19 November 2001

I don't usually respond to comments here on the main blog, but given the length of what needs to be said, I will in this instance.

Travis writes:

Schlissel's caution about the role of the eucharist in worship exposed my lack of understanding regarding the issue. It seems that Schlissel's view is due to or at least influenced by his belief that Christian worship is to be based upon the synagogue rather then the Temple. Do you recommend any works which deal with the Temple/synagogue issue?

I have read some of what Schlissel has written regarding worship and the church against the backdrop of synagogue and Temple and I think you understand him aright. While I do find many of his criticisms of an overly narrow "regulative principle of worship" to be cogent, I must admit I don't find his claims about the synagogue as the primary background for new covenant worship to be really at all helpful or convincing.

Let's start with the eucharist. A couple of questions that would be important here are [1] how central was the eucharist to the worship of the early church and [2] what is the relationship between the eucharist and the worship of the synagogue and Temple.

With regard to question [1], it seems to me that the eucharist is of the essence of Christian worship. The early church met in order to break bread together on the first day of the week. We know of no form of early Christian Lord's Day worship that did not include the Supper as one of its central actions. The Gospels (written to eucharist-celebrating communities) are shot through with stories of Jesus' table fellowship with the people of Israel, with miraculous feedings, with the climactic institution of the Lord's Supper as Jesus' "last word" to his disciples before his crucifixion, and with his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples in the contexts of meals (preeminently on the road to Emmaus). I can't see how the early church could have understood these stories as not relevant to their celebration of the Lord's Supper. The book of Acts continues this pattern and it is presupposed by the epistles, even if it does not appear explicitly on every page.

The answer to question [2] will, I think, help make sense of question [1]. The relationship between the ritual meal that Jesus left to his church and the worship of the Old Covenant is a complex one. Several observations, however, are, I think, fairly straightforward:

[a] Under the Old Covenant, only the priests could eat within the sanctuary, though they could never drink wine. No one could eat or drink wine in the Most Holy Place. There was a certain kind of exclusion from eucharistic communion in God's presence. In the New Covenant that is overcome in Christ who invites his people in the heavenly Most Holy Place where he is seated in order to share a meal with him. This wonderful new thing is part of why the early church was, I think, so excited about the eucharist and even celebrated it daily for a time.

[b] That being said, it is also clear that Temple worship in the Old Covenant was characterized by sacred feasting. Many of the offerings included portions that were to be eaten and, in the case of the sacrifice of peace, that meal included not only God and the priests, but also the worshippers. It also seems that when a series of offerings was made, it ordinarily was concluded with the communal meal of the peace offering (we can recall that "shalom," peace, can also imply completion or finality). Besides the offerings, there were also the yearly festivals, particularly Passover, Booths, and Pentecost that were to be celebrated in Jerusalem in connection with Temple worship, all involving communal meals.

[c] I would also submit that Jesus' action at the Last Supper, taken in context, is offering to his disciples what the worship of the Temple once offered. It is the concluding act, short of the crucifixion itself, by which Jesus was forming a new community around himself that would replace the Temple and its worship. And what Jesus did in the upper room must be read against the backdrop of what he had done earlier in the week at the Temple.

Through his action against the money-changers and others at the Temple, Jesus brought to a climax (short of the cross itself) his challenge of the symbolic world of the Judaism of his day. He was, in effect, saying that this whole system was going to come to end since it was no longer needed as part of God's plan now that he was there and, besides, the role of the Temple had been thoroughly corrupted by the various competing parties within Judaism who each claimed it as their defining symbol. As such, Jesus' action in the Temple was the end-point of a whole series of similar actions ranging from healing on the Sabbath to not washing his hands.

The other, more constructive side of Jesus' ministry was his claim that he himself had come to replace the Temple and what it had once offered. In the place of the central symbols of Judaism--family, the twelve tribes, the land, sabbath, torah, food laws, sacrifice, and so on--Jesus had offered a new family, a new Twelve, his sabbath healings, his own teachings, miraculous feedings, and so on. The true restoration of Israel would take place in and through him. And with regard to the Temple, it had long stood as a symbol of Israel's covenant with her God, a sign of forgiveness, a pledge of final peace in the land and freedom from oppressive powers, and a place where God's people could renew covenant with him through their festivals, offerings, and communal meals.

The institution of the eucharist at the Last Supper was the climax (again, short of the cross itself) of Jesus' setting himself and his community in the place of the Temple. He took up the Temple-feast and sacrificial meal of Passover--a sign of exodus, a pledge of restoration, the hope for forgiveness and a renewed covenant--and placed himself in the very center of it. It was no longer simply a commemoration of the long ago exodus nor just a pledge of God's future deliverance. Rather, it became a proclamation that the exodus all along had pointed to Jesus' exodus upon the cross and that through this exodus Israel's true restoration would finally be accomplished: a new covenant, the forgiveness of sins. And to share in that meal was to be part of that new covenant people, forgiven and restored. As such, sharing in that Supper would come to symbolize, in every place it was celebrated, what once was made available particularly through the Temple.

In light of the eucharist and flowing out from it, the worship of the early church was seen in thoroughly sacrificial terms: an offering up of self to God in worship and service, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, the sacrificial giving by God's people to the needs of the poor, and so on. After all, even the preached Word, according to Hebrews, comes and cuts us up like an offering.

This kind of thinking is not at all Roman Catholic and actually differs significantly from the Roman Catholic understanding of the eucharistic sacrifice against which the Reformers were reacting. Indeed, this is a thoroughly Reformed understadning of worship and eucharist (see, e.g., authors as diverse as Calvin, Beza, Turretin, Perkins, Baxter, Vines, and du Plessis-Mornay).

None of this is to deny that the early church may well have adopted various things from the synagogue whether the lectionary or forms of prayer or aspects of the presbyterate. But it does place an important emphasis upon the Temple as central to understanding the liturgical theology of the New Testament church.

Let me return to Schlissel's claim, then. I would also add that, even if, for the sake of argument, one granted Schlissel's synagogue-focus as providing the primary background for the development of new covenant worship, I'm not sure how much it would help his case.

Recent scholarship regarding Second Temple synagogues has emphasized how much they apparently saw themselves in continuity with the Temple and its worship, albeit apart from animal sacrifice. It seems that all the major "elements" of synagogue worship can be traced back to the Temple (Peter Leithart as an article on this forthcoming in WTJ). In fact, there is significant evidence that the synagogue was considered an extension of the Temple. Thus, in the Second Temple period, when a Jew entered a synagogue in Ephesus, he thought of it as a way of entering into the Temple in Jerusalem.

As a matter of historical fact, most people are probably aware that the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 led to the abandonment of literal animal sacrifice by the Jews. Moreover, what the sacrificial system had been taken to express was seen by Jews in the wake of AD 70 was continued in various ways by synagogue practices (e.g. almsgiving, Torah-study, etc.), even if those practices were not taken as fully adequate replacements for sacrifice. What is not so widely recognized is that the transition to non-sacrifical synagogue expressions of what the Temple had once provided was not simply a stop-gap and ad hoc theology developed in the wake of the Temple's destruction. Rather, it represented the filling out and deepening of trends that had been in place since at least the Maccabbean period.

If, in fact, Jesus' entire ministry was the kind of eschatological challenge to the Temple that I've suggested it was and if the community Jesus was building served as an alternative to that Temple, then (even apart from all the specific New Testament Temple and sacrificial references to the church), it would be exceedingly surprising if the earliest church had not developed its theology and worship in terms of Temple models, especially in light of the trajectories already likely in place in the synagogue system. After all, it was just those trends in Jewish thought about the synagogue that led to a different, though also sacrificially symbolic, re-appropriation of Temple symbols in the post-AD 70 synagogue.

So, it seems to me that not only is Schlissel's appeal to the synagogue, in isolation from the Temple, problematic and fails to prove his point, but it also can be deployed to make a case in precisely the opposite direction--that the possibility of Temple- and sacrificially-oriented community apart from Temple and sacrifice was already being anticipated in the Second Temple synagogue and should not be taken as at all surprising when encountered on the pages of the New Testament as the outlook and practice of the earliest church.

Besides all that, I believe that Schlissel's use of synagogue materials for his arguments is too selective, relies too heavily on relatively later sources, and fails to take account of the signficant counter-evidence.

I hope this is helpful.