainty the things they have been taught. In other words Luke is making more "concrete" (the word is ἀσφάλεια, as in asphalt) what this God-lover is just getting acquainted with.


Next is Acts 18:25, a description of Apollos:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed (κατηχημένος) in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
— Acts 18:24–28

Luke describes Apollos here as "instructed in the way of the Lord." I don't think catechemenos has any kind of technical sense, but it's interesting that it's used to describe  "Way of the Lord" refers to a kind of technical term for the Christian faith, and the passage notes he was taught about Jesus accurately. Yet he only knew the baptism of John—that is, he hadn't yet encountered the baptism of the Holy Spirit. With further explanation (ἐκτίθημι) from Priscilla and Aquila, he was better prepared to defend the faith to the Jews from Scripture in public debate.


The final passage includes two of Luke's usages: Acts 21:21 and 24:

When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed (κατηχήθησαν) that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you (ὅτι ὧν κατήχηνται περὶ σοῦ; lit. that those things that had been instructed about you), but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”

The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
— Acts 21:17–26

Once again, there's nothing particular remarkable about these uses of the word—they have the general sense of informing someone about something. "We've been told..." or "We've heard about this..." The last usage has the sense of "report." This is one of the usages mentioned above. Echos in Greek can mean "news" or "fame"—so this is talking about what people had reported about Paul.

While that may not enlighten our sense of catechesis as a unique practice of the church, it helps us keep a clear eye on how the biblical definition the word. It can mean something very generic—telling someone about something. Or it can mean "instruction" more specifically—the way Apollos was instructed in the "way of the Lord," or the way Theophilus had received preliminary instruction, which Luke's Gospel would help solidify.  

So that's Luke's four uses of the term. In the next post, we'll look at Paul's.