The Synagogue in the Life of Jesus

The Synagogue in the Life of Jesus October 27, 2019

In this month’s issue of Review of Biblical Literature, Donald D. Binder reviews Jordan J. Ryan’s book, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus (Fortress Press, 2017). Binder relates that in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a renaissance of writings on the historicity of the synagogue during the especially the time of Jesus. But he adds that there has always been a dearth of such writing on the relationship between Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the New Testament and the synagogue in ancient Israel.

The word synagogue derives from the Greek word synagoge, which means “assembly.” Thus, this term originally meant a group of people who assembled together for just about any purpose. It referred to people who gathered to discuss politics or culture or philosophy or religion or any myriad of things. The place where they gathered was often referred to as the synagoge place, thus assembly place or meeting place. The same concept occurred in the Hebrew language as bet knesset (thus Israel’s political parliamentary called “the Knesset”), which means “house of assembly.”

During the time of Jesus, each of Israel’s towns and villages usually had one synagogue where Jews mostly came to worship God collectively on the sabbath day plus learn of him and his commandments about how they should live. But the primary place of worship in the Israel was the single, large, beautiful temple at Jerusalem where Jewish men were supposed to gather at least three times per year for three different feasts. The synagogue can be viewed sort of as a miniature of the temple. Yet animal sacrifices were only to be offered on the altar at Jerusalem’s temple due to divine decree.

Binder says Ryan’s book–which is based on his PhD dissertation that was directed by Dr. Anders Runesson, one of the leading authorities on ancient synagogues–fills the gap between Jesus’ teachings and their relationship to the synagogue. And to give Ryan’s book further credibility, in 2012 he worked a season on the archaeological dig of the synagogue at Magdala. Recall that this Gentile city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee was the home of Mary Magdalene (a Magdalene was from Magdala). It was located six miles south of Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ itinerant ministry.

Binder says Ryan starts it with an introductory chapter on a brief account of historical Jesus research conducted over the past 200+ years and recent studies about the Jews’ ancient synagogue. Binder says, in accordance with the New Testament, “Ryan outlines his task as twofold: (1) contextualizing Jesus’s proclamation and healing ministry within the ancient synagogue; and (2) determining Jesus’s ministerial aims with respect to the synagogue.”

Ryan relates the architecture of the synagogue and how it served the congregations as well as Jesus’ ministry. He also furnishes photos of several, completed, archaeological digs of synagogues in the holy land. Ryan alleges that L. Louis Martyn assertion which strongly affected scholarship, that the synagogue in the Gospel of John described only a post-70 CE existence, was an error so that it refers to earlier synagogues, thus those actually during the time of Jesus’ public ministry.

Luke 4.14-16 follows the accounts of Jesus being baptized by John and Jesus being tempted by the devil, and then it reads (in the NRSV), “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and a repot about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue and the sabbath day, as was his custom.”

Ryan addresses this important text of Luke 4.16-30 (and parallels). Binder says he cites especially this text in arguing for the important “basic veracity of the Lukan account while also suggesting that the synagogue’s educational function likely served as the source of Jesus’s literacy.” Skeptics have dismissed the historical reliability of this Lukan account and others and concluded that since Jesus was a laborer, being a carpenter, like nearly all men of antiquity he must have been illiterate.

Ryan follows the common agreement among scholars today that Jesus’ foremost aim during his public ministry was to be a reformer by affecting a spiritual transformation of his people, thus only the Jews. Ryan says this endeavor ended when Jesus delivered his lengthy and controversial “bread of life” message recorded in John 6. Therein, Jesus spoke figuratively by saying people must eat his flesh and drink his blood to receive “eternal life” (v. 40). We read, “when many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'” (v. 60). Yet he explained, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (v. 63). But they still rejected what he said. Thus, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

Ryan treats the Johannine texts that tell such things as, “the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9.22; cf. 12.42). Binder says of Ryan’s book, “It follows from this reconstruction that, during the final week of his life, Jesus consciously shifted his kingdom of God proclamations from the local stage of the synagogue to the national one of the temple, thereby provoking his ultimate rejection at the hands of the Jerusalem authorities.”

In light of the scholarly rejection in modern times of the Gospel of John as historically reliable, it is refreshing to me that Binder says, “Ryan takes the Fourth Gospel so seriously as a historical source.” Binder concludes his review by saying, “Ryan’s volume serves as a splendid contribution to historical Jesus research and deserves a prominent place in the library of anyone interested in this topic.” This is a book I would like to read.


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