Sunday, February 03, 2019

Before Christ 2: The Synagogue

continued from yesterday
3. When Priscilla and Aquila arrived at Corinth, they found a synagogue there. This synagogue was apparently a building, located next to the house of a man named Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). Titius Justus was a "worshiper of God," which suggests he was a non-Jew who had believed in the God of Israel but had not fully converted by circumcision and such.

This synagogue seems to be in a building. It was not always the case. The core idea of a synagogue is a gathering, a coming together. The use of dedicated buildings for synagogues was only becoming common at about this point in history. We cannot really assume that the New Testament is speaking of a building when it mentions a synagogue.

According to the later Talmud, a synagogue required ten men for the Scriptures to be read. [2] However, it is not clear how standardized or consistent such practice was at the time of Paul. The Mishnah dates to around AD200 and the Talmud to the 400s. In all likelihood, Jewish practice at the time of Christ was much less consistent. Given the culture of the day, we would not be surprised if most of the "elders" of your typical synagogue were men, but we have no basis to say definitively that no women ever played this role.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that synagogues functioned with a group of elders as their ultimate leaders, with a role of synagogue leader that was rotated. These elders probably were older men. We have to remember that while our culture tends to prize youth and associate truth with the newest and latest discovery, the ancient world viewed the elderly as a repository of wisdom. The Mishnah defines a city as a place where there are "ten idle men," the sense being that these men have lived long enough for their children to take over the work of living. [3]

Scholars have long speculated why there was no synagogue meeting within the city of Philippi in Acts 16:13. One suggestion is that there were not ten married Jewish men in the city, but we cannot know definitively. If that is the case, then the leadership of the church at Philippi must have initially consisted mostly of women, including Lydia (Acts 16:15).

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem perhaps gives us a little sense of what a group of synagogue elders was like. The elders gather to consider what to do with Jesus (e.g., Matt. 26:57; Mark 15:1), with the high priest presiding. Stephen and Paul also appear before them (Acts 6:12; 22:30). In Mark 13:9, Jesus pictures the leadership of synagogues in the Diaspora as similar councils.

So it is likely that the synagogue at Corinth was led by such a council of elders when Priscilla and Aquila arrived. We cannot be sure but this council probably consisted of men, and Crispus was the synagogue leader at that time (Acts 18:8). A year later, the synagogue leader would be a different man named Sosthenes (18:17). Both are mentioned in Paul's writings and both apparently were believers.

[2] Talmud, Megillah 23b:4-5, drawing on Mishnah, Megillah 4.

[3] Mishnah, Megillah 1.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this.