Focus on Jesus Series
The Synagogue System and Early Christianity
by Ed Vasicek
When we read about Jairus, he is described as "a ruler of the synagogue" in Capernaum. Christ often frequented and taught in this synagogue, and it appears that Jairus had been won to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, perhaps from those teaching experiences.
God nowhere instituted the synagogue. For the better part of Israel's first millennium as a nation, they had no synagogue. The synagogue appeared after the Jews returned from Babylon, perhaps having been developed during the captivity. Its purpose? For the Jews to have a system to indoctrinate their people (and hold one another accountable). Jesus patronized and seemed to approve of the synagogue concept.
Synagogue leaders were lay leaders in the sense that they were not generally paid for services rendered. Modern synagogues have carried over some of these traditional methods of organization, but often employ professional, full-time clergy (Rabbis) and often hire professional Cantors as well.
We will look at some of the similarities between the ancient synagogue officers and the ancient offices of the Church (most of this material comes from Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church by Ron Moseley or Unger's Bible Handbook by Merrill Unger).
The main leader of the synagogue was called the President (the nasi). He was a general supervisor of all synagogue activities. Modern synagogues also have a "president." Within Christianity, even as late as AD 150, the leader of a church congregation was called the "president" rather than the "pastor." This is probably the position Jairus held.
Ron Moseley mentions a second officer: "…a public minister of the synagogue called a chazen who prayed, preached behind a wooden pulpit, and took care of the general oversight of the reading of the Law and other congregational duties. He did not read the Law, but stood by the one who did, to correct and oversee, ensuring that it was done properly." Moseley argues that this office was sometimes referred to as, "overseer of the congregation, angel of the church, and minister of the synagogue." Unger tells us that he was also responsible to administer the discipline of scourging when appropriate.
A third main office involved three men called gabbay tzedikah, "the receivers of alms." They would receive and distribute benevolent gifts and answer questions about the Law. Modern Judaism refers to these officers as elders.
These were the three main officers of the synagogue, and, though not exactly coordinated with New Testament offices, you can see the functions associated with the New Testament Elder (including preaching/teaching elders) and the office of Deacon.
Other positions included the shaliach, the announcer, the maggid, a migratory evangelist, the batlanim, a scholar who was either independently wealthy or receiving support, the zakin, an older wise man (over 50) who offered to counsel younger people, the rabbi, who was considered a sort of prophet who read the Word, preached it, and exhorted the people, and the meturganim who interpreted the ancient Hebrew into current language (as well as, "adding to the meaning…").
When you contemplate these offices, you can see how they prefigure both the offices of the New Testament and some of the spiritual gifts mentioned by the Apostles. Although the early church was not exactly modeled after the synagogue, it was organized along similar lines. In a limited sense, we can better understand the church of Jesus Christ by improving our understanding of the first century synagogue community.
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