The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 1)


Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at

Chapter One


The purpose of this study is to compare the practical functioning of the ancient Jewish synagogue and the New Testament church,1 to determine if and to what degree the structure and workings of the church are patterned after the synagogue. While the origin and historical development of the synagogue in the period before the coming of Christ is a subject of considerable interest, as is its development in the post-New Testament era, these are outside the parameters of this present study.

The chief source of information for both synagogue and church practices will be the New Testament Scriptures, supplemented by post-New Testament literature. For the synagogue, this will be primarily the Mishnah (ca. AD 200) and the Babylonian Talmud (completed ca. AD 500), while for the church, the writings of the early church fathers will be the most accessible and valuable source.

The necessity of comparing the synagogue as presented in the NT with the church as presented in the NT is immediately apparent. The destruction of Jerusalem and the desolation of the Temple there in AD 70 necessitated radical changes in Jewish religious practices. Among other things, it led to the standardization of the consonantal Biblical text, and the systematization and codification of traditional Jewish religious practices in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and other rabbinic literature of the second and later centuries AD.2

These post-NT sources have certain inherent limitations. While the Mishnah and Talmud both contain material as old or even older than the writings of the NT, most of what they say regarding the synagogue is from a period well after the establishment of NT churches in the mid-first century, and it would take a seer to be able to distinguish precisely what is typical of first century practices and what are later modifications and additions. There is, besides, a considerable degree of doubt as to whether what the Mishnah (and Talmud) prescribes as proper synagogue practices are a description of actual practices or an idealization of what the sages wished would be practiced in the synagogues.

The limitations of rabbinic literature are paralleled by similar limitations in post-NT Christian literature. The practices of the churches in the NT were supplemented, modified, and ultimately radically transformed in succeeding centuries by those who professed Christianity. All patristic literature which is descriptive of practices in the churches is naturally reflective of the situation as it existed in the writers’ day. The more distant in time such patristic writing is from the NT era, the more likely it is to present practices which do not correspond to the NT pattern. Other first century Jewish writings, e.g., Josephus and Philo, will prove to be rather meager sources of information on the synagogue.

In summary, the primary literature which can with confidence be relied on to present the synagogue of the first century AD and the church of the first century AD as they really were is the writings contained in the NT. Other writings will to a lesser or greater degree present a picture that has been modified and altered.


1 “Church” as used in this study will always be with reference to the so-called “local church.” The question of the nature of or even the existence of a “universal church” will not be addressed.

2 F. J. Foakes Jackson wrote: “It is unquestionable that we have no written evidence for the Temple and Synagogue worship in the time of Josephus comparable to that of the New Testament.” (Josephus and the Jews, pp. 55-6)

(A full bibliography will follow the final installment in this study.)



The Anchor Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by David Noel Freedman


A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, transl. by William F. Arnt and F. Wilbur Gingrich


Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, ed. by John M’Clintock and James Strong


Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein


New Testament


Old Testament

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio

Doug Kutilek is the editor of, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.


It seems as a “method” synagogue meetings where reading of scripture, exposition, and encouragement were sanctioned by both Jesus and Paul. The main difference when the Jews and Christians were differentiated was the “content” of the message.

Though the Temple required attendance 3 times a year a sabbath observance at the synagogue provided instruction and encouragement from the scriptures. In the NT both the individual Christian and the assembly of Christians are both called “temples”. So the temple has been replaced since the “types” (sacrifices) were fulfilled by the Antitype. However, the NT church “memorializes” the sacrifice of Christ and so looks back at the once for all Priestly Sacrifice of Christ much the same way that the Temple sacrifices looked forward to it. The blood of bulls and goats did not really take away sin as they were types, it was Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly temple that accomplished atonement. The New Covenant provides the Priesthood of the Believer where Christ is now our High Priest holding religious authority as “ruler” as the OT High Priesthood both functioned and typified. Zechariah’s prophecies told of the Messiah uniting the civil and priestly offices into one (He shall be a Priest on His throne).

Anyway, I look forward to subsequent chapters of your study as I have only begun to examine these original assembly practices. It seems clear to me however that musical performances and concerts were not features of these early assemblies. Christian concerts have their place but maybe not so much as a regular substitute for scriptural instruction as occurred in the pattern of the early church.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord. B.B. Warfield