The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 3)

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

Chapter Three

Organizational Requirements

The Synagogue

For the organization and operation of a synagogue, it was anciently specified that there be in a given locality at least ten adult Jewish men of leisure who could devote themselves to the study of the Torah. In the Mishnah, Aboth 3:6 records: “Rabbi Nehunya ben Ha-Kanah said: If ten men sit together and occupy themselves in the Law, the Divine Presence rests among them.”1 Sanhedrin 1:6 in the Mishnah states, “And whence do we learn that a congregation is made up of ten? It is written, ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation?’ but Joshua and Caleb were not included.”2 The proof-text is Numbers 14:27, which is understood to be a reference to the spies who had returned from scouting out the land of Canaan rather than the whole congregation of Israel. Of course only ten of the spies were evil—those who discouraged the people with their pessimistic report—and therefore, Joshua and Caleb are excluded from their number, which leaves ten, and ten are here called “a congregation.” This, in rabbinic thinking, is sufficient proof that a congregation (synagogue) must consist of ten men. Other OT proof-texts are also employed to support this notion.3

The Church

We find no precise parallel in the NT to the “ten men” requirement for the establishment of a church. The statement of Jesus in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,” is in a judicial context (involving church discipline) and may in some way be related to the Jewish Bet-Din [lit. “house of judgment”], which Epstein describes as “a gathering of three or more learned men acting as a Jewish court of law,” rather than a synagogue.4 However, something which at least fits the bare requirements for a congregation as presented in rabbinic literature may be found in the Gospels, particularly in the case of Jesus and the Twelve.

At a minimum, some of the future Apostles had met Jesus as early as the first week of His public ministry (this number would certainly include Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and probably also John and perhaps James his brother [John 1:35-51]), though their summons to leave their vocations and follow Him full-time came many months later.5 The particular appointment of the Twelve from among the larger group of disciples, later still, is noteworthy, inasmuch as Jesus “ascended a hill and summoned those whom He wanted” and when they came to Him, “he appointed twelve so that they might be with Him and that He might send them to preach and to have power to exorcise the demons,” (Mark 3:13-15; emphasis added). The stated purpose of this special appointment, viz., “that they might be with Him,” suggests that before this time, the various disciples came and went in Jesus’ entourage, but now the Twelve at least would be full-time associates in His work, or, in other words, they would be men no longer distracted by the ordinary vocational cares of life, and would de facto fit the Mishnah’s requirement of at least ten men who could devote themselves to religious studies. Jesus and the Twelve were, in essence, a traveling synagogue.

If the local church of the NT be defined as “a body of believers in Jesus Christ who have been immersed in water and who have joined together for the propagation of the Gospel and the practicing of the NT ordinances,” (a definition of my own creation), then Jesus and the twelve Apostles could at the very least be described as a “church in embryo.” The Apostles were all professed believers, some of whom (and probably all of whom) had been baptized by John (cf. Acts 1:22). They did propagate the Gospel message (Mark 3:14) and practiced the ordinances of baptism (John 4:2) and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29 and parallels) many weeks before Pentecost (Acts 2), the commonly-claimed date given for the birthday of the church.

In none of the examples in the NT of the establishment of a new church, whether in Acts or in the evidence drawn from the NT letters is a minimum number of converts or “members” spoken of, though in many cases a number much in excess of ten are readily demonstrable.

(Next: “The Requirements for Membership in the Synagogue and Church”)


1 Danby, The Mishnah, p. 450. The passage goes on to show, with OT proof-texts, that the Divine Presence will also be found among five so occupied, or three, or two, or even one.

2 Danby, Mishnah, p. 383.

3 For example, the theoretical “ten righteous men” for whose sake Sodom would have been spared, Genesis 18:32.

4 I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed, vol. IV, p. 185.

5 The call of Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their fishing (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11), seems to have come at least a full year after the first meeting of Andrew and Peter with Jesus. The singling out of the Twelve to be Apostles was later still (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12716). Robertson’s A Harmony of the Gospels provides a convenient listing of the events in their relative order.

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.


The ten, known as a “minyan”, were required for the lawful conduct of any public Jewish service (including weddings). It could also be the key to the interpretation of the parable of the ten virgins just prior to the institution of the millenial kingdom.


I had never caught that the minyan had to be 10 men of LEISURE before. That is a great insight, thank you! Douglas, you can think and have shared some original thoughts — not just rehashing the same stuff and parroting it back. Love it.

I will have to mull over the correlation of the 12 Apostles to a minyan. The task of the 12 seems so different; they were “sent ones” and representatives of Jesus, not “maintainers” or “stabilizers” as the minyan would be. As a matter of fact, James (not one of the 12) was the lead elder at the church in Jerusalem for the Acts 15 conference.

IMO, the 12 Apostles are correlated with Moses and the 12 spies. Jesus, as the Great Teacher like Moses, came to offer the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. The 12 apostles correspond to the chiefs (rulers) of each of the 12 tribes. It is significant that there are 12, not 10, apostles. Matthew 19:28 seems to make this clear:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

If there were not enough men to maintain a synagogue, the Jews would gather for fellowship along the riverside. Since the very early church was not concerned about buildings or even a permanent presence, I am unsure that they would necessarily need a minyan. It is quite conceivable that a number of the early churches — at least initially — did not have 10 men (adult males) of leisure.

Do you find any correlation between the office of elder and being a man of leisure? I am assuming that being a man of leisure meant something like being retired in our day. Is that your perspective? Awaiting more!!!

"The Midrash Detective"

It seems a bit wooden to make it a “judgment context” even though Peter has an additional question on forgiveness later. Jesus seems to shift from “binding” to additional New Covenant privileges about answering prayer and communal indwelling in 19 and 20. This seems very clear.

Also, by example (silence) of Jesus and Paul, nowhere is it encouraged to consult the Mishnah. Constantly though, an appeal to previous scripture is expected to be understood.

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

[alex o.]

It seems a bit wooden to make it a “judgment context” even though Peter has an additional question on forgiveness later. Jesus seems to shift from “binding” to additional New Covenant privileges about answering prayer and communal indwelling in 19 and 20. This seems very clear.

Also, by example (silence) of Jesus and Paul, nowhere is it encouraged to consult the Mishnah. Constantly though, an appeal to previous scripture is expected to be understood.

Alex, we only have short summaries as to what Jesus said in Matthew 18 and elsewhere. For example, if Jesus spoke 4 hours (a fairly conservative estimate) during the Sermon on the Mount, we have only about 7% of what he said (11 minutes). There are more teachings and events not recorded than there are recorded (John 21:25). We must always keep this in mind when interpreting the Gospels. There are probably many instances in which 20 or more minutes of conversation occured between two verses. This does not prove a “judgment context,” but the idea is certainly viable because of this.

As far as the Mishnah goes, it was not written down until at least 200 years after Jesus’ time on earth. The memorized tractates were referred to as “the traditon of the elders” at that time. The memorized accounts in the Mishnah date back as far as 200 BC. It does give us the common thinking of many of the Pharisees during the time of Jesus, however. I think you will agree with me that good interpretation seeks the answers to two questions: What was in the mind of the original author/speaker? and How would the original audience have understood the teaching? In the Gospels, we need to add a third, “How would the original audience — fluent in the Old Testament and the Jewish traditions — have understood the teaching?

"The Midrash Detective"