the weblog of Alan Knox

Sabbath and Synagogue and Church

Posted by on Sep 24, 2009 in books, gathering | 22 comments

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 day  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?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-24-2009

    McKay certainly sheds some light on the “missing order of service” in the NT. From her work, it appears they had no such thing.

    It makes me wonder if gatherings like discussion groups and bible studies might be closer to early church than the Sunday event. Coming from a traditional church setting, I cannot see Sunday worship changing too much at this point. On the other hand, I can see more emphasis on Sunday school, small groups, and impromptu gatherings. We are already doing this in the group I help lead. Most of us attend a Sunday worship service, but Bible study and Sunday brunch seem to be the main events.

  2. 9-24-2009

    The strongest evidence from the scriptures that I’ve seen used for strict liturgy are those that talk about orderly worship in the gathering of the saints. To me, it’s a straw man argument to fight for traditions and the constraints that accompany them. God certainly wants us to be orderly and not chaotic and silly, but I don’t see where He ever called for a strict liturgy.

  3. 9-24-2009


    If the Sunday church meeting doesn’t change, and if the church is meeting according to Scripture at other times, why would anyone continue meeting on Sunday?


    I’ve heard that argument as well. Of course, Paul encourages the church to “order” in the same section in which he tells two or three to speak in tongues and two or three to prophesy, not to mention the other items listed in 1 Cor 14:26. So, I agree that “orderly” can’t mean strictly liturgical.


  4. 9-25-2009


    For an established church, continuing the Sunday meeting would be a compromise for those who cannot seem to get there from here, so to speak. For a church plant, or an established church willing to take the plunge, the Sunday meeting would–and should–be nixed or not started.

    I’m thinking of my local church here and realizing how many would be torn apart. The damage to them is not worth it at this point.

    As for my continued participation in the Sunday meeting, some of it is my own inability to take the plunge, but some is also the call of God to serve in this place. The new thing started by our little band may one day birth into a separate thing, but for now we are here, hoping to stir up some cognitive dissonance. 🙂

  5. 9-25-2009


    I hope you don’t mind the “push”. I had to ask myself the same question a few years ago, and came to a similar conclusion as you. I wanted to serve the people, and that was where they were. Its amazing when the people start to change though…


  6. 9-25-2009


    I don’t mind the push. Most of me is willing to take the next step (whatever that is), but there is that bit. Honestly, I need some mental down time to ponder and pray for an extended period (something that is unlikely to occur until the term is over in late December). For now, I am listening and thinking as I can, and dreaming with the brunch-ers. I can say that I am more open to personal change and to instigating (is that too strong a term?) communal change than I have been to this point. Your pushes are helping me along.

  7. 10-3-2009

    Hi Alan,

    I regularly read your blog but this is the first time I have commented (I think?). I find many of your insights fascinating and a lot of what you say seems to feel so right. I got to your blog via Frank Viola’s blog (I have read most of his books). I am commenting on this particular post firstly to say thank you – I hear so many Christians I know (my best friends included) say that the purpose of meeting together is to worship God and have felt for a long time that they are missing the point – I note that in a more recent post you point to 1 Cor 14:1-26 for the purpose of meeting together. I was wondering if you have done or could do a more in depth post on the purpose of meeting together? Also, I love reading and have noted a few books that you have mentioned on here – could you list your top 5 or 10 books on church and say why?

    All the best,


    p.s. I live in Manchester, England 🙂

  8. 10-3-2009

    Man-U WooHoo!

    They did not play their best today, but they did pull it even at the end!

  9. 10-3-2009


    Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, I believe the purpose of the church meeting is mutual edification. I’ve written several blog posts about this topic. You may want to read through some of the posts under the categories “edification” and “gathering”.


    If you are going to type in tongues (fingers?) then you should ask someone to interpret for you first. 😉


  10. 5-24-2010

    Shaye J. D. Cohen of Brown University does not give the book a great review in 2000. Not having read McKay’s book (but very much interested in the subject matter), may I suggest that you read the review, which can be found at the Review of Biblical Literature website and perhaps some of the source material he cites, and then comment further on the subject. Curiously, he only mentions two “standard” sources, Hengel and Luderotz, which leads me to infer that not a great deal of research has been done on this subject. I’d like to know more!

  11. 5-24-2010

    I should clarify that I meant that, if McKay’s statement that there is a lack of “equivocal evidence” that the Sabbath was a day of worship (as we know it) is true, then arguments from silence cannot constitute evidence upon which to base scholarship. However, if Sabbath activities were described in some sort of totality and consistently lacked worship (again, as we know it), then we can infer her conclusion. Either way, evidence-based academically-accepted scholarship seems to be limited (per McKay)… arriving at rational conclusions may unfortunately be our stopping point.

  12. 5-24-2010


    Thanks for the comments. I have not read the review that you mentioned, but I have read others, including an essay length response to McKay.

    I’m not sure that McKay is arguing from silence. The authors that she quotes do use worship and liturgical language for other places and times and activities. But, they do not use worship or liturgical language in connection to the synagogues or the activities that takes place during a synagogue meeting.

    I’m also not certain that we should be the ones to define worship. We should try instead to define worship based on the use by the original authors. We can disagree with their usage, but we should attempt to redefine the way they’re using terms.


  13. 5-25-2010

    It has been said within Judaism that “study is the highest form of worship.” I like that. I certainly feel as if I’ve worshiped after coming out of one of my Disciple Bible Study sessions.

    Good blog.

  14. 5-25-2010


    I’d love to know the source of “study is the highest form of worship.” Judaism (and especially the synagogue) changed drastically after the destruction of the temple. After 70 AD, worship terminology was used in conjunction with the synagogue, but there is no extant evidence of worship terminology used in conjunction with the synagogue before the destruction of the temple.


  15. 5-25-2010


    The quote “study is the highest form of worship” is widespread, yet perhaps only anecdotal in reliability. A quick websearch shows that and the West Suburban Temple Har Zion webpage both state that “study is the highest form of worship.” Back to ancient times though. I believe Josephus and Philo neither state that what we know as ‘worship’ took place in their descriptions of pre-Fall synagogue services. I’d like to know about post-Fall ‘worship’ though!

    Sometimes, a practice not mentioned is only considered so commonplace that it is a given and needs no mention. I’m working on a project illustrating the historicity of Luke, which in my case necessitates positive attribution of practices.


  16. 4-20-2011

    Thanks for this posting. Helped to crystallise many of my thoughts. Some questions to throw back at you…

    What is the significance on the sabbath? Do you feel it was a day to explore the scriptures, a day to be with family?

    In many ways the Jewish life revolves around events which in the main are an act of remembrance … of relationships, biblical events, the nature of G!d and the expectation of the Messiah (Jesus encouraged us to use the Passover / Seder as a way to remember Him whenever we meet together. Do you feel our lives should reflect these kind of practices?

    I agree with you that the term ‘worship’ is a misnomer and is more meant to be a way to describe our lifestyle rather than a single event or weekly practice. Although there seems to be encouragement to meet regularly and when meeting for fellowship to bring something to share with each other. How do you feel these meetings should be structured or organised?

  17. 4-20-2011


    Many aspects of life changed for the early believers of Jesus when they were indwelled by the Holy Spirit. I believe that one of those changes was the focus on the Sabbath. Obviously, many Jewish followers of Jesus continued to “keep the Sabbath”, but this was not a necessity handed down to other believers.

    Similarly, when it came to meeting together, there were continuities and discontinuities between the Jewish communities (synagogue) and Christian communities (ekklesia). For my part, I was interested in studying 1st century synagogues in order to determine what those early Christians (coming from Jewish contexts) understood about teaching/discussing Scriptures, community meals, etc. Many of these of these aspects of their lives together continued, while others (such as leadership, focus of worship, etc.) changed.


  18. 6-12-2011

    shalom Alan

    Want to share a tid bit about one reason as to why Jewish followers of the Messiah got together after the Shabbat (sabbath). As mentoned many followers continued observing the shabbat but meeting the first day of the week. For observant Jewish people then and even now the custom of Havdalla is practiced. This is a ancient custom in which no one really knows for certain the orgins of its beginning. However, it is to this custom which was familiar to the Jewish apostles or writters of that day who got together regularly during this time to fellowship,break bread, share scripture,teaching and perhaps sang tehillim (psalms)and encouraged one another. This was NOT some new thing for them as some may have thought but the custom was present then to them and even before their time. From the Jewish culture or context here they merly used this time (Havdalla) to go on strengthten one another in the Messianic faith.It was also much later that a sunday worship was Emphasized upon the gentile followers or gentile churches. This was not insitituded by any of the Jewish apostles but was made later by church fathers.

    Hope this help some.Visit us some time@

  19. 6-13-2011

    Rabbi Daveed,

    I’ve found the same descriptions in my studies of the first century synagogue.


  20. 6-13-2011


    Glad to hear the information was already noted. If you ever need a hand on any other subject email me. Also I did manage to so what find that the source or origin of the Havdalla some believe happened around the 4th or 5th centry B.C.E, heres the quote:

    History – The origin of the Havdalah ceremony has been attributed to the men of the Great Assembly in the fourth or fifth century B.C.E.

    Its been a part of the sabbath custom since that time period. Perhaps you may have already got this info also but guess its good to have on hand.

  21. 10-15-2012

    “Study as Worship” is a central theme in Judaism. Even today, sometimes if you walk down a busy Jerusalem street, you will see a man reading quietly out loud and dovening.

    I have heard that one of the best articles on the subject is found in Volume 26 of Studies in Judaism of Late Antiquity, Jacob Nuesner ed. The particular section of interest is written by Benedict Thomas Viviano. Here is a link from google books

  22. 10-15-2012


    Thanks for the feedback. I’m not familiar with that book. Do you know if he looks at the “worship” terminology associated with studying the Torah before the destruction of the temple? From what I’ve read, Jewish writers tended to relegate “worship” terminology with the temple before it was destroyed, and only after its destruction did worship terminology start being used for the synagogue and other activities.



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