The Jewish Synagogue and Jesus (An Imaginative Explanation)

Jesus, the first time I heard you teach was in my local synagogue, and after listening to you teach on that passage from Isaiah 61:1-2, I realized that you were unlike any other teacher that I had sat under. You see I’ve been around synagogues all my life. They exist in all sizes some are small groups that meet in houses (usually it takes a group of about 10 or more Jewish males to call it a synagogue) and others are large groups that meet in buildings. The size and the grandeur of the building usually depends on the size and the wealth of the Jewish community. Some of the larger cities have many synagogues so that observant Jews could be within reasonable walking distance. My synagogue is a place where I can gather with other Jews on the sabbath and on holy days to recite the Shema (Deut 6:4-9), worship and receive education in the Torah. We also use the synagogue in order to meet the needs of others. This is the place where we give our money to help the poor and where we collect and distribute food to the hungry. On occasion, we even bake unleavened bread there when we are low on supplies. The head of the synagogue and the synagogue council do a great job at overseeing all the religious and ministerial activities.  I particular like that the synagogue is a place where new or visiting people can connect with one another. Often when fellow Jews are new to town, they need work and the synagogue gives them an opportunity to meet those with similar occupational skills and endeavors.[1]

Jesus, as you can tell I have experience with synagogue life, but when you showed up on that day, I sensed that my experience of the synagogue was about to radically change. There was something different yet familiar about you. You were different because you spoke with such authority and your gracious words penetrated my soul in such an amazing way. You were familiar because I had seen you before. I couldn’t remember where I had seen you until someone whispered to me that you were Joseph’s son. You returned to your home town to give that powerful teaching in the synagogue. I’m sorry for the way my neighbors responded that day. I was impacted so deeply that I decided to follow your ministry, and so I travelled to other synagogues where I knew that you would be teaching. Teaching in the synagogue seemed to be a primary focus of your early ministry, and you appeared to have high esteem for the institution of the synagogue.  Jesus, I learned so much from you on those many sabbaths. What struck my heart evenmore than your teaching were the healings you did in the synagogues. I was there when you delivered the man from the evil spirit (Luke 4:31-36), when you healed the paralyzed man and forgave his sins (Luke 5:17-26) and when you healed the man with the shriveled hand (Luke 6:6-11). Also, a synagogue ruler named Jairus tells how you raised his daughter from death (Luke 8:40-56).[2]

Jesus, your life and ministry was truly God’s kingdom come to earth, and for me, I will most treasure those times in the synagogue, especially those first words you read,

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

[1] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era : Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1999), EPUB edition, ch. 10, “The Synagogues.”

[2] B. Chilton, “Synagogues,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background. Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, 1145-1152.

Hermeneutics: Part 2

The Goal of Hermeneutics

The primary goal of a biblical hermeneutic is to discover meaning, and more specifically the original meaning intended by the authors and their desired response by the original readers[1] Then, the next goal is to apply the discovered original meaning and desired response to the present contextual moment.  Fee and Stuart write, “the task of interpreting involves the student/reader at two levels. First, one has to hear the Word they heard; he or she must try to understand what was said to them back then and there. Second, one must learn to hear that same Word in the here and now.”[2]

As mentioned earlier, there are gaps between the ancient world and the modern world that need to be bridged, which is fundamentally a historical task.  Therefore, historical methods are needed in order to study the historical context, setting and circumstances of the text.  This involves exploring the background information of each writing (i.e. author, date, place of writing, recipients, purpose, occasion) and the cultural setting each writing is located.[3]

Another method of great importance is literary study. The biblical writers used of all types of genres (i.e. narratives, genealogies, biographies, prophecy, poetry, proverbs, gospels, letters, sermons, and apocalypse); therefore, literary methods focus on interpreting these various types of genres and how they flow together to create the overall thought pattern, structure and outline.[4] Closely related to literary methods is grammatical analysis, which involves studying sentence structure, the definition of words and the syntactical meaning of word connections.[5] 

When interpreters follow these methods, they take an author and text centered approach in order to arrive at the original meaning of the text as intended by the original author, and this is the the meaning that should be applied to people’s lives in the present. Biblical interpreters should always begin to determine meaning by the plain reading of the text and then further investigate by using the historical, literary and grammatical hermeneutical principles in order to arrive at the most accurate meaning of the text.

Validating Meaning

Once interpreters have completed the hermeneutical process, it is important to validate their interpreted meaning. However, if the correct hermeneutical steps have been followed and preunderstandings and presuppositions have been addressed, then most of the needed validation would have already been accomplished through the the process. In some specific cases where a passage presents interpretive challenges that would require a more creative interpretation, Klein et al. propose four criteria for testing the validity of an interpretation: 1) the interpretation should express or conform to the tenants of the orthodox Judeo-Christian faith. 2) the interpretation should align with God’s truth and activity as presented in the clear and historically interpreted sections of the Bible 3) the interpretation should attest to the the practical experiential outcomes of the Judeo-Christian faith 4) the interpretation should have confirmation from a wide range of believers from differing contexts within the orthodox faith.[6]

Even with this criteria, there may be moments where interpretive meaning may be difficult to validate due to difference within the faith community.  At this point, for the unity of God’s people, interpreters should agree to disagree while acknowledging that biblical hermeneutics can only take them so far in understanding God’s written communication.  Finite humans will always face challenges in understanding an infinite God. Nevertheless, faithful interpreters should continual strive to understand God’s message to humanity. The Bible is much more that a just an interesting piece of literature.  It is God’s love letter to humanity.  

[1] William Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Revised and Updated ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2004), 169.[2] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1993), 19. [3] Ibid., 22. [4] Ibid., 23. [5] Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1983), 30-32. [6] Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard Jr., Introduction, 206.