Understanding Christian worship from its Jewish background: Part 1


Christian worship developed from Jewish temple and synagogue worship. Jesus was a Jew and so were his disciples. They worshiped in the Temple when they were in Jerusalem and in synagogues in Galilee. In Nazareth Jesus “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day as was his custom”. There, he read the scripture portion for that day, from Isaiah 61 and proclaimed the advent of his mission (Luke 4:16)..

Paul found a ready platform for his message in the synagogues of the Diaspora Jews.. The early believers too whorshiped in the Jewish synagogues that spread throughout the Mediterranean world. 

The First Temple:

In Jewish history, we talk of two temples: The First was built by Solomon. According to 1 Kings 6 he began to build the temple “in the four hundred eightieth year” after the Exodus, and “the fourth year of his reign”.

Before the FirstTemple there was the tabernacle which lasted 440 years. Solomon’s temple in turn lasted for 410 years and was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 BCE and the Jews were taken into Babylonian captivity (Exile).

Cyrus, the Persian king, conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews in exile to return home and rebuild the temple. Ezra, chapter 3 states: “Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, with his kin, set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the Law of Moses the man of God”. It continues: “…the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel, and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord”.

Note that King Hezekiah, in his reforms and restoration of the temple, had similarly “stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of the prophet Nathan, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets” (2 Chronicles 29:25).

Celebration of holy days as set out in Exodus and Leviticus was a major aspect of temple worship and included sacrifices.

These are some of the things that emerge from an overview of worship in the FirstTemple: Sacrifices with officiating priests, liturgical music, designated Levitical temple officials, vestments and other liturgical instruments like candles and altar. From Isaiah 6 and Daniel 7, we can also conclude that the temple worship was a reflection of the worship in heaven. This perspective is of great benefit when reading the book of Revelation in the New Testament.

Obviously there was no temple worship in Babylon during the exile and that marked the beginning of synagogues. At first they were community centers where Jews assembled to discuss community affairs. Then they incorporated public worship in the synagogues. Incidentally, synagogue is a Greek word and means an assembly.

After the exile and the rebuilding of the temple, worship continued in synagogues for those outside Jerusalem. However, the three Pilgrim Festivals – Passover, Pentecost and Succoth (The Feast of Weeks, or Tabernacles) required pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Second Temple:

Jesus’ time was in the Second Temple Period. Even though the temple in Jerusalem was not that rebuilt in the days of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, it is, nevertheless referred to as the SecondTemple and the former, the continuation of the First.

In the 18th year of Herod the Great’s reign (20-19 BCE) he began a massive project of rebuilding the temple and it was completed in 64 A.D, more than 80 years later. (The temple itself was finished in a year and a half but the temple courts and outer buildings took that long).

The Gospels declare that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagoguees” Capernaum was the center of his Galilean ministry. The synagogue there provided him a platform for teaching and healing ministry. (See, for example, Mk.1:21-22; Lk.4:31-36; 7:1-10; Jn.6:59).

What was synagogue worship like?

To begin with, it was liturgical.because of its temple origins. The Shmoneh Esrei – or 18 Benedictions (even though there are actually 19) is the centerpiece of synagogue worship and is believed to have been composed by the “Men of the Great Assembly” in the 5th century BCE. The oldest part of the Jewish Prayer is the Shema (Dt.6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num.15:37-41).

There were three sacrifices daily in temple times. However, during the Exile, the sacrifices were replaced by three daily prayers: Ma’ariv – Evening Prayers – Shacharit – Morning Prayers – and Minchah – or Afternoon Prayers.

The Jewish Prayer book is called Siddur which literally means “order”. Thus, synagogue worship was orderly, or liturgical. But what does the word “liturgy” mean?

It is a Greek word, “Leitrugia” which means “public service” or “public work”. It is a compound word, “leos” or people, and “ergon” or work. Liturgy, therefore is public service to the Divine. Thus worship service is a public endeavor, if you like, to God.

The following is an outline of the liturgy for the three daily prayers:



Shmoneh Esrei



Morning Blessing

Pesukei d’Zemira


Shmoneh Esrei


Torah Reading (Shabat, Holidays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays)

Aleinu, Ashrei (Psalm 145)

An additional service (Musaf) is added to the Shacharit on Shabbat and holidays.


Ashrei (Psalm 145)

Shmoneh Esrei



This is the prayer service as we have it today. The earliest codification of the Siddur was in 850 A.D by Rav Amram Gaon of Sura in Babylon. However, as we have already demonstrated the prayers go back temple times and Exile.


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