Jordan J. Ryan has written one of the most important books I have read in decades. It is a welcome book in the first instance, simply because it provides a readable, well-informed presentation of crucially important recent developments in the study of synagogues from the late Second Temple period. However, its value far exceeded my expectations. Bringing his research and reflection to bear upon the current state of Historical Jesus studies, the implications are staggering. It is one of those books that left me glaring at what seemed ridiculously obvious and wondering why I (and no one I have read on this topic) had never seen it for myself.
The basic argument is simply that Jesus’ activities, particularly in Lower Galilee, tended to revolve around the synagogue. But the default setting for most readers of the Gospels, is subconsciously to imagine that the synagogue is akin to a proto-Baptist Church, a religious community concerned with ritual, worship, preaching and hearing the Word of God. Ryan, however, draws together different strands of synagogue tradition, focussing upon the prominence in Galilee of public synagogues that functioned largely in the way that a modern Town Hall might. That is, in an era where religion, politics, and social relations were inseparable, any event in the synagogue entailed each of these elements.
What is more, rather than having rows of seats pointing towards a sole platform at the front of the building – rows of benches lined three of four of the inner walls. All of this suggests that those who speak in a synagogue ‘take the floor’ at the centre, and in the ensuing discussion and debate, members faced one another. Given that the culture was dominated by the conventions of winning honour and averting shame, such a setting is indispensable. Public exchanges, regardless of the subject, were always and invariably honour-hierarchy disputes – engagements in which some would win honour at the expense of others. The subject could be politics, taxation, nationhood, justice, biblical interpretation – but the dynamics of the synagogue were often those of a township making decisions.
Hence when Jesus, or his ambassadors, entered villages and towns, they brought with them a message of the Kingdom of God. Far from being an exclusively religious message – it concerned the heritage of their people, their relationship to God, and their dealings with one another, their political leaders and their imperial masters. When Jesus brought a message of the Kingdom to a synagogue, he came to force a decision about the governance of his people. That message was delivered both in word (his rhetoric) and his action (particularly in the form of healing), as demonstrations that the God of Israel has now become present to his people. Though different individuals might respond in various ways, it was the synagogue that spoke for the town as a whole. In fact, those in positions of influence within the synagogue thus had enormous responsibility because their response to Jesus’ message would have implications for every member of their community, not only themselves.
Here, a parallel from other ancient literature may prove illuminating. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, recounts multiple instances of ambassadors commissioned to enter different townships with a vitally urgent message about governance. Rhetorical skill was crucial, as highly articulate orators engaged in debate, in attempts to convert whole townships – exhorting them to shift their allegiances in the war in order to avert impending wrath. This, of course, is precisely the activity of the envoys Jesus commissioned and sent out, and one can imagine the synagogues filled with furious debate as community representatives made their decisions concerning the message they heard. Jesus and his disciples sought to win the allegiance of Galilean townships for the Kingdom of God, warning of the consequences of rejecting their message.
The experience of reading this book has left me needing to re-interpret multiple passages of the Gospels with which I have long been familiar, reading them in entirely new ways. Ryan helps this process along himself, offering some outstanding exegesis of particularly apt incidents such as Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, and Jesus’ teaching in Capernaum.
Given the breath-taking scope of his study, the detailed archaeological information conveyed and the literary history of the synagogue, Ryan’s book is not only thoroughly readable. It is written with such fluidity of style that it rapidly becomes a sheer pleasure to read. The only current drawback with the study, is its price. Given the electrifying nature of this work, I am tempted to say that – for anyone with a normal job – it is well worth purchasing (currently $71 / £59). I very much hope this is an issue that can be resolved, because this is a book that deserves to be widely read. It is at least twenty years since I encountered a study that has caused me to revisit and rethink my entire reading of the Gospels – but it is no overstatement to claim that this magnificent volume genuinely achieves nothing less.