The Synagogue—Precursor of the Local Christian Assembly
TO MOST Christians today a synagogue is an unfamiliar place. But this was not true of the early Christians. Not only had many of them worshiped in synagogues before becoming Christians, but they were able to observe that their local assemblies were largely patterned after the synagogue.
Originally the Greek word for “synagogue,” synagogé, had the same meaning as ecclesía, namely, an assembly or congregation. This is seen from the way the verbal root synágo was used. A typical instance is that recorded at Matthew 18:20: “Where there are two or three met together [synágo] in my name, there I am in their midst.” That is why “ecclesia” and “synagogue” are used interchangeably in the Septuagint Bible translation.
As time went on, however, “ecclesia” kept its original meaning—for which reason the New World Translation, even as did Tyndale, uses the word “congregation” instead of “church” in translating it—whereas “synagogue” took on the meaning of a Jewish assembly place. Still this term did not altogether lose its original meaning, for the Great Synagogue was not a large building but an assembly of noted scholars, credited with settling the Hebrew Scripture canon for the Palestinian Jews. And of the some sixty times that “synagogue” appears in the Christian Greek Scriptures, in some three or four instances it is also used in this sense. So we read of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen,” the “synagogue of Satan,” and of certain ones showing partiality when a man in splendid clothing “enters into your assembly [synagogue].”—Acts 6:9; Rev. 2:9; Jas. 2:2, ftn.
The Jewish synagogues got their start at the time of the seventy-year captivity or shortly thereafter. In the days of Jesus Christ each town of any size had its own synagogue and the larger cities had more than one. Tiberias boasted of twelve and tradition assigns hundreds to Jerusalem. The custom was to build these on an elevation in or near the town or city and to have them facing east, toward Jerusalem. How the building of them was financed is not clear at this late date. although the Scriptures tell that in one instance an army officer built one for the Jews.—Luke 7:5.
In the synagogue itself, toward the front, was the ark or chest that contained the synagogue’s most priceless possessions, the Scripture scrolls. In front also was a speaker’s stand and on each side of it ‘the front seats in the synagogue,’ which the scribes and Pharisees so much coveted. These faced the audience and were occupied by the presiding officers of the synagogue and any distinguished guests. However, it was in the center of the synagogue from which most of the service was conducted, this at once making it easy for anyone to participate and all to hear. Around the three sides were benches for the audience, with a separate section for women.—Matt. 23:6.
Even as with the synagogues, Christian meeting places were scattered throughout the land, with larger cities having more than one. At first the Jewish synagogues were used, the Christian Jews in Jerusalem also meeting in the temple porticoes, but with time Christians became persona non grata, persons not welcome, and so were obliged to meet independently. Among the first separate meeting places were their own homes. When once they began to build they naturally followed the general lines of the synagogue.—Philem. 2.
In particular did the synagogue serve as the precursor of the early Christian meeting places in regard to its purpose. The Jewish synagogue was, above all else, as noted in the Talmud, a school. It was a place of instruction, teaching, exhortation and encouragement. Pagan religions had absolutely nothing comparable to it.
This was why Jesus and his apostles and early disciples frequently entered the synagogues, to teach, instruct and encourage those present. This purpose was well understood by those in charge of the synagogue, for we read that when Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch in Pisidia and entered the synagogue there one sabbath day and took a seat, “the presiding officers of the synagogue sent out to them, saying: ‘Brothers, if there is any word of encouragement for the people that you have, tell it.’”—Acts 13:14, 15.
So also with the early Christian meeting places. Above all else, they were schools, places not merely of praising God and offering prayer, but where public declaration was made of one’s hope, where they considered one another to incite to love and right works and spoke words of encouragement.—Heb. 10:23-25.
FORM OF WORSHIP
Consistent with the synagogue as being a school was its form of worship. It appears to have consisted of praise, prayer, reciting and reading of the Scriptures, exposition and exhortation or preaching. The praise-giving featured the Psalms. Prayers, while taken from the Scriptures to an extent, were cast into a ritualistic mold that was extremely long, the solemnest part of which consisted of nineteen benedictions.
The most important part of the synagogue worship, however, was the reading and the exposition of the Torah. So much was this the case that the Midrash states that without the Torah there could be no synagogue.
Actually, the reading of the Scriptures consisted of three parts. First came the reciting of the Shemá, or what amounted to the Jewish confession of faith. It was taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. It received its name from the first word of the first scripture, “Listen [Shemaʽ], O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah,” and was supposed to be memorized by each Jew and recited not only at the synagogue but twice daily wherever he might happen to be. However, tradition caused them to refrain from pronouncing the name of God itself. Next came the reading of the Torah or Pentateuch, the Law, which was covered in the course of a year, and then a reading from excerpts of the Prophets, known as the Haftaráhs, each with its exposition. At first the Scripture reading had been confined to the Torah, but when for a time the reading of the Torah was banned by their pagan ruler, the Jews began to read from the Prophets. After the ban was lifted the reading from the Torah was restored, but the excerpts from the Prophets were also kept. Where the Jews spoke Greek the Septuagint was used. In other places the reading was from the Hebrew Scriptures in their original tongue and a translator was on hand where necessary to interpret.
When Jesus entered the synagogue of his home town Nazareth, he was handed the scrolls containing the Haftaráhs to read, after which he made an exposition upon it, as was the custom. And it was because of the emphasis on the reading of the Torah that the disciple James could well observe to the members of the governing body at Jerusalem: “From ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.”—Acts 15:21; Luke 4:17-21.
After the reading of the Torah and the Haftaráhs, together with their exposition, came the preaching or exhortation, which was done from the front of the synagogue, the rest being done from its center. So we read that Jesus taught and preached in the synagogues throughout the whole of Galilee. Likewise Luke records that it was “after the public reading of the Law and of the Prophets” that Paul and Barnabas were invited to speak, to preach.—Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:15.
The basic features of the synagogue worship were carried over into the Christian places of assembly. Here also were praise, prayer, reading of Scripture, exposition and preaching or exhortation and encouragement, although without the ritualistic accretions and without the speculations that the scribes were so fond of. As the apostle Paul described it: “What is to be done, then, brothers? When you come together, one has a psalm, another has a teaching, another has a revelation, another has a tongue, another has an interpretation. Let all things take place for upbuilding. . . . Further, let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern the meaning. But if there is a revelation to another one while sitting there, let the first one keep silent. . . . let all things take place decently and by arrangement.” In time the letters of Paul and others were included in the reading of the Scriptures at these places.—1 Cor. 14:26-33, 40; Col. 4:16.
As with other basic features of the synagogue, its organization also served as a precursor or pattern for the early Christian assemblies or meeting places—a point conclusively proved by Vitringa in his De Synagoga, the most authoritative book on the subject of the synagogue in the time of Christ, as well as Litton in his book The Church of Christ.
Thus in neither the synagogue nor in the early Christian assemblies was there any set-apart sacerdotal class or priesthood, nor even a clergy-laity division. Sharing in the reading and exposition was open to any devout Jew. That is why we read of Jesus preaching and teaching throughout all the synagogues of Galilee as well as “in the synagogues of Judea.” His apostles and early disciples did the same, the apostle Paul being the most noteworthy example. As he traveled he taught in one synagogue after the other, in Antioch of Pisidia, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus.—Matt. 4:23; Luke 4:44; Acts 13:14; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8.
So we find that in the Christian congregation all were to make public declaration and incite to love and right works. All were to have a share in the worship, even as Paul counseled: “For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and be encouraged.” Of course, as shown elsewhere, women did not teach or exercise authority over men, and that was true both in the synagogue and in the early Christian assembly.—1 Cor. 14:31; 1 Tim. 2:11, 12.
While all mature males might thus have a share in the worship, there were some who had certain positions of trust and oversight. As Litton well observes, ‘The names which such bear in the Christian Greek Scriptures are all derived from the synagogue.’ The synagogues had presiding officers and overseers and so did the early Christian congregations. (Mark 5:22; Luke 13:14; Acts 20:28; Rom. 12:8) The synagogue had attendants or assistants, and so did the Christians in their form of worship. There was also one called the sent one or messenger of the synagogue. While finding no counterpart in the historical record of the early Christian congregation, a similar designation, “angel,” appears in the messages John sent to the seven congregations in Asia Minor.—Luke 4:20; 1 Tim. 3:8-10; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18.
Among other respects in which the synagogue served as the precursor of the Christian assemblies are the following: The local synagogues recognized the authority of the Sánhedrin at Jerusalem, even as Christian congregations recognized the authority of the governing body at Jerusalem, as Acts, chapter 15, so clearly shows. In neither were collections taken, and yet in both provision was made for contributions for the assembly and its ministers and for the poor.
Both also served as courts. The synagogue was the place where all minor cases involving Jews were heard and disposed of; and so also the apostle Paul argues that Christians should let the mature ones in the congregation judge matters rather than go to worldly courts to settle differences between themselves. While the synagogue arrangement made provision for the administering of stripes, in the Christian congregation such punishment was limited to rebukes. But the most severe type of punishment the officers of a synagogue could inflict upon a Jew was to expel him from the synagogue. Likewise the severest measures taken against one professing to be a Christian was and is that of expelling him, disfellowshiping or excommunicating him from the Christian congregation.—1 Cor. 6:1-8; 1 Tim. 5:20; 1 Cor. 5:12, 13.
In view of the foregoing, it is clearly to be seen that the synagogue did indeed serve as the precursor of the local Christian assemblies. Its local and general structure, its purpose, form of worship and organization were indeed carried over into the Christian meeting place. Not, however, without a refinement, both as to manner of conducting the worship, all useless ritualistic accretions being sheared off, and also as to the substance, the emphasis shifting from Law to undeserved kindness and the good news of God’s kingdom. And while not all those serving in a special capacity in the synagogue found their counterpart in the Christian assemblies, such as were found did have their prototype in the synagogue. Also, let it be noted that there was no borrowing from pagan sources.
The question may now well be posed: Where today do such organizational arrangements as existed among these early Christians prevail? Where are there assemblies held in the vernacular tongue, in which there are overseers and assistants but no clergy-laity distinction, in which the emphasis is upon the Word of God and which are in the nature of a school? There can be only one answer: at the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s witnesses.