Saturday, June 25, 2016

Were there synagogues during the time of Jesus?

Were there synagogues during the time of Jesus? (Pictured: so-called first century synagogue at Gamla)
It seems a silly question. The New Testament (NT) refers to synagogues 56 times. The ruins of first century synagogues have been excavated and identified by archaeologists.
Nevertheless, some scholars today answer the silly question with a resounding No. Their arguments are two.
1) An argument from archaeology: Over one hundred synagogues have reportedly been excavated in Palestine, for example, but almost all of them are from later periods. Archaeologists have identified a maximum of nine synagogue structures dating roughly to the time of Jesus.[i] But some scholars argue that there is nothing about the orientation, design, or ornamentation of these nine first century halls that merits identification specifically as synagogues.

2) An argument from biblical exegesis: Some scholars also refute that synagogue halls are referenced in Bible. Noting rightly that the word synagogue (sunagwgh,) means “assembly,” they argue that the NT term referred to a local gathering of the faithful, not a building. They contend that in every case the word synagogue is referring to an assembly of congregants only, and never to a physical assembly hall.

Putting it together, if no first century hall can be proved to have been a synagogue, and if the NT word synagogue(s) refers in every case to an assembly of believers rather than to a building, then there is zero evidence for the existence of synagogue halls in the first century. Is this possible?
My experience with exegesis is broader and deeper than my expertise in archaeology and architecture, so I will skip for now an analysis of the latter. 

With the Greek Testament at my fingertips, I looked carefully at the 56 times that the word synagogue(s) occurs in scripture. What I was looking for were verses that are written about a synagogue (whether it is said to have been located in Capernaum or Corinth) in such a way that it clearly indicates a physical structure, specifically a Hebrew assembly hall. The results?

  • a)      I found that most of these 56 occurrence are not definitive. That is, the way the word synagogue(s) is used in the NT could be referring to the assembly of the people, the building in which they assembled, or both.
  • b)      I found only one instance of a synagogue as a building that I feel is indisputable.
  • c)      I found another seven instances that strongly indicate that there were first century assembly halls called synagogues.

Here are the eight verses in which the word synagogue indicates a physical assembly hall, beginning with the strongest.

1.      Acts 18:7   Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue.
h` oivki,a h=n sunomorou/sa th/| sunagwgh/| - his house was next door to the synagogue

Note that Luke did not write that the synagogue met next door. He wrote that the synagogue was next door. If the synagogue here in Acts 18:7 refers to an assembly, crowd, congregation, or gathering only, and not to a building, then even if the assembly regularly gathered in a vacant lot next door to Titius Justus’ house, when they disbanded and went home, the synagogue became then no longer next door to Justus’ house.

It makes more sense that Luke is describing two adjacent locations visited by Paul. The sentence makes clear sense only when the parallels are sensical, equivalent, and balanced. He writes that Paul is at one place and, leaving that place, he goes to another place. That is a balanced parallel. Adding additional information, Luke says that these two places are next door to each other. So both are physical places, and the places are adjacent to each other physically.

Also it should be noted that Luke is keen to document Paul’s itinerary in the Book of Acts, and this scene is no different. Paul was here, then Paul went there, and the locations were right next door to each other. Paul left “the assembly house” and went to “the residential house” next door—a simple, clear itinerary.

Only if there existed a physical synagogue building would Luke have written that the Titius Justus’ house was next door to it. Is that not the simplest and clearest meaning?

2.      Luke 7:5    for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us."
th.n sunagwgh.n auvto.j wv|kodo,mhsen h`mi/nĂ… - the synagogue he did build to us

Some elders reported to Jesus that the centurion built (past tense) for us (for our assembly) our synagogue (assembly hall).

If by synagogue they meant an assembly of people and not an assembly hall, we can try to express this meaning. The difficulty is in keeping it in the past tense, as the elders speaking to Jesus did:

·         “The centurion used to uplift our assembly for us.”
·         “For us, the centurion used to provide up-building.”
·         “In the past, the assembly was uplifted by the centurion.”
Note in the original verse the verbs “loves” and “built.” Why did the report of the elders change tenses? They claimed that the centurion loves the Hebrew people (present tense), but then they claimed that the centurion built the Capernaum synagogue (past tense)? If “synagogue” indicates no building/structure, this is what the man’s argument sounds like: 

Yes, he loves us, Jesus, and the centurion used to be supportive, too, but that’s all past. There was a time when he did uplift/inspire our assembly for us, but he stopped blessing the assembly some time ago. No more does he uplift us like he used to.”
This is not a very flattering report to share if one’s intent is to convince Jesus that the centurion is worthy of his time and attention. Jesus might have wondered: What up-building things did the centurion used to do for the assembly, when did he stop doing it, and why?

If the elders were trying to convince Jesus that the centurion is worthy of his attention, why would they say, “Yeah, he still loves us, though he is no longer locally supportive”? Is that really the plain meaning of this text? Does it not sound more convincing for them to say, “The centurion loves us, and as evidence, he even built our assembly hall for us.”

The simplest and clearest meaning of the elders’ report to Jesus is that 1) The centurion loves (present tense) the Hebrew people, 2) and as evidence he built (past tense) for our local assembly a synagogue.

Something similar was done by a centurion for the excavated “church” next to Megiddo. It is dated to the third or fourth century, making it perhaps the oldest church ever found. An inscription there credits a centurion with commissioning its mosaic:

“Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.”

3.      Acts 24:12 They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city.
In the temple, in the synagogues, throughout the city: For the prepositional parallels to work, i.e. make sense, they must be referring to a place, a place, and then a place---all of them places that people can enter, all of them places where crowds might assemble.

Furthermore, Paul spoke of “stirring up a crowd in a synagogue.” If synagogue means only an assembly of people and not a building, then Paul is speaking of “stirring up an assembly within an assembly, a crowd within a crowd.” That is nonsensical.

If, however, a crowd can be stirred up in a city or in a temple, then Paul must also mean that a crowd can be stirred up in a synagogue. He is clearly talking about three places: 1) in the temple, 2) in the assembly halls, 3) in the city. All three are examples of places where Paul might have allegedly disputed with or stirred up those assembled there.

4.      Acts 17:17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
evn th/| sunagwgh/| - in the synagogue 
kai. - and

evn th/| avgora/| - in the agora (marketplace)
If marketing takes place in a marketplace, then, for the parallel to work, assembling must take place in an assembly hall.
If synagogues are not buildings, why did not Luke simply write that “Paul argued with the synagogue (the assembly)”? Instead, Luke wrote that Paul argued in the synagogue (the assembly hall) with Judeans and devout persons (persons comprising the assembly).
If synagogues are not buildings, then Luke wrote, “Paul argued in the assembly with the assembly,” a meaning that no one would vote for. But it makes perfect sense to write, “Paul argued with the assembly (Judeans and devout persons) in (inside of) the synagogue (assembly hall).”

If a synagogue cannot be an assembly hall, then perhaps an agora (marketplace) cannot be a physical marketplace, but merely a term referring to the assemblage of buyers and sellers wherever they may be found. But this is self-evidently not so, as agorae (marketplaces) exist.

5.      John 18:20 Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Judeans come together.”
It would be both redundant and strange to say, “I have always taught in assemblies where people assemble.” Both the synagogues and the temple are paralleled here as places one enters and as places where people assemble. For Jesus’ statement to be true, both must be places where worshipping Judeans assemble. If people assemble in the temple, then people must also assemble in the synagogues

6.      Luke 21:12 "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
·         Arrest and persecute: Both are activities done by authorities to “lawbreakers.”
·         Kings and governors: Both are persons with power over “lawbreakers.”
·         Prisons and synagogues: Both are places where “lawbreakers” are dealt with.
These parallels do not work unless both prisons and synagogues are physical buildings.

7.      Luke 11:43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.
Luke 20:46 "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.
If marketing takes place in a marketplace, and if banqueting takes place in a banquet hall, then for all three of Jesus’ case-study examples to work, to be equivalent comparisons, and to be balanced examples, must not assembling take place in an assembly hall (synagogue), too?

Jesus contends that a market is a popular location where people gather to shop and be recognized. Likewise, a banquet takes place in a dining hall, a popular location where people gather looking for the more honored seats at the table. It follows then that a synagogue also must be a popular place where people assemble looking for a better seat than others for prayer. For Jesus’ one-two-three critique to work, all three must be physical locales where people gather to seek public prestige. People can only jockey for prestige in places of public assembly, and the three places named by Jesus were apparently among the most common and popular in his environs: the marketplace, the banquet hall, and the assembly hall (synagogue).

8.      Matthew 13:54 He came to his hometown and began to teach them in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?
auvtou/ evdi,dasken auvtou.j- - he began to teach them (the assembly)

evn th/| sunagwgh/| - in their synagogue (their assembly hall)

Could Matthew have mean that “Jesus began to teach his hometown assembly in the assembly”? This is what we are stuck with if there are no actual Hebrew halls of assembly for scripture and prayer in the 1st century

The clearest and simplest meaning, however, is that on the Sabbath Jesus began to teach them (teach the assembly) in their synagogue (in their assembly hall)

·         “them” – refers to Jesus’ hometown assembly for Sabbath scripture and prayer.
·         “synagogue” – refers to the facility where those hometown assemblers met for Sabbath scripture and prayer.
My conclusion: Those who deny the existence of synagogue structures in the NT period based on exegesis are incorrect. Eight of the 56 instances of the word synagogue in the NT are almost certainly references to assembly halls that they called synagogues.

[i] Gamla, Herodium, and Masada are the most familiar, but others include Modiin (near Latrun), Wadi Qelt (near Jericho), and Naburiya (near Safed). Some argue that structures (or at least the foundations of them) in Capernaum, Migdal, and Qumran are synagogues dated to the first century.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Improvisational Grace – or the Gospel According to Wynton Marsalis

“For I am convinced that neither squawk nor squeak, neither blare nor bleep, neither growl nor screech, nor any droning organ prelude, neither Christian metal nor Pentecostal polka, nor any caterwauling in all creation, will be able to separate us from the melody of grace that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ---Bert

The Atlantic Monthly printed a story entitled Wynton’s Blues by David Hajdu. The author was present for a jazz performance by world-renowned virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Here is Hajdu’s eyewitness description of what happened.

[Marsalis] played a ballad, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You," unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. "I don't stand ... a ghost ... of ... a ... chance ..." The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone's cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment—the whole performance—unraveled. Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation—which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo—and ended up exactly where he had left off: "with ... you ..." The ovation was tremendous.
Atlantic Monthly article:

When you think about it, how could it have been any other way? How could God have fixed our tune without playing our tune? How could God restore the magic of heaven’s melody without acknowledging our ugly little bleeps, without gracefully playing back to us our ugly little bleeps, and then masterfully improvising on our ugly little bleeps until it transforms back into melodious magic. What is the incarnation, the coming of God in the flesh, if not grace improvising on the sour notes and discordant interruptions of human caterwauling? Our weak flesh ruining the magic is embraced by God, and by becoming sinful flesh Jesus condescends to play our tune and bring the discord back into tune. God in the flesh plays our song, braving the dissonance, cradling our jangled intonations. The disharmony of sin’s interruption is resolved by the creator, but not without his joining in our song. There is indeed magic in the moments of improvisational grace, when intonation is restored and the tone deaf are made pitch perfect.

The crucifixion, the mother of all magic-killing moments, became the high and holy moment of improvisational grace. Jesus took the ugliest tune of all and sang it with all his heart, so that the depraved theme of human violence and hate, sin and death, might not be the last note. The cacophony of the crucifixion was sung by the creator, such that the most strident noise imaginable was transformed into the song of angels: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12)

Because magic ruined became magic restored by God’s improvisational grace, we have real reason to hope and rejoice. When we cannot get a wrecked refrain our of our heads and out of our lives, we have a God who not only knows that refrain, but he sings it with us, and then coaxes us in new directions until the wrecked refrain is transformed and our heartstrings are singing in his key. He does not condemn our tone-deaf chorus. He joins the choir. And look who is in the choir loft with us. Simon Peter, a brassy fishermen whose song always seemed to fall flat, was handpicked by the Lord to tune the orchestra. The Apostle Paul, a Wagnerian horseman breathing fire, and an insufferable music snob to boot, was appointed as choir director. Jesus was not looking for people with perfect pitch. What he was looking for were people who would let him sing along and improvise with grace when they sing a real stinker. For there is not just magic in the melody of the Lord, but there is also magic in his improvisation on our ugly little bleeps.

My heavens, listen to the squawking coming from our churches! And look at us. We sit around pretending that the sound is not like fingernails on a chalkboard. We are in denial. Have we for so long been preoccupied with patting our feet to the ugly little bleeps that we have forgotten the music of the master? And yet . . . the master even squawks along with the church to change her tune. For I am convinced that neither squawk nor squeak, neither blare nor bleep, neither growl nor screech, nor any droning organ prelude, neither Christian metal nor Pentecostal polka, nor any caterwauling in all creation, will be able to separate us from the melody of grace that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is an unresolved element to the Wynton Marsalis story, isn’t there. That is often the case in really good stories, like the Parable of the Prodigal Sons. Did the older brother join the grace party for his little brother? We do not know. I do not know what happened to the cell phone offender, and I am worried about him/her. Let’s call the offender a “she,” for the moment. I imagine her killing the call, running from the room in horror, crying in the lobby, but then she hears what is happening back inside the hall. Wynton is playing her ringtone on his trumpet. Wynton is saving the day. Redeemed by the master, she reenters the venue with a smile, Wynton sees her and points to her and blows her a sweet kiss, the spotlight swings around and finds her, all heads turn, and the offender takes a bow to the renewed applause of a grace-filled congregation. Oh how I do not want her to have missed the spectacular beauty that her error occasioned! I hope to God that she did not miss grace completely redeeming her.

We know by now that we are going to mess up the moment sometimes. And by now most of us know our own graceless patterns, with ourselves and with others. What we have not learned so well is to hear God whistling our messy tunes, right there in our worst moments, showing us that we are not alone, that the Holy Spirit willingly enters our messes with a longing purpose: to show us how good things can come from bad mistakes, that we can learn something, that we can grow, that we can let Christ transform our graceless condemning choruses into something spectacular. If we can do that, we know the next step. Having received grace, and having been transformed by grace, we can improvise on the offensive tunes of those whom we feel have ruined our songs. Who knows? Our enemies might sing along.

Marsalis playing I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You: