Dave Black recently told me about a book called Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism by Heather A. McKay (Leiden: Brill, 1994). He knows that I’m interested in the connection between synagogue practices and church practices, and this book is full of useful information.
However, perhaps more interesting than the connection between the synagogue and the church is the connection that McKay makes between synagogue and worship. This is her conclusion:
If collective sabbath worship, or even daily worship offered also on the seventh day, took place in those Jewish communities [described in Jewish documents up to 200 CE] few descriptions of it have survived, and those relate to the priests of the Jerusalem Temple and to members of particularly religious groups of Jews. Communal sabbath religious rituals and practices for non-priestly Jews are not described in any of the surviving texts.
For non-priestly Jews what the Hebrew Bible prescribes is rest on the sabbath. They have no religious duties peculiar to the sabbath. Some texts indicate that special sabbath activities were required from the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. The priests had to work on the sabbath, as on other days, and in some texts (Num. 28-29; Ezek. 45-46) they are instructed to offer extra sacrifices on each sabbath day. (pg 247)
The lack of convincing evidence – whether archaeological, epigraphic or literary – of the existence of ‘synagogue’ buildings during the first century makes the belief in sabbath worship ‘services’ at that time difficult to sustain. It is only in the last few years of the century that Josephus writes of synagogue buildings in dora, Antioch and Caesarea. And while Philo and the Graeco-Roman authors are familiar with Jewish prayer-houses they do not depict them as places where sabbath worship took place. To be sure, Philo – and Josephus too – speaks of reading and study of Torah, but both these Jews depict the activity as being essentially philosophical and educational, rather than part of a ceremony of worship. Luke’s depictions of the synagogue activities are closely similar to theirs – only the reading and discussing of texts are described.
Evidence that the sabbath was celebrated in a domestic setting, with lamps being lit and a meal of fish and wine, is found in the writings of Persius and Seneca and in the Mishnah. But there is no unequivocal evidence that the sabbath was a dayÂ of worship for non-priestly Jews certainly as far as the end of the second century of the Common Era. Public, collective worship was an annual, or daily, but not a weekly, activity. (pg 250-251)
McKay preceded her conclusion with several quotations from both Jewish and non-Jewish writers who describe sabbath activities and synagogue activities. Interestingly, even in those homes known to be houses of prayer for Jews (synagogues), the writers describe daily activities, not necessarily sabbath activities.
Similarly, McKay finds that these daily synagogue activities include reading and discussing Torah (the Jewish Scriptures) as well as sharing a common meal. Again, these activities are described by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors. Interestingly, when observing the Jewish sabbath activities, some non-Jewish authors describe the Jews as being inactive or “idle” because they do not take part in ritual or worship type activities.
Since the early Christians were also Jews, we can assume that they were familiar with synagogue activities. In some ways, the NT authors changed synagogue practices (i.e. in the area of leadership). However, in other ways, it seems that the NT authors continued synagogue practices (i.e. reading and discussing Scripture). I’ve also found that, just as Jews did not associate their synagogue meetings with “worship,” early Christians (i.e. NT authors) did not associate their church meetings with “worship.” What I mean is that the NT authors did not describe the assembled church as “worshiping” other than the fact that everything the early Christians did was considered “worship.”
How do you think McKay’s observations and conclusions help us understand early church meetings? How can her conclusions help us form our own church meetings?