Dear Associates, Students and Friends:
There are two educational traditions of religious teaching that have come down to us from the ancient world. One is the Greek style practiced in the academies of rhetoric and philosophy that has developed into our modern university system of Western society. Teachers would speak to students for long periods of time. The students were under strict discipline to listen. When the general population of the Roman Empire became Christian such oratory had a long and honored tradition in Greek and Roman society. This became standard in the churches. When orators became Christians the type of service in the ekklesias quickly tended to a sermon type of exposition with added ceremonies of a decidedly non-Jewish type (yet with a use of “sacred space” similar to the Temple layout in the churches). This format of church service discouraged give and take with the audience and limited questions. It also led to the further development of ecclesiastical hierarchies. By the early 4th century and the political triumph of Christianity, the leadership of ekklesias had become hierarchies, and services turned from informal group practices to ritualized services with sermons.
The other religious teaching tradition is that of the Jewish synagogue. It also has a long history and its origins are obscure. The biblical model for education is that of the synagogue, which is a model of learning that includes cooperative study, presentation, and extensive discussion (or debate!).
The focus of this month’s article is the development and relationship of the New Testament ekklesia in its origins from the Jewish synagogue. The structure and operation of the ekklesia is directly based on and derived from the synagogue model. The ekklesia was a synagogue in operation.
This is made clear by this month’s article by Dr. Ernest L. Martin which I have titled “Synagogues and Ekklesias.” 1 This is a transcribed audiotape lecture presented some time before 1985, before A.S.K. was started by Dr. Martin. The audiotape of the lecture has a title “Origin of the Synagogues” on it, but that inked-in title does not really reflect the subject of the tape, and I do not know who applied that title.
It would be a mistake to state that New Testament ekklesias were exactly synagogues. They were not, even though the ekklesias shared many elements of operation in common with synagogues and the ekklesias arose out from the synagogues. First is the exception (to prove the rule) in James 2:2, writing to the 12 tribes scattered abroad (James 1:1) in the dispersion. James uses the word synagogue:
“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons [be not partial to “special” people]. For if there come unto your assembly [sunagoge in Greek] a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And you have respect to him that wears the gay clothing, and say unto him, ‘Sit you here in a good place’; and say to the poor, ‘Stand you there, or sit here under my footstool’: Are you not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
This fits exactly several elements in the synagogue service and setting, with seats for people with high status while the poor and less exalted are made to stand. Recall Christ’s reference to “the chief seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6). There should never be any respect of persons as there was in the synagogues.
“But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convinced [convicted] of the law as transgressors.”
James 2:9 2
Also, there is a clear distinction made by the New Testament writers themselves. The Greek term ekklesia is always used separately from sunagoge. 3 Further, synagogues were recognized buildings and meeting places within a community. The earliest ekklesias gathered in the private homes of their members. The use of buildings outside of homes for worship did not occur for many, many decades.
When Paul says he preached “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16), it means that he went to the synagogue of whatever city or area he traveled to before he began preaching to the Gentiles. He spoke at synagogues at:
In Rome Paul was under house arrest and he could not go to the synagogue, but the Jews came to him (Acts 17:27). Where there were not enough men to form a synagogue, Paul met the Jews at a place of prayer, usually at a known location near a river (Acts 16:13–15).
Paul formed what the New Testament calls ekklesias or assemblies of believers; he did not form synagogues. Paul felt it was imperative to go to the Jew first: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you [Jews]” (Acts 13:46).
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My own thoughts are reflective of Paul’s sentiments in that we are thankful to God for you (2 Thessalonians 2:13) in that you read and understand God’s message to you from His Word, the Bible, and that you supply us the necessities to continue producing excellent material from the timely and productive work of Dr. Ernest Martin. Your prayers on our behalf that many of you express in your notes to us, as well as your contributions, tell us that this material is valuable to you. We are able to dispense it to others around the world. God has blessed you greatly. It is our wish and prayer that God will bless you even more.
1 I intended to present “The Pagan Immortal Soul and ‘Double Doctrine’,” but that will be next month’s presentation. DWS
2 For additional information, see Alfred Edershiem’s Chapter 16, “Synagogues: Their Origin, Structure and Outward Arrangements” in his book Sketches of Jewish Life (1876), available online at http://philologos.org/__eb-sjsl/chap16.htm. DWS
3 This is most clear in the Book of Acts. The word synagogue (singular and plural) is used in Acts 6:9, 9:2, 20, 13:5, 14f, 42, 14:1, 15:21, 17:1, 10, 17, 18:4, 7f, 17, 19, 26, 19:8, 22:19, 24:12, and 26:11. Ekklesia is used in Acts 2:47, 5:11, 7:38, 8:1, 3, 9:31, 11:22, 26, 12:1, 5, 13:1, 14:23, 27, 15:3f, 22, 41, 16:5, 18:22, 19:32, 39, 41, and 20:17, 28. The two words are not used interchangeably, never occur in the same verse, and are always distinct from one another. Here they are used a few verses apart:
“Now there were in the church [ekklesia] that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; … And when they [Paul and Barnabas] were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.”
Acts 13:1, 5
Clearly Luke, the writer of Acts, knew the difference between the two words and used them precisely. DWS
4 This is set forth plainly in Chapter 2, “The Biblical Keys to Canonization” at http://www.askelm.com/restoring/res002.htm, from Dr. Martin’s book Restoring the Original Bible (Portland: ASK, 1994). DWS
David W. Sielaff
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