Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Invention of Church

As I was reading in Mosiah a few weeks ago, I did a double take at these verses:

"And he commanded them that they should observe the sabbath day, and keep it holy, and also every day they should give thanks to the Lord their God. . . . And there was one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the peple, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themelves together" (Mosiah 18:23, 25).

Do you see what's so odd about these two verses? First Alma commands them to keep the Sabbath day holy, and then he sets apart one day in the week on which the people of God are to gather together and worship. From our modern perspective, these two verses seem redundant because we honor the Sabbath by attending church, gathering together to worship. In fact, I initially tried to rationalize this apparent redundancy in three ways: 1) Perhaps, because of King Noah's wickedness, Alma and his people had lost track of which day was actually the Sabbath and they were just designating a new Sabbath. 2) Perhaps they're meeting on another day of the week because congregating on the Sabbath would draw Noah's attention. 3) Perhaps the command to "gather themselves together" refers to meetings in addition to those normally held on the Sabbath.

Now, of course, I can see just how silly these thoughts were because the truth is that my modern perspective--and not Alma's directives--was the source of the problem. You see, before Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament (John 20:19, Acts 20:7), the command to honor the Sabbath did not obligate or even encourage individual Jews to meet together. Jehovah commands his people to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy by resting from their labors (Ex. 20:8-11); he does not say anything about meeting together on the Sabbath.

For Jews before the time of Christ (and certainly in 600 BCE, when Lehi and his family left Jerusalem), communal worship centered around the temple and was a semiannual event, not a weekly one. Individuals and families would have traveled to the temple at Jerusalem (or the nearest smaller, regional temple) three times a year, for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. In addition, individuals and families may have made additional visits throughout the year in order to make sacrifices (generally either a sin/trespass offering or a thank/peace offering). The temple was used for national (day of Atonement) and individual (purification from uncleanness) worship; so far as we know, there was no locus of community worship during this time period, a place where ten or twenty families would gather together on a regular basis to worship.

By the time of Jesus Christ, Jews clearly seem to have moved toward their current, community- and synagogue-based model of worship. In Luke we read that the Savior "went up to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read" (Luke 4:16). This account--and the narrative that follows, in which we learn that a group of people is gathered to listen to Christ read--clearly indicates that communal Sabbath observance--church!--had been established in the Holy Land by the first century CE. The Essenes at Qumran (who produced and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls) also seem to have worshiped together weekly during their self-imposed isolation from the temple in Jerusalem (which they believed corrupted by an impure priesthood), starting in the first century BCE. But Alma's instructions to his people, delivered in the second century BCE are the earliest recorded commandment in the Judeo-Christian tradition to observe a weekly meeting for congregational worship. In other words, Alma invented what we now think of as "church."

Of course, when Alma and his people returned to Zarahemla, they seem to have abandoned this congregational model of worship. Hence the surprise of his son, Alma the Younger, when he found the Zoramites at "church" seventy-odd years later: "behold to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship" (Alma 31:12). Why was Alma the Younger surprised? Because he found a congregation gathered for a weekly worship service--because the Zoramites had revived, institutionalized, and altered his father's idea of church. So when you're sitting in sacrament meeting this week, think of Alma--because it was his idea in the first place.*

*There is circumstantial evidence in the Book of Mormon suggesting that synagogues (which biblical scholars associate with post-Babylonian captivity Jewry) were present prior to the time of Lehi's exodus. Nephi mentions synagogues in 2 Ne. 26:26, well before Alma or the Zoramites instituted weekly worship services, and Mormon records in Alma 16:13 that the Nephites built synagogues "after the manner of the Jews." These verses imply that the synagogue tradition is older than scholars have supposed; scholarship holds that "only one generation after the destruction of the Temple [in 70 CE] . . . the synagogue emerged as the focal point of community life and prayer replaced sacrifice in the Temple. Hence the importance of local institutions grew steadily--new forms of social organization which would eventual fashion the patterns of medieval Jewry." If synagogues pre-date Lehi, weekly congregational meetings (Church!) may also pre-date Lehi. Of course, the other option is that the word "synagogue" may be a product of translation prejudices (e.g. Joseph Smith knows Jews go to synagogues, so that is the word which comes to mind when the Lord helps him understand the concept of not being cast out from a pre-Christian congregation).