Stephen, Session #3 (All quotes generally ESV)

THE SYNAGOGUE OF THE FREEDMEN


Acts 6:9
Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.

Important questions are raised:  what is a “synagogue” and who are these guys, the “Freedmen?”

WHAT IS A SYNAGOGUE?

First let’s look at the word “Synagogue.”  This is a Greek word which is used only once in the Old Testament (Psalm 74:8 “they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.”  In the Hebrew מוֹעֲדֵ (Mo-ed) is used; the Greek translation of the Psalm is συναγωγῆ (synagogue).  Today’s Judaism uses a different word for “synagogue”:בֵּית כְּנֶסֶת  (bet-K’ne-set or Beth Knesset if you prefer) which means “house of assembly or meeting.”  But in any case, all of the words mean a “a place to congregate or meet.”

Synagogues are “neighborhood Jewish centers” in many ways. It was necessary for 10 men to be present in order to have a synagogue service:  prayers, the singing of Psalms, the blessings, readings from Scripture, and instruction based on the reading.  They are NOT places of sacrifice—that alone is the Temple in Jerusalem.

Synagogues came into being during the Jewish exile in Babylon.  Apparently bereft of the opportunity to fulfill sacrificial requirements, the rabbis felt the next best thing was to build meeting places where Jews could continue their religion as best they could.  During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 457 B.C.), when the Jewish people return to the Holy Land from Babylon, synagogues became quite common.  To some, that would logically suggest that Psalm 74 was written around that time or later.

Synagogues—wherever in the world they are—are always built so that the worshiper is facing Jerusalem;  Psalm 137:5 “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand whither!”  The Jewish Passover meal each year ends with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem!”  It is a cry for the Messiah to return and reestablish his rule in Jerusalem on the Holy Mount!   

Note:  Christian Churches are NEVER built to face Jerusalem, but to face “East”—Malachi 4:2 But for you who fear my name, the Son of Righteousness shall rise with healing in His rays.” Matthew 24:27 “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”  

Jesus, as a good Jew would do, made a habit of going to Synagogues wherever he happened to be.  For example, Luke 4:16 tells us “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.”  And Matthew 13:54 gives us another aspect of life in the weekly synagogue meetings:  and coming to his hometown he (Jesus) taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”

Reading of the Scriptures was standard practice.  The Pentateuch (the 5 books of Moses) was divided into 155 readings and the book of Psalms contained 150 chapters.  These divisions served as a 3-year cycle of Scripture readings for the weekly meetings (I wonder WHERE we got the idea of a 3-year cycle of readings for churches?   Hmmm…)

According to rabbinic tradition, there were 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus!  No “Blessing” was pronounced at the closing of the service if a priest was not in attendance to pronounce it over the people.

WHO WERE THE “FREEDMEN?”

Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1969), page 69, suggests that our verse is referring to five different synagogues, the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” being one; Synagogue of the Cyrenians, Synagogue of the Alexandrians, Synagogue of the Cilicians and Synagogue of the Asians being the other four.  Since Synagogues tended to be small and ethno-geographical, this is possible, and our Evangelist Luke would have an interest in brevity.

The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” in Greek is more precisely the Synagogue of the “so-called Libertines” (λεγομένης Λιβερτίνων:  “libertinon”).  Right away we have a problem—Λιβερτίνων is not a Hebrew word or a Greek word.  It’s a LATIN word which the Greek language borrowed and “smoothed out” because the “tee-nee” (libertini) sound at the end of the word would seem odd to the Greek ear.  This adds an extra layer to the meaning in our Bible passage in Acts, because now we need to ask what the ROMANS meant by that Latin word!  Several ideas have been put forward. 

1)  One suggestion is that this is a reference to a Jewish community in Africa called “Libertina” not far from ancient Carthage in modern day Tunisia.  Such a place DID exist.  What commends this suggestion is that the other four names are all PLACE names, so we might expect “Libertinon” to refer to a place.

2)  However, in Latin “libertini” means “people who were freed slaves” (as opposed to people who were “free” but had never been slaves—this is a social distinction within the Roman Empire.)  Under Pompey in 63 B.C. a large group of men practicing Judaism had been enslaved in Rome. (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, 23.155 “How then did he look upon the great division of Rome which is on the other side of the river Tiber, which he was well aware was occupied and inhabited by the Jews? And they were mostly Roman citizens, having been emancipated; for, having been brought as captives into Italy, they were manumitted by those who had bought them for slaves, without ever having been compelled to alter any of their hereditary or national observances.”Their descendants were called “Freedmen” or “Libertini.”  (Also, Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, Book 2, Section 85: “There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worshipers, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia, to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy, unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites.”)

3) There are those who suggest that the Torah “requires” Jews to buy their fellow Jews from slavery, but I have yet to find such a reference.  BUT if a slave was converted to Judaism, he would be given a ritual bath, called a mikveh, and would then be freed under the rule in Exodus 21:2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.”  Since this would only apply to Jewish slaves, converting to Judaism makes a slave eligible, and thus a “freed man” (a “libertini”). 

It has never been fully established just who these “Libertines” or “Freedmen” were and just where their synagogue was.  It appears that Luke is referring to small ethnic groups who practiced Judaism in Jerusalem.