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What's the origin of the rabbinical system and the Seat of Moses?

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The words "synagogue" and "rabbi" do not occur in the Old Testament, so the rabbinical system must have arisen during the Inter-Testamental period. Is there a reliable history of the roots of the system? And how did the "Seat of Moses" come into existence? (4/26/08)


The Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary has fifteen pages of tiny print devoted to the synagogues of Biblical times. I’m going to give you a very brief summary.

The Greek word synagogue means “gathering place,” without any particular religious connotation. Among Greek-speaking Jews and Christians, it gradually came to mean “a house of worship and instruction,” and this is the sense of “synagogue” in the New Testament.

There seem to be three basic views on the origin of the synagogue: The idea that synagogues originated during the Exile in Babylon comes from Carolus Sigonius, a 16th-century expert on the political institutions of the Greeks and Romans. Here’s what Sigonius had to say, from Interpreter’s Dictionary: Scholars have bickered back and forth since the time of Sigonius and added some details and nuances, as scholars are wont to do; however, in large part his view seems to be the prevailing one today.

According to The Layman’s Bible Encyclopedia, prayers and preaching were eventually added to the reading of the Law, and the synagogue became the regular place of worship. (Clearly, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, synagogues became the only place of worship.) Each synagogue was led by Elders, who also had judicial authority over the members. The Ruler ran the synagogue on a day-to-day basis and appointed the people who were going to participate in the service. Someone could be chosen on the fly to read the scripture; for example, see Mark 6:1 (Matthew 13:54, Luke 4:16), where Jesus is visiting a synagogue and reads from Isaiah. Visiting rabbis might also be asked to teach, and we see Jesus teaching in synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee (for example, Matthew 4:23, Matthew 9:35, Luke 13:10).

I once attended Temple Albert here in the city. Had I been blind, I would have had some difficulty telling it from a typical Protestant church. We sang hymns, we prayed, and we heard a sermon. There was no cross in the front of the sanctuary, which would have been a clue, but would not necessarily have ruled out a Christian worship service. The big giveaway was when a worship leader – possibly the rabbi or the cantor, but I forget – took the Scroll of the Torah from the Ark and walked through all the aisles, and everybody who was within reach made an effort to touch it. There was no mention of Jesus, of course, but I was perfectly comfortable with the worship service and would attend a synagogue again if no Protestant or Catholic church were available.


“Rabbi” literally means “my master.” Apparently it came into the language as a loan-word from the Babylonian “rab,” which meant “chief.” This suggests that the office of the rabbi originated in Babylon along with the synagogue. By the time of the first century in Palestine, “Rabbi” was used in the same way as “master” or “teacher.” In John 1:38, John equates the Hebrew word rabbi and the Grek word didaskale, and we know that the latter means “teacher,” pure and simple. “Rabbi” could be used as a polite form of address to anyone who was held to be more knowledgeable than the speaker, especially about the Law. Early rabbis were not worship leaders (except by coincidence). Worship was led in the Temple by the priests, and in the synagogues by the elders. Some rabbis were acknowledged experts in the Law, and they studied and interpreted the Law, taught their own disciples, argued with other rabbis, and wrote. We would probably call these rabbis “professors.” Sometimes the NT refers to them as “teachers of the law,” and we might also call them “lawyers.”

The destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70 precipitated a crisis. How were Jews to worship properly without the ability to make sacrifices? The emphasis shifted from sacrifices to studying and applying the Law and the oral traditions surrounding the law, and the rabbis were and still are the experts there.

Over the course of time, some rabbis have retained the original role and others have become worship leaders and pastors. Specially trained rabbis also give binding judgments under the Law about specific cases. Today rabbis go to special schools and are ordained, like ministers of the gospel.

Seat of Moses

In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus says, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So do whatever they tell you and follow it, but stop doing what they do, because they don't do what they say.”

I consulted several references about the Seat of Moses, and amazingly enough they all said about the same thing. There wasn’t any physical “Seat of Moses.” It is a figure of speech. It’s almost exactly like what we mean when we refer to a college “chair,” which is not furniture, but rather a specially funded teaching or research position held by some professor who is thought to be particularly worthy. The Law and its interpretation were handed down from Moses to Joshua to the judges and tribal elders to the prophets to the scribes and Pharisees. Each of these leaders in turn held the “chair.” The Contemporary English Version has a really excellent translation of this idea: “The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don't do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.”

There were sometimes “seats” (no capital letters) in the synagogues that were the places of honor for the local teachers, and some of these are called “the Seat of Moses” in various publications. Nevertheless, that is not what this verse is talking about, because this verse is using a figure of speech.

Copyright 2008, 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by RPB.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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