Category Archives: Church History

What About the Synagogue?

 

In our last post in this series on the study of church or ecclesiology, we looked at the origin for the translation of ekklesia as church in the English Bibles through the work of Tyndale and his decision, along with Luther’s, to refuse to use the word church, opting instead for congregation.

Prior to that, we asked What is an ekklesia to see if the definition and Scriptural use matched our understanding of the word church.  We found that while ekklesia simply means a gathering or assembly (congregation is a possibility too), church in both its meaning and common usage most often refers to a people or building belonging to the Lord.  In that, we noticed that on the surface, church would seem to have more in common with synagogue, than it does with ekklesia, despite the semantic range overlap between these two. This will be our focus in this post.  To do this, I’ll need to refer to a few academic sources, which may lead us to discover more than a surficial relationship between synagogue and church.

In fact, evidence for  this deep relationship abounds.

Noted historian Philip Schaff states, “As the Christian Church rests historically on the Jewish Church, so Christian worship and the congregational organization rest on that of the synagogue, and cannot be well understood without it.” (Vol. 1 – pg 456)

Likewise, Jewish historian Alfred Eldersheim writes, “It was, surely, a wondrously linked chain of circumstances, which bound the Synagogue to the Church” (The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah, pg. 298) and also, “For the Synagogue became the cradle of the Church.  Without it, as indeed without Israel’s dispersion, the Church Universal (more on this later!) would, humanely [sic] speaking, have been impossible, and the conversation [sic?] of the Gentiles have required a succession of millennial miracles.” (pg. 299).

Furthermore, Sam Waldron in his seminary course, “Doctrine of the Church” at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary affirms that this connection is a modern observation as well when he defends the regulative principal of worship as it pertains to Old Testament temple and synagogue by writing, “I will stipulate that the church and its worship is patterned on the synagogue.” (Course Notes, pg. 171)

Each of these statements, and there could be many more, argue that the basis for what we have come to experience as “church” finds its historical origin in the synagogue.  This argument is assuming that church = ekklesia =~ synagogue.  Is that significant or merely hair-splitting?  Let’s see.

First, it would appear that if we are to rightly understand the form and function of the modern church, then it will be proper to understand what the synagogue is and how it functioned, particularly in first century Judea.  In other words, how do you know where you are and are going unless you understand where you have been?  To answer this, lets look at the origin of the synagogue along with its first century form and function, followed by its place in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.

Most historians and theologians assume that the synagogue developed after the Babylonian captivity (see Jeremiah and Ezekiel) when the first temple, Solomon’s, was destroyed in 586 B.C.  They suppose that at the time of Ezra the synagogue practice developed as a result of the crisis of a destroyed temple (~480 B.C.).  In this view, the synagogue became a replacement for the temple.  This may be true, but it has difficulty sustaining its point when we arrive at the first century A.D. because there we have BOTH the temple (Herod’s) and the synagogue.  In this period they were parallel and complementary, not competing, nor did one supersede the other.  In fact, as we will see, their functions were distinct and separate, nearly as distinct as one might see between say “Church and State.”

In his helpful book, Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, Julius Scott writes, “Most simply put, the synagogue developed as the center of Hebrew life after the loss of traditional institutes.  It was not a substitute for temple worship and services as such, but a supplement to them.”  (Pg. 139)  Scott would seem to affirm the origin of the synagogue as being post-exilic, which is certainly fine.  The point he makes is that the synagogue was never meant to be a substitute for the regulated worship of the temple, rather a supplement.

Contra to this popular view of the post-exilic synagogue development, Levine persuasively argues that the background for the synagogue was the “city-gate”.  He reasons this on the basis of similarity between the community functions that took place between both (“The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered”).  This connection is not a difficult one to make, particularly in light of the pervasive occurrence of the city-gate in the Old Testament.

He points out that at the city-gate “served as a marketplace (2 Kings 7:1) and as a setting where a ruler would hold court and where prophets would speak (1 Kings 22:10; Jer. 38:7).”  Additionally, Levine notes that one of the “primary functions at the city gate was judiciary.  City elders would assemble there to dispense justice.” (see Deut. 21:19; 17:5, 22:24).  Finally, he notes the significance of the city gate as the setting for personal affairs, Ruth 4:1-2, the place of a conquering king’s throne (Jer. 39:3, Jer. 1:15-16), a place for the king to meet with the people (2 Sam. 19:8-9; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Chron. 32:6), and finally religious functions (2 Kings 23:8).  Thus evidence for parallel activities, even the precedent for synagogue activities, may be found in studying the city gate.

Function

While pointing out the differences between some early names for this community building, proseuche and synagoge, Levine finds a common denominator in that, “first and foremost, the synagogue served the full range of needs of a particular community.  As documented in contemporary sources, such functions included political meetings, social gatherings, courts, schools, hostels, charity activities, slave manumission, meals (sacred or otherwise), and of course, religious-liturgical functions.”  Scott adds, “Synagogues, as the word implies, were gathering places.  The buildings were used for official public meetings, schools, tribunals of judgment, and social occasions.” (Pg. 144)

As to the Jewish synagogue, especially that in first century Palestine, the emphasis seems to be more on religious activity than community involvement, consistent with what we see in Scripture.  Scott points out some of these early synagogue functions as being, “first and foremost a place for reading Scripture and prayer. It was the synagogue, with its regular reading and interpretation of the Law and of the Prophets, and with its schools for the young, that wove the Scriptures into the fabric of life and experience of the people.” (pg. 140)

Form

Archeological evidence reveals that the synagogue architecture may have varied, but largely featured, “benches along all or most of the walls, the focus of each building was the center of its hall, much as was the plan in contemporary Hellenistic and Roman communal buildings. (Levine)

Scott adds, “There were no altars nor sacrifices in the synagogue; instead only the sacred books (scrolls) were absolutely necessary.  Although priests who were in attendance were usually selected to be the public readers and to pronounce the blessings, their presence was not required for synagogue service as it was for worship in the temple.  The revered leaders of the synagogue were the elders of the community and those with recognizable expertise in the law.  Synagogues were organized wherever there were enough men (ten) to constitute a proper assembly, whether in the land of Israel or beyond.” (Pg. 140)

While Scriptural evidence points to the oversight of a council, known as the Sanhedrin, the synagogue was basically a lay institution, because the priests were largely involved with the regulation of the temple.  Scott adds, “Actual leadership was in the hands of the elders, respected heads of families in the community. The major official was the archisynagogos, the chief of the synagogue who was in overall charge of its affairs. The hazzan (minister or attendant) was, in Jewish areas, an executive officer for the town as well as the synagogue.” (p. 143)

Liturgy

The worship services, if we may use that term, were often held multiple times on the Sabbath, as well as other days of the week such as Monday and Thursday.  Additionally, services were held on days of special assemblies, feast days, etc. (Scott, p. 141)

The order of worship, or liturgy, was basic but could last several hours.  These included, “recitation of the Shema, the daily prayer (Shemoneh ‘Esreh), and reading of the Law and the Prophets.  The reading was accompanied by a translation-interpretation (a targum), and frequently a sermon-homily.” (Scott, p.141)

Finally, we must note one of the reasons for the synagogue, at least providentially, was to provide an avenue for access to the gospel proclamation of our Lord and the apostles to the Jews.

In Scripture, we see Jesus and His disciples utilizing the existing structure of the synagogue while simultaneously proclaiming the formation of the ekklesia.  This should serve as a caution in our study on decrying the form and function of what we experience today as church vs. what constituted an ekklesia during the apostolic period.  Perhaps Philippians 1:18 is a good exhortation for us in this regard.

What can we conclude from this synagogue layer added to our understanding of the development of church?

While ekklesia does not seem to provide a clear pattern for development of our concept of church, synagogue does seem to have some striking similarities.  However, it must be noted that there have been some significant departures, most notably in the “liturgy”, governance, and sociopolitical aspects.  The synagogue was a Word-centered, lay-led, house of study (and later of prayer) that encouraged dialogue, questions, and multiplicity of speakers.  Likewise, it played a critical role in the community, serving as a location for social and political functions alike.

Having now laid some of the historical groundwork in our study, we will next turn to Scripture and explore how ekklesia is used along with its implications on our modern conception of church.

Battle for the Bible

 

Seems fairly accurate.  A reasonable introduction to Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Cranmer and their role in the development of the English Bible.

Given the recent posts here, notice how this video uses the word “church”, what/who is called church, the actions of the church, the power that the church wields and reflect upon whether this represents the biblical concept conveyed by ekklesia.

 

Church and the English Bible

 

In this post from our series on the study of church, we take a minor detour to look at how our English Bibles came to translate the original Greek word ekklesia (which we looked at last time) as the word church, which we examined in another post.

If you’re struggling to find any practical significance with this, despite some of the related links posted in The Importance of Studying Church consider the following:

William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first man credited with translating the Bible into English.  Up to this point, the Bible had primarily been in Latin (The Vulgate, Jerome ~383 A.D.) thereby restricting its readability to the priests and clergy only.  Tyndale, working off of the Greek New Testament translating work performed by Erasmus (and Luther), translated the Bible into English directly from the original language sources.  He was able to translate the New Testament from Greek and half of the Old Testament from Hebrew prior to his death as a martyr.

Tyndale is considered the “Father of the English Bible” and has been referred to as the Apostle to England.  Born near the border of Wales, he studied at Oxford in 1510, where the aforementioned Erasmus was teaching.  He became a master of Greek and Hebrew under Erasmus as well as becoming fluent in 7 languages.  In 1515, Tyndale studied at Cambridge, and may have encountered some of Luther’s early teachings.  He was ordained to the priesthood in 1521, but expressed his frustrations with the failure to make the Scriptures available in the common language of the people.  This was another similarity between Tyndale and Luther.  In a famous quote, Tyndale summarizes this frustration, “I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more Scripture than the Pope.”

Mentioning Tyndale as the Father of the English Bible isn’t meant as a slight to the excellent work performed by the Morning-Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1382).  However, Wycliffe lacked access to the Greek and Hebrew, thus basing his English translation on the Latin Vulgate, essentially becoming a translation of a translation.  It’s likely that his work did not excel in popularity like that of Tyndale because the printing press had not yet been invented.  Nevertheless, his influence should not be minimized.

In 1523, Tyndale applied to the Bishop of London for permission to translate the Scriptures into English, but was denied.  Despite the rejection, he undertook the effort in an underground manner in Germany, an area now known for its sympathy for Reformation.

Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, completed in 1525, challenged some of the core doctrinal beliefs which had been established and maintained by the Catholic Church through their use of the Latin bible and the distinction they maintained between clergy and laity. For this reason, his NT translation was smuggled into England.  In an effort to undermine the spread of the English NT, the Bishop of London ordered all the copies to be purchased, a plan which backfired and went on to fund a second edition.

Some such challenges, by Tyndale, which threatened the institutional Catholic Church can be found in his decision to translate the word presbuteros to mean “elder” rather than “priest”, an obvious undermining of the Catholic priesthood.  Additionally, Tyndale favored the translation of metanoeite as “repent” rather than “do penance”, again a clear assault on the Catholic doctrine of penance.  Both of these preferences, and we may add, more accurate translations, by Tyndale are represented in our modern English translations.

Those aside, and others, most significant to our discussion here, was Tyndale’s insistence upon translating ekklesia as congregation, not church, a hill he literally chose to die on.  Until then, the popes, priesthood, and councils of Catholicism had dominated the people and kept them under their authority as a hierarchical institution known as the Roman Catholic Church.  If one were unable to find the word “church” in their Bible, which they were now able to read in a common language for the first time, then clearly the authority of the Catholic Church would have come into question.

Using the word church in this way, was an authoritarian move that pointed to the universal, visible, institution that sought to expand its dominion throughout the world, by force, not the gospel.  In essence, Tyndale was rightly returning the power to the people, the assembly, or congregation, and stripping it from the visible institution which had grown apostate in the centuries since the Apostolic era and most notably since the 4th Century reign of Constantine.  In 1536, Tyndale was martyred under the reign of King Henry VIII.  His last words were “Lord open the King of England’s eyes”.

Now we must ask, if Tyndale’s other changes were incorporated into our other English translations, why do we still find the word “church” as the translation for ekklesia in every single modern translation?  In short, it’s because during the Reformation, the reformers, such as Luther, did not offer a clean break of the “church” from the sacral society of the State.  Instead, the church, if we may use that word now, became more formally wed to the State and the interest of the State to constrain the people became an even bigger problem than when they were under the banner of the Catholic Church.

Keep in mind that Luther himself refused to use the German word for church (kirche), preferring instead for “the congregation of the saints as the people or company of God.”  As significant as Luther’s efforts were in ushering in the Reformation, in practice, his break from the institutional church was only half-hearted.  Instead, it paved the way for the new Protestant “Church” to become even stranger bedfellows with the State.

If you struggle with that, simply ask how it was that Martin Luther was able to oppose the Catholic Church and still live, meanwhile countless martyrs who opposed the new mixture of church and state were brutally murdered? (he was actually protected by the civil magistrate) I’ll pick this theme up later as we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Tyndale’s Bible was completed and published as The Matthew’s Bible in 1537.  It maintained the translation of ekklesia as congregation.  In 1539 a second major publication of the Bible was made called The Great Bible which likewise maintained this same translation.  However, in 1557 the Geneva New Testament produced by William Whittingham was the first to use the word church instead of congregation and the rest they say is history.  Later, because Protestantism became the official state religion of England, the Church of England, under the rule of King James likewise chose to retain the word church in the most widespread English translation, The King James Bible, 1611.

King James (James I – Scotland) had a list of 14 specific instructions to the translators of the King James Bible, who by the way were all from the Church of England.  Number 3 states,

3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, &c.” 

In this way, James was able to reassert ecclesiastical (church) authority which had been held by Rome prior to the Reformation.

In conclusion, it’s not difficult to see the motives behind retaining the translation of “church”.  It was for power, authority, and money, not because church was the best translation of ekklesia.  Tyndale and Luther recognized this and made a statement to the world in their translation choices.

So then we return to our original question, is church an ekklesia?

First, we must conclude that the word church is not an accurate translation or portrayal of what the Scriptures are talking about when it uses the word ekklesia.  Primarily this is because we read our modern conception of church into the Scriptural translation of the word and arrive at the meaning, just as those in the 16th century did.  Unfortunately, it has become the proverbial “loaded word”.

Second,the true meaning of church is “belonging to the Lord”, while the true meaning of ekklesia is an “assembly or gathering”.  While the former may be an accurate description of the people of God, unfortunately, as we’ve seen its use is certainly not constricted to this meaning.  The latter is communicating something different, or at least nuanced, namely that Christ’s ekklesia is an assembly or gathering.

Third, because the use of church is so widespread, its usage is not going away, therefore we must be careful to define what it is. Reciting Kittle again on this point, “This does not mean that we should banish the words ‘Church’ and ‘congregation’ from our vocabulary. Apart from the impossibility of such an undertaking, there would be no sense in forfeiting the wealth of meaning proper to these terms. What is needed is that we should grasp the precise significance of the word ekklesia, since at this point linguistic sobriety will help us to the true meaning and bearing from the standpoint of biblical theology.” (pg. 505, footnote 6)

Whether we prefer to use the word church or congregation/assembly/gathering may not matter as much as what meaning is intended behind it.  Because we have a cultural tendency to be sloppy with the usage and meaning of our words, there are inherent dangers in simply throwing around the word church without properly defining what the new Testament intends by ekklesia.  Simply put, ekklesia does not convey all that our modern use of church has come to convey.  It is never used in Scripture as a building.  Certainly never used to refer to a denomination.  It is, depending on context of course, used as an assembly or gathering of people and specifically an assembly by God in Christ when so designated (conversely, see Acts 19:32,39,41)

The question now is, what are the ripple effects from this?  Anything?  Or is the whole discussion pedantic?

I suggest we continue probing God’s Word and humbly submit to what we find, even if it costs us our precious traditions.

 

 

*For an excellent overview of the English Bible by Daniel Wallace including Wycliffe and Tyndale see this link https://bible.org/seriespage/1-wycliffe-king-james-period-challenge