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“Teaching In Their Synagogues”


Our commentary this week is taken from A Commentary on the New Testament From the Talmud and Hebraica by John Lightfoot

Matthew 4:23 – And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.

[Teaching in their synagogues.] Since we meet with very frequent mention of synagogues everywhere in the books of the Gospel, it may be needful to know something more clearly what the customs and institutions of the synagogues were, for the better understanding very many things which have some reference thereunto in the New Testament; let us here despatch the history of them as briefly as we may, now when the mention of synagogues first occurs.

Of the Synagogues.

I. A synagogue was not formed anywhere but where there were ten learned men professedly students of the law. 1. Let that of the Talmud be observed. "What is a great city? That in which were ten men of leisure. If there be less than this number, behold, it is a village." 2. Observe that of Maimonides; "Wheresoever there be ten of Israel, there a house must needs be built, to which they may resort to prayers in the time of prayer, and this house is called a synagogue." Not that any ten of Israel made a synagogue; but wheresoever were ten learned men, and studious of the law, these were called Batlanin, men of leisure; "who were not to be esteemed for lazy and idle persons, but such who," not being encumbered with worldly things, "were at leisure only to take care of the affairs of the synagogues, and to give themselves to the study of the law."

The reason of the number of ten, though lean and empty enough, is given in the Talmud: and it is this; A congregation consists of ten: which they prove hence, because it is said, "How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, &c. (Num 14:27). Take away Joshua and Caleb, and there remain only ten"; namely, of the spies of the land.

II. Of these ten men:

1. Three bear the magistracy, and were called The bench of three: whose office it was to decide the differences arising between the members of the synagogue, and to take care about other matters of the synagogue. These judged concerning money-matters, thefts, losses, restitutions, ravishing a virgin, of a man enticing a virgin, of the admission of proselytes, laying on of hands, and divers other things, of which see the tract Sanhedrim. These were properly, and with good reason, called rulers of the synagogue, because on them laid the chief care of things, and the chief power.

2. Besides these there was 'the public minister of the synagogue,' who prayed publicly, and took care about the reading of the law, and sometimes preached, if there were not some other to discharge this office. This person was called the angel of the church, and the Chazan or bishop of the congregation. The Aruch gives the reason of the name: "The Chazan (saith he) is the angel of the church (or the public minister), and the Targum renders…[it as] one that oversees; for it is incumbent on him to oversee how the reader reads, and whom he may call out to read in the law." The public minister of the synagogue himself read not the law publicly; but, every sabbath, he called out seven of the synagogue (on other days, fewer) whom he judged fit to read. He stood by him that read, with great care observing that he read nothing either falsely or improperly; and calling him back and correcting him if he had failed in any thing…Certainly the signification of the word bishop, and angel of the church, had been determined with less noise, if recourse had been made to the proper fountains, and men had not vainly disputed about the signification of words, taken I know not whence. The service and worship of the Temple being abolished, as being ceremonial, God transplanted the worship and public adoration of God used in the synagogues, which was moral, into the Christian church; to wit, the public ministry, public prayers, reading God's word, and preaching, &c. Hence the names of the ministers of the Gospel were the very same, the angel of the church, and the bishop; which belonged to the ministers in the synagogues.

3. There were also three deacons, or almoners, on whom was the care of the poor; and these were called Parnasin, or Pastors. And these seven perhaps were reputed the seven good men of the city; of whom there is frequent remembrance in the Talmudists.

Of these Parnasin we shall only produce these things. There were two, who demanded alms of the townsmen; and they were called, the two collectors of alms. To whom was added a third to distribute it.

"R. Chelbo in the name of R. Ba Bar Zabda saith, They do not make fewer than three Parnasin. For I see the judgments about many matters to be managed by three: therefore much more these which concern life. R. Josi in the name of R. Jochanan saith, They do not make two brethren Parnasin. R. Josi went to Cephar, intending there to set Parnasin over them, but they received him not. He went away, after he had said these words before them, Ben Bebai was only set over the threaded [linen of the lamps], and yet he was reckoned worthy to be numbered with the eminent men of that age. Ye who are set over the lives of men, how much more are ye so! R. Chaggai, when he appointed the Parnasin, argued to them out of the law, all dominion that is given is given from the law. By me kings reign. R. Chaiia Bar Ba set rulers, over them, that is, he appointed Parnasin. R. Lazar was a Parnas."

This perhaps holds out a light to those words of the apostle, 1 Timothy 3:13, "They that have performed the office of a deacon well have obtained to themselves a good degree": that is, being faithful in their care and provision for the poor, as to their corporal life, they may well be probationers for the care of souls. For when those Parnasin, as also all the ten, were learned and studious, they might with good reason be preferred from the care of bodies to that of souls. The apostles' deacons are to be reckoned also of the same learned and studious rank. And now let us turn our eyes a little from the synagogues to Christian churches, in the history of the New Testament. When the Romans permitted the Jewish synagogues to use their own laws and proper government, why, I pray, should there not be the same toleration allowed to the apostolical churches? The Roman censure had as yet made no difference between the Judaizing synagogues of the Jews, and the Christian synagogues or churches of Jews; nor did it permit them to live after their own laws, and forbid these. I am not, therefore, afraid to assert, that the churches of that first age were wanting to themselves, if they took not up the same liberty of government as the Romans allowed the Jewish synagogues to use. And I do not think that was said by the apostle, 1 Corinthians 6:2, 3, &c. without this foundation. Therefore, this power of their own government being allowed them, if so be they were minded to enjoy what they might, how easily may those words of the apostle be understood, which have so racked learned men (shall I say?), or which have been so racked by them, 1 Timothy 5:17: "Let the elders that rule well," &c.

4. We may reckon the eighth man of these ten to be the interpreter in the synagogue; who, being skilled in the tongues, and standing by him that read in the law, rendered in the mother-tongue, verse by verse, those things that were read out of the Hebrew text. The duty of this interpreter, and the rules of his duty, you may read at large in the Talmud.

The use of such an interpreter, they think, was drawn down to them from the times of Ezra, and not without good reason. "And they read in the book of the law: that was the text. Explaining: that was the Targum. And added the meaning: they are the accents: and they understood the text: that was the Masoreth." See Nehemiah 8:8; see also Buxtorf's Tiberias, chapter 8.

5. We do not readily know whom to name for the ninth and tenth of this last three. Let us suppose them to be the master of the divinity-school, and his interpreter: of whom we shall have a fuller occasion of inquiry. And thus much concerning the head of the synagogue, that learned Decemvirate, which was also the representative body of the synagogue.

III. The days wherein they met together in the synagogue were the sabbath, and the second day and the fifth of every week. Of the sabbath there is no question. They refer the appointment of the second and fifth days to Ezra. "Ezra (say they) decreed ten decrees. He appointed the public reading of the law in the second and fifth days of the week. Also on the sabbath at the time of the sacrifice. He appointed washing to those that had the gonorrhea. He appointed the session of the judges in cities on the second and fifth days of the week," &c. Hence, perhaps, it will appear in what sense that is to be understood, Acts 13:42. "The Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath, or the sabbath between"; that is, on the days of that intervening week, wherein they met together in the synagogue.

IV. Synagogues were anciently builded in fields. "To the evening recital of the phylacteries are to be added two prayers going before, and two following after." Where the Gloss thus; "The Rabbins instituted that prayer that they might retain their colleagues in the synagogue. And this certainly respected their synagogues at that time; because they were situated in the fields, where they might be in danger." And so Rabbenu Asher upon the same tract; "Anciently their synagogues were in fields: therefore they were afraid to tarry there, until the evening prayers were ended. It was therefore appointed that they should recite some verses, in which a short sum of all the eighteen prayers had been compacted"…

But the following times brought back their synagogues for the most part into the cities; and provision was made by sharp canons, that a synagogue should be built in the highest place of the city, and that no house should be built higher than it.

V. The like provision was made, that every one at the stated times of prayer should frequent the synagogue. "God does not refuse the prayers, although sinners are mingled there. Therefore it is necessary that a man associate himself with the congregation, and that he pray not alone when an opportunity is given of praying with the congregation. Let every one therefore come morning and evening to the synagogue." And "It is forbidden to pass by the synagogue in the time of prayer, unless a man carry some burden upon his back: or unless there be more synagogues in the same city; for then it may be judged that he goes to another; or unless there be two doors in the synagogue; for it may be judged that he passed by one to go in at another. But if he carry his phylacteries upon his head, then it is allowed him to pass by, because they bear him witness that he is not unmindful of the law." These things are taken out of the Babylonian Talmud: where these are also added: "The holy blessed one saith, Whosoever employeth himself in the study of the law, and in the returning of mercy, and whosoever prays with the synagogue, I account concerning him, as if he redeemed me and my sons from the nations of the world. And whosoever prays not with the synagogue is called an 'ill neighbour,' as it is said, 'Thus saith the Lord of all my evil neighbours,'" &c. Jeremiah 12:14.

VI. When they were met together in the synagogue on the sabbath-day (for this being observed, there is no need to speak any thing of the other days), the service being begun, the minister of the church calls out seven, whomsoever he pleases to call out, to read the law in their order. First, a priest, then a Levite, if they were present; and after these five Israelites. Hence it is, O young student in Hebrew learning, that in some editions of the Hebrew Bible you see marked in the margin of the Pentateuch, 1. The priest. 2. The Levite. 3. The third. 4. The fourth. 5.The fifth. 6. The sixth. 7. The seventh:–denoting by these words the order of the readers, and measuring out hereby the portion read by each one. Thus, I suppose, Christ was called out by the angel of the church of Nazareth, Luke 4:16, and reading according to the custom as a member of that synagogue.

There is no need to mention that prayers were made publicly by the angel of the church for the whole congregation, and that the congregation answered Amen to every prayer: and it would be too much particularly to enumerate what those prayers were, and to recite them. It is known enough to all that prayers, and reading of the law and the prophets, was the chief business in the synagogue, and that both were under the care of the angel of the synagogue.

I. There seemed to have been catechizing of boys in the synagogue. Consider what that means, "What is the privilege of women? This, that their sons read in the synagogue. That their husbands recite in the school of the doctors." Where the Gloss thus, "The boys that were scholars were wont to be instructed [or to learn] before their master in the synagogue."

II. The Targumist, or Interpreter, who stood by him that read in the law, and rendered what was read out of the Hebrew original into the mother-tongue,–sometimes used a liberty of enlarging himself in paraphrase. Examples of this we meet with in the Talmud, and also in the Chaldee paraphrast himself.

III. Observe that of the Glosser, Women and the common people were wont to meet together to hear the exposition or the sermon. But of what place is this better to be understood than of the synagogue? That especially being well weighed which immediately followeth, And they had need of expounders [or preachers] to affect their hearts: which is not much unlike that which is said Acts 13:13, If ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.

IV. Service being done in the synagogue, they went to dinner. And after dinner to the school, or the church, or a lecture of divinity; call it by what name you will. It is called also not seldom by the Talmudists The synagogue. In this sense, it may be, is upper synagogue to be taken, mentioned in the Talmud; if it be not to be taken of the Sanhedrim. In this place a doctor read to his auditors some traditional matter, and expounded it. In the Beth Midrash they taught traditions, and their exposition.

There are three things to be taken notice of concerning the rites used in this place.

1. He that read to the auditors spake not out with an audible voice, but muttered it with a small whisper in somebody's ear; and he pronounced it aloud to all the people. So that here the doctor had his interpreter in this sense, as well as the reader of the law his in the synagogue. "Rabh went to the place of R. Shilla, and there was no interpreter to stand by R. Shilla; Rabh therefore stood by him." Where the Gloss hath these words, "He had no speaker, that is, he had no interpreter present, who stood before the doctor when he was reading the lecture. And the doctor whispered him in the ear in Hebrew, and he rendered it in the mother-tongue to the people." Hither that of our Saviour hath respect, Matthew 10:27; "What ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the house-tops." Consult the same place.

2. It was customary in this place, and in these exercises, to propound questions. In that remarkable story of removing Rabban Gamaliel of Jafne from his presidentship, which we meet with in divers places of both Talmuds: when they met together in the Beth Midrash, "The questioner stood forth and asked, The evening prayer, is it observed by way of duty, or of free will?" And after a few lines, the mention of an interpreter occurs: "The whole multitude murmured against it, and said to Hotspith the interpreter, 'Hold your peace'; and he held his peace," &c.

3. While the interpreter preached from the mouth of the doctor, the people sat upon the earth. "Let not a judge go upon the heads of the holy people." The Gloss is, "While the interpreter preached the synagogue [or the whole congregation] sat on the ground: and whosoever walked through the middle of them to take his place, seemed as if he walked upon their heads."

One may safely be of opinion that the word synagogue, was used sometimes in the New Testament in this sense; and that Christ sometimes preached in these divinity-schools, as well as in the synagogues.

But by what right was Christ permitted by the rulers of the synagogue to preach, being the son of a carpenter, and of no learned education? Was it allowed any illiterate person, or mechanic, to preach in the synagogues, if he had the confidence himself to it? By no means. For it was permitted to none to teach there but those that were learned. But there were two things especially that gave Christ admission to preach in every synagogue; namely, the fame of his miracles, and that he gave out himself the head of a religious sect. For however the religion of Christ and his disciples was both scorned and hated by the scribes and Pharisees, yet they accounted them among the religious in the same sense as they did the Sadducees; that is, distinguished from the common people, or the seculars, who took little care of religion. When, therefore, Christ was reckoned among the religious, and grew so famous by the rumour of his miracles, and the shining rays of his doctrine, no wonder if he raised among the people an earnest desire of hearing him, and obtained among the governors of the synagogues a liberty of preaching.

For more info on synagogues, see "Sketches of Jewish Social Life," chapters 16. Synagogues: their Origin, Structure, and Outward Arrangements and 17. The Worship of the Synagogue by Alfred Edersheim.


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