In this new series, I want to show my readers the profound connection between Jesus’ teaching and the Torah Portions that were read in synagogues. Before I do that, however, I need to provide some background information.
By the first century, synagogues already existed in many places in the Land. We don’t hear about synagogues in Jerusalem—it is probable that synagogues were not built in Jerusalem as long as the Temple stood there. However, synagogues did exist in many towns and villages of Galilee. The gospels specifically mention synagogues in Nazareth (Luke 4:16) and in Capernaum (Mark 1:21), and we find many more occasions in the gospels when Jesus’ ministry took place in a synagogue. For example, in Matthew 4:23 we read: “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues.”
Later, Apostle Paul also used synagogues in his ministry. From the book of Acts, we know that it was a regular custom of Paul to attend synagogue every Shabbat. The synagogue was the place where Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (Gentiles who would keep as much of the Law as possible, without actually converting to Judaism) would gather together to read the Word of God. Paul, who explicitly states that his apostolic mission was to reach the Gentiles with the gospel, goes to a synagogue in every new town where he arrives—even in predominately Gentile regions. It was in synagogues that he met with Jews and Gentiles alike who were interested in the Word of God. Here are just some scriptures:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth… And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 18:1-4)
And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. (Acts 18:19)
This situation lasted for quite some time. It’s important to understand that the gathering and the fellowship of the early church outwardly was no different from a synagogue—at least for a while. Jewish believers in Jesus and also Jews who didn’t accept Jesus, continued to worship together in synagogues until at least the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-136 CE), and maybe even later. Most scholars now believe that Birkat ha-Minim (Heb. בִּרְכַּת הַמִּינִים, “benediction concerning heretics,” a Jewish curse on heretics (minim), the twelfth benediction of the weekday Amidah) was composed after the Bar Kochba revolt. The language of the benediction clearly demonstrates that it was specifically aimed against “Jewish separatists” and that the prayer was composed to expose those who followed Jesus and had accepted Him as Messiah. There would have been no need for such a prayer in synagogues if the Jewish followers of Jesus were not amongst the gatherings there. This means that, for at least a century after Jesus’ death, there were people who believed that He was the Messiah, but who also attended synagogue, kept Shabbat, ate kosher and circumcised their sons. Unlike now, these people didn’t see any problem in being both a Jew and a Christian, and every Shabbat they would go to synagogue and would listen to the weekly Torah portion. Therefore, it’s very important for a reader of the New Testament to be aware of the importance of synagogues in the NT and to understand what was happening during the service of the synagogue.
PUBLIC READING OF THE SCRIPTURES IN THE TIME OF JESUS
Before the destruction of the Temple, there were so many different directions and teachings in Judaism that it is almost more appropriate to speak, not of Judaism, but of the “Judaisms” of the first century. These sects differed significantly both in theology and practice, therefore synagogue worship and traditions probably also differed from one sect to another. Yet there was something that all these teachings shared: the central place of the Torah in the life of the Jewish people. They all believed that the Torah was given by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and the Torah was an unshakable and unquestionable foundation for all these directions and teachings, without exception. According to the testimony of the NT, as well as the writings of Josephus, the public reading of Torah was practiced every Shabbat in every synagogue. The book of Acts tells us explicitly: 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21) Josephus writes: people have “to leave off their other employments and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week.” (Against Apion, 2.175). Therefore, whichever synagogue Jesus entered on Shabbat, as His custom was, He would listen to the Torah there. The Torah of Moses was read in synagogues every week – every Shabbat. However, the question arises: was there already a fixed cycle of Torah reading at the time of Jesus? And if yes, was it the same annual cycle that we know today? And when did the Haftarah section, the reading from the Prophets following the Torah reading, begin?
AT THE NAZARETH SYNAGOGUE
It is only much later, in the Talmud, that we first hear of separate scrolls with Haftarah readings being used in synagogues; however, the earliest source we have on that custom is found in… the New Testament. In the well-known scene in Luke (4:16-21), Jesus returned to his hometown, Nazareth, and on the Sabbath (Saturday), went to the synagogue as His custom was.
6 So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. 17 And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me…
We can conclude from this scene that the reading of a passage from the Prophets after the Torah portion on the Sabbath was an accepted custom, even before the destruction of the Temple. We don’t know whether the book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus because it contained the scheduled reading, or whether it was His choice, and He just opened the scroll at the place He wanted to read. However, we can see that the prophetic word that was an essential part of His message was also an essential part of the synagogue service. Thus, if from the Acts we know that in the 1st century the Torah was read “in the synagogues on every Sabbath,” from this episode, we can also understand that portions of prophetic books were also read at this time.
(to be continued) …
I would like to remind you, my dear readers, that we offer a new course, called Weekly Torah Portion, and those interested to study in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, are invited to sign up for this course (or to contact me for more information and for the discount). Also, for those interested in my books, here is the link to my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/.
 Luke 4:16