“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom…” –Luke 4:16 (NIV)
There isn’t an overwhelming amount of scripture that puts Jesus in houses of corporate worship. There is a significant amount of scripture that puts him in private houses, on seashores, or on hillsides as in his famous “sermon on the mount.” While during the majority of his three-year ministry scripture reads that he took the message to the people, it’s important to note that he was trained as a rabbi. Even Nicodemus, a Pharisee, referred to Jesus as rabbi in John 3:2 when he said, “He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’” Therefore, we know he would have spent a considerable amount of time studying the Old Testament and Jewish law, mostly likely in a synagogue or the temple.
While Jesus was astute to the Jewish laws and did visit the synagogue during his ministry, The Church he came to establish was probably not intended to be simply a building. One of the early meanings of the word synagogue associated it with a gathering of people, mostly Jewish, not just a building for them to meet in. That is how we should view the modern-day Church because Jesus never referred to the “Church” as a building and never even advocated constructing a building to worship in. Many of us likely use the phrase, “going to church” each Sunday morning but the early Church did not “go to church.” Like Jesus did in his ministry, early apostles took their message to the people, mostly gathering in homes.
So, how did the synagogue play into the establishment of the church?
Most authorities connect the origins of the synagogue, whether it was referred to as a gathering of people or a building, with the Babylonian exile when the Hebrews were forced to relocate from their homeland with places of worship to a pagan land. Whether that was the literal case or not, the establishment of the Jewish synagogue played the important role as home bases for early apostles. Early Christian apostles typically sought out synagogues to find similar-minded believers. In ancient times it only took 10 men to establish a synagogue and because of the disbursement of the Jews, synagogues could be found almost anywhere in the Roman Empire. In fact, since many Jews relocated to Egypt, it’s likely Mary and Joseph easily found a synagogue there when they fled Herod the Great after Jesus’s birth.
While Judaism and “The Way” (Christianity) had different styles of worship, they both worshipped the same Yahweh. While parts of the New Testament had been written, they had not yet been widely distributed to all the early Church. Remember, Paul wrote letters to specific people. The letters to Corinth, for example, may have taken decades to reach a good portion of the early Church. So, both Judaism and followers of The Way both relied heavily on the teachings of the Old Testament, even though The Way did not adhere so strictly to the Jewish laws. Because of the similarities, evangelists of The Way often worshipped under the cover of synagogues because Judaism was an official Roman religion.
The Roman authorities required that all religions had to be sanctioned so, in essence, any new religion had to get permission from the government to be recognized. With emperors like Nero and Domitian, The Way obviously struggled to gain official Roman recognition. During the first three centuries Christianity was not recognized as a legal religion so Christians could not corporately own land to build places of worship. It was not until Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, that Christianity was recognized and church buildings were erected. It wasn’t until Constantine established Christianity as the official Roman religion during Byzantine Empire that Christianity eventually prevailed.
Constantine’s Byzantine Empire included most of the areas heavily evangelized by early Christians. The capital was Constantinople in Asia Minor where Paul planted some of his most influential churches, like those in Galatia. The Byzantine Empire also included the land of Palestine, where Jesus obviously established The Church. Constantine was perhaps the most instrumental gentile proponent of early Christianity and he focused a lot of his attention in Palestine preserving sites relating to Jesus. Archaeological evidence shows that both Christianity and Judaism flourished in Galilee, for example, where a church has been discovered directly across the street from a synagogue in Capernaum.
Judaism and The Way were also similar because they were so different within the Greco-Roman society. Believers in each faith may have likely been sympathetic to one other because neither one fit into the polytheism world of the Roman Empire. Residents of Roman society found the monotheistic Judaism religion a completely foreign concept. From nearly sun-up to sun-down, Romans prayed to variety of gods. Early Christians and Jews were even called atheists because they worshipped only one God.
Like the Greeks before them, the Romans worshipped multiple gods and they adopted many of the Greek gods into their own culture and just changed the names. Also similar to the Greeks, the Romans had gods for nearly everything significantly needed in life, from the sun to their individual homes. They even had shrines to “unknown gods” just so they wouldn’t risk offending a god they didn’t realize existed. In fact, some Romans even included Yahweh in their worship because they didn’t want to risk offending him, even though they didn’t understand him. The mythology of the Grreco-Roman cultures practically mirrored each other and it made Christians and Jews stick out like sore thumbs in the Roman Empire.
Christianity caught on with Romans when Judaism didn’t. Both were viewed as mystic religions by the Romans but Judaism was even more misunderstood. Followers of Judaism didn’t assimilate into the Roman culture, mainly because of the strict laws they followed. In addition to worshipping only one God, they also refused to work on the Sabbath, frequent Roman bath houses and participate in other pagan Roman rituals. Still, even some Hellenized Jews (ones that assimilated to different degrees to the Greco-Roman culture) were beginning to distance themselves from traditional Judaism. Those Jews were enjoying the freedom of living in a society with new freedoms not usually typical of Judaism. Christianity offered many Jews a cultural continuity between Roman society and the worship of Yahweh.
Even though New Testament letters from Paul to his churches indicate early Christians struggled with juggling the Old Testament laws with the Hellenized culture, Christianity was still a very new lifestyle in the Roman world. While Christians lived a life with higher morals than the Romans, they did not adhere to all the strict man-made ritualistic Jewish laws. According to author Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity, “The Way” appealed to “God Fearers” (people who respected Judaism but were not willing to adhere to all the structure of it) and was, therefore, often referred to as “accommodated Judaism” because of the similarities between the two. Early Christians accepted all people into The Way, Jews and gentiles alike. They helped the needy, which was a huge population segment and practically unheard of in Roman society. They also offered spiritual freedom to the lower Roman class of people. Where Judaism was structured, Christianity offered a way of hope and freedom.
The unknown qualities of God appealed to the Greek culture. The man named Saul was a strict follower of Judaism. The man named Paul became Hellenized to an extent. While he didn’t compromise his faith, Paul did assimilate into the Greek culture in the places he visited, like Corinth. To be effective, a missionary has to assimilate to gain understanding and trust. He preached about a God not of this world. 1 Corinthians 2:7 reads, “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” The mystique of God was what appealed to the Greeks. The Greeks bowed down to statues and built temples to marble Gods. A God they could not see or touch was intriguing to them and they found our God completely different from the God of Judaism, even though they are the same.
Whether through a synagogue or on the streets, Christianity was meant to stand out. History indicates the early Church was different from the world. The Bible proves The Way was not the typical way of the Roman Empire. Those are history lessons sometimes overlooked by the modern-day Church.
In what other Biblical passages what Jesus referred to as a Rabbi?
What evidence is there that Paul was an assimilated Jew?
Did Jesus assimilate at all into any culture?