First Century Congregational Structure-Part 3

The Synagogue was not just a place of prayer, but a community center where various groups could meet, like the trades, to discuss current issues and events. The building itself was usually divided into two main areas. The first area was called the Beit Knesset meaning “house of assembly” and that is where the Torah readings and prayer services were held.

The second area was called the Beit ha Midrash meaning the “house of study” and it is where biblical studies and scriptural discussions were held. A synagogue usually had some sort of cooking area because they would feed the needy, take care of travelers and hold other functions there.

Each synagogue had a small court called a “Beit Din” meaning house of judgment. Laws were set and annulled there and rulings were made at a local level to decide controversies and settle issues, using the Torah as a guide (Matt 16.18-19; 18.15-20; 1 Cor 5.12-13; 6.1-7). Courts like these in churches today would be a disaster because of a lack of knowledge.

In Matt 16.19, Yeshua uses the term “binding and loosing” and these are legal terms referring to these courts in what they permitted or forbid, it has nothing to do with binding Satan or demons. The synagogue was responsible for the overall welfare of the community. A home fellowship that had 10 or more people (called a minyan) was considered a synagogue and it had a structure. The Nasi (president) attended to the ritual, the teaching and liturgy. The “Rosh Knesset” (head of the assembly) is another term for the Nasi.

In Acts 5.33-40 we see a man called Gamaliel, who was the grandson of Hillel the Great. We see him speaking for the Sanhedrin because he was the Nasi.
Next we are going to talk about the role of women in the synagogue, but we are going to give a very brief backround first. The Talmud, meaning “to study”, was written by Pharisees. It is made up of the Mishnah, which has 6 orders or tractates and was written around 200 AD by Judah ha Nasi (the president). The second pat of the Talmud is called the Gemara and it is a commentary on the Mishnah.

The Orthodox Jews today are not parallel to what the first century was like. You can’t look at the Jewish community today and say “this is what the Jews were like in the first century.” The Sadducees were mostly priests and there were many other groups like the Boethucians, the Sicari, the Zealots, Chasdim, Essenes, Theraputae, Am Ha Eretz, Hellenists, Traditional, Babylonian, Alexandrian and many others. However, we don’t have their writings. Only the writings of the Pharisees remain and they didn’t care much for all the other groups (Acts 23.1-10).

When you read the Talmud, you must take into consideration their biases. Now, the Sadducees had power in the Temple, but after the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, they lost their platform. Books began to be compiled for hundreds of years after the time of the Sadducees, so what we get is the view of the Pharisee.

Dates will be important to keep in mind when looking at this subject. In 10 AD, the 18 Edicts were passed that limited contact between the Jews and Gentiles. It was a man-made wall that was built because the Roman Godfearers (like Cornelius) were not trusted by the Romans because they did not know what “side” they were on. The Jewish believers didn’t trust them either. So the 18 Edicts were passed and the circumcision of converts was required. We have a teaching on the 18 Edicts on this site which will help explain Acts 15 and the book of Galatians concerning the circumcision of Gentiles.

Yeshua is slain in 30 AD and the first Jewish revolt began in 66 AD. The Temple and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. In 90 AD the Nasi of the Sanhedrin was Shimon ben Gamaliel, the grandson of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher. His contemporaries were men such as Tarfon, Akiva, Eleazar ben Hyrcanus, Yehoshua, Eleazar ben Azaryah, Yochanon ben Zakkai and Rabbi Meir. Some of these rabbi’s were most responsible in the reconstruction of the “Judaisms” of the first century into one what will be known as “Rabbinic Judaism.”

There were many changes in the “Judaisms” during the first century, especially between the years 70 AD to 90 AD. These changes set the stage for what we read today. The Mishnah won’t be written for another 130 years, but when they do, everything had changed, including the role of women. As a result, what you read in the Talmud and the Mishnah about women is after these changes took place. Jews could not even be in Jerusalem by 130 AD, Passover changed in 90 AD. It went from two cups of wine to four, the story of the Exodus was added to give hope to the people after the Jewish revolt. Let’s use Passover as an example of these changes.

In 1 Chr 28. 11-19 and Rom 9.4 we learn that the Avodah (the service) in the Temple was given by God. God was directing the people through the services to teach them his ways. The Passover was a way to do this, but after the Temple was destroyed, there was no way to instruct the people except through teaching. In Egypt, we know that the people were in affliction. Moses comes to deliver the people and the lamb is slain, the people delivered and they enter the wilderness to the Promised Land. The fullness of the story teaches us that we are in affliction and Yeshua comes, the Lamb is slain and we are delivered and enter the wilderness on our way to the promised land. Judaism changed from being an “aggadic” (story telling, parabolic) expression of the faith to a “halakic” (meaning “how to walk”) expression because the Temple was gone and the people needed to know what was happening and how to walk in the commandments.

So, along with these changes between 70 to 90 AD, the role of women changed. For example, in Ezra 2.64-65 we learn that the Temple had 200 men and women singers. If you ask a Rabbi today if there were women singers in the Temple, they would say “no.” Women had a role beside the men in the Temple during all of its history (1 Chr 25.5-6; Neh 7.67. The “Huldah gates” on the south side of the Temple were named after a female prophetess who taught there (2 Kings 22.14. Later, other rabbi’s taught there in the second Temple.

In another example, there was a rabbi called Meir and he had a wife named Beruriah (she lived around 170 AD). She is quoted as a sage and a scholar in the Talmud. She was known for her wisdom and came up with the well known saying “hate sin and love the sinner” (page 588, Hertz Siddur). There are many stories about her. One story says that her two sons were killed by the Romans in one day, also a Sabbath. She didn’t want to disturb him on a Sabbath so she waited to tell her husband Meir about their sons till sundown. She asked him a question saying “Some time ago a friend gave me some jewels to keep for him. Today, he demanded them back. What shall I do?” Meir said “Why do you ask me such a question. You should immediately give them back.” Then she led him to the room where their two sons lay, and said “These are the jewels I must return” (page 270, Hertz Siddur). This is just an example of her wisdom. However, many became jealous of her because she was an equal to Rabbi Meir.

The point of all is to show that the opportunity for her to study and be a spiritual leader was there. She was later “set up” by jealous rabbis in what was referred to as the “Beruriah incident.” What happened is not clear but one story has her committing adultery and committing suicide. Another says she was so overcome with grief over what she had done she became sick and the rabbis prayed for her death and eventual peace. Whatever the truth is, it didn’t end well for Beruriah and it is not clear what exactly happened. From that point on, the rabbis did not permit women to have any role at all in spiritual things. The truth is, first century synagogues/congregations were not divided and segregated like today. Jewish writings and 19 Greek and Latin inscriptions from Israel, Greece and Egypt and lands in between have been found showing that women served as Rosh Knesset/Nasi, zekanim/elders, leaders and “mother of the synagogue.”

Scripture tells us that women served as prophets, sang in the Temple courts and were sages, scholars, judges, zekanim/elders, shamashim/deacons (Rom 16.1; 1 Tim 3.11), evangelists (John 4.7-30; 20.11-18) and teachers. Hopefully, as people go back to the Torah and are taught of the Lord, they will be able to return to the roles they had before the second century. In Part 4, we will pick up here and continue discussing the synagogue/congregation structure, its functionaries and role in a community.

Posted in All Teachings, Articles, Idioms, Phrases and Concepts, Questions, The Tanach, Understanding the New Testament

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *