Jesus—His Life and Message: Synagogues and Sabbath
June 2, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Synagogues and Sabbath
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus’ teaching and healing activities in synagogues. Jesus’ custom was to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was normal for practicing Jews in His day (and still is today).1
Let’s take a look at the history of the synagogue and its place in the community during Jesus’ lifetime. The word synagogue comes from the Greek word synagōgē (sin-ah-no-gay), which originally meant an assembly. It came to mean a local gathering of Jews, and then the building where Jewish congregations meet.2 While the exact date of when using synagogues as a gathering place began is unknown,3 it is generally accepted that the practice came into being after the first temple had been destroyed and many of the Jewish people were taken to Babylon.4 Being in exile could have resulted in complete assimilation of the Jewish people into the larger Babylonian culture, so gathering for prayer and study not only kept the Jewish exiles attached to their faith, but also helped them maintain their national and cultural identity while living in a foreign land.
In Jesus’ day the synagogue building, in addition to being a place of worship, also functioned as the town community center, meeting place, school, courtroom, and place of Scripture study. On the Sabbath, the synagogue was where the local community would meet for prayer and Scripture reading.
Within each synagogue, there was a group of local elders that would direct the activities of the synagogue. There was also the head of the synagogue, whose responsibility was to keep the congregation faithful to the Torah. The head of the synagogue was likely chosen from among the group of elders. When someone broke the Law, as expressed in the Torah, they would be judged by these elders and punished. The punishments, depending on the severity of infringement, could include being whipped with thirty-nine lashes (“forty lashes less one”),5 or excommunicated from the synagogue.6 Though the Mosaic Law called for stoning to death for some crimes, in Jesus’ day only the Roman authorities could carry out capital punishment, so stoning those who under Jewish law deserved to die wasn’t allowed. However, there were instances where Jewish crowds stoned individuals in violation of Roman law,7 or where they intended to.8
Others who held positions in the synagogue included the almoner, who was responsible to collect and distribute alms to the needy, and the ḥazzān or “attendant,” who took care of the Scripture scrolls as well as announced the beginning and end of the Sabbath by blowing on a ram’s horn when the first three stars could be seen in the evening sky.9 The ḥazzān was sometimes also the teacher at the synagogue school, especially in smaller villages.10 He was also the one who flogged those who were due punishment.
The Sabbath day service would begin with the congregation reciting the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one” (the full prayer consists of Deuteronomy 6:4, 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41), as well as other prayers. This was followed by a reading of excerpts from the scrolls of the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures11), followed by a reading from the Nevi’im (Prophets12). The person reading would stand and read units of one to three verses in Hebrew, which were then translated into Aramaic paraphrases, since not all first-century Jews understood Hebrew. After the reading, someone was invited to instruct the audience. This would be followed by a benediction. Any adult male could be called upon to read the Scriptures, and any competent adult male could be called upon to instruct the audience.13
Inside the synagogue, there were generally benches on three sides of the room, which were reserved for dignitaries. The general congregation may have sat on mats or carpets.14 It was customary for the one teaching or instructing to do so from a seated position.15 Jesus refers to this custom when speaking of teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sitting “in Moses’ seat.”16 Sometimes there were special seats assigned for this purpose. One such “seat of honor” was found in an archaeological dig in Chorazin in Galilee.17
Jesus, an observant first-century Jew, taught in synagogues all throughout Galilee during His ministry.18 He reached a number of people with His message in synagogues, though not everyone agreed with Him, and as time went on, He was less welcome in them. He healed the sick and cast out demons in synagogues. He raised the daughter of Jairus, who was the head of a synagogue, from the dead.19 He also healed the servant of a Roman centurion who was responsible for building a synagogue in Capernaum.20
Synagogues were the center of village life, and it was in these synagogues that Jesus introduced His message of the kingdom of God. Years later, the apostle Paul spread the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece by visiting and preaching in synagogues there.
The Jewish Sabbath begins Friday evening at sundown and ends Saturday evening at the same time. During this time all ordinary work stops. The origins of the Sabbath are found in the book of Genesis:
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.21
When giving the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, God included as the third commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.22
As authors Elwell and Bietzel explain:
When God blesses something, it becomes a vehicle of his generous giving and an expression of his warm concern. When God declares something holy, he claims it for himself, taking it out of ordinary circulation (whether it is a place, a day, or an animal for sacrifice) and declaring it special. This provides a clue to God’s intention in requiring man to observe the Sabbath. Freed from time-consuming everyday work, man should accept the seventh day as a blessing from his Creator (using it to recall all God’s goodness in creation and to praise Him for it), and recognize the claim it makes on his life. As a day “set aside,” the Sabbath is a reminder that all time is the Creator’s gift—a fact man acknowledges when he consciously gives back to God part of what is His anyway.23
Besides the Sabbath being a day of rest, following God’s example, it also reflects redemption, as spoken of in Deuteronomy:
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.24
The weekly Sabbath is a reminder of God’s mercy in giving His people redemption and rest from the slavery they experienced in Egypt. It is a weekly reminder of God’s love and mercy. It is meant to be a blessing and not a burden.
Jewish writings from the Intertestamental period (from 400 BC until the time of Christ) included elaborate directions about Sabbath observances, explaining what was and was not permitted on the Sabbath. Scripture provided some guidance, but over time it became clear that more details were needed. While it was understood that burdens shouldn’t be carried, what exactly a burden was needed to be more precisely defined. The prohibition against travel meant that it was necessary to define the limits of a legitimate Sabbath day journey. There were also exceptions stated. When it came to saving a human life, prohibitions could be disregarded. Temple service had to be carried out by the priests and Levites, even though it constituted work. The law regarding circumcising a boy on the eighth day also took precedence over the commandment against work on the Sabbath.
While it was helpful to have guidelines making it clearer what was and wasn’t allowed on the Sabbath, over the years this led to legal hairsplitting, due to complexities and different interpretations among the various religious parties.25 These details of how the Sabbath should be observed, while not part of Scripture, became part of the oral traditions which are referred to in the Gospels as the “tradition of the elders.”26 Over time, the main purpose of the Sabbath was somewhat lost among the legalistic minutiae.
Jesus accepted that the Sabbath was the day set aside by His Father to rest and worship. However, He was opposed to the traditions and interpretations which were not in alignment with the purpose of the Sabbath. He wasn’t focused on the minutiae, the traditions, which put the Sabbath above the people it was originally meant to be a blessing to. As He said, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.27
In line with the true intent of the Sabbath—a day to recall God’s goodness, a day of blessing, of resting, and remembering God’s mercy and deliverance and redemption—Jesus healed on the Sabbath. For Him, it was an appropriate day for acts of mercy, though this brought Him into conflict with the Pharisees, who considered healing “work” and thus against the Sabbath rules. This conflict will be addressed in further articles.
While Christians don’t celebrate the Sabbath as those of the Jewish faith do, the principles behind it are applicable in our lives. Taking a day to set aside our everyday burdens, to rest, praise and worship the Lord, to have communion and fellowship with Him and others, is important. In today’s fast-paced world, we need to take time to step away from our busy schedules, to physically rest and recuperate, and to reconnect with our Creator and Redeemer.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read (Luke 4:16).
2 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 781.
5 Paul experienced such floggings: Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one (2 Corinthians 11:24).
6 His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue (John 9:22).
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue (John 12:42).
7 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58).
Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead (Acts 14:19).
8 See examples of condemnations to stoning (though they did not take place) in John 8:3–5 and John 10:32–33.
9 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 782.
11 Also the first five books in the Christian Old Testament.
12 The Hebrew Scriptures divide the books differently than the Christian Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the prophets are divided into two categories: the major prophets, Isaiah to Daniel, and the minor prophets, Hosea to Malachi. The Jewish Scriptures also have two categories: Former prophets—Joshua through 2 Kings, and latter prophets—Isaiah to Malachi.
13 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 783.
15 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 411.
16 Matthew 23:2.
18 Matthew 4:23.
19 Luke 8:41–42, 49–56.
20 Luke 7:1–10.
21 Genesis 2:2–3.
22 Exodus 20:8–11.
23 Elwell and Bietzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible.
24 Deuteronomy 5:15.
25 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 717.
26 Matthew 15:2,3,6; Mark 7:3,5.
27 Mark 2:27.