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.
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)
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)
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.