the weblog of Alan Knox

The Church, the Synagogue, and the City Gates

Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in gathering | 9 comments

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?


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

  1. 11-12-2012

    I think he’s certainly on to something. Ekklesia is community after all. And so much of the structure in the ekklesia (elders and such) originated from the city gates.

  2. 11-12-2012

    The city gate was once a place where the King would sit (2 Samuel 19:1-8) so that his people could see him and consult him. At Tel Dan in the north of present-day Israel, close to the Lebanese border, the old city is being excavated. I visited it in 2007.

    Right by one of the gates is the place where the king sat. The sockets for the posts that supported his canopy are still visible. Here are a couple of photos, the first one shows the base and the carved sockets, the second shows how it might have appeared in use.

    Our King is in the line of David and he sits amongst his people when they come to meet him ‘at the gate’. Very interesting!

    I’m looking forward to reading more, Alan.

  3. 11-12-2012

    I agree with Chuck. The early church seems to have had greater engagement of its culture that many churches today. I think one reason that the church lost contact is fear of the “unwashed”. Our legalism goes deeper that the early church and becomes more judgemental over time. Some churches are overcoming this and are impacting their communities while not compromising their testimony. It is a fine line and takes good leadership to accomplish.

  4. 11-12-2012

    I had not ever connected the synagogue with the “city gates” activities. There could certainly be something to this idea. If the synagogue did develop in the period of exile, then the activities normally conducted at the city gate would necessarily have to take place in a different venue.

    Now, if what I have read is correct, the origin of the word synagogue did not mean what the word came to mean. Originally, the word synagogue did not refer to the place of gathering but to the gathering itself. Much like ekklesia in its translation to the word church changed though time in meaning from an assembly to the place where the assembly gathered.

    Out of curiosity, does Levine comment on that?

  5. 11-12-2012

    I’m interested in seeing where you go with this. I have been doing research and working on a blog along the same lines, more from the standpoint of what “ekklesia” meant in the first century and the apparent context of the word in the two places its used in Matthew. I suspect your conclusions, from a slightly different angle, will help firm up my own research. In fact, I’m now going to hold off on finalizing my related blog until after your series.

  6. 11-12-2012

    Thanks everyone! Hopefully this will be an interesting series. I’m glad to see that there is already interest based on this introductory post.


  7. 11-12-2012


    Yes, most people who study the ancient synagogue recognize how the meaning of the term “synagogue” changed, originally referring to the people as they gathered and eventually referring to the place where they gathered.


  8. 11-12-2012

    Thanks for confirming that Alan. It has been a while since I read on that topic.

  9. 11-13-2012


    You’re welcome. 🙂