March 30, 2010

Early Churches, Early Synagogues

For too many, still, "church" and "synagogue" are merely code words for a weekly ritual in a specialized building. Thus, the argument is sometimes put forth that (A) the earliest christians kept most or all of their Jewish customs, (B) that included synagogue gatherings, and (C) therefore, the early church was every bit as "structured", "ritualized" and "formal" as the Institutional Church's typical Sunday gatherings.

Ta-da. Present system justified! There's just one little problem. Early synagogues may not have been quite like what these IC defenders were assuming they were.

Did early churches look anything like early synagogues? Well, in some respects, to some degree or another, yes. Of course. But what are we asking about - communities or programmed assembly meetings? And in either case, which aspects were similar? How so? And how much diversity was there?

Most importantly, whether we're researching the lives of communities or the liturgies of their holy gatherings, we can't really compare ancient churches to synagogues without backing up all the research and asking the foremost necessary question: What were early synagogues actually like?

That's somewhat of an open question at the moment, but for an excellent primer, you can start with two of Alan Knox's recent blogposts:
Role of the synagogue in the first century C.E.

Why should we study the first century synagogue?
My two cents also appears below Alan's earlier post about synagogue leadership. That topic needs much more discussion, but not at this very moment. Anyway, all of Alan's posts are well researched, challenging and informative, so head on over!

Update (4/5/10) - Alan's at it again: Points of comparison between the early synagogue and early church.


Anonymous said...

Good post, and good links!
I've thought about all of this some...
Makes me wonder, also, how much of the synagogue influence Paul infused into the Gentile Church gatherings...or if he let them operate more from their own cultures version of "town (or village) meeting".

Bill Heroman said...

Right, Johnny. The biggest question marks to me are in places like Antioch Pisidia, where lots of Jews believed, but also many Gentiles. How did those cultural dynamics blend? (I mean before the Judaizers showed up?)

Anonymous said...

I would be interested to find out what the various religious and/or "political" gatherings of 1st century Gentiles were like.
I'm aware of the Areopagus, but that's really about it.

Any suggested sites?

Bill Heroman said...

IDK on sites, but a great book to start with is AHM Jones' The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces. It should be just about out of copyright, but it's so good, they keep re-publishing the thing. You should be able to get a copy on inter-library loan easily.

Alan Knox said...

One of the most interesting facets of synagogue life was the inclusion of Gentiles. While they were kept out of the Temple, they were welcomed to join the Jews in their synagogues. I think that in Antioch (and other places) the Jews and Gentiles were already accustomed to blending cultures.


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