Grammar Guerrilla: Counsel And Council

So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers (Matt 27:7).

Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” (Acts 25:12)

When we think about coming to faith, about becoming a Christian we think quite properly about being given the gift of new life, about being given true faith and through it union with Christ, justification and the rest of the benefits of Christ. One part of becoming a Christian, however, that occurs but which may not receive much attention is that Christians also learn a new vocabulary, which is formed first by Scripture, then by the catholic (universal) ancient creeds (e.g., the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedon, Apostles’, and the Athanasian), and finally by individual Christian writers in the tradition.

There are two terms used in Scripture and by Christians that are homophones, i.e., they sound the same, that are distinct but related in meaning and which, because their sense is related and because they sound the same,  are frequently confused for each other: counsel and council.

After Judas betrayed Jesus he was paid with 30 pieces of silver. Before the chief priests paid Judas for his betrayal, they “took counsel” (συμβούλιον…λαβόντες). To “take counsel” means to make a decision. They body in which that decision is made is a council. To muddy things further, the Greek says “receiving council” and the noun “council” may refer to a plan or to a gathering to make a decision. Nevertheless, the English expression “to take counsel” refers to the process of making a decision.

The noun council, in contrast, refers to the gathering in which that decision is made.  When Paul was on trial before Festus, he asserted his civil right, as a Roman citizen, to a trial beforeCasesar himself. The moment he said the words, “I appeal to Caesar” Festus met with his advisors (συλλαλήσας μετὰ τοῦ συμβουλίου), his “council,” likely to get things right so as to stay out of trouble with Rome. That process of getting things right is “taking counsel.” The ad hoc committee, in which the decision was made, was a council.

Thus, to refer to the process of making a decision use counsel. To refer to the committee in which a decision is made use the noun council. Ironically, in Greek, the same noun is used in both constructions but its sense differs according to context and usage. Confusion of the counsel and council is easy and understandable but avoidable if we remember the difference between place and process.

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