Discipling the Nations

The Hasidim: A Jewish voluntary society organized in Bible times.  Our interest in this superb book, Discipling the Nations, is the author’s recounting of the history of a Jewish voluntary society active in the time of Jesus and the two centuries prior. These were the Hasidim. Their mission: holding to the true Jewish faith in the Hebrew (or Aramaic) language during the centuries when Greek language and Greek philosophy were influencing a great number of the Jewish people.[1]  The Hasidim were not pleased to learn that a great number of Jews (such as Philo of Alexandria) had begun to learn Greek and study Greek philosophy. Their assimilation into the Greek culture did not sit well with Jews back in Jerusalem. The Hasidim were decidedly against the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a translation known as the Septuagint. Hasidim felt strongly that the Jewish faith could not be translated and opposed the Hellenization of Judaism. The Hasidism strongly supported the Maccabean Revolt in 167-160 BCE.

We do not agree with the mission of the Hasidim. In fact, “The Greek Bible translation became the great missionary force of the Hebrew Bible.”[2] That is, the Greek population of the Near East—numbering in the millions—would be able to read the Bible on account of the Septuagint translation. Our interest is that De Ridder has written this history of the Hasidim, thus providing the reader with an example of a Jewish hevrah, or voluntary society, that was active in Bible times. He also wrote a very interesting history on the origins of the synagogue.

The synagogue. The synagogue is so a familiar an institution today that we may imagine, incorrectly, that it was the way Jews have organized their religious observance from the beginning. It did not exist in the time of Abraham, or Moses, or David. But in the four gospels and the book of Acts the synagogue is front and center, fully accepted. Where did it come from?  De Ridder is very helpful here:

The return from the Babylonian Exile in 536 BC marked a turning point in Jewish history. The Hebrews entered captivity as a nation; they emerged from it as a religious community. . . . The Synagogue represented for Israel an entirely unprecedented form of religious activity: the popular worship of God, without sacrifice, and the instruction of the community in the implications of Scripture as applied to living according to Yahweh’s will. The wonderful jewel that Israel possessed was not be wrapped in a napkin, hidden and buried, but needed to be displayed, offered to all to see and share. The Synagogue provided the means to that end.[3]

There were antecedents to the Synagogue: “all the meeting places of God in the land” (Psalm 74:8); “the house of the Lord” in Jeremiah 41:5; a “house of the people” (Beth Am) mentioned in Jeremiah 39:8; the “small sanctuary” (mikdash ma’at), which Jews cite as a reference to the establishment of a synagogue (in Ezekiel 11:6).[4]

After the time the Temple was destroyed (in 70 AD) the Synagogue was the instrument that preserved the Jewish way of keeping their religion.[5]

Jews preferred to worship with people who shared common interests:

We thus read of the ‘synagogue of the Alexandrians’ in Jerusalem, the ‘Synagogue of the Roman Jews’ in Mehuza of Babylon, the ‘Synagogue of the Babylonians’ in Tiberias, and the ‘Synagogue of the Greek-speaking Jews’ where most of the service was conducted in that language. One also reads of the artisans who had their own places of worship such as the ‘Synagogue of the Copperworkers in Jerusalem,’ where separate seating arrangements were made for members of each of the artisan guilds.[6]

“Both Philo and Josephus say that the purpose of the Synagogue was to promote the moral and religious education of the Jewish community.”[7] In the book of Acts we read that “the Torah was read every sabbath day in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). De Ridder wrote (in another book):

One can hardly conceive of more providentially supplied means for the Christian mission to reach the Gentile community. Wherever the community of Christ went, it found at hand the tools needed to reach the nations: a people living under covenant promise and a responsible election, and the scriptures, God’s revelation to all men. The open synagogue was the place where all these things converged. In the synagogue, the Christians were offered an inviting door of access to every Jewish community. It was in the synagogue that the first Gentile converts declared their faith in Jesus.[8]

Christian churches followed the synagogue pattern. Ralph D. Winter wrote that the structure so fondly called “the New Testament church” is basically a Christian synagogue.”[9] Moreover, the Christian mission agencies are not a recent innovation, but trace their existence to Jewish mission agencies—such as the Hasidim, that were active in Bible times.

In conclusion, synagogues and the Christian congregations have the same purpose for their respective adherents. Similarly, Jewish havurot, such as the Hasidim of Biblical times, have the same purpose as Christian mission societies. As Ralph D. Winter wrote:

In fact, the profound missiological implication of all this is that the New Testament is trying to show us how to borrow effective patterns; it is trying to free all future missionaries from the need to follow the precise forms of the Jewish synagogue and Jewish missionary band, and yet to allow them to choose comparable indigenous structures in the countless new situations across history and around the world—structures which will correspond faithfully to the function of the patterns Paul employed, if not their form![10]

[1]  Richard De Ridder, Discipling the Nations (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975).p. 81

[2] Ibid. p. 84

[3] Ibid. p. 77

[4] Ibid. p. 79

[5] Ibid. p. 78

[6] Ibid. p. 79. Quoting I. Levy, The Synagogue, p. 23ff.

[7] Ibid. p. 81

[8] Richard F. De Ridder, The Dispersion of the People of God (Netherlands: J.H. Kok, N.V. Kampen, 1971). 87

[9] Ralph D. Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” Missiology 2, no. 1 (1974). 1

[10] ibid.