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?