Monday, March 5, 2018

Philosophical Schools: Early Christian and Jewish Scripture Reading

I have been slowly reading through Brian J Wright’s excellent new book “Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices,” which came out December 2017. I can’t recommend this work enough and I hope to give an extensive review once I finish plodding through the amassed information (it is rich with primary source material). Until then, I can’t help but write a little on some of the gems. One such nugget are the references to Philo of Alexandria’s (ca. 20 BCE-50 CE) descriptions of synagogue worship (Wright, 102-104). There are two such references in Philo’s works and Wright quotes both of these in full. What is particularly striking to me is how similar these descriptions are to Justin Martyr’s famous reference to Christian worship around 100 years later. The similarities are still present even later in the writings of Tertullian of Carthage who wrote about 150-160 years after Philo. I thought it might be helpful to quote each of these in full for comparison purposes. Philo wrote
“For that day [Sabbath] has been set apart to be kept holy and on it they abstain from all other work and proceed to sacred spots which they call synagogues [συναγωγαί]. There, arranged in rows according to their ages, the younger below the elder, they sit decorously as befits the occasion with attentive ears. Then one takes the books [τὰς βίβλους] and reads aloud [ὰναγινώσκει] and another [ἕτερος] of especial proficiency [τῶν ὲμπειροτάτων] comes forward and expounds [ὰναδιδάσκει] what is not understood.” (Good Person 81-82; Wright, 103)
Philo gave another similar description of synagogue worship in a different work;
“And indeed [δῆτα] they do always [μὲν αἰεί] assemble and sit together, most of them in silence except when it is the practice [νομίζεται] to add something to signify approval [προσεπευφημῆσαι] of what is read [ἀναγινωσκομένος]. But some priest who is present or one of the elders reads [ἀναγινώσκει] the holy laws to them and expounds [ἐξηγεῖται] them point by point till about the late afternoon, when they depart having gained both expert knowledge of the holy laws and considerable advance in piety.” (Hypothetica 7.13; Wright, 104)
Now compare this reference to the Christian worship gathering described by Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 CE) from about 100 years after the time of Philo. Justin wrote,
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” (1 Apol 67)
Justin Martyr is likely describing the practices in and around Rome which is where he likely wrote his 1st Apology. However, considering that Justin was born in Palestine, and spent some time in Ephesus, his description may include Christian communities in these regions as well. Fast-forward another 50 or so years and we have Tertullian (ca. 155-240 CE) who gave a description of Christian worship practices in Carthage. Tertullian wrote,
“We are a body knit together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with him in our supplications….We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful. However it be in that respect, with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more stedfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered.” (Apol 39)
The similarities between Philo’s synagogue services and Justin and Tertullian’s Christian services are these;

1) The scriptures are read out to the gathered assembly. Without getting into detail about which Christian texts, it can be fairly certain that the Hebrew scriptures were being read, obviously in the Jewish synagogues, but also by the Christians (in Greek or possibly Latin) in both Justin and Tertullian’s descriptions.

2) Someone else stands and exhorts, preaches, or teaches to the congregation from the text that was read. In Philo, this person is either an individual of “especial proficiency,” a priest, or an elder. In Justin, the speaker is the “president,” the “προεστὼς” who gives the “speech,” the “διὰ λόγου" (Blunt, 100).

3) The congregation comes together, at least in part, in order to gain instruction on Godly living and habits. In Philo, it is to “advance in piety,” in Justin, it is to “imitate these good things” found in the scriptures, and in Tertullian it is to “confirm good habits” that are derived from “God’s precepts.”

From these references one can see how much the Christian worship practice of reading scriptures and preaching and exhorting from them is rooted in the Hebrew synagogue tradition. There seems to be very little parallel in the Greek and Roman culture, even though communal reading of texts was a widespread and common phenomena (see Wright’s work on this for nearly exhaustive coverage of primary source material), the systematic study of texts coupled with a lifestyle of adherence to these same texts can only really be found in the various philosophical schools. This comparison comes out in the writings of the physician Galen of Pergamum (ca. 129-215/16 ce) who, when briefly mentioning the Jews and Christians, refer to them in the context of philosophical ‘schools’;
“They compare those who practice medicine without scientific knowledge to Moses, who framed laws for the tribe of Israel, since it is his method in his books to write without offering proofs, saying ‘God commanded, God spake.’” (On Hippocrates Anatomy; Wilken, 72)
In another place he mentions Christians and Jews together as belonging to philosophical schools;
“For one might more easily teach novelties to the followers of Moses and Christ than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools. So in the end I decided that I should avoid unnecessary talk by having nothing to do with them at all, which is what I do at present and what I shall continue to do in the future.” (De pulsuum differentiis; Wilken, 72)
When writing for a Roman audience, Flavius Josephus (ca. 37-100 CE) in similar way compared his own Jewish tradition with Greek and Roman philosophical schools. He wrote;
“For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees, of the second, the Sadducees, and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essenes.” (Jewish War 2.8.2)
Both the Jewish and Christian communities stood out against other contemporary religions of antiquity in that they were more like the philosophical schools of the day. Both Jews and Christians were communities of followers who gathered together for the close reading of their books and a discussion of how to apply these texts into their everyday lives.



A. W. F. Blunt, ed. "The Apologies of Justin Martyr" (Cambridge Patristic Texts. A. J. Mason, ed. London: Cambridge University Press, 1911).

Brian J. Wright, "Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices" (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

Robert Louis Wilken, "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them" (2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

English translations of Justin Martyr and Tertullian of Carthage are taken from, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 1885–1887. 10 vols.

English translation of Josephus taken from the translation of William Whiston located at

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