The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 6)

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 (continued)

Public Bible Reading

Inasmuch as Bible instruction was an important function of both the synagogue and the church, it is no surprise to discover that the public reading of the Scriptures was among the regular activities of both. The value, even necessity, of the reading of Scriptures orally in both the synagogue and the church is further recognized when it is pointed out that considerable numbers of individuals in the first century were completely illiterate and could not read the sacred text for themselves at all. Besides this, the high cost of manuscript copies of the Bible made private possession and private reading of the Scriptures well beyond the reach of most individuals.

Bible Reading in the Synagogue

There are several New Testament references to the public reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue. The first and most detailed of these is in Luke 4, when Jesus publicly declared in the synagogue at Nazareth that He was the Messiah:

And he came to Nazareth, where he was brought up and entered (as was his custom) on the Sabbath into the synagogue and stood up to read. And a scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and having unrolled the scroll, he found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to announce release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to send free those broken down, to announce the acceptable year of the Lord.” And when he had rolled up the scroll and given it to the attendant, he sat down. And all the eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began by saying to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”1

This account is rich in details. First, we see that the scrolls were under the care of one called the attendant or servant (Greek huperetes). This agrees well with what we find outside the NT regarding the sacred Biblical synagogue scrolls (see below). Second, it is evident that one apparently did not need to be an official in the synagogue in order to be the designated reader for the day; one need only be Hebrew-literate. With this the Mishnah agrees (again, see below).

It is notable that this passage alone in the Gospels confirms with certainty that Jesus was able to read (the detailed knowledge of Scripture which He displays in His public discourses and private discussions would strongly favor the same conclusion, naturally).2 From this also, we discover that Jesus was at least tri-lingual. We know that He spoke Aramaic (His exact Aramaic words are repeatedly quoted in the Gospels),3 and it is a virtual certainty that He also was at home in Greek.4 Here He reads the lection from the Prophets in Hebrew, assuming that the practice prescribed in the Mishnah of reading the Scriptures in the original was in vogue in Galilee in the early first century (see below). Of course, it could be argued that since no methurgeman (translator) is spoken of as present, He may have read from either a written Aramaic targum (the later Mishnaic prohibition of such presupposes the existence of such written versions) or from the Septuagint version.5

Jesus stood as He read from the Scriptures, a point in agreement with the practice as described (or prescribed) in the Mishnah (see below). Only after returning the scroll to the attendant did He sit down to teach.

The portion of Scripture read by Jesus is not part of the now-customary cycle of readings from the Prophets. An appendix in a common edition of the Hebrew Bible edited by Meir Ha’Levi Letteris, for example, contains a table listing both the Torah portion to be read Sabbath-by-Sabbath and the accompanying portion from the Prophets (on a one-year cycle). Sections just before and following Isaiah 61:1,2 are included in the reading cycle: Isaiah 60:1-22 is appointed to be read the same Sabbath (50th in the cycle) as Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8, while Isaiah 61:10-63:9 is appointed to be read the next Sabbath-day, following the reading of Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.6 It is not clear whether this exclusion of Isaiah 61:1-9 was motivated by the same consideration which excluded Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the so-called “bad conscience of the synagogue,”7 from the reading cycle, namely, the use to which the passage was put by Christians in claiming that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah.8

A second reference to the public reading of the OT in the synagogue is in Acts 13, when Paul was in Antioch in Pisidia.

Now when they had gone through from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and when they entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day, they sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue leaders sent to them, saying, “Men, brothers, if you have any message of encouragement for the people, say it.”9

The public reading of portions of both the Law and of the Prophets (to be understood as including both the so-called “former” and “latter” prophets, corresponding to what in the English Bible are classified as history and prophecy respectively) is mentioned in passing, and is stated to have occurred before the “word of exhortation” from Paul and Barnabbas. It is possible, however, that the terms “the Law and the Prophets” encompass the entire Old Testament, as it does in Matthew 5:17 and 22:40.10

Acts 15 describes the first international council of Christians. In the process of giving the judgment of the Jerusalem elders regarding the relationship of Gentile believers to the Old Testament law, James in passing alludes to the Jewish practice of Torah-reading: “For Moses has from ancient generations in every city those who proclaim him, being read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). From the details James gives, had we only his account, we would still understand that it is a Jewish religious practice he describes, since Moses (the Jewish prophet) the synagogues (the place of Jewish worship) and the Sabbaths (the day of Jewish worship) are noted. This reading is further described as a weekly practice.

The final specific New Testament reference to the public reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue is in 2 Corinthians 3:

But their minds were hardened. For until this very day, the same veil remains unremoved at the reading of the old covenant, because only in Christ is it abolished. But until today whenever Moses is read, a veil lies upon their heart.11

Here the allusion is made to the synagogue practice of publicly reading the Scriptures, an allusion many if not most of Paul’s readers in Corinth would have understood since they were converts to Christianity from Judaism. The reading of “Moses” (that is, the Pentateuch) is specified, though the seemingly broader designation “old covenant” is also used.

In the post-New Testament era, the reading of “the Law and the Prophets” was standardized or at least codified. The Mishnah (edited and published ca. AD 200 by Judah ha-Nasi) gives detailed instructions for the public reading of the Scriptures.

Tractate “Sotah” describes the ritual by which the scrolls were handled when the high priest, and when the kings were obligated to read them. It may be safely assumed that with a few changes of details, the same would apply to the ordinary reading of the Law and the Prophets in the synagogue.

After what manner were the blessings of the High Priest? The minister of the synagogue used to take a scroll of the Law and give it to the chief of the synagogue, and the chief of the synagogue gave it to the Prefect and he gave it to the High Priest, and the High Priest received it standing and read it standing. And he read [Leviticus 16:1ff] and [Leviticus 23:26ff]. Then he used to roll up the [scroll of the] Law…

After what manner was the paragraph of the king? ….The minister of the synagogue used to take a roll of the Law and give it to the chief of the synagogue, and the chief of the synagogue gave it to the Prefect, and the Prefect gave it to the High Priest, and the High Priest gave it to the king, and the king received it standing and read it sitting.12

Obvious similarities with Luke’s account of Jesus’ reading from the scroll of Isaiah are evident: the scroll in the custody of the “minister,” who passes it to the reader (in the special occasions described in Sotah, through several intermediaries), who takes the scroll and reads it standing.

In tractate “Megillah,” the Mishnah sets forth detailed instructions on how the scroll of Esther is to be read during the feast of Purim, and in the process touches on some of the practices associated with the reading of other portions of Scripture.13

If a man read the Scroll in wrong order, he has not fulfilled his obligation. If he read it by heart, or if he read it in Aramaic or in any other language, he has not fulfilled his obligation. But it may be read in a foreign tongue to them that speak a foreign tongue…

He that reads the Scroll may stand or sit…

If there be less than ten present they may not recite the Shema’ with its Benedictions, nor may one go before the Ark, nor may they lift up their hands, nor may they read the [prescribed proportion of] the Law or the reading from the Prophets…

He that reads in the Law may not read less than three verses; he may not read to the interpreter more than one verse, or, in [reading from] the Prophets, three verses; but if these three are three separate paragraphs, he must read them out singly. They may leave out verses in the Prophets, but not in the Law…

He that gives the concluding reading from the Prophets recites also the Shema’ with its Benedictions; and he goes before the Ark, and he lifts up his hands [in the Benediction of the Priests].14

These give a more detailed and regulated form to the reading of the Law and the Prophets than is evidenced by the New Testament, such as would be expected in the process of a century and a half’s developments between the NT and the Mishnah. This would, by implication, support the traditional mid-first century dating of events and accounts in the NT.

(Tomorrow: Bible Reading in the Church)


1 Luke 2:16-21.

2 The famous Pericope de adultera, John 7:53-8:11, recognized by most specialists in NT textual criticism as not an original part of John’s Gospel (see, for example, Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 219-222) does mention twice that Jesus “wrote on the ground” (kategraphen eis ten gen, v. 6; egraphen eis ten gen, v. 8. In both verses, some manuscripts specify that He wrote “the sins of each of them”). Yet A. T. Robertson points out that, “the use of katagrapeo leaves it uncertain whether he was writing words or drawing pictures or making signs” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. V, p. 139). It is possible that Jesus is described as idly doodling in the dirt as the force of His words sank in.

3 raka, Matthew 5:22; mamona, Matthew 6:24; talita kumi, Mark 5:41; abba, Mark 14:36; eloi eloi lema sabachthani, Mark 15:34; etc. For a detailed discussion of Aramaic elements in the NT and the influence of Aramaic on the Greek of the New Testament, see A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historic Research, pp. 102-108; and my two articles “All the Aramaic Words in the New Testament,” As I See It, 6:5; and “Well, Almost All the Aramaic Words in the New Testament,” As I See It, 6:6.

4 Robertson says that Jesus often spoke in Greek (Grammar, preface, p. xix; The Minister and His Greek New Testament, p. 17). When He stood before Pilate, for example, no translator is mentioned, though this is of course an argument from silence. For a discussion of the languages of Jesus, see Robertson, Grammar, pp. 25-29.

5 The text as recorded in Luke’s Gospel follows pretty closely the LXX version of the text, though lacking one clause in Isaiah 61:1, LXX, and adding a clause found in Isaiah 58:6, LXX (see Gleason Archer and G. C. Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament, pp. 128-129; Thomas Hartwell Horne, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, vol. 2, part 1, p. 291, n. 2).

6 [Letteris, Meir Ha-Levi], ed., Torah, Nevi’im uKhetuvim, pp. 1386, 1389.

7 See C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, p. 544.

8 Reportedly, the Talmud declares that the practice of haftorah readings on the Sabbath goes back to the first century A. D., with the early Tannaim gradually arranging for the reading of a specific haftorah for each portion of the Torah. See Naomi Ben-Asher and Hayim Leaf, eds., The Junior Jewish Encyclopedia, “Haftorah,” p. 120.

9 Acts 13:14, 15.

10 For a superb analysis of this and other designations of the OT canon, see Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, especially pp. 105-109, 142-143.

11 2 Corinthians 3:14, 15.

12 H. Danby, The Mishnah, Sotah 6:7, 8; p. 301. See also Yoma 7:1; p. 170.

13 Literally, “scroll,” that is the scroll of Esther, which was not part of the regular cycle of readings from the Law and the Prophets.

14 H. Danby, The Mishnah, “Megillah” 2:1; 4:1, 3, 4, 5; pp. 203, 205, 206.

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.