the weblog of Alan Knox

Points of comparison between the early synagogue and early church

Posted by on Apr 5, 2010 in church history, community, edification, gathering, worship | 2 comments

In his book From Synagogue to Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), James Tunstead Burtchaell compares and contrasts the early synagogue (before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.) to the early church. His points of comparison help us to understand what the early Christians (who were also Jews) brought with them from their synagogue experiences:

As regards the program and undertakings of the two social units, there are multiple similarities. The synagogue and the ekklesia both typically met in plenary sessions for prayer, to read and expound and discuss the scriptures, to share in ritual meals, to deliberate community policy, to enforce discipline, to choose and inaugurate officers. Both maintained a welfare fund to support widows and orphans and other indigents among their memberships. Both accepted the obligation to provide shelter and hospitality to members of sister communities on their journeys. Both arranged for burial of their dead, and maintained cemeteries. (pg. 339)

The Jews gathered together in order to maintain their identity as God’s chosen people. While this would certainly include times of reading, teaching, and discussing Scripture, these activities alone do not account for the existence of the synagogue. The synagogue existed because the Jewish community existed and to maintain that community’s identity, existence, and propagation.

Thus, the primary activities that took place when the synagogue convened were community-building activities. For example, Josephus gives an account of a political discussion that begins on one Sabbath, and continues for two or more days as the community continued to come together in order to make some important decisions. (Josephus Life 279ff)

As Burtchaell points out (in the quote above), the early Christians gathered together for similar reasons. Their desire was to maintain their identity as God’s people – that is, those who had been set apart (made holy, called saints) by God. Obviously, this would include the reading, teaching, and discussion of Scripture, but it would include much more as well.

Thus, we see the early church eating together, taking collections for those in need, offering hospitality to those traveling through their region, making community decisions, etc. It would be a mistake to separate these activities from the community’s understanding of “worship,” but it would also be a mistake to only consider the scriptural focus as “worship.”

Instead, the church (as with the synagogue earlier) did not separate their lives into worship activities and other activities. Each activity and each part of life was to be lived as worship to God, whether reading or discussing Scripture, eating together, taking up a collection, or making a decision.

Their “worship” when they gathered together as the church consisted of any activity that would help maintain and build the community of God’s people.


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

  1. 6-20-2010

    A very interesting series of articles, and this one brings up a question of exactly who belonged or attended the synagogue. Did all/nearly all/nominally all/(etc) Jews belong to or attend a synagogue? A second question is of how were travelers accommodated? Jesus is not recorded as partaking of such hospitality, but given the nearly “common” description here of what the synagogue was and its activities, He certainly could have as a matter of common occurrence with no need of mention.

  2. 6-6-2012

    A great post indeed.