the weblog of Alan Knox

Sacred Meals in the Synagogue

Posted by on Aug 28, 2008 in edification, fellowship, worship | 27 comments

This is my last post about synagogues – for now. Actually, I had not planned to write this post, but after discussing the topic with Dave Black and after his encouragement, I decided to write it. In Stephen Catto’s book Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue: A Critical Analysis of Current Research (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), Catto describes four “worship practices” that he says were common to first century synagogues. He says that those synagogues practiced 1) sanctity (cleansing or purity), 2) Scripture reading and teaching, 3) Prayer (including hymns), and 4) Sacred meals.

Yes, you read that correctly. Catto suggests that first century synagogue meetings included meals as a form of “worship”. In fact, he points out that many synagogue buildings included dining rooms for the meal.

In the book of Jubilees (written around the middle of the second century BCE), the author states:

And thus he created therein a sign by which they migh keep the sabbath with us on the seventh day, to eat and drink and bless the one who created all things just as he blessed and sanctified for himself a people who appeared from all the nations so that they might keep the sabbath together with us. (Jub. 2.21)

Catto says, “The picture is of the heavenly and earthly realms uniting, both in worship and in the sharing of a meal. Such a description would suggest a communal activity, and probably reflects the Sabbath practices of the author’s community. Further, the eating and drinking that goes on appears to be linked with the worship of the community.”

As further evidence that synagogues shared a meal together, Catto quotes a passage from the Tosefta, a written compilation of the oral law of Judaism from sometime around 200 CE. The passage describes exactly how those assembled share the meal together. Commenting on the passage, he quotes another author as follows: “The form of the meal represented here clearly corresponds to that of the Greco-Roman banquet. Such features as reclining, three courses, washing the hands, mixing wine with water, and saying a blessing over the wine are some of the more obvious elements.”

If Catto is correct, and I have much more studying to do before I form an opinion, then eating and drinking together were considered a form of worship to some Jews around the time of the New Testament. Thus, the concept “breaking bread” together would not be a foreign concept to the new church. Certainly, there would be difference between the communal meals of the synagogue and the communal meals of the church. Primarily, for the church, Jesus Christ is both the host and the benefactor of the meal, and the meal provides an outward demonstration of the fellowship that the church possesses because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Do you think it is important to know whether or not synagogues regularly shared meals together as part of the worship?


27 Comments

  1. 8-28-2008

    interesting? yes
    important? not that I can tell, BUT then again you may discover something new in your study so I am willing to be wrong on this if more comes to light.

  2. 8-28-2008

    Alan,

    Thanks for sharing the fruit of your studies. I think this is important, in light of arguments that assert that the NT church was not patterned after the early synagogue. As you note, of course there would be differences. But if Catto is right, then this would be yet another piece of evidence in support of the view that the church adopted practices from the synagogue that were familiar to the first Christians. You’ll find that I have linked to your article at my blog http://www.eutychus.net.
    Les Bollinger

  3. 8-28-2008

    No, I do not think that it is that important that they did nr did not.

    However, from my study and readings, it does seem like it was part of their time together and considered worship.

    I think that this can though impact our thought on what is worship and how worship is explained and how we participate in it.

    We have come to define (in my opinion) worship in a very strict-straight forward way and in doing so, I think that we have lost out on some items that could be key ingredients of fellowship, worship and growth in a three-fold manner:

    - to God
    - to one another in our community
    - to those outside our community

  4. 8-28-2008

    Let me say why I think it maybe improtant; however you can correct me if I am wrong.

    1. In Genesis 18 God communicates with Abraham over a meal.

    2.When Moses goes to the mountain with the elders they have a meal with God.

    3. The Passover is defined by a meal

    4. Jesus’ last act of community was a meal and after he ressurected it was a meal.

    Maybe you are on to something brother.

  5. 8-28-2008

    I would say that it is important. If synogogues did regularly share meals together as part of worship, to me it shows just one more thing that the Jews did that fore shadows the coming of Christ and the relationship that He desires with His people.

  6. 8-28-2008

    For those who see those who find this example important, maybe you can help me out.

    There are some folks who also think it is wrong for the church to own property and meet in a “church” building. Do you think the example of the Jews meeting and worshipping in the Synagogue also supports the church owning property? Why or why not?

  7. 8-28-2008

    There is no doubt that meals, feasting, eating are crucial parts of the Bible narrative from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. In that sense appreciating whether or not the synagogues had meals as a part of their worship is important. I would be interested in finding out more – like there’s no need for this to be your last post on the issue, it is a fascinating topic especially looking at where we’re coming from and what Jesus observed.

    Yet when we talk about importance there’s got to be something in it about making the Christian experience enriched by the active knowledge of it. I’m not sure if Grandma Baker is going to have her faith enhanced by this knowledge.

    Having said that as with other commentators, I’m open to the wisdom of others how it can be related to our current journey to being Christ-like. My only concern is about what we’re considering to be acts of worship in an era where our bodies are laid down as living sacrifices as true worshippers worship in Spirit and Truth. Almost like the sacred/secular divide that says a meal with my family is regular, but a meal in the company of saints takes on a whole new vested importance.

    I’m not negating times and seasons, but positing that the problem with legalism is they’re looking for some words to rip out of context with no contact with the Author. Whatever we do with the information and however important it turns out to be, as long as we maintain a whole life in the Spirit kind of life and don’t divide our lives of worship into ‘sacred’ time and ‘regular’ time that’s all gravy.

    Thanks for these posts, Alan.

  8. 8-28-2008

    J.R.

    I do not see the example of Jews meeting the synagogue as supporting the church owning property.

    I say this because, in the old covenant God manifested His presence in the synagogue. In the New Covenant God manifests His presence in His people.

    When God’s people come together for a meal, just as Jesus and His disciples did at Passover, we see a picture of the Body of Christ.

    I see the shared meal in the synagogue as a foreshadow of the Body of Christ, the Church. Which would be a form of worship.

    Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

    Gary

  9. 8-28-2008

    I am saying nothing about worship. I am saying that the meal seems to be important in the life of saints (Moses, Abraham and the Disciples). For some reason God decided to eat a meal with each of these individuals and they are moumental figures within the scriptures. I don’t know much about the worship aspect however, I am saying that when God condescends a meal is very important. For some reason it is a continual theme throughout the scriptures.

  10. 8-28-2008

    Thank you everyone for the discussion on this post. I’m glad that I let Dr. Black talk me into publishing this.

    I’ll answer my own question: Is this important information?

    Yes, it is imortant, in the sense that we can see what was considered important to the Jewish community in the 1st century. Similary, it is important because we see that activities such as sharing a meal could be considered “worship” in a Jewish context. (Sharing a meal was definitely considered “worship” in the Greco-Roman context.)

    No, its not important in the sense that this should inform our practice as Christians. Synangogues were human responses to the absence of the temple – during the exile. The practice of meeting in synagogues were brought back when the people returned to the land after the exile, and they were continued by the Jews who remained outside the land (diaspora Jews). As such, synagogues may help us understand some of the background for Christiantiy, but shouldn’t necessarily inform our understanding of Christianity itself.

    Any discussion concerning my answers?

    -Alan

  11. 8-28-2008

    I agree with that answer Alan.

    And thanks everyone else for your thoughts on my questions too. I appreciate it.

  12. 8-29-2008

    Alan,

    Please consider posting more on this subject and you progress in your studies of it. It really is interesting.

    Thanks,
    Gary

  13. 8-29-2008

    Sorry to join this conversation so late and I apologize for the length of this post…

    JR – Correct me if I am wrong, but in the OT the Temple was the “place” of the presence of God, the synagogue served many functions including worship, teaching and acting as a community center. Sometimes these “buildings” were homes (especially earlier) and sometimes they were separate buildings. Perhaps they were owned by the community, perhaps by individuals. Anyway, none of this is support for either side of the argument of a church owning property; it just informs us or adds to the argument.

    Lionel/JR – Meals are very important and they are worship. I believe that they (Jews) would see all of life as worship and any gathering of God’s people would be vitally important. They were radically community oriented in a way that makes it somewhat difficult for us to understand. So in that sense I think the meals were or are important for us in understanding that sense of community. Now what we do with that information…(and just as a side note, Passover would be celebrated in the home which adds all kinds of fun to the conversation for another day)

    Alan – I’ve been a lurker around your site for a while and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your work. I will try to add some positive thinking in the future. I am a bit of an amateur when it comes to 2nd Temple Judaism, but I have found my study there to be most helpful. I will have to pick up Catto’s book. I do have one question for you – What is the difference between the synagogue practices adding background information to or informing our Christian practices?

    All – About once a quarter we have a meal as our worship. The tables are already set-up in place of the chairs as people arrive. We sing, pray, teach, share communion, eat and just spend time together. It is a wonderful worship experience. Visitors are usually a little apprehensive when they first arrive, but are always “sold” on the idea when they leave.

  14. 8-29-2008

    Keith, nice to make your acquaintance. Thanks for your comments as well.

    To my knowledge you description of Synagogue life is correct as far as it goes.

    The reason I asked my question about what applies was twofold.

    First, I wanted to hear more of the thinking behind some people’s answers so I could learn from them.

    Second, I wanted to expose any flawed reasoning and highlight good reasoning. I think it is flawed reasoning to say, “this is the way the Jews did it and so this is how the church should do it.” or “this is how the early church did it, so we should do it the exact same way.”

    I am pleased in that I don’t think anyone here used that kind of flawed reasoning in saying the meal was important and I think the answers given demonstrated a much more mature thinking process that I personally connect with and find persuasive.

  15. 8-29-2008

    oops, hit enter too quickly.

    Just wanted to say, I hope that helps explain a little bit my questions and again thanks for your thoughts as well Keith.

  16. 8-29-2008

    Gary,

    I will seriously consider. Thank you for the suggestion.

    Keith,

    Thank you for joining the conversation. You’re certainly not too late.

    You asked: “What is the difference between the synagogue practices adding background information to or informing our Christian practices?” I believe the synagogue practices help us understand what the early Jewish Christians considered to be “worship”. In this sense, he help form the background for early Christiantiy. However, it is the actual practice and teaching of the early Christians that should inform our own practice and our understanding of the church. For example, the early believers did not transfer everything from their synagogue experiences, such as the “archisynagogue”.

    Joe (JR),

    I like questions. Sometimes questions are more important than answers. :)

    -Alan

  17. 8-29-2008

    You are welcome brother.

    FYI, I will highlight one of those differences in my next post on Elders. I think people will find it fairly interesting how the Synagogue leadership is a lot more like our modern church when it should look more like the NT church.

  18. 8-30-2008

    Alan – Thanks for answering my question and I agree with your assessment. I would add though, that most Christians do not understand the synagogue/Jewish background and how it adds to the discussion and understanding.

    JR – I agree with you. Often we confuse biblical “description” with “prescription.” As far as flawed reasoning…wait a bit I’m sure I will supply you with some ;)

  19. 9-25-2008

    Alan
    Can I get in on a little of that flawed reasoning too?
    Blessings
    Don

  20. 5-26-2010

    What hours were ordinarily associated with Sabbath services? Was the sabbath synagogue meal the first meal of the day? And if not, how does the sabbath meal discussed here fit in with the se’udah shelishit, per Shab. 117b the third prescribed meal on the Sabbath according to the Encyclopedia Judaica? It was to have taken place in the afternoon but not before the minhah prayer which commenced at the earliest six and one-half ‘hours’ into the day. Regular days ordinarily had only two meals, one in the morning and one in the evening.

  21. 10-27-2010

    In current Reform Judaism’s oneg, the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine are followed by dessert outside the worship center on Shabbat. I don’t recall seeing water added to the wine. The connection of the slightly diluted wine and the breaking of bread to Roman Catholic Eucharist is obvious. But in what I read in your article and the following comments I find little mention of the significance of bread; and it is in ‘the breaking of bread’ that Jesus is later recognized. Is bread–and the breaking of bread–insignificant?

  22. 10-27-2010

    Lobo,

    Thanks for comment. I had to read back over this post. The only mention of “water added to the wine” in the post or comments was in this quote: “Such features as reclining, three courses, washing the hands, mixing wine with water, and saying a blessing over the wine are some of the more obvious elements.” That quote specifically referred to “Greco-Roman practices” which were present in the Jewish meetings. I do not know about present day Reformed Judaism.

    In the post, I also say, “Thus, the concept ‘breaking bread’ together would not be a foreign concept to the new church.” Note that the purpose of this post is to examine 1st century synagogue practices and compare these to 1st century church practices as seen in the NT. When the Jews met together (as the synagogue) they often “broke bread”(i.e., ate a meal together). Similarly, when the early Christians met together as the church, they also “broke bread” (i.e., ate a meal together). As you point out, the significance of the meal changed, but the practice was similar.

    I hope this makes more sense.

    -Alan

  23. 11-8-2012

    I really appreciate your blog, Alan. I wonder how much this is relevant to the wild observances of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. If the “meal” is a common practice in the Jewish synagogues, it is possible that some early Christians did not see as clearly the differences between the Jewish communal meal and the Lord’s Supper. And because it’s a real meal, getting drunk or going to the church gatherings hungry would make much more sense. Although the Corinthian church is presumably mainly Gentile.

  24. 11-8-2012

    Ed,

    Thanks for reading and commenting! What do you think the main differences between the Jewish communal meal and the Lord’s Supper were? I think it’s interesting when we look at the Corinthian examples and determine why the meal was not “the Lord’s Supper” according to Paul. The primary problem, it seems, is how they were treating one another during the meal. (That seems to be a common problem at Corinth.) This practice of eating the Lord’s Supper as a meal together is also recorded through many of the early Christian writings after the New Testament.

    -Alan

  25. 12-27-2012

    Thanks for posts.
    I’ve been pondering questions like this for a long time.

    It seems the OT gives regulations for sacrifices etc that are associated with the Tabernacle / temple and Festivals.
    Yet, there are also household requirements – aspects of the Passover, family life.
    The Synagogue seems to provide a good bridge between Temple and home, particularly in places far from the Temple.
    Meals may not on the one hand be that mysterious since if people are going to meet together for more than a couple of hours, and especially if travel or children are involved, you’ve just got to do meals as a physical necessity…
    Yet, on the other hand meals are invested in the ancient world with all sorts of religious symbolism.
    Almost every temple has sacrifices – and included in this is the worshiper eating at least part of the offering – this is the aspect of worship they get to participate in.
    This includes the OT sacrifices including Passover – the worshippers get to eat the sacrifice.
    The physicality of eating and drinking lends itself to symbolic and religious interpretation – akin to the way sexuality does.
    It seems also that wherever we have humans, we have worship. And usually that includes some Cultic regulations re: food and sex.

    Skip forward to nt house churches…
    A meal – this is my body and blood – of their leader / saviour / god.
    The telling of stories about that leader / reading of scripture / exposition and exhortation.
    Concern over appropriate family issues (sexuality – children)
    Instruction in ethics for living – household codes etc.

    That the NT churches express similar practices to synagogues – and other religious groups – should not surprise us.
    But, what distinctives do these have that perhaps shed light on the core ethos of this movement that distinguish it from others.

    A stab at a couple
    Table fellowship for all – a breaking down in this meeting the usual societal distinctions such as rich poor slave free etc (though not always embodied well eg. Corinth).
    Withdrawal from Cultic life (at least eventually) signifying the Cultic requirements have been satisfied elsewhere

  26. 9-25-2013

    The New Testament consists entirely of the memorial sacrifice of the bread becoming His body and being took and the wine becoming His blood, the life bood of the NT. According to Hebrews, this is the only acceptable sacrifice. So you see, almost every mention of the early Christian worship refers to this breaking of the bread, wherein those present discerned Christ. The Jews offered sacrifice of animals in the Temple but probably not the synagogue. A rabbi might provide a kosher inspection for animal slaughter though. And every ancient religion knew that a sacrifice was required to properly worship a god, even the Jews, which is why they went to Jerusalem on Passover. Perhaps what you need to realize just as the Jews did was that synagogues really aren’t a substitute for the Temple if you can’t offer an acceptable sacrifice there. In other words if you can’t confect this thanksgiving sacrifice you aren’t really worshipping. Put simply, Protestants don’t worship God! Really, think about it!

  27. 9-25-2013

    James,

    “Breaking of bread” was a common metaphor for sharing a meal. You can see this in the NT in Acts 27 where Paul “breaks bread” with unbelieving soldiers and sailors.

    I don’t make judgment calls on who worships God and who does not. I’m assuming you are including me in “Protestants.” For now, I’ll trust God. Thank you, though.

    -Alan

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