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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Origin and Role of the Synagogue

When the Jewish temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 the focal point of the Jewish sacrificial system disappeared. Since that time many have wondered how Judaism survived beyond the first century given the destruction of its central fixture. F. F. Bruce rightly observes that “Judaism survived, because the institution on which its survival, and Jewish community life in general, depended was already well established,”[1] in the synagogue. When the temple was destroyed it had, for all practical purposes, outlived its usefulness to the nation of Israel.[2] For generations leading up to the temple destruction the synagogue had supplanted the temple as the heart and soul of Judaism. Instead of the intense sacrificial system that the temple thrived on, the synagogue focused on the reading and exposition of the Law and Prophets. The intense focus upon the Scriptures developed a new way of thinking in many Jews that began to be obsessed with following the Law. It was these popular teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, who became the new voice for the people in the community and who ultimately became Jesus’ staunchest opponents.

Ultimately, it was the development and function of the synagogue that proved to be a vital and effective avenue for the spread of the gospel message throughout the Jewish and Greek communities of the first and second centuries.

The Development and Function of the Synagogue
The rise of the synagogue is very obscure but often linked with the Babylonian captivity of Israel.[3] In response to the loss of the original temple in 586 BC the synagogue may have arisen to fill the void. While many scholars agree with this theory there is no direct evidence pointing the presence of a synagogue prior to 450 BC, nor is a synagogue mentioned by name in the Old Testament other than possibly Psalm 74:8. Regardless, when the Jewish community returned from the Babylonian exile there must have been local places of worship that undoubtedly began to assume the form of the synagogue found in the New Testament.[4] The simple fact that a developed synagogue form existed in the New Testament points to its beginnings throughout the preceding centuries.

Generations before Jesus most Jewish communities had the synagogue as the common center of worship and community life.[5] When Jewish communities began to spread out across the land, particularly throughout the post-exilic centuries, the increased distance from the temple made it nearly impossible for the Jewish religious life to focus solely on the temple. As a result, local religious activities began to take place within individual communities apart from the temple. Groups of Jews would gather together to provide mutual encouragement to each other and worship God. These gatherings are undoubtedly the beginnings of the synagogue but had no intention of displacing the temple.[6] As the post-exilic centuries progressed (450-100 BC) the synagogue developed into a permanent fixture of Jewish life in Palestine and even in Jerusalem itself.[7]

By the time we arrive in the New Testament era the function of the synagogue was firmly established. Any ten Jewish men who came together to worship and share the law in order to learn and fulfill God’s will constituted a synagogue.[8] By the time of Jesus, its main purpose was to supply the community with a local center of worship, teaching, and community ties.

Every service of worship in the synagogue consisted of prayer, the reading of Scripture, including the Law and the Prophets, and often exhortation. Each of these functions was carried on by laymen in the synagogue. There was at least one presiding officer in the synagogue that was simply referred to as the ruler in Luke 13:14.[9] After prayer was offered by one of the laymen present, the reading of the Scripture would take place. The Law was read through consecutively according to a specific cycle. On the Sabbath, the consecutive lesson from the Pentateuch was followed by a corresponding lesson from the Prophets that related to the Pentateuch lesson.[10] Thus, the prophetic lessons were not read in consecutive order, but were chosen to complement the Pentateuch lesson.

Teaching in the synagogue also took on the form of a school for young boys.[11] It became a school where they could learn to read and know the Scriptures at the same time. The influence of the teaching of the Scriptures in the synagogue most likely led the transition from the Jewish focus on sacrifice to a focus on the Law. At the forefront of teaching boys from a young age to know and follow the law were the Pharisees. Thus, the fiercest challenges Jesus faced in the synagogues of Galilee was from the Pharisees and Scribes.

Even before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue had established itself as the premier fixture in the Jewish faith. With Jewish synagogues scattered throughout the land, the Law could be read and taught taking the place of the sacrifice. This new fixture in the Jewish community had a worship service that afforded the opportunity for Jesus and the apostles to propagate the gospel message quickly.

The Involvement of Jesus in the Synagogue
Throughout every major Jewish community in Galilee, Perea, and Judea Jesus found a synagogue.[12] Essentially, he used the synagogues as a springboard to begin his ministry because through them he could quickly reach the people.[13] He often preached in the synagogues because he would be permitted to speak after the reading of the Scripture. After his baptism and temptation in the desert Jesus returned to Galilee where he “taught in their synagogues” (Luke 4:14-15 NIV).

Unfortunately, very little of his synagogue preaching has been preserved.[14] However, one instance that was recorded by Luke provides a significant look into the service of the synagogue. In Luke 4:16-20 Jesus returned to Nazareth and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day, which “was his custom” (Luke 4:16 NIV). Jesus stood up and read from “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 4:17 NIV). After reading the passage “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:20 NIV). Jesus then began to admonish the people from the Scripture he had just read which follows the typical synagogue pattern of reading and exhorting.

It was in the synagogues that Jesus encountered some of his greatest opposition because he was at the center of Pharisaic influence.[15] Thus, this opposition was not accidental but inevitable because he was in essence preaching out of their headquarters. Nevertheless, the synagogues were an incredible platform for Jesus to present the gospel message to gatherings of people.

The Apostles’ Involvement in the Synagogue
The apostles, even more than Jesus, used the synagogue as a springboard and staging ground for their ministry in each new city they entered. By visiting the synagogues first, the apostles were able to appeal to people who already had at least a partial knowledge of the promised coming Messiah. Luke records that Stephen, who was a member of a Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem, made some of the first gospel presentations to representatives of other Greek-speaking synagogues in Acts 8:8-9. Several of the Jews from these synagogues argued with Stephen but could not stand up against him.

Paul was the only apostle on record to use the synagogues for two distinct purposes. Before his conversion, Paul grew up as a strict follower of the law and was most likely taught much of what he knew about the Law in the synagogue. He was traveling to Damascus because he was going to visit the synagogues and flush out the followers of the Way to take them back as prisoners to Jerusalem. Paul even states later in his life that “many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished” referring to his persecution of believers (Acts 26:11 NIV). Thus, Paul originally used the synagogues as a place to catch and punish early believers. However, it was along that road to Damascus that Jesus appeared to Saul and gave his life a new direction. Paul, continued on to Damascus and still visited the synagogues, but instead of capturing the believers he was preaching “that Jesus is the Son of God” as a believer (Acts 9:20 NIV).

Whenever Paul entered into a new city it was his regular practice to begin preaching in the local synagogue.[16] The synagogue order of service provided him with an opportunity to speak to a crowd of people with the permission or at the invitation of the synagogue officials.[17] Many of the synagogues that Paul visited throughout his missionary journeys were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. These Gentiles were called God-fearers because they attended the synagogue and somewhat followed the Jewish tradition, but were not fully incorporated into the Jewish community. One such synagogue Paul visited was in Pisidian Antioch. When he stood up to speak he addressed the group as “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God” (Acts 13:16 NIV). It was out of some of these Jew/Gentile synagogues that the sharpest expression of the Christian faith and “its clearest challenge to ancestral Jewish customs” arose.[18] The main cause for the instant explosion of Christianity among Greek-speaking synagogues was the instant appeal the gospel made to the Gentile God-fearers.[19] Suddenly, there was an offer of salvation and acceptance by God without the strict requirements of the Mosaic Law or circumcision. The Gentile God-fearers that were present at Paul’s first synagogue message at Pisidian Antioch quickly spread the message and on the next Sabbath the synagogue was filled with Gentiles from “almost the whole city” (Acts 13:44 NIV). Many of those God-fearing Gentiles believed and “formed into the Christian church of Pisidian Antioch.”[20]

After leaving Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas visited the synagogue in Iconium and again “a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (Acts 14:1 NIV). Paul visited several synagogues throughout his missionary travels. Luke records that he visited the synagogues in Damascus, Salamis, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. These records show that by the first century A.D. synagogues had already permeated Jewish communities throughout the Greek-speaking world.

As Paul continued to visit these Jew/Gentile synagogues as he traveled, the Gentiles who were considered to be on the fringe of the synagogue now formed “the nucleus of the church.”[21] Paul stayed at several synagogues for extended periods of time preaching the gospel message, sometimes exceeding a year or more at one location.

Even before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue had established itself as the premier fixture in the Jewish faith. The format of the worship service in the synagogue afforded Jesus and the apostles the opportunity to quickly propagate the gospel message. Jesus frequently visited the synagogues, especially in the infant stages of his ministry, and encountered fierce opposition from the teachers of the Law who ruled the synagogue. Likewise, Paul spent as much time as he could speaking in the synagogues and using them as a mouthpiece for the gospel message. Throughout the God-fearing Gentile portion of the Jewish synagogues Paul witnessed explosive growth.

Thus, the synagogue served as one of the major, if not the major, conduit through with the gospel message was preached. This foundation of the Jewish community became an instrument in the hands of the apostles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In some cases, the first Christian churches in some cities were formed from large portions of former synagogue congregations.

[1] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 147.
[2] Ibid.
[3] William G. Blaikie, Bible History. (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1925), 372-73.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 44.
[6] Ibid, 44.
[7] Bruce, 143.
[8] Filson, 44-45.
[9] Mark 5:22 and Acts 13:15 may indicate that some synagogues had more than one ruler, “the synagogue rulers.”
[10] Bruce, 144.
[11] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 45.
[12] Ibid, 44.
[13] Ibid, 93.
[14] John Bligh, Historical Information for New Testament Students. (Baltimore: Helicon Press Inc, 1967), 49.
[15] Filson, 116.
[16] Acts 17:1-2 explains that it was Paul’s normal custom to go into the synagogue and preach when he came to a new city.
[17] Filson, 211.
[18] Ibid, 200.
[19] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 147.
[20] Ibid, 275.
[21] Ibid, 147.

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