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Jesus and Early Synagogues







When we situate Jesus’ ministry within what we know of early synagogues and their functions, we can infer that Jesus’ teaching and proclamation would have been open to discussion and debate for the assembly to decide whether to accept or reject it, just like any other proposition put forward in a public synagogue. We must remember that public synagogues represented the town, and that the decisions made in local synagogue assemblies were thus made for the town as a whole. If Jesus could persuade the local assemblies to accept his teaching and proclamation of the outbreak of the Kingdom of God, and to repent in light of it (Mark 1:14-15), it would have been tantamount to the corporate acceptance of the proclamation by that town.



See Also: The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus (Fortress Press, 2017).



By Jordan J. Ryan
Assistant Professor of New Testament
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary
April 2018


Synagogues play an important role in the evangelists’ accounts of the ministry of Jesus. Some of the most memorable scenes from the Gospels take place in synagogues, such as the exorcism of the demoniac in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37), the incident at Nazareth (Mark 6:2-26; Matt 13:54-58; Luke 4:16-30), and the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:25-71). Moreover, all four of the canonical Gospels identify the synagogue as the primary locus of Jesus’ teaching and proclamation activities:

“And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39, NRSV).

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

“Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:14-15).

“Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20).

The above passages from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are all summary statements, descriptions presented by the narrator that are intended to summarize the basic character of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. John 18:20 comes from the lips of the Johannine Jesus himself, who in his own words locates the synagogue, along with the temple, as the primary venue for his public teaching.

Whether or not this statement, presented on the lips of the Johannine Jesus, was actually uttered by the historical Jesus is beside the point. It is more important to note that all of these “summary statements” reflect a common memory of Jesus’ teaching being located in synagogues.

Mark 1:39 specifically mentions that Jesus was “proclaiming the message” in synagogues. What was this message? Presumably, it is the proclamation that Mark summarizes in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” Luke directly identifies the “good news of the kingdom of God” as the message proclaimed by Jesus in synagogues (Luke 4:43), and Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 specifically state that Jesus was “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” in relation to his synagogue activity.

The fact that Jesus’ program was so strongly connected with synagogues by all four canonical evangelists is surely significant. In my book, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus, I argue that the evangelists’ summary statements indicates that the synagogue was intrinsic rather than incidental to Jesus’ program, and thereby to his aims. Our historical understanding of Jesus and the aims of his ministry should thus be properly contextualized and informed by current research on ancient synagogues.

Early synagogues were Jewish assemblies and assembly places.[1] For our period, the term “synagogue” refers to Jewish gatherings, both to the gathering of people itself and to the buildings in which they met. These Jewish institutions are mentioned in ancient literary sources of the Hellenistic and Roman periods and are named by a variety of terms, although the two most common Greek terms are synagōgē, which is the term used in the Gospels, and proseuchē.[2]

Current scholarship on ancient synagogues has shown that there were two types of institutions that were designated by synagogue terms. Some synagogue were association synagogues, which were similar to clubs. Association synagogues, much like Greco-Roman collegia, belonged to particular groups within a given city or town, and as such were semi-public. For example, Acts 6:9 mentions the “synagogue of the freedmen,” which was probably an association synagogue in Jerusalem belonging to a group of former slaves.

Other synagogues were public. Unlike association synagogues, public synagogues belonged to the city or town as a whole rather to a particular subgroup. The synagogues depicted in the Gospels are almost certainly public synagogues, as they appear to represent the town as a whole rather than a particular subgroup of the population.[3] Moreover, Jesus’ statement in John 18:20 mentioned above, presumes that synagogue is a public place, “where all the Jews come together.” If a public institution is not in mind, then Jesus’ claim to have “spoken openly to the world” and to “have said nothing in secret” would be unintelligible.

Public synagogues are perhaps best described as “town halls with Torah.”[4] This captures their jointly religious and political nature. They were political institutions, the premiere local official public assemblies and public assembly places for the town as a whole. They functioned as courts of law, community centres, and political institutions. As the local official gathering, the public synagogue represented the town, and thus, the decisions made by public synagogue assemblies were made for the town as a whole. For example, in Life 277-282 Josephus describes gatherings that took place at the synagogue (proseuchē) of Tiberias, in which city leaders and the public assembled to discuss aspects of the city’s involvement in the First Jewish Revolt. Likewise, Judith depicts several gatherings of the assembly (ekklēsia) of the citizens of Bethulia (6:16-21, 7:23-32, 13:12-14:10). Although Judith’s narrative is most likely intended to be fictional, the depiction of the gathering is probably a realistic reflection of public synagogue gatherings during the Second Temple period. In these gatherings, the people of Bethulia, male and female, young and old, come together with their local leadership to discuss their plan of action in response to the crisis of the invasion of Holofernes’ army.

The presence of the public, the townspeople, was a given at synagogue gatherings, and it was they who made up the bulk of the assembly. Strikingly, the opinion of the public appears to have been instrumental in decision making in synagogue gatherings. For example, in the aforementioned synagogue gatherings at Tiberias described by Josephus (Life 277-303), the influential leaders of the town all make attempts to persuade the townspeople to adopt their particular recommended courses of action concerning the war. However, the magistrate and his allies fail to secure the support of the townspeople, who turn against them (Life 298-300), and support Josephus instead. This incident vividly illustrates the power held by the members of the public in synagogue settings, even over and against leading members of their city. Likewise, in the Septuagint, Susanna’s trial is explicitly set in a synagogue (LXX Sus 28), and is apparently settled by the court of public opinion. The public is at first convinced by the elders who accused Susanna (v. 41), but after being directly addressed by Daniel (vv. 52-59), the people are convinced by his words and end up carrying out justice against the elders for bearing false witness (vv. 60-62). No magistrate or judge makes the decision here. Instead, the trial is a trial of public opinion, in which the collective decision of the assembly holds sway.

The signature and most important function of public synagogues was the public reading and interpretation of Jewish scripture, especially the Torah.[5] The Torah was considered sacred scripture, but it influenced and governed more than just the Temple cult and “religious” life. It governed aspects everyday life. As early as the Hellenistic period, the Torah was being applied to situations that cannot be categorized as strictly religious.[6] Indeed, one wonders whether “religion” can really be extricated from daily life in early Judaism at all. The Torah was applied to aspects of life as diverse as marriage contracts (Tob 1:8; 7:12-13), battle plans (1 Macc 3:48), observance of the Sabbath (1 Macc 2:34-41), and criminal justice (Sus 62). In the Roman period, some sources discuss consequences as great as corporal and even capital punishment for transgressions of the Jewish Law.[7] Thus, there were distinct judicial and political element to interpreting the Law in public synagogue settings, as interpretations of the Law would naturally impact those spheres of life.

Herodium synagogueThe synagogue at Herodium.

Open discussion and debate was a typical dimension of synagogue gatherings. One could not simply expect to teach in a synagogue setting and have the public passively accept whatever was taught. As Carl Mosser writes, “anyone could offer insights or dispute the interpretive claims of others.”[8] Given the Torah’s importance for daily Jewish life and religious practice, the synagogue’s joint religio-political role in Jewish society, and the power of public opinion in synagogue settings, much was at stake in the teaching, scripture interpretation, discussion, and debate that went on in synagogue gatherings.

Gamla synagogueThe Gamla synagogue.

The architecture of synagogue buildings reflects their communal functions.[9] The most common features of early synagogues were benches, usually stepped, located along three or four of the walls in a rectangular arrangement, and columns. These buildings were designed to accommodate larger public gatherings in a way that domestic structures were not. The particular quadrilateral arrangement of benches places the focus in the centre of the room, which made it easier to engage in discussion with people seated along the other walls, especially those across the way. Good modern parallels that might be familiar to some readers can be found in the design of the British and Canadian Houses of Commons. Synagogue buildings were similarly designed with communal discussion in mind.

At this point in time, at least eight buildings in the Land of Israel dating to the early Roman period have been identified as synagogues, at Capernaum, Gamla, Herodium, Jericho,[10] Magdala, Masada, Modi’in (Umm el-Umdan), and Qiryat Sefer. Another synagogue building dated by the excavators to the late first or early second century C.E. has also been found at Khirbet Qana. Two other buildings that have been identified as synagogues have recently been found at Tel Rechesh and Khirbet Majdouliyya, although formal publications pertaining to these discoveries are still forthcoming.

Magdala synagogueThe Magdala synagogue in 2017.

Some scholars, especially in the 1990s, argued that synagogue buildings did not exist during the Second Temple period,[11] with some also claiming that what the New Testament calls “synagogues” were nothing more than informal gatherings that met outdoors or in houses.[12] These ideas have been rejected in mainstream scholarship on synagogues, and should now be regarded as untenable in light of the current archaeological, inscriptional, and literary evidence.[13] The buildings that archaeologists have identified as synagogues in Israel-Palestine that I have mentioned above are generally Jewish public buildings designed for communal gathering, and their features cannot be reasonably interpreted as houses or other domestic structures. Moreover, an inscription dated to before 70 C.E. and discovered in Jerusalem by Raymond Weill in 1913, popularly called the “Theodotos Inscription,” clearly speaks of a “synagogue” in terms of a building.[14] Even the more modest claim that no synagogue buildings dated to the time of the Second Temple have been found in Galilee,[15] where the Gospels describe Jesus as most active in synagogues, cannot be sustained in light of the discovery in 2009 of the early Roman period synagogue building at Magdala in Galilee.[16]

When we situate Jesus’ ministry within what we know of early synagogues and their functions, we can infer that Jesus’ teaching and proclamation would have been open to discussion and debate for the assembly to decide whether to accept or reject it, just like any other proposition put forward in a public synagogue. We must remember that public synagogues represented the town, and that the decisions made in local synagogue assemblies were thus made for the town as a whole. If Jesus could persuade the local assemblies to accept his teaching and proclamation of the outbreak of the Kingdom of God, and to repent in light of it (Mark 1:14-15), it would have been tantamount to the corporate acceptance of the proclamation by that town.

For Jesus, the end goal would be the eschatological liberation, redemption, reversal of social order, and restoration of the people of God through the outbreak of the Kingdom. As Ben F. Meyer showed in his influential work, The Aims of Jesus, the Scriptures and literature of early Judaism had a more corporate, or “ecclesial” conception of salvation, described in terms of “‘all Israel’ (kol-yiśrā’ēl) or ‘the people of Israel’ (ʻam yiśrā’ēl), the assembly (qāhāl), the congregation (ʻēdâ), and the like.”[17] Likewise, Jesus aimed to realize the Kingdom of God as he envisioned it, one town at a time, by persuading the local assemblies to recognize its impending outbreak and to participate in it through “a willed act of repentance.”[18]

This sort of public deliberation resulting in affirmation or rejection is exactly what we see in most of the Gospel stories that depict Jesus in synagogues. Jesus’ message seems to have been met with a mixed reception. The synagogue of Capernaum affirms the authority of Jesus’ “new” teaching (Mark 1:21-28). In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus is teaching in an unnamed synagogue, and heals a woman who was unable to stand up straight on the Sabbath. This sparks a controversy, but Jesus defends the legality of healing on the Sabbath (v. 15), and indicates that the Sabbath is a fitting day for a daughter of Abraham to be set free from bondage (v. 16). This puts Jesus’ opponents to shame, while the whole crowd rejoices indicating an affirmative reaction to Jesus’ action and teaching.

In other narratives, Jesus is not able to persuade the assembly. The synagogue at Nazareth, his hometown, rejects him (Mark 6:1-6; Matt 13:54-58). In Luke’s much-expanded version of this story (Luke 4:16-30), the crowd reacts with outrage to Jesus’ provocative teaching concerning the biblical stories of Elijah being sent to the Sidonian widow of Zaraphath and the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian, which outrages them. In the Gospel of John, Jesus delivers the well-known “Bread of Life” discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum (6:25-71). However, the reaction to this teaching is negative (vv. 41-42, 52), and some of Jesus’ followers complain about it, considering it too difficult to accept (vv. 60-61), leading many of them to abandon his movement (v. 66). Regardless of what we may think of the literal “authenticity” of this event, this story preserves a memory of a rejection by the synagogue assembly of Capernaum. This is a surprising development given that, as I mentioned above, the Capernaum synagogue initially reacted positively to Jesus’ teaching according to Mark 1:21-28. However, both Matthew and Luke record woes pronounced by Jesus upon the Galilean towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because of their refusal to repent (Matt 10:20-24; Luke 10:13-16). It is striking that, in these accounts, Jesus speaks of the repentance and judgment of municipalities in corporate terms. It is plausible that this tradition reflects a failure to persuade the synagogue assemblies of these Galilean towns to accept his proclamation and to repent in light of it.

Surprisingly little of the actual content of Jesus’ teaching in synagogues is preserved by the evangelists, who prefer to simply say that Jesus was teaching without relating what he taught. However, in the handful of sayings that are associated with Jesus’ synagogue program we see language of the Kingdom (Luke 4:43-44, cf. Mark 1:14-15, 38), liberation (Luke 4:18; 13:16), repentance (Matt 10:20-21; Luke 10:13), and a gathering of followers to Jesus in preparation for an eschatological event (John 6:35-40, 44-45).

As we have seen, understanding early synagogues can shed light on the aims of the historical Jesus. Moreover, incorporating our current knowledge of ancient synagogues into the study of the historical Jesus helps to further contextualize Jesus within early Palestinian Judaism. The synagogue has long been a missing element in historical Jesus studies, and by situating Jesus and his ministry in light of what we know about ancient synagogues, we are able to recover yet another piece of Jesus’ Jewish identity and context.



Notes

[1] Cf. Stephen K. Catto, Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue: A Critical Analysis of Current Research, LNTS 363 (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2007)199-201; Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2nd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 172. Cf. Anders Runesson, The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study, CBNTS 37 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001), 29-37; Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder, and Birger Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue From Its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Source Book (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008), 7-9.

[2] For lists of terms used to refer to ancient synsagogues, see, e.g., Ralph J. Korner The Origin and Meaning of Ekklēsia in the Early Jesus Movement, AJEC 98 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017), 86-93; Runesson, Origins, 171-174; Anders Runesson, “Persian Imperial Politics and the Origins of the Synagogue,” in The Ancient Synagogue: From Its Origins Until 200 C.E., ed. Birger Olsson and Magnus Zetterholm, CBNTS 39 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2003), 63-89 (65-66); Runesson, Binder, and Olsson, ASSB, 10, 328; Donald D. Binder, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period, SBL Dissertation Series 169 (Atlanta: SBL, 1999), 91-151.

[3] Cf. Runesson, Origin, 355ff.; Graham H. Twelftree, “Jesus and the Synagogue,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter; 4 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 4:3105-3134 (3133).

[4] To borrow the phrase from Jonathan Bernier, Aposynagōgos and the Historical Jesus in John: Rethinking the Historicity of the Johannine Expulsion Passages, BIS 122 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), 59.

[5] Outside the Gospels, see Acts 15:21; Josephus (Ap. 2.175, Ant. 16.43, War 2.292); The Theodotos Inscription (CIJ 2.1404); and Philo (Prob. 80-83, Embassy 156).

[6] See, for example, Philip S. Alexander, “Jewish Law in the Time of Jesus: Towards a Clarification of the Problem,” in Law and Religion: Essays on the Place of the Law in Israel and Early Christianity, ed. Barnabas Lindars (Cambridge: J. Clarke, 1988), 44-58; James W. Watts, “The Political and Legal Uses of Scripture,” in From the Beginnings to 600, ed. James Carleton Paget and Joachim Schaper; vol. 1 of The New Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 345-364, esp. 356-358; Thomas Kazen, Scripture, Interpretation, or Authority?: Motives and Arguments in Jesus’ Halakic Conflicts, WUNT 320 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 296-298; Anders Runesson, “Entering a Synagogue With Paul: First-Century Torah Observance,” in Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity, ed. Susan J. Wendel and David M. Miller (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 11-26, esp. 15-20; Michael LeFebvre, Collections, Codes, and Torah: The Re-Characterization of Israel’s Written Law, OTS 451 (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006), passim, esp. 182, 239-240, 258-260.

[7] E.g, Josephus, (Ap. 2.215-219); m. Mak. 3:1-16; John 10:31-33 (cf. Lev 24:16).

[8] E.g., Philo, Hypoth. 7.13; Somn. 2.127; Neh 8:1-8; Luke 4:22-30; Mark 6:2. See Carl Mosser, “Torah Instruction, Discussion, and Prophecy in First-Century Synagogues,” in Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament, Texts and Editions for New Testament Study 10, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), 523-551 (550); cf. Binder, Into the Temple Courts, 403.

[9] Cf. Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues – Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), 151; Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of the Holy Land (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 291; Runesson, Origins, 366-367.

[10] A discussion surrounding the identification of this building as a synagogue emerged in articles on this very site. See Ehud Netzer, “A Synagogue from the Hasmonean Period Exposed at Jericho,” Bible and Interpretation, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Synagogue.shtml; David Stacey, “Was there a synagogue in Hasmonean Jericho?,” Bible and Interpretation, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Hasmonean_Jericho
.shtml. In my opinion, the concerns raised by Stacey and others concerning the identification of this building as a synagogue are effectively solved by considering it to be an association synagogue rather than a public synagogue, as convincingly argued by Anders Runesson, “The Nature and Origins of the 1st-Century Synagogue,” Bible and Interpretation, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2004/07/run288001.shtml.

[11] E.g., Richard A. Horsley, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1995), 222-237.

[12] Two of the most influential publications holding this minimalist position are Howard Clark Kee, “The Transformation of the Synagogue After 70 C.E.: Its Import for Early Christianity,” NTS 36 (1990): 1-24; and Heather A. McKay, Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism (Religions in the Greco Roman World 122; Leiden, New York, and Köln: Brill, 1994). For a good review and response to the minimalist position, see Stephen K. Catto, Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue: A Critical Analysis of Current Research (LNTS 363; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2007.

[13] An excellent summary evaluation of the evidence can be found in Stephen K. Catto’s article, “‘Synagogues’ in the New Testament,” on this same website: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/catto357906.shtml.

[14] John S. Kloppenborg Verbin, “Dating Theodotos (CIJ II 1404),” JJS 51, no. 2 (2000): 243-280.

[15] In The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus, I noted that Chris Keith had neglected to mention the Magdala synagogue when he stated that “archaeologists have not yet unearthed a first-century synagogues in Galilee,” in Jesus Against the Scribal Elite (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 33. However, Keith had retracted that statement in “‘The Scriptures are Divine Charms’: Evil, Books, and Textuality in Early Christianity,” in Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity ed. Chris Keith and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, WUNT 2.417 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 321–39. However, I overlooked this and neglected to mention Keith’s amendment in my book. Apologies to the affable Chris Keith for this oversight.

[16] The building was discovered in 2009. See Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar, “Migdal,” Hadashot Arkheologiyot 125 (2013): n.p., online: http://www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.aspx?id=2304.

[17] Meyer, Aims of Jesus, 134.

[18] To borrow the phrase from Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, PTMS 48 (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 137.





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