The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 2)

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at Read the series so far.

Chapter Two

The Prima Facie Case

Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), an expert in rabbinic and other early Jewish literature, asserted that, “The outward form of the Church was in great measure derived from the synagogue.”1 Nineteenth century Baptist historian David Benedict similarly affirmed, after studying the matter in detail, “I have settled down in the belief, that the ecclesiastical polity of the Jewish synagogues was very closely copied by the apostles and primitive Christians, in the organization of their assemblies.”2 Additional authors could be quoted in support of this thesis.3 The question that must be asked is, is this conclusion a valid one? Is it in truth supported by the facts of the case?

Early Christian familiarity with synagogue practices

Jesus and His Brothers

Jesus was frequently, even regularly, to be found in the synagogues during His public ministry in Galilee. Luke 4:16 declares that, “He entered, as was His custom, on the Sabbath day into the synagogue.”4 It may be supposed with complete reasonableness that this practice was a continuation of the custom of His youth in Nazareth. After all, Mary and Joseph are everywhere characterized in the NT as devout Jews, whether offering the proper sacrifice after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:22-24) or fulfilling their lawful obligation to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2:41). Such devotion would naturally express itself in regular synagogue attendance.

The Gospels, especially the Synoptics, are replete with numerous references to Jesus’ presence in the synagogues of Galilee on the Sabbath, either as a teacher, or as a healer of the sick (Mark 1:21 = Luke 4:31; Mark 1:39 = Mathew 4:33 = Luke 4:44; etc.). Interestingly enough, there are no references in the Gospels to Jesus teaching in the synagogues of Judea in general or in Jerusalem in particular (where the synagogues reportedly numbered in the hundreds). Whenever He was in Jerusalem, He seems to have taught in the Temple (see John 7:14, 28; 8:20; etc.) or in the nearby Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3 = Mark 13:3). Before the high priest, Jesus defended Himself against the charge of secret teachings by saying, “I have boldly spoken to the world. I always taught in the synagogue and in the temple, where all the Jews meet together, and I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20). In Galilee, then, the synagogue was commonly Jesus’ place of public instruction, while in Judea the Temple was His chief “school.”

Growing up with the same familial influences as Jesus, it is no surprise that the brothers of Jesus, yet in unbelief, are described as fulfilling their obligation as observant Jews by going up to Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles (John 7:2-10). It can be safely posited that they, like Jesus, were accustomed to being in the synagogue on a regular basis on the Sabbath. This has implications for the shape and practice of the NT church.

The prominence of James in the leadership of church in Jerusalem is evident in the fact that he, not Peter or John or anyone else, is the final speaker who publicly summarizes the considered judgment of the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21; see also Acts 21:18). Paul adds his testimony about the pre-eminence of James by acknowledging that James was a pillar in the church in Jerusalem, mentioning him by name before either Cephas or John (Galatians 2:9). James’ apparent lifelong familiarity with the synagogue and its practices might well be expected to lead to those practices being merely adopted and adapted for the church in Jerusalem. Indeed, in writing to Jewish believers, James speaks indifferently of their religious congregations as sunagoge (James 2:2) and ekklesia (James 5:14).

The Twelve Apostles

It is to be expected that the Apostles, certainly after their special appointment by Jesus and no doubt even before, regularly accompanied Jesus to the synagogue on the Sabbath and there heard His teaching and witnessed His miracles. Inasmuch as all the Twelve were Jews, it may be safely deduced that, like Jesus, certainly some, probably many, and possibly all of them had lifelong exposure to the synagogue and its practices. At the very least, after following Jesus closely for many months, the practices of the synagogue would have become quite familiar, and a certain “comfortableness” with the routine there would have been acquired. This being the case, it may be expected that the practices of the synagogue so familiar to the Twelve would be generally followed in first the church in Jerusalem and later in the churches of Judea and beyond in those in which the Apostles had a direct hand either in founding or in guiding.


Paul in his pre-conversion days was a most devote Jew. He is first introduced in Acts in connection with the persecution and murder of Stephen. Those who first confronted Stephen are identified as a mixed group of “those from the synagogue of the so-called Libertines, Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and [from the synagogue] of those from Cilicia and Asia.”5 Of course, Cilicia was the native province of “Saul of Tarsus” (Acts 21:39; 22:3; 23:34), and it is natural enough to assume that Saul, in Jerusalem for theological studies (Acts 22:3), would associate himself with a synagogue containing fellow-Cilicians. At any rate, he was present at the stoning of Stephen, approved of this action (Acts 22:20) and is closely identified with Stephen’s accusers (the “witnesses” who laid their garments at Saul’s feet were those who testified—falsely—against Stephen, who would be obligated to “cast the first stones” in his execution [Acts 7:58; Deuteronomy 17:7]).6

Saul gained notoriety by persecuting believers in Jesus in various synagogues, first in Jerusalem, and then as far afield (or at least he had such intent) as Damascus in Syria (Acts 22:19; 26:11; 9:2). After he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul began to proclaim the message of the cross in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:20).7 There was no incongruity about this practice or any evident uncomfortableness with the synagogue practices on Saul’s part, only a change of message, or rather an expansion of the message, namely that what God had promised to the fathers had been fulfilled in the Messiah, Jesus.

In his later work of carrying the Gospel message to the Jews of the Diaspora and to the Gentiles, Saul/Paul continued this practice of preaching Christ first in the synagogue in whatever city he visited. In his first missionary journey, in Salamis on Cyprus, “they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews” (Acts 13:5). Later, at Pisidian Antioch, on the Sabbath day, Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue, and after the customary reading from the Law and the Prophets, they were invited by the rulers of the synagogue to address the assembled people (Acts 13:14, 15). This Paul did at some length (his only synagogue sermon recorded in detail in Acts, Acts 13:16-41). He spoke again the following week in the same synagogue to an overflow crowd (Acts 13:44). At Iconium, again, “after the same manner” (as in Antioch),8 Paul entered the synagogue and spoke, with positive results (Acts 14:1).9

On the second missionary journey, we find Paul in Philippi. On the Sabbath, he goes outside the city, to a “place of prayer” (proseuche) where he sits down, and speaks with the women who are there (Acts 16:13; see also v. 16). While the term used by Luke (proseuche) may mean “synagogue” and is a synonym for it,10 here it is evidently not so used, since only women are mentioned as present there (failing to meet the rabbinic requirement for establishing a synagogue of ten men of leisure who could devote themselves to the study of the Law; see below).

At Thessalonica, Paul entered the Jews’ synagogue, “according to [his] custom,”11 and taught them for three consecutive Sabbaths (Acts 17:2). Later, after being escorted out of Thessalonica under cover of darkness for their own personal safety, Paul and Silas came to Berea, and Paul went to the synagogue, where he received a much more favorable hearing than usual (Acts 17:10, 11). Next, we find Paul in Athens, and even there he reasoned with the Jews and the religious Gentiles in the synagogue (though Luke tells us that he was also in the agora and at the Areopagus presenting the Gospel there to the Gentiles [Acts 17:17, 19]; the notice of such activity is unique in Acts). Later Paul goes to Corinth and—no surprise—goes to the synagogue, where he reasons with the Jews and Greeks there each Sabbath. When troubles were incited by hostile Jews, the synagogue divided, with Paul and his followers taking up quarters next door to the synagogue in the house of a Gentile convert, Titius Justus (Acts 18:4-7). Finally, on his next to last journey to Jerusalem, Paul stops briefly in Asia (where the Holy Spirit had earlier forbidden his entrance), and speaks in the synagogue in Ephesus, where the Jews urge him to stay. He promises to return if God permits (Acts 18:19-21). He did return, and spent three months teaching in the synagogue in Ephesus, with the ultimate result that Paul was compelled by opposition to leave the synagogue. He immediately began daily instruction in the school of Tyrannus. This is the final direct declaration of Paul’s frequenting a synagogue in Acts.12

Paul was—both as a devoted Jew and later as an Apostle of Jesus Christ—a regular attender and speaker in the synagogues in whatever part of the world he visited. While he differed with many of the Jews on theological matters (particularly the identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah), yet we never find him in anyway denouncing or condemning the practices of the synagogues. His dispute was not over forms and synagogal practices, but over doctrine. When he began to organize churches in the various cities where he went, he chiefly used people drawn from the synagogues. It should be no surprise then if we find that in general characteristics, and even in many particulars, the churches begun by Paul bear many similarities to the synagogues in which they had their roots.13


The fact that the founders, molders, and shapers of the earliest Christian churches—whether Christ, His brothers, the twelve Apostles, or the Apostle Paul—were all without exception thoroughly familiar with, and completely at home in, the Jewish synagogue would strongly favor on its face the notion that the churches were patterned in large measure after the synagogues. This impression is further strengthened when it is recognized that in most cases, the people who made up the constituent membership of the first century churches were in very large measure people who had come from a synagogue background, and had been exposed to the regular Sabbath practices of the Jews. In the absence of any strong Apostolic warning to abandon those practices wholesale, it can only be expected that the churches would be viewed as simply a new kind of synagogue—with a somewhat different doctrine, and a more open attitude toward the acceptance of Gentiles (and women). From this general impression, we shall proceed to examine the “nuts and bolts” of the organization and ordinary practices of the first century Jewish synagogue, and compare them with the NT churches.


1 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. II, pp. 554-555.

2 David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, p. 337.

3 John Lightfoot (1602-1675), perhaps the first Protestant scholar to extensively “mine” rabbinic literature for light on the interpretation of the NT, stated, “[T]he apostolic churches imitated the laudable customs of the synagogues in all things, almost,…” (A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, p. 243). Church historian Philip Schaff asserted, “Christian worship and congregational organization rest on that of the synagogue, and cannot be well understood without it” (A History of the Christian Church, vol. I, p. 456.

4 Emphasis added. All translations of Scripture passages into English in this study are the author’s, and are based on Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, et al., Novum Testament Graece, 27th edition.

5 Acts 6:9. The Greek of the passage is ambiguous, allowing for as many as five different synagogues, or as few as one, and any number in between. See F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 156. Bruce is inclined to understand it of one, as is Longenecker, EBC, vol. 9, p. 335. Alford, The Greek New Testament, vol. II, p. 65, understands it of three. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, pp. 67, 68, understands it of five separate synagogues and notes a rabbinic reference to a synagogue in Jerusalem of the Alexandrians. Meyer also sees five separate synagogues in the passage (Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 127-129).

6 See Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 179, 180.

7 Which informs us that there were in Damascus, as in Jerusalem, multiple synagogues. See also Acts 9:2.

8 Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 277

9 The lack of mention of preaching in the synagogues in Lystra and Derbe, Acts 14:8ff, does not necessarily indicate a change in practice by Paul. Perhaps there were no synagogues there. At best, it is an argumentum e silentio.

10 Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, p. 155.; Alford, The Greek Testament, vol. II, p. 179. Josephus uses the word of a large edifice in Tiberias where the Jews assembled on the Sabbath-day (The Works of Flavius Josephus, vol. II, p. 40 [“Life of Josephus,” paragraph 54).

11 Greek: kata de to eiothos. Luke here uses phraseology virtually identical to that which he used in describing Jesus’ regular attendance in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Luke 4:16.

12 In his defense before Felix, Paul said in part, “And they found me neither in the temple arguing with anyone or gathering a crowd, nor in the synagogues, nor anywhere else in the city.” (Acts 24:12; emphasis added) which seems to imply that during his final visit to Jerusalem, Paul did visit some of the synagogues, much as he had been in the temple.

13 Apollos might also be mentioned as one who was raised in Judaism, and the synagogue, where he spoke fervently for Christ after his conversion, and who later served effectively in the churches (Acts 18:24-19:1).

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.


F.F. Bruce, in NEW TESTAMENT HISTORY (p144-145) states, “the general sequence of the synagogue service had an importance beyond the confines of Jewish history; it influenced to some extent the order of early Christian worship. Invocation, prayer,thanksgiving, scripture reading, exhortation, blessing have from the beginning been integral to the Christian liturgy, although the central place is given to the distinctively Christian ordinance of the Eucharist.”


Looking forward to the next installment—it strikes me as I read through the epistles and Gospels that the word “law” may sometimes refer to the written Torah or the books of Moses, but at other times seems to refer to the “Oral Torah” or teachings of the Pharisees that later became the Talmuds. Or at least the New Testament makes a little more sense to me at the moment if that’s the case.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

I’m persuaded that “law” often refers even more broadly to “God’s standard of righteousness,” especially in Romans, for example. (It’s another topic, but after reading through these texts w/different definitions, none would work consistently. I came to the conclusion that P. mostly meant “law” in the abstract not “the law” in the sense of Mosaic covenant stipulations. English translations were frequently unhelpful with the question, inserting “the” where it doesn’t appear in the Greek, either explicitly or implicitly.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron, what do you mean by “meant ‘law’ in the abstract”?

Had a great conversation with my wife last night about a related topic of how there Biblical convictions, and there are cultural convictions (our “Oral Torah” as it were), and part of theological wisdom is to figure out the difference between the two.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

What I mean by “law in the abstract” is basically law as a category. It’s been a while since I studied this and I need to revisit my notes. But I recall seeing places where the text seemed to be making broad statements about how law in general works, not any law/set of laws in particular. Perhaps in Romans 2.

Meanwhile, in Romans 8:4, for example, you have “the law” (this time, the def. article is present in Gk), in reference to “God’s standard of righteousness,” and not the law of Moses in particular. (The reason I conclude that this cannot be referring to Moses is, among other evidence, 2 Cor. 3:7-10. The Mosaic expression of “law” has passed away as binding law, including the part engraved in stone: the 10 commandments. This is why I avoid speaking of the “moral law” as what endures vs. “ceremonial law” as what has been fulfilled. Paul apparently lumps it all together as one and classifies it as “what has passed away.”)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert, the word “Torah” really means instruction. It can be used for both the books of Moses and any teaching, exposition, or comments on those books (or Scripture in general). If modern Jews read the Talmud, for example, they will be said to be studying “Torah.” Thus the word Torah has both specific and broad implications, and the broad implications include the oral law.

Aaron’s comments about Paul’s use of the Greek word nomos reveals the complexity of Paul’s use of this term. Sometimes “law” means “principle.” The concept of the permanent nature of the Law and its relation to gentile believers, or dividing it into moral and ceremonial, is very complicated. I use the phrase “there is a sense” in which the Law has passed away, and a sense in which it endures forever (as does all of God’s Word). I have read much on this, and am still unclear. It does help, though, to keep in mind the purpose of the Law Paul has in mind (there are a number of purposes of the Law).

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed, thanks for the feedback—in your view, then, would there sometimes be ambiguity in the New Testament when the writers address the “law” or “nomos” if I’m looking things up right? That is, it could refer to the Pentateuch or the teachings that became the Talmuds/etc. depending on the context?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.


I am very much looking forward to future installments. This is a subject about which I have studied somewhat but not thoroughly, so I am eager to learn more. When it comes to “worship wars,” much of the confusion comes because of the assumption that a church service is to be modeled after the Temple service, not the synagogue. This has been a painful issue in my ministry, but, like you, I insist that the church service was (and, to some degree, still is) modeled after the synagogue.

So your series has a special place in my heart. God bless.

"The Midrash Detective"

Yes, Bert, nomos can refer to all the above and more. Most often, I believe it refers to the Pentateuch as a system of relating.

The main difference between the Old and New Covenant, IMO, is not so much the “rules,” but the method of relating. The Old was made with a nation consisting of both regenerate and (perhaps mostly) unregenerate Jews. The New is made only between individuals who are regenerate. Thus the Law contains many areas of governance for lost (as well as saved) people, much like our nation’s laws forbid murder, etc. This seems to be the emphasis of I Timothy 1:8-11 and Galatians 5:18.

The word “commandment” might be more specific to the Torah, however.

If we try to separate the moral law from the ceremonial law, however, we are often on subjective ground. Is forbidding a tattoo moral or ceremonial? Eating blood apparently is a moral issue (Acts 15:29). To simply claim this is moral and this ceremonial — or using this simple dividing system — is a simple answer to a complex issue. And, as in many cases, the simple answer — while appealing — is not the right answer.

"The Midrash Detective"