UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Jesus and the Synagogue

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Ray Vander Laan

The New Testament records more than 10 occasions on which the ministry of Jesus took place in the synagogue. The Gospels record that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues.” Yet the Christian reader rarely ponders the significance of such an apparently common structure so central in Jesus’ ministry.
 The synagogue provided a ready platform for the teaching of Jesus and later the apostle Paul. In that way, it proved to be a significant part of God’s preparing exactly the right cultural practices for his Son’s ministry. But more than that, Jesus, his disciples, and Paul (as well as most early Jewish followers of Jesus) went to the synagogue to worship. The synagogue was not simply a place to share God’s Word, but also an important part of the Jewish people’s relationship to God. It might surprise modern Christians to discover that many church practices are based on synagogue customs that Jesus followed. Understanding the synagogue and its place in Jesus’ life and teaching is an important step in hearing his message in the cultural context in which God placed it….

In spite of the later emphasis on prayer and study in the place of assembly, it is likely the main focus of the early gatherings of Jewish people was simply the need to maintain their identity as a people living in a foreign and pagan country. That the synagogue began as the center of the Jewish social life is confirmed by the fact that it was the community center in the first century as well. The synagogue was school, meeting place, courtroom, and place of prayer. In some towns, the synagogue may even have provided lodging for travelers. It was the place where small groups of Jewish students assembled for Scripture reading and discussion of the Torah and oral tradition. This meant that worship and study, friendship and community celebration, and even the governing of the community were all done by the same people in the same place.

It appears that the early church patterned itself after the synagogue and continued the same practice of living and worshiping together as a community, often in private homes (Acts 2:42-47). The modern “assembly” of Jesus’ followers would do well to remember that the roots of the church are in a community living and worshiping together. Worship (prayer) was a natural extension of the life of the community.

By the first century, a synagogue was found in most of the towns and villages of Galilee. The Gospels specifically mention those of Nazareth (Matt 13:54) and Capernaum (Mark 1:21). Archaeological evidence is scant for those early synagogues, though later ones left much more substantial remains. Typically, they were built on the highest point in town or on a raised platform. As long as the Temple stood in Jerusalem, synagogues apparently did not face Jerusalem.

In some cases, the front facade had three doors. Inside there were benches on three sides of the room. There was a small platform where the speakers or readers would stand, and it is possible that a small menorah (a seven-branched candlestick), like the one in the Temple, stood on that platform. The floor was usually dirt or flagstones, and common people probably sat on mats on the floor, while the important people sat on the stone benches (Matt 23:6)….

There was a seat for the reader of the Torah called the Moses Seat (or the Seat of Honor), because the Torah recorded the words of Moses so the reader was taking Moses place (Matt 23:2). The Torah scrolls and the writings of the prophets were either kept in a portable chest and brought to the synagogue for worship or were kept in the Synagogue itself in a permanent Torah cabinet (called the holy ark). Outside was a Mikveh (ritual bath) for the symbolic cleansing required for entrance into the synagogue.

Local elders governed the synagogue, a kind of democracy…. A local caretaker (unfortunately sometimes called “ruler” in the English Bible), called the hazzan, was responsible for maintaining the building and organizing the prayer services (Mark 5:22, 35-36, 38; Luke 8:41-49, 13:14)…. Priests and Levites were welcome to participate in synagogue life, including worship, but they had no special role except that only priests could offer the blessing of Aaron from the Torah (Num. 6:24-27) at the end of the service.

While the synagogue building functioned as a community center, school, court, and place of study during the week, on the Sabbath it served as the place where the assembly met for prayer. When the first three stars could be seen on Friday evening, the hazzan blew the shofar to announce that the Sabbath had begun. The people gathered at twilight to eat the Sabbath meal in their homes. All the food was already prepared because no work was permitted during this time in most traditions.

The following morning, the community gathered in the synagogue building. The service began with several blessings offered to God. The congregation recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one”(Deut 6:4). The Torah scrolls would be brought out by the hazzan and would be read in several portions, sometimes as many as seven. Different people were scheduled to read a portion each week. The readings were determined according to a set schedule, so the reader would have no choice of the passage read.

Following the Torah portion, a section from the prophets (called the Haphtarah) would be read by the same or another reader. After all readings, a short sermon would be offered, often by the reader of the Torah or Haftarah. Any adult member of the community was eligible to speak the sermon called the derashah. The sermon was frequently quite short (Jesus spoke only a few words, Luke 4:21). The service ended with a benediction using the Aaronic blessing found in the Torah (Num 6:24-26), if a priest was present to offer it….

The Mishnah (the written record of the oral traditions of Jesus’ time and after) recorded that the gifted student began study of the written Torah at age five, studied oral traditions at age 12, became a religious adult at 13, studied the application of Torah and tradition at 15, learned a trade at 20, and entered his full ability at 30. Although this was written after Jesus, it represents the practice of his time. It is significant that he came to Jerusalem at age 12, already wise; then he learned a trade from His father until his ministry began at age 30. His life seemed to follow the education practices of his people quite closely. He surely attended the local school of Nazareth and learned from great rabbis as well. Being addressed as “Rabbi” certainly indicated someone who had learned from a rabbi. He certainly selected a group of students who followed him, learning as they went. And everywhere his audience had the knowledge of the Bible on which Jesus so often based his teaching.