As part of my PhD studies at SEBTS, I have the opportunity (it’s a requirement, but I consider it an opportunity) to take part in a mentorship with my PhD mentor, Dr. Dave Black. The mentorship will cover two semesters. During the first semester, we will discuss books and topics that will help me prepare for my dissertation. During the second semester, we will discuss books and topics that will help me prepare for my comprehensive exams, which I should take next spring.
For our first mentorship meeting, I’m studying the topic of the meeting of the people of God in the Old Testament and inter-testamental time periods. Much of the material that I’m reading is concerned with synagogue meetings during the first century. One of the books that I’m reading is Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue: A Critical Analysis of Current Research by Stephen K. Catto (New York: T&T Clark, 2007).
Catto finds that there were differences between the meetings of synagogues during the first century. Many of these differences were due to cultural and social influences. However, despite these differences, Catto says that there were also many similarities. For example, he says that synagogue meetings invariably included purity rights, reading and teaching from the Torah, prayer and hymn singing, and sacred meals.
When discussing the practice of reading and teaching from the Torah, Catto concludes:
What form the sermon took and to what extent there would have been similarities and differences between various communities is again difficult to substantiate. As will be argued below, there is evidence of a broad stream of biblically based material upon which different communities may well have built their construction of worship practices. How the sermon was received and whether there was a debate or discussion is clearer. Binder’s suggestion that Paul is presented as always arguing in the ‘synagogues’ is wrong: Î´Î¹Î±Î»ÎÎ³Î¿Î¼Î±Î¹ [dialegomai] means simply ‘to address’. But there was disputation within the ‘synagogue’ [Acts 18:6]: Jesus’ teaching in his home town is greeted with disapproval by those who heard him, followed by a discussion among themselves [Mk 6.2-3]; and there is discussion between Jesus and the Jews in the ‘synagogue’ in Caperneum. [Jn 6.25-59] Philo also indicates that discussion took place, but generally presents the ‘synagogue’ gatherings as more orderly. [Philo, Somn., 2.127] While we have noted that Philo may have reason to present the Jewish gatherings as very sober and orderly affairs, here, nonetheless, the architecture may be suggestive. The Palestinian buildings we examined clearly have their focus in the centre of the building which facilitates an easy exchange between those assembled.
I disagree with Catto concerning the meaning of Î´Î¹Î±Î»ÎÎ³Î¿Î¼Î±Î¹ (dialegomai); it does not always mean “simply ‘to address’.” Instead, the word Î´Î¹Î±Î»ÎÎ³Î¿Î¼Î±Î¹ (dialegomai) can also connote disagreement, argument, or discussion as in Mark 9:34 – “But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with [Î´Î¹Î±Î»ÎÎ³Î¿Î¼Î±Î¹ – dialegomai] one another about who was the greatest.” This verse at least seems to indicate that the disciples did more than simply address one another.
However, even given Catto’s definition of Î´Î¹Î±Î»ÎÎ³Î¿Î¼Î±Î¹ (dialegomai), his conclusion shows that teaching in the synagogue included discussion. Even Philo, who Catto says had a penchant for stressing the orderliness of Jewish synagogue meetings, admitted that discussion and disputation occurred during the teaching and explanation of the Torah.
It is also interesting that the synagogue buildings of the first century were designed to accommodate discussion – that is, the speaker or teacher stood in the middle while everyone else sat around them, given them a view of the speaker and the other people. Today, our church buildings are designed to help everyone look toward one person. We get a view of the speaker and the back of the person’s head in front of us. Perhaps, if we sat in such a way that we looked at one another, it would help facilitate the type of teaching that we find in the New Testament – that is, interactive and participatory teaching. I know that several churches have started doing this with very good results.
While I find the information about first century synagogues to be very interesting background information for my study of the meeting of the church, the scriptural account is much more important for me. In Scripture, it seems that discussion and even debate were a normal part of church meetings. When the early Christians began to meet together, their teaching included discussion and debate. In fact, it seems that they could discuss, debate, and dispute while remaining “decent and in order”.