Photo: Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Damian, one time abbot of Ascension Monastery
Years ago, when I was a parish priest in Atlanta, the Ascension Monastery in Resaca, Georgia was under the Russian Church Abroad. Actually, I think when we first moved down there they were still OCA, then they switched to ROCOR. Today I think they are under the Jerusalem Patriarchate.
Anyway, they used to put out a publication called The Harvest with the blessing of Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan (ROCOR). I am posting an excerpt from a continuing piece they had included in this publication entitled The Apostolic Origins of the Orthodox Church. I do not know, nor does it indicate who authored the article. This is taken from the December 1999 issue:
“The Epistle of James supplies us with further Scriptural evidence for the Jewish roots of Christian worship. For the word in James 2:2 referring to a Christian occasion or place of worship, usually translated as “assembly”, in Greek is actually “synagogue.” That Greek term means both Synagogue and the Synagogue-type Service of worship. James here indirectly indicates that the early Christians thought of their place of worship as a Synagogue, where they celebrated Christianized Synagogue Service of worship.
The word “Synagogue” is found forty-four times in the New Testament; but, ironically, the word Synagogue, which today we customarily associate exclusively with Judaism and the Old Testament, is not to be found anywhere in the Old Testament. For the Synagogue was a development in Judaism that postdated the writing of most of the Old Testament Scriptures.
The word “Synagogue” is from the Greek, meaning “to gather together.” The Jewish Synagogue has its origin in Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity. In 597 and again in 586 BC, the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar deported the most prominent Jews from Israel to his capital city, where they and their children remained in exile for approximately 100 years. During that time, it became customary for the Jews to gather on the Sabbath to hear the Scriptures read, to sing Psalms, and to receive instruction. This practice developed into an orderly pattern of liturgical worship. The Jews, of course, were already quite accustomed to liturgical worship in the Temple, so it was only natural for them to develop liturgical forms of worship in their Synagogue Services.
By the time of Christ, the common order of Service in the Synagogue was as follows: the Service began with several readings from the Scriptures, followed by preaching from various individuals who would be invited by the Synagogue leader to comment on the day’s readings; finally, Psalms were sung and appropriate Benedictions were recited. At the end of the service, men who were of priestly families would be invited to recite Aaron’s Blessing (Numbers 6:26).
The typical Synagogue in the first century was an open hall, with no seats for the congregation. At one end (facing Jerusalem if possible) there was a “bema” or high place, which was an elevated stage-like platform. In the center of the wall behind the bema was the seat of the ruling elder, with seats for his council on either side. In the center of the bema itself stood a table upon which sat both the “Menorah” (a seven-branched candlestick) and the Ark, a decorated cabinet containing the Scrolls of the Scriptures.
After the return from the Babylonian Captivity and the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews brought the custom of Synagogue worship to Judea. But not all the Jews returned to the Holy Land. Those who remained behind in Babylon continued to worship in their Synagogues. By the beginning of the first century, the custom of Synagogue worship had gradually spread throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Jews from all around the ancient world were able to participate in and benefit from Temple worship only if they made a pilgrimage to the Temple in the Holy City. Back home it was the Synagogue which naturally was the center of Jewish life and worship.
Temple worship centered on the offering of sacrifices. Synagogue worship centered on reading, preaching the Word, singing the Psalms, and the offering of Benedictions. Worship, both in the Temple and in the Synagogues, was understood to be fundamentally an act of praise to God, and focused only secondarily on seeking His blessings. The emphasis, in other words, was on giving, not receiving. The benefits one derived from both Temple and Synagogue worship were the by-product of one’s participation in the acts of adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to the God of Israel.
The only detailed instructions in the Bible for Services of worship are the elaborate rules for the sacrificial rites set forth in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. But even there, we find no directions on how exactly to offer a sacrifice. Some contemporary traditionalist Jews, dreaming of restoring Temple worship, have found this fact truly a stumbling block. For if they were to reconstuct the Temple, how exactly would a sacrifice be performed? No one today knows.
Since we find no reference to the Synagogue in the Old Testament, obviously neither will we find any directions in the Old Testament on how to conduct a Synagogue Service. The manner of conducting worship in the Synagogue, like the instructions for offering sacrifice, was a part of Jewish tradition found outside of Scriptures. According to the Scriptural record, neither Jesus nor the Apostles had the slightest difficulty with this fact, for, as we have seen, they all participated in Synagogue worship on a regular basis. They had no reason even to expect the Bible to provide directions on how to conduct Synagogue worship.
We do have a very good idea today of how a Synagogue Service was done two thousand years ago, simply because the Jews have been conducting Synagogue worship all along, without break, even to this present time. Modern Jewish Synagogue worship, as well as Jewish home worship, is part of a living tradition. On the other hand, however, we do not know today the finer details of the sacrificial worship of the Temple, since the Jews were forced in AD 70 to cease offering the liturgical sacrifices ordered by the Law of Moses. In that year, the Imperial Legions of the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the last Temple of the Jews.”