The Temple and Synagogue in the Early Church

synagogue in Nazareth

SUMMARY: This is an article about the role of the Temple and the synagogue in the life of Jesus and the early Jewish believers at the beginning of the Church as we know it.

Most people know that Jesus was Jewish and that the early believers (Nazarenes) were too yet overlook viewing at His life and the things He and the disciples taught within that context. So, in keeping with previous notes I have written, this one is about the role of Temple and the synagogue in the life of the early believers and the beginning of the church as we know it.

Jesus in the Temple

Jesus went to the Temple many times; as a young child, (Luke 2:41-49), for the pilgrim festival of Passover (John 2:13-22, John 5), for the pilgrim festival of Succoth / Feast of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7), for Chanukah / Feast of Dedication (John 10) and then with his disciples (Matt 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34).

Jesus in the Synagogue

Jesus spent much time in synagogue (Matt. 4:23); He taught in them (Matt. 13:54), healed in them (Luke 4:33-35; Mark 3:1-5) and debated the interpretation of Torah in them (John 6:28-59). In fact, Jesus was in synagogue on the Sabbath “as was His custom” (Luke 4:16). This is not inconsequential. Jesus attended synagogue regularly enough to be scheduled to read the Haphtarah portion (weekly reading from the Prophets) in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) where He was raised. To understand the significance of this, it’s important to understand what went on in the synagogue at this time.

Each Sabbath in every synagogue, the Torah scroll (containing the first five books of Moses i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) would be brought out and would be read in several portions, sometimes as many as seven. Different people were scheduled to read the Torah portion for that week. The readings were determined according to a set schedule, so the reader had no choice of the passage read.

Following the Torah portion, a scheduled section from the prophets called the Haphtarah would be read by the same or another reader. The haphtarah portion were read out of a special scroll containing that prophet; for example the Joshua scroll or the Isaiah scroll. The readings were set out in a schedule and assigned to a regular attender of that synagogue to read (which could be the same reader as the one who read the Torah portion, or a different reader.  In Luke 4:16-30, Jesus was reading the Haphtorah portion for that week in the synagogue in Nazareth.

Jesus went to Nazareth where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,   

because he has anointed me   

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners   

and recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free,   

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.

After all the Torah readings and Haphtarah reading a short sermon would be offered, often by the reader of the Torah or Haphtarah portion. Any adult member of the community was eligible to speak the sermon called the derashah. The sermon was frequently quite short.

It is evident that Jesus belonged to the community of the synagogue because when He visited Nazareth, He was scheduled to read the Haphtarah portion (Luke 4:16-30) and may have read the Torah portion as well as he concludes with a provocative derashah (or sermon).

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It was set out in advance that the passage He would read in the Haphtarah portion would be Isaiah 61:1-2. Jesus was scheduled as a reader because that was the synagogue in which He was raised and went to “as was His custom“.

So we know Jesus attended synagogue regularly but what about the Nazarenes, the early Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah?

Did the Disciples go to the Temple and to Synagogue?

The disciples (Nazarenes) continued to meet at the Temple where the regular Jewish worship rituals and animal sacrifices were going on. In Acts 2:46-47 it says;

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

In Acts 5:42 says;

Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

Paul also went to the Temple and participated in Jewish life there. He went to the Temple and according to Jewish custom, participated in the purification ceremony with the four Jewish men who had taken a vow;

“Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfillment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them” (Acts 21:26)

What role did the Synagogue play in the lives of the Early Church?

Paul and the Jewish disciples as Jews, were accustomed to going to the synagogue to hear the Torah (the Law, the first five books of Moses) and Haphtorah (the Prophets) read and continued to do so after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In Acts 13:15-41, and it says;

“After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”

Standing up, Paul spoke at length (13:15-41) and verse 42 says that they were asked to come back the next week

“to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath”. 

This was no isolated incident.

The Jewish believers went to synagogue (Acts 13:15, 42; 14:1, 17:1, 2; 17: 10, 17, 18:4, 7, 18:19, 26) and continued to go to hear the Torah and Haphtarah portion for the week and then met together on the first day of the week (believed to be Saturday evening) with the other believers. These meetings were held in homes and they also met daily in the Temple Courts as well. (Acts 2:46).

Paul, went to the synagogue as well (Acts 13:13-15) and not just on isolated occasions. Like Jesus, Paul went to the synagogue “as was his custom”. (Acts 17:2)

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”

He also went and taught in the synagogue every Sabbath for 3 months (Acts 19:8).

However, as Jesus prophesied (Matt 5:11-12, Matthew 10:16-22) persecution came. The Jews had issue with the teachings of the Nazarenes.  A year after the crucifixion, Stephen was stoned for what was viewed as his transgression of orthodoxy with Saul (who later became Paul) looking on. In 41 CE, Agrippa I had James martyred and Peter narrowly escaped.  After Agrippa’s death, the high priest Annas II took advantage of the power vacuum to attack the Jewish believers and executed James the Just, who was considered head of Jerusalem’s Nazarene community. Paul was imprisoned on several occasions by Roman authorities, stoned by Pharisees and left for dead and was eventually taken as a prisoner to Rome.  Peter was also imprisoned, beaten and harassed.

Meanwhile in the Jewish community as a whole protests about Roman taxation in 66 CE resulted in the Romans plundering the Temple and killing of 6,000 Jews.  This was the start of the Jewish-Roman war (66-73 CE). The Nazarenes (Jewish believers) were seen as a Jewish sect by the Romans and fared no better than non-believing Jews and as a result of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, fled Jerusalem.

With the Temple destroyed, the Jewish believers who were accustomed to attending synagogue to hear the Law and the Prophets read continued to do so until changes in the synagogue liturgy made by Gamaliel II (grandson of the Gamaliel referred to in Acts 5) in 72-73 CE made it impossible. These changes in liturgy were designed to expose what Gamaliel considered “minim” or heretics, including the Nazarenes (Jewish believers). By adding a prayer to the Amidah (the central prayer of the liturgy) cursing the “mimin”, the Nazarenes could neither say the prayer nor respond ‘amen’ to it. So forty years after Jesus’ death, the traditional synagogue was no longer open to Jewish believers.

“Blessing” of the Heretics

The Amidah (Hebrew: תפילת העמידה, Tefilat HaAmidah, or “The Standing Prayer”) originally consisted of eighteen benedictions (blessings) written during the Mishnaic period, i.e. before the destruction of the second Temple, but an additional one called the Birkat ha-Minim (Hebrew ברכת המינים literally “Blessing on the heretics”) was added under the direction of Gamaliel II in 72-73 CE.

Rather than a blessing, the Birkat ha-Minim is a curse specifically directed at the Nazarenes (Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah) and other Jewish sects deemed to be heretics, including the Essenes (the sect that hid the Dead Sea Scrolls) — calling for them to be destroyed and blotted out of the Book of Life.

This is the Birkat ha-Minim;

“For the heretics let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the Nazarenes [name for Jewish believers] and the minim [any of the other Jewish sects considered to be heretics] be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.” 

The Talmud states (B’rakhot 28b29a) that the original form of this “blessing” had the term laminim which served to separate out the Messianic Jews and other “minim”, and if the leader of a synagogue made a mistake in reading this particular blessing but none other, he was excommunicated.

The Talmud says:

“If the chazan [leader of the synagogue] makes a mistake in any other of the blessings they do not remove him, but if he makes a mistake when saying the Birkat HaMinim they remove him because he is suspected of being a min [heretic] himself” (B’rakhot 28b).

For the first 3 generations after the death of Jesus, the Jewish believers were still able to attend the traditional synagogue but in 72-73 CE (40 years after Jesus’ death), the addition of the Birkat ha-Minim forced the Jewish believers from the traditional synagogue.

Whether the Jewish believers formed their own synagogues at this time or stopped meeting on the Sabbath altogether is unknown although there may be archaeological evidence of a Messianic synagogue in Jerusalem from this time.  We do know from Scripture that the Jewish believers met together in homes (Acts 2:46) and it is thought that some began to meet on the first day of the week after Jesus’ resurrection.   While we often think of this as Sunday morning, in Jewish understanding the first day of the week begins Saturday after sunset.  It is thought that the early believers may have gathered at the end of the Sabbath, on Saturday night for fellowship and breaking of bread.

The Early House Churches

The early house churches met on the first day of the week and many would have had access to the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Tanakh (i.e. the Law, Prophets and Writings – what Christians call the Old Testament). This was the translation used throughout the Mediterranean at the time. Since ~300 of the 350 quotations in the New Testament are from the Septuagint, we know that Jesus and the Apostles were very familiar with it.

Some of the early churches may have also had access to some of the Targumim (singular: targum‎) which were paraphrases, explanations and expansions of the Jewish scriptures by rabbinic sages of the post-Temple era usually written in Aramaic.

Keep in mind, the spoken language of the Jewish believers outside of Jerusalem was Aramaic and some would have spoken Greek, as well.

Hebrew in the century before Jesus had declined as a spoken language and was predominantly used for study and worship.

United in language and belief, the Jewish believers and Gentile believers met together on the first day of the week and the church as we know it, was born

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