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The New Testament Commentary Vol Iii John by B.W. Johnson

Note on the Jewish Synagogue.

It will be of service, in understanding the incidents at Capernaum, as well as the many passages of the New Testament which refer to the synagogue, to have a comprehensive idea of this peculiar Jewish institution. It is not known when the synagogue originated, but it is certain that, when the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the remnant of the nation carried into captivity, the knowledge of the word was preserved by establishing in every community of Jews a place where the law was read and taught to the people. When the nation was again established in their own land, as their institutions emerge into the clearer light of the period near the beginning of our era, the synagogue is found existing in, not only the towns and cities of Palestine, but in every foreign city where there was a Jewish population. In them the Savior, in the earlier portion of his ministry, was a frequent teacher, and Paul in his missionary tours to foreign cities always first sought the synagogue of his own race.

It was a kind of Jewish local church, and permitted the worship of God on every Sabbath at places far away from the temple. Wherever ten Jews could be found it was permitted to, organize one. In it on the Sabbath the Scriptures were read, prayers were offered and instruction was given. No priest was required, there was no professional clergy; there was, however, a |Ruler| with his |elders,| there were subordinate officers, and there was a regular prescribed course of reading. At one end of the synagogue was an |ark| or receptacle where the roll of the law was sacredly preserved and from which it was taken with the most profound reverence. On an elevated platform sat the |Ruler of the synagogue| and the elders; prayers were offered, and after these two lessons were always read, one from the Law, and one from the Prophets; these lessons might be read by any competent person who was designated by the ruler for the duty, and the reader might add his comment. When the Lord appeared in the synagogue at Nazareth he read from Isa. LXI, and then sat down to deliver his sermon, or comment. Any scholar in the law who might happen to be present could be called on for the comment, as there was no appointed preacher, and hence it frequently occurred that when Paul entered a Jewish synagogue in some Gentile city he was invited to deliver the address. The character of the address was more conversational than the modern sermon. Questions were not out of place, objections could be made, and often in the reports of discourses in the New Testament we see the marks of these interruptions.

The synagogue, in Its organization, in many respect's like the Christian congregation, had also the power of discipline, but its penalties were not entirely spiritual. Scourging could be inflicted upon delinquents, and hence the Savior, in Matt.10:17, speaks of his disciples being delivered to the synagogues to be scourged.

The following account of an attempt of the students of Newton Theological Seminary to reproduce the worship of the synagogue in the time of Christ, given by J. H. Garrison, will aid the reader to a correct understanding: |About a score of the young men performed this service. They were appropriately rigged with the conventional uniform, and went through their various parts with becoming reverence. The Law and the Prophets were read in Hebrew and translated by an interpreter into the vernacular of their hearers, which was the custom of the Jews in their synagogue service, after the Hebrew ceased to be the language of the people. The chanting was very good, perhaps much better than that heard in the average synagogue in the time of our Savior. The Law from which they read was a veritable Hebrew scroll, secured from a Rabbi in Germany. Various readers were called out from their number, and while one was reading several others carefully scrutinized each word to see that the reading was correctly done. Every action indicated the greatest reverence for their sacred Scriptures. When the portions of both the Law and the Prophets were read, a speaker was sought for, and the messenger of the ruler of the synagogue had no little trouble in finding some one to address the people. When he found one at last who agreed to 'say on,' according to the invitation extended to Paul and Barnabas, the preacher took his seat in front of the congregation and proceeded to exhort his brethren to faithfulness in the observance of the law of their God. He evinced no little feeling when he alluded to their Gentile oppressors. The address, which was in English, being ended, he asked for questions. A number were asked, indicating by their character, and by the answers, the tendency of the Jews to split hairs on fine points of their law, at that period of their history, a characteristic which is brought out prominently in the gospel narratives. Some further responsive chanting, and a prayer, closed this interesting and instructive service, which was witnessed by a large audience. It explained how Paul would have an opportunity to speak in the Jewish synagogues wherever he went, and brought out very vividly that scene in the synagogue at Nazareth when Jesus read the wonderful prophecy concerning himself, and, when all eyes were fastened upon him, proceeded to announce its fulfillment that day. For the reader was sometimes, though not always, the speaker. The reading of the Scriptures was the main thing in the synagogue service; the speaking was only incidental. It may be safely questioned whether the reading of the word of God has the prominence in our Lord's day service that it ought to have.|

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