The first-century church gathering and the first-century synagogue gathering had much in common. In fact, since all of the first Christians were Jews, their synagogue gatherings greatly influenced how they gathered as the church. (Of course, there were big differences also. And, by the way, it seems that later the medieval church repaid the favor and greatly influenced the medieval synagogue.)
But, where did the synagogue come from? There are many different theories, but it’s really a mystery. Some suggest that the Jews began gathering (i.e., synagogue) when they were dispersed after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. But, there’s another theory that I find quite interesting.
Levine (The Ancient Synagogue, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) suggested that the synagogue does not find its beginning in the temple, but in something quite different:
On the assumption, then, that the first-century synagogue served as a center for a variety of communal as well as religious functions and activities, we now are in a position to look for the framework which served the same (or similar) purposes in earlier centuries. When seen in this light, it becomes clear that the setting for most, if not all, of these activities in previous eras was the city-gate, the main communal setting in cities and towns in the First Temple period. (page 27)
So, according to Levine, the synagogue originated from the community based activities associated with the “city gates” (as found often in the Old Testament). Why and when did the gatherings move away from the city gates? He has a theory for that as well. He concludes that as Hellenistic (Greek) influence rose, and as the Jewish people took on more of the culture and society of Greece, and as Jewish cities became influenced by the Greek city, the locale of community activities moved away from the city gate and toward the city center.
Why is this important? Well, if Levine is correct, then the synagogue was not primarily based on Jewish worship (i.e., temple) but in Jewish community identity and activities. Obviously, since the Jews found their identity in the Hebrew Scriptures, these writings found a prominent place in their community activities. But, this was not the only activity associated with the synagogue.
Scant evidence exists concerning the synagogue before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. (at which point the focus of the synagogue definitely changed). So, if Levine is correct and if the synagogue finds its start in the social activities related to the “city gates,” then we can understand more about those activities by studying what happened at the city gates.
Many of these same activities were transferred to the new gatherings of the Christian community after Pentecost. So, studying the “city gate” activities in the Old Testament can help us understand more about the early church as well.
What kind of activities am I talking about? Well, I’ll look at some of those activities in my posts this week as I look at several Old Testament passages concerning the “city gates.”
What do you think? Do you think Levine may be correct that the early synagogue finds is origin in the social and community activities related to the city gates instead of the worship activities related to the temple?