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Volume 13, Issue 1: Liturgia

Synagogue or Temple?

Peter J. Leithart

In his critique of the regulative principle of worship, Steve Schlissel asserts that "the New Testament is beyond clear in teaching that the organizational model for the worshiping communities called 'churches' was the synagogue, not the Temple." Schlissel admits that we should not "overlook temple-like features metaphorically ascribed to the church and/or its service. These are many. Yet these apply to, and are found ascribed to, individual Christians as well. But when we look for the organizational and liturgical antecedents of the church, we find them in the synagogue." And he adds parenthetically that modeling Christian worship on the temple "is precisely the error of Rome."

Schlissel is using the synagogue to attack the idea that "Whatever is not commanded in worship is forbidden." As he rightly points out, the very existence of the synagogue makes hash of this view, for synagogue worship went on century after century without being regulated by a single word from God. Schlissel concludes, "But for us the synagogue presents no problem at all. We find that it is sacrificial worship only, from Deuteronomy 12 on, that is absolutely restricted in regard to place, performers and particulars. Such restrictions never governed common sacred assemblies."
Though common, the idea that Christian worship grew out of the synagogue rather than the temple is questionable on a number of grounds. For starters, the idea that there is any opposition between temple and synagogue worship is itself historically debatable. To be sure, different things were done. Sacrifice was offered at the temple, and not at the synagogue. But the Jewish sources that give us details about the synagogue describe it as an extension of the temple, not an alternative to the temple. Jews understood their synagogue worship as temple worship in a different form. The evidence for the Jewish understanding of synagogue worship comes from extrabiblical sources, including the Apocrypha, Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since these are not Scripture, we can derive no authoritative teaching from them. But they are historically important.
Several sources describe the synagogue as a "temple" (Greek, hieron) or a "sacred precinct" (Greek, hieros peribolos). Holiness regulations that governed the temple were applied to the synagogue; for example, Palestinian synagogues that have been excavated in the modern era include bathing pools at the entrance, apparently used for cleansing those who gathered for worship. Further, the nonsacrificial worship of the synagogue is sometimes described as "sacrifice" (Greek, thusia). Synagogues were used as repositories for dedicated offerings that were eventually taken to the temple. Some synagogues were even adorned with mosaics that employ imagery from the temple. The synagogue excavated at Beth Alpha, for example, contains a mosaic that depicts the temple courtyard with an altar, the temple veil, lampstands, and the ark of the covenant.
Synagogues were local outposts of the Jerusalem temple. Donald Binder concludes after an exhaustive examination of the evidence that "it is ... incorrect to categorize the Temple as 'the place of the cult' on the one side, and the synagogue as 'the place of the scroll' on the other.... the synagogues formed in miniature what the Temple courts constituted on a grander scale."
Even if Christian worship grew from the synagogue, therefore, the ultimate roots of that worship are from the temple. Moreover, if we take the synagogue as our model of Christian worship, then we have virtually no biblical resources for formulating the theology and practice of worship. Weekly synagogue-like assemblies were required by the law (Lev. 23:3), but there is no explicit biblical information about what they did.
We know some things that were not done: There were no sacrifices at the local assemblies, for example. If we recall Levites were scattered about the land in towns (Dt. 16:11; 18:6), and note also that Levites were required to teach the Torah (Dt. 33:10), then we can infer that the weekly gatherings included reading and teaching of Scripture.
The NT provides more information about the synagogue meetings. Even if all these conclusions were morally certain, and therefore sufficient to guide our liturgical practice, they are hardly sufficient to formulate a liturgical theology. The New Testament rarely compares the church and its worship to the synagogue. But it frequently compares the believer and Church to the temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22; Heb. 12:22-24; 1 Pet. 2:1-10). And it speaks of Christian worship as "sacrifice," drawing on the model of Old Testament temple worship (1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 13:15).
In an obvious sense, Christian worship is closer to the synagogue than to the temple. We do not sacrifice, there are no restricted spaces, there is no unapproachable altar, etc. The physical actions of our worship are closer to what we know about the synagogue (reading Scripture, teaching, singing, prayer). But these actions are described by the New Testament by reference to the temple worship: The word of God is a sword that cuts us up for sacrifice (Heb. 4:12-13), our prayers and singing are a "sacrifice of praise" (1 Pet. 2:5), our gifts and offerings are pleasing sacrifices (Heb. 13:16), our sharing at the Lord's table is a feast on the sacrificial Victim. Worst of all, if we take the synagogue as our model of worship, we are almost completely dependent upon Jewish tradition for our liturgical theology and practice. Far from being a step toward Romanism, taking the temple as our model for worship is the only possible way to arrive at a biblical view of worship. There simply is no other model.

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