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My question in Luke was actually one I had never thought about before, and one that I learned a lot from once I started researching. As I was reading chapter 4 in Luke, I came across this set of verses:
16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.
This section is talking about when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and makes everyone in the synagogue furious with him, to the point that they chase him out of the town and try to throw him out of the town by throwing him off a cliff. Dramatic, much? Wow.
Surprisingly, that’s not what caught my attention and made me re-read the passage. It was actually verse 16, the very first one in the story.
16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.
I was perplexed by this. Why on earth was Jesus, some random carpenter that everyone probably regarded as “crazy” or “a heretic,” allowed to just waltz up into the synagogue and start giving a sermon? This is the question I seek to answer in the next few moments of your time.
The Synagogue – A History
Synagogues were not anything like I thought they were! I was baffled when I learned all of this information. I’m sure you may have talked about this in OT, so for the veterans, this may not be that interesting of a section.
Synagogues seem to have originated sometime around or after the Babylonian Exile in 598/7 B.C. If you’re unfamiliar with the Exile (as it is commonly referred to in Jewish history), this was a period of time when the Jewish people were deported from Jerusalem after being conquered by the Chaldeans – a people originating from present day Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. At this time in history, Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Chaldeans. He only really exiled the more prominent Jews – the wealthy, craftsmen, priests, and professionals. The “common man” or “people of the land” were allowed to stay in the land of Judah, and almost nothing is known about them, except what is found in the OT book of Lamentations. This tells the story of famine and pretty much is the most depressing story ever.
During the time of exile (approximately 70 years), the Jews that were forced to relocate to Babylon were able to retain their culture – religion, philosophies, and practices. These 70 years saw a sort of repentance attitude from the Jewish people, and an attempt to return to Jewish tradition. It is believed that the Torah was shaped into the text we know it as today during this time, and it then became the central text of the Jewish belief system.
Back to synagogues! I apologize, but this small bit of background information was necessary to understand the need for a synagogue. See, the Jews were displaced. Although they were all kept together when sent out of the country, they were (if traveling straight across the desert) 500 miles from their home and from a large portion of their people.
In order to thrive in a new land and to keep the group together, they established a central meeting place where business, prayer, and education could take place. Considering how prolific the Jewish people were in construction, I’m sure they had some wonderful meeting places in Babylon, but I also wonder if they knew that they would not stay there. There are not many ruins to be found of Babylonian synagogues, but several in Palestine.
So, already, my beliefs about synagogues have been thrown out the window. Here I am comparing them to the Temple, and they are actually public spaces! Most of what we know about them is found from the ruins in Palestine, and writings after the return of the Jews in 538 B.C. due to a decree by the ruler of the Persian empire, Cyrus, who commanded them to return to Jerusalem specifically to worship Yaweh.
Synagogues – A Brief Overview of Structure
I feel that it is mildly important to include this in the information I provide, just so we can gain some understanding of what Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for in Luke 11:43.
According to this source, the synagogue looked something like the photo below.
There were stone benches (as seen above) on three sides of the room, and a table (or platform) in the middle of the room for speakers to stand at (on), as well as possibly a menorah or some other religious symbol. The more wealthy or prominent in society would sit on the benches, and the lower classes would sit on the floors- sometimes on mats, but sometimes just flat on the floor.
This is why what we see Jesus getting angry with the Pharisees for in Luke 11:43 makes sense.
43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.
Synagogues – Daily activity vs. Sabbath Day
From the same source, I found some interesting information that will help us get closer to answering this question I have posed.
Daily life in the synagogue consisted of business meetings, school, court cases, and any other kind of town meeting needed.
Concerning school, all children up to age 15 went to school, but most did not stay past age 11 or 12. The boys who stayed in school were very gifted, and could continue all the way to age 15. Girls were typically married by this time, so they did not continue their education. Curriculum consisted first of studying the Torah, and in later years, the complicated, deeper interpretations of the text. Because learning was done orally, students had to memorize everything. By the time you were an adult, you would know most of the Scriptures by heart. This progression of education as they aged shows why Jesus did not start his ministry until age 30.
The Mishnah (the written record of the oral traditions of Jesus’ time and after) recorded that the gifted student began study of the written Torah at age five, studied oral traditions at age 12, became a religious adult at 13, studied the application of Torah and tradition at 15, learned a trade at 20, and entered his full ability at 30.
In keeping with his culture and traditions, Jesus followed the normal path that anyone else would have to become a teacher, or Rabbi. Being called this was not arbitrary or flippant – if you were called a Rabbi, then you must have studied under a Rabbi first. Since most scholars believe that the disciples were in their teenage years, it makes sense that Jesus would “call” them (or select, as a teacher would do back then [much like a college selects students today]) to follow him and learn his ways. It may also explain their ignorance and general lack of observation when it came to the things that he told them (repeatedly). Following a Rabbi was an honor, and it meant that you were exceptional in your ability of learning and interpreting Scriptures. This makes the fact that Jesus chose “regular” people instead of scholars that much more significant.
Things were a little different on the Sabbath Day. As we all know, the fifth commandment that Moses gives to the people in Exodus chapter 20 shows that the Sabbath Day was to be kept holy, and no work was to be done. This includes business transactions and court meetings. On this day, the synagogue is where the people met for prayer and Scripture reading. Services began with blessings to God, and the reciting of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Torah scrolls were brought out and read by different people who were scheduled to do so. This was a set schedule, and there was no disputing it. You also did not get to choose what it was that you were to read. You showed up on your day, they handed you a scroll, you read it, and then you sat down.
After the Torah reading, excerpts from the prophets were also read, sometimes by the same person and sometimes by someone else. After all of these readings, a short sermon was given, often by the same person that read the Torah, or someone else. Anyone that was considered an adult in the community was allowed to give the sermon, although I’m sure this was still scheduled as to who it was, as well.
Finally, the answer!
So, looking at the information we have, its pretty easy to see the answer to our question. At least, I hope it is. The manner and timeline in which Jesus lived his life shows that he followed the customs of his people, which meant that he would have been on this schedule of people who read at the Sabbath Day services. The phrase “as was his custom” doesn’t seem so intruding to me now. It wasn’t his “custom” to go around busting up in people’s services and taking over. It was his custom, as we should assume from seeing his character throughout the book, to follow along with the traditions of Jewish culture (not to be confused with man-made traditions, which he rebukes the Pharisees for in the beginning verses of Matthew chapter 15).
I hope this helps give you some information about the context behind these verses, and helps you understand Jewish customs a little better. I know I feel more educated after having written this!