For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying the development of the synagogue through the first century. This study will be included in my dissertation. Why? If my dissertation is about the church, why study the synagogue?
In the books that I’ve read, several authors have mentioned the importance of the synagogue in understanding the early church. In fact, one author stated that the synagogue was the most important aspect of Judaism that affected the early church. While I think that “most important” may be overstating it a bit, I do think it is important for us to understand the synagogue in order to understand the church as described in the New Testament.
First, remember that the first Christians were Jews. They were familiar with the synagogues around Jerusalem, in the Galilee, in other areas of Palestine, and in the Diaspora (Jews scattered around the Roman empire).Â In the Gospels, we even learn that it was Jesus’ habit to attend synagogue meetings.
Second, remember that the early disciples were often found in the synagogues. We see this especially in Acts when Paul begins by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogues. When these disciples were forced to leave the synagogue in order to meet together, we see similarities (and differences) in their meetings.
So, how did the synagogue begin, and why is this important for our study of the early church?
There is no direct evidence that tells us where, when, or how the synagogues first began. We have evidence from inscriptions in Egypt that synagogues met there in the third century B.C. We also have some archaeological evidence from about 100 years later. However, none of this evidence tells us exactly why Jews began meeting together in synagogues.
Despite the lack of evidence, scholars have suggested two possible hypotheses for the beginning of the synagogue. The first hypothesis posits that the synagogues began while many Jews were taken away from Israel into exile in Babylon. In this case, the synagogues replaced the temple. Since the Temple had been destroyed, and since the Jews were so far from Jerusalem, they needed another location for their worship.
Another hypothesis suggests that the synagogue developed from the O.T. practice of meeting together at the city gates. In many passages in the Old Testament, people met together at the city gates for political, social, and even religious reasons. However, as the culture shifted toward Hellenism, the Greco-Roman practice of meeting in the city center – or forum – replaced the city gates. In Greek or Roman cities, these Jewish meetings came to be known as synagogues.
So, which hypothesis, if either, is correct? Well, it’s impossible to know with certainty. But, we should remember that after the rebuilding of the temple (the Second Temple), synagogues continued to exist, even in Jerusalem. Thus, it does not appear that the purpose of the synagogue was the same as the purpose of the temple. Instead, it seems the two played complementary roles.
Also, archaeological evidence shows that the synagogues of the first century (and earlier) did not contain the same worship and liturgical symbolism found in synagogues after the destruction of the Second Temple. So, the synagogue did eventually take on some of the roles of the temple, but that did not occur until after 70 A.D.
Instead, archaeological and textual evidence shows that the synagogue play a more social (less religious) role. Now, it’s impossible to completely separate the social and religious roles (from anything) in the first century. But, the early synagogues were used for such things as political meetings, community gatherings, legal activities, trade, and meals, as well as for gatherings to discuss Scripture.
Thus, it seems that the first century synagogue were more like the gatherings at the city gates of the OT than the temple, having more of a social purpose than a religious or worship purpose.
What does this mean for the early church? If Jews were accustomed to gathering together for social purposes, then there is no reason to think that this changed. When they gathered together with brothers and sisters in Christ, they continued to gather for social purposes. Yes, as with their synagogues meetings, they would discuss Scripture, but there were other reasons for gathering together as well. And, these reasons for gathering together were just asÂ important (and just as necessary) as gathering to discuss or teach Scripture.
As we gather together with other believers today, maybe we should also consider how our assemblies can demonstrate a broader purpose, perhaps recognizing the important social role that has been lost to alot of churches.