August 20, 2009

The Nazareth Synagogue - 4

In the opening preview of his masterful work, The Ancient Synagogue, Lee Levine provides this beautiful summary of the function(s) of the first century Synagogue:
the primary importance of the synagogue, as a whole, throughout antiquity lay in its role as a community center. ... Within the confines of the synagogue, the Jewish community not only worshipped, but also studied, held court, administered punishment, organized sacred meals, collected charitable donations, housed the communal archives and library, and assembled for political and social purposes. (p.3)
The key point from the ellipses is that the Synagogue buildings of Jesus' time were never primarily or exclusively reserved for Sabbath worship, study and prayer, although that became more the trend in the centuries after Jerusalem's destruction. According to Levine (and the majority of recent scholarship, as I gather from him), the meeting place was in every way the central hub for the entire Jewish community in that town.

Now, I said all of that in order to say this: Many people conclude merely on the basis of Luke 4:16 that Jesus attended Sabbath meetings throughout "the silent years" in Nazareth. I actually think he did but I don't agree that one phrase is enough here, because "as was his custom" could conceivably refer, merely, to all of the Saturdays in his recent teaching circuit, in 29 AD. But the clincher to me is the powerful blanket statement of Luke 2:52.

It would be difficult to see how Jesus could "grow in favor" with the community of Nazareth if he had conspicuously avoided the central location for community gathering, function and expression. And if he had attended everything but the Sabbath meetings, it would have been even more profoundly offensive.

Therefore, even though it is evident that Jesus never taught or spoke on the scriptures at any length or in any remarkable way, he was nevertheless most often there, in attendance. To have earned the gracious approval of any Jewish community, he simply must have been a regular fixture at most if not all of their normal gatherings and functions.

(Granted, there does come a day later on when Jesus publicly declares himself "Lord of the Sabbath", but if he ever felt that way about himself in Nazareth, we would only need to understand that the Lord of the Sabbath had at least equal prerogative for attending as for avoiding Sabbath meetings.)

Overall, then, in order to read Luke's testimony as being both consistent and historical, we should conclude the statement "as was his habit" refers to the Sabbaths of his entire three decades of life spent in Nazareth. In other words, it seems Jesus was definitely a part of the Synagogue, according to Luke.

To what degree, then, did he participate?

To be continued...

Series Update: The Nazareth Synagogue
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

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