The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 5)

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

Chapter Five: The Public Service in the Synagogue and the Church

An interesting Greek inscription discovered in Jerusalem is reported by Meyers:

Theodotus, son of Vettenos, the priest and archisynagogos, son of a[n] archisynagogos and grandson of a[n] archisynagogos, who built the synagogue for purposes of reciting the Law and studying the commandments, and as a hotel with chambers and water installations to provide for the needs of itinerants from abroad, which his fathers, the leaders and Simonides founded.1

This inscription, besides mentioning three successive generations of “rulers of the synagogue” in one family (on which title, see below), it also addresses two of the three major purposes for the synagogue’s existence: reading the Law and studying the commandments. Only prayer of major synagogal public activities is not mentioned. Hospitality shown to travelers was considered worthy of note as well (following Abraham’s example in Genesis 18?).2

In the public services of the synagogue, the men occupied the main floor, whether in seats, or on the floor (the seating arrangements for women will be treated later). Both kinds of seating arrangements are noted in James 2:2-3, where it is a gold-ringed man (Greek aner) who is granted a seat in this Christian synagogue (the very word James uses in the original), while the poor man is directed to a spot on the floor. Jesus also spoke of the chief seats in the synagogue which were highly prized by the Pharisees (Matthew 23:6). When Paul and Barnabbas entered the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, they sat down, which may be assumed to be on chairs rather than on the floor, since they were treated as honored guests shortly thereafter and were invited to address the synagogue (Acts 13:14).


Prayer in the Synagogue

Inasmuch as one of the synonyms for sunagoge is prosuche (that is, “[place of] prayer”), it is no novel thing to expect prayer to be a significant activity in the synagogues. That prayer was practiced in the first century synagogues is expressly taught by Jesus when he says of “the hypocrites,” that “they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners” (Matthew 6:5; emphasis added). A detailed system of prayers and blessings was part of the prescribed synagogue service by the second century and no doubt this had its roots in earlier times, but it is notable that other than the one specific mention by Jesus of prayer in the synagogue, the Gospels, Acts, and NT Epistles are silent on the matter.

Rabbinic literature speaks of synagogal prayer repeatedly. The most famous of the ritual prayers is the Shemoneh Esreh, literally, “the eighteen,” meaning the eighteen benedictions. These benedictions in part pre-date Christian times, and in their full form (actually consisting of nineteen benedictions) date to sometime before A.D. 200 since they are mentioned in the Mishnah.3 The Rabban Gamaliel considered their daily recitation obligatory on every Jewish man; Rabbi Joshua allowed for the praying of their substance, as did Rabbi Akiba for those who had not memorized the words.4 The Mishnah treats of the order and place in the liturgy at which the benedictions were to be recited on the New Year.5

The customary Jewish practice was for the men to pray veiled, that is with a shawl on their heads, apparently as an emblem of humility and submission to God, while the women in the synagogue were customarily not veiled, though when in public such veiling was rigorously practiced.6 Women seem not to have prayed publicly in the synagogue.

Prayer in the Church

Prayer has a very prominent place in the life and teaching of Jesus, as well as in the lives of the Apostles. It is no surprise that there is repeated NT notice of prayer in the churches. The assembled 120 disciples were united in prayer in anticipation of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). The three thousand who were saved on Pentecost were soon joining in on these corporate prayers (Acts 2:42). After the release of Peter and John following their first arrest, the believers united together in a prayer of praise and supplication to God, with phenomenal results (Acts 4:24-30, 31). The church later prayed earnestly for imprisoned Peter, and was amazed at the answer of God (Acts 12:5, 12-16). The congregation in Antioch prayed before sending out Paul and Barnabbas as missionaries (Acts 13:3). Paul and Barnabbas fasted and prayed over the elders who would lead the newly-established churches in Turkey (Acts 14:23). After Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders, all knelt down and prayed together (Acts 20:36). There is nothing in these accounts to suggest that the prayers were anything other than extemporaneous, spontaneous prayers.

Prayer is a frequent subject in the NT letters, both by way of instruction and specific examples of prayer. Paul regularly asks the churches to pray for him (Romans 15:30, 31; 2 Corinthians 1:11; etc.). In his instructions to the congregation at Corinth, Paul addresses the subject of prayer repeatedly. First, he discusses the question of whether men and women should pray covered or uncovered in what is admitted on all sides to be a singularly obscure passage (I Corinthians 11:2-15). Next, he speaks to the matter of prayer in a foreign language as offered by some in the church meeting, which may involve converted Jews reciting traditional prayers in Hebrew:

So, the one who [is able] to speak in a [foreign] language [in prayer], let him pray in such a way that he [i.e., the listener] may interpret. For if I pray in a [foreign] language, my spirit prays, but my being understood is fruitless. What therefore is [the best practice]? I will pray in my spirit, but I will pray also so as to be understood. I will sing in my spirit, but I will also sing so as to be understood. When you offer a blessing in your spirit, how shall the one who occupies the place of the uninitiated say “Amen” to your benediction, since he doesn’t know what you say? For though you pray well enough, the listener is not built up.7

Paul emphasized the supreme importance of prayer in his instructions to Timothy in I Timothy, a book that may with full justification be described as “the New Testament manual of church polity.” Paul begins the second chapter by saying, “Therefore, I encourage you, above all other things, that requests, prayers, petitions and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and those who are in authority,” (I Timothy 2:1-2a). After a digression, Paul returns to the subject of prayer:

Therefore, I want the men to pray everywhere raising pure hands [to God] without anger or disputings. Likewise, [I also want] women [to pray everywhere] in decent apparel, [that is], to adorn themselves with modesty and sensibleness.8

The words added ad sensum with regard to the women in the above translation are a matter of dispute. If their insertion is contextually valid, then Paul here allows that it is proper for women to publicly pray in the church, which seems also to be the case in I Corinthians 11:5. Among the commentators and authors who understand I Timothy 2:9 to be a reference women praying in the church are Calvin, who says, “As he enjoined men to lift up pure hands, so he now prescribes the manner in which women ought to prepare for praying aright.”9 So agree Gill,10 Ellicott,11 Liddon (apparently),12 and Cornilescu, the Romanian Bible translator.13 Among those who reject any reference to prayer by the women are Alford,14 Fairbairn,15 Plummer,16 White,17 Robertson,18 Hendricksen,19 and Earle.20

In contrast to the Jewish practice of the men praying covered, Paul expressly rejects this practice in the church in Corinth and enjoins the practice of men praying and prophesying with heads uncovered, while the women are to “pray and prophesy” with heads covered (I Corinthians 11:3-16).

(Chapter Five, Part 2 is forthcoming.)


1 Eric M. Meyers, ” synagogue”=”” in=”“

2 Cf. 3 John 5-8.

4 H. Danby, ed., Mishnah, ” berakoth=”” 4:3,”=”” p.=”” 5

6 John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, pp. 229-233, where he cites a number of Jewish sources to establish this fact. See also John Gill, Gill’s Commentary, vol. VI, p. 222.

6 John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, pp. 229-233, where he cites a number of Jewish sources to establish this fact. See also John Gill, Gill’s Commentary, vol. VI, p. 222.

6 John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 4, pp. 229-233, where he cites a number of Jewish sources to establish this fact. See also John Gill, Gill’s Commentary, vol. VI, p. 222.

8 I Timothy 2:8-9a.


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.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

This makes well the point that the Word was central in the synagogue, just as the Word should be central in the church.   We shouldn't just play with the Scriptures or read them as part of meaningless ritual; we need to study (there's  a word no longer used in many churches) the Word.

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