Corporate Worship on the Sabbath

A few weeks ago, I was having a discussion with former Seventh-Day Adventist (and now Catholic) Theresa Beem on synagogues.  See here for a post that she wrote on the topic.  The question that she asks is this: “Did Jesus and the apostles go to the synagogues to worship?”

I was coming across as rather dogmatic in the discussion, but, here on my blog, I will be more three-dimensional, for the discussion got me thinking about certain issues, and it highlighted both what I do know, and also what I do not know.

The reason that this question is important to Theresa is that it relates to the question of whether or not we are commanded to attend church on the Sabbath.  There are Adventists who have contended that we are commanded to do so, for Jesus and Paul attended the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2).  But, for Theresa, the synagogue in the first century was not a place for corporate worship, but rather a place for study, teaching, and debate on the Scriptures—like a Sabbath school class, as opposed to a worship service.  Theresa argues that the synagogue became a place for corporate worship under rabbinic Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.  Theresa’s point here is that corporate worship on the Sabbath is a rabbinic tradition, not a command from God.  As far as commands from God are concerned, Theresa contends that the Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible is a day of rest, not a day of corporate worship, and that corporate worship was only to occur in the Tabernacle or Temple—which was where sacrifices were made to God, and where the Israelites were to gather before God three times a year.  But the Israelites did not worship corporately every Sabbath day, since, for many of them, the journey to Jerusalem was quite a trek!  That may be why they only had to appear before God at the central sanctuary three times a year.

I’ll start with where I disagree with Theresa, and then I’ll detail some of the thoughts that the discussion engendered in my mind.  I think that there is evidence that Jews before 70 believed that they could pray outside of the central sanctuary, and that the New Testament presents approval of that practice on the part of its heroes.  In the discussion, I quoted a paper that I wrote for a class on pre-70 synagogues:

“The synagogue was also a place of prayer. Such a function is evident in Diaspora proseuchai (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 14:260; Philo, Flaccus 120-123), which is not surprising, since Diaspora Jews probably used prayer to compensate for their distance from the Jerusalem temple. Regarding Palestinian synagogues, Josephus refers to the Jews in the Tiberias proseuche engaging in the customary service and offering up their prayers (Josephus, Life 295). Moreover, Josephus implies that the synagogue was a holy place, for he says in Jewish Wars 2:289 that a Judean synagogue was defiled when Gentiles sacrificed birds at its entrance. First century C.E. literary sources present synagogues as holy locations for the study of scripture, community meetings, and prayer.”

So, according to first century sources, there were houses of prayer in the Jewish Diaspora, as well as in Palestine.  The New Testament acknowledges this point, for Acts 16:13-16 depicts Paul going to a prayer gathering in Philippi on the Sabbath.  There is debate about whether or not we can conflate the proseuche with the synagogue,  but, in Matthew 6:5, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their showy prayers in the synagogues.  That tells me that synagogues were not only places of study, but also places of prayer.  One could argue that Matthew dates after 70 and thus is depicting a post-70 reality, but I did not open that can of worms, for my impression was that Theresa accepts the Gospel of Matthew as a historically-accurate source for what was happening before 70.  But, even if Matthew is presenting us with a post-70 reality, I still feel that I have documented that there were prayer gatherings outside of the central sanctuary prior to 70—from Philo and Josephus.

But my mind is still unsettled.  At this point, my thoughts will be rather scattered.  Here are some issues:

1.  A point that I repeatedly made in my discussion with Theresa was that Deuteronomy prohibited sacrifice outside of the central sanctuary, but not worship.  Her response, which she supported with Scriptural references, was that worship is integrally connected with sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible.  And, indeed, in many cases, it is, for the gatherings at the central sanctuary and the activity at the Temple are referred to as worship, and there are places in the Hebrew Bible where worship and sacrifice appear to be in parallel with each other (i.e., II Kings 17:36).  I cannot downplay the connection between worship and sacrifice while the Temple still stood.

I referred to incidents in the Hebrew Bible in which prayer was made without a sacrifice, but she pointed out that those were incidents of individual worship, not corporate worship.  I then wondered if there is evidence in the Hebrew Bible of corporate worship occurring outside of the central sanctuary—without animal sacrifices being offered—and I remembered Deuteronomy 16:7-8.  In that passage, God commands the Israelites to sacrifice the Passover at the central sanctuary, and, in the morning, they are to return to their tents.  On the seventh day of Unleavened Bread, they are to hold a solemn assembly to the LORD their God.

Jeffrey Tigay, in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Deuteronomy, states that this means that the Israelites are to leave the central sanctuary after the Passover sacrifice and return to their homes.  On the seventh day of Unleavened Bread, they are to have a solemn assembly at a local site.  According to Tigay, Jewish halakhah assumes that the Israelites went home after the Passover sacrifice, for halakhists struggle to harmonize the Israelites going home right after the Passover, with the rule that there is to be no long-distance travel on the Sabbath (which the first day of Unleavened Bread—right after the Passover—is).  Bernard Levenson states that Deuteronomy allows for a local solemn assembly because Deuteronomy needed to preserve some localization in its dramatic shift of society towards the central sanctuary, for only so much custom could be uprooted!  And the New Jewish Publication Society’s translation of Deuteronomy 16:7 affirms that the Israelites are to go home right after the Passover.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the Israelites returning to their tents meant that they were going back to their homes, rather than to tents that they set up in Jerusalem.  In I Kings 8:66, the Israelites go to their tents after they are done celebrating a festival.  Granted, there are passages in which the Israelites remain in Jerusalem for all seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—such as II Chronicles 30:21 and 35:17.  But there is good reason to believe that Deuteronomy 16:7-8 presents the Israelites going home after the Passover sacrifice, and having a local assembly on the last day of Unleavened Bread—an assembly which would not have had animal sacrifices, for (according to Deuteronomy) those could only be offered at the central sanctuary.

2.  Theresa’s argument that the Israelites celebrated the Sabbath in their homes has merit, for Exodus 16 says that the Israelites could not leave their homes on the Sabbath.  Rabbinic Judaism takes this command seriously, which is why it has the eruv—a way to make a number of houses into one “home” so that Jews can travel to the synagogue on the Sabbath.  Such a practice may even have existed before 70 C.E., for Acts 1:12 refers to a Sabbath day’s journey.  But did the eruv exist in the time of the Hebrew Bible?  I do not know.  Perhaps Exodus 16 commanded the Israelites to remain in their homes on the Sabbath, period, but that is not the only perspective in the Hebrew Bible.  II Kings 4:23 implies that Israelites visited prophets on the Sabbath day.  Plus, there are places in the Hebrew Bible that appear to associate the Sabbaths with assembly (Isaiah 1:13; 66:23; Lamentations 2:6; Hosea 2:11; etc.), which would occur outside of the home.

3.  In a sense, prayers in the exile were intended to take the place of sacrifice.  I think that we see this sort of notion in the Hebrew Bible, for Hosea 14:2 refers to the calves of the lips, or prayer.  The rabbis regarded prayer as a replacement for sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.  But why were there houses of prayer while the Temple was still standing—during the Second Temple Period?  One reason was probably that there were Israelites who lived far from the Jerusalem Temple.  But the Jewish Encyclopedia states, “According to one legend, there were 394 synagogues at Jerusalem when the city was destroyed by Titus (Ket. 105), while a second tradition gives the number as 480 (Yer. Meg. 73d et al.).”  If these synagogues existed, did they arise after the destruction of the Temple in 70?

I have a few other questions: Does orthodox Judaism require Jews to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath day?  If prayer replaces sacrifices, and those sacrifices were required by the Torah, are the prayers required?  And, if so, are they required in an assembly, or a minyan?

4.  My discussion with Theresa made me recall a class that I took with David Kraemer at Jewish Theological Seminary.  Kraemer’s argument (if I’m remembering it correctly) was that there is no evidence of Jewish corporate prayer in the Second Temple Period.  The Book of Daniel, for example, presents Daniel praying in isolation, not in a community.  Theresa’s distinction between individual and corporate worship has been made by others.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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