Jewish Scripture Reading

The Introductory Rites have prepared the assembly to be nourished by the Word of the Lord. Through various Scripture readings, God speaks directly to his people, and the faithful are brought to a deeper understanding of the continuity of the work of salvation.

God’s word is his communication to mankind–one of the ways he makes himself known to us. The scriptures record Yahweh speaking directly to our primordial parents and to the patriarchs:

The Garden of Eden, Cranach, 1530

“The LORD God then called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?””–Genesis 3:9

“The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.””–Genesis 12:1

To many of the prophets, God chose to use dreams and visions as vehicles for his word.

“Now listen to the words of the LORD: Should there be a prophet among you, in visions will I reveal myself to him, in dreams will I speak to him…” –Numbers 12:6

To the historians, chroniclers and psalmists, God’s word inspired them to write. For the ancient Hebrew people, there was no distinction whether God spoke directly, spoke through a prophet, or if his speech was formulated in writing–it was all the same utterance of God—His holy Word—which has been handed down to us in an inspired collection of 46 Old Testament books. To this was added the Christian writings—The New Testament—making the number of books in Catholic editions of the Bible to total 73. [note]Catholic Bibles contain 73 books where most Protestant editions contain 66. When the Bible was formed, the Septuagint–a Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures–was in common use. In the year 100 A.D., Jewish rabbis revised this canon and excluded some of the books. The early Christians, however, continued to use the Septuagint and the canon of the Bible was declared official by the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. In the 16th century, Protestants decided to use the revised Jewish canon for their Old Testament. The extra books were moved to a section called the apocrypha. The King James Version was originally published with the apocrypha, but was eventually dropped from future Protestant editions. Catholics refer to the apocrypha as the deuterocanonical books. The claim by some Protestant groups that Catholics have “added books to the Bible” is simply not historically true. It is the redactors of the King James version who dropped the deuterocanonical books—books which were in use by Christians for over 1,500 years. The Catholic and Protestant New Testaments, however, are identical.[/note] God’s Word possesses power and might. With his word, God brought the universe into existence, and the world into order. The Scriptures themselves attest to the potency and permanence of the Word of God:

“So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent.” -Isaiah 55:11

“Your word, LORD, stands forever; it is firm as the heavens.” –Psalm 119:89

“Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever.” –Isaiah 40:8

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”–Matthew 24:35

“He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.”–Deuteronomy 8:3

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness, Tissot, 1886 : When tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus resists using his power to avail himself of food and opens himself to God’s will. He rebuffs the devil by quoting the passage from the book of Deuteronomy above.

“The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”–Matthew 4:3-4

The importance of the Word of God in the lives of the ancient Hebrews is undeniable. Ever since the proclamation of the Law by Ezra the priest in the 4th century B.C., the Sacred Scriptures have played a central role in the worship life of the Jewish people–especially with the increasing popularity of the synagogue.

Biblical engraving depicting Solomon’s Temple, 1660

The historical development of the synagogue has its roots in a time of great woe. For the Hebrews, there was only one temple–Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It was the hub of Jewish religious life. In the year 597 B.C., Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar pillaged Jerusalem, destroyed its solitary temple and deported many of the Jews to exile in Babylon. This is the end of what is known as the First Temple Period. Without access to their temple, the sacrificial aspect of the Judaism was suspended. Out of necessity, they had to create a surrogate institution to sustain their religious way of life. The faithful Hebrews, while in Babylon, would gather at specific locations for the reading of the Law and the Prophets, and dispose themselves to instruction.

King Cyrus the Great

In 539 B.C., the Babylonians fell to King Cyrus of Persia who allowed the people of Judah to return to their homeland. Even after their return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, these new local places of study and worship were established all over the land. By the time of Jesus, they were called synagogues.

The Scriptures and the Synagogue
Jewish scripture reading in first century Palestine primarily took place in the synagogue (συναγωγή)–a Greek word meaning a place of meeting or assembly. A typical synagogue service consisted of:

  1. The Shema: A Jewish prayer that begins with Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. The Shema is said to be the most important part of the Jewish prayer service. The prayer, which is a composite of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41, affirms the basic tenets of the Jewish faith. The Shema is recited in the morning blessings and when the Torah is taken out of the Ark. It is traditional for Jews to say it on their deathbed–the last words before dying. When a person is praying the Shema alone, the phrase God, Faithful King (El melekh ne’eman) is added to bring the number of words to 248, equalling the number of parts in the human body. This symbolizes that the person in prayer dedicates his or her whole body to God’s service.
  2. Berachot: A series of praises to God that begin with the Hebrew word תוכרב or blessed.
  3. Ritual Prayer: This prayer concluded with an opportunity for each member of the assembly to pray in silence.
  4. Scripture Reading: A selection of the Torah was red aloud. Afterwards, passages from the Prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah were read.
  5. Psalm Singing: In response to the scripture readings, the assembly sang Psalms which were regularly used on feast days.
  6. Sermon: Those gathered were instructed through a sermon whose goal it was to weave the readings together and imbue it with a meaning that was relevant to the assembly.
  7. Blessing: Closing the service was a blessing given by a kohein (ןֹּהֵכ)–a priestly member of the assembly with direct patrilineal descent from Aaron. If one was not present, the final blessing was substituted with a prayer.

Almost every Jewish community had its own synagogue that would host weekly meetings to worship God through the Scriptures. A synagogue was to be established wherever there was a minyan–ten Jewish men. [note]A minyan refers to the ten Jewish adult males necessary to conduct certain religious observations–especially a public prayer service. Jewish sages  believe that wherever ten Jewish males assemble for worship or scripture study, the Divine Presence dwells among them.[/note] At the time of Jesus, there were no less than 480 synagogues in Jerusalem and several cities beyond the Mediterranean basin had their own. In the synagogue, worshippers believed in one God, read the Scriptures and awaited the Messiah–fertile grounds for missionaries carrying the Gospel message. The Apostle Paul would typically visit synagogues in various cities to preach about the risen Christ:

“When they took the road through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they reached Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Following his usual custom, Paul joined them, and for three sabbaths he entered into discussions with them from the scriptures.”-Acts 17:1-2

St. Paul, Di Bartolo, 15th century

Paul was a Pharisee and no stranger to the synagogue or its service. At the time of Jesus, there were three major factions within Judaism: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Paul called himself a Pharisee:

“…My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees…”–Acts 23:6

[note]The Pharisees were the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. They vehemently upheld the Torah and observed the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form. They believed in an afterlife where God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous.[/note] Like Jesus, all the first Christians were Jewish, and the initial missionary outreach of the Church was to the Jews. It was natural then for the early Christians to continue to follow their Jewish traditions and, once they developed their own liturgy, to continue the practice of Scripture reading.