How did the Israelites worship in the time of the Second Temple? While we know from the Gospels that they were using synagogues (which in the post-Temple Diaspora became meetinghouses and places of study and sanctuary for dispersed rabbinical Jews throughout the Levant), unlike post-Temple Jewish practice which continues down to today, the reading of the Torah does not seem to have been the focal point of public worship. It was the Temple at Jerusalem, not synagogues, that was the focal point of ancient Israelite worship.
Rather than sermons and discussions on the Law, ceremonies of blood sacrifice at the sacred Temple were offered, involving many elements which the earliest Christians (many of them Jewish converts) adapted in their worship and which Orthodox Christianity uniquely continued and preserved through the centuries. These practices and traditions include the constant offering of incense throughout the temple and especially in the holy of holies, elaborate processions within and outside the temple, bowing and prostrations before the altar, antiphonal singing, icons and other religious images’ immense theological significance in temple worship, and many other set and complex liturgical rituals.
Contrary to all scholarship on the subject of the Israelite Temple and early Christian worship which was patterned off of it, some Protestant Christians have formed the mistaken impression that worship at the Temple itself, and early Christian worship following after it, were unadorned, spontaneous gatherings without any of the later “accrued trappings” of “ritualism” and “superstition”, which Calvin and other Protestant reformers associated with what they saw as the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is rather amusing to see in some Protestants’ arguments against liturgy the misguided assertion that their way of worshiping in more ‘low church’ evangelical gatherings — in auditorium-like churches unadorned with any religious images in which the people listen to long sermons and then perform spontaneous, highly emotive dances — is somehow in continuity with biblical tradition and the tradition of worship at the Temple. Such Protestant methods of ‘doing church’ have far more in common with rabbinical Judaism (long sermons being the focus of worship) and pre-Christian pagans (emotional spontaneity in worship) than the highly ordered, deeply symbolic and liturgical worship offered at the Temple and continued by early Christians.
Why were the rites of worship at the Temple so elaborate, and why are the rites of worship in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and her other services today so elaborate, so complex, so highly infused with typological and symbolic language? To bring the worshipers as close as possible to the divine, to act out and renew the covenant between the people of Israel and their God, and to worship Him in majesty and splendor as all Israel oriented to the Temple, bowing before the throne of the one God. Just as the ancient Israelites once worshiped facing east, facing the rising sun and facing Jerusalem, so today, since Pentecost, have the people of the Church, the new Israel of the new Covenant, worshiped God facing east, facing the Temple in Jerusalem.
In January 2012, an eminent scholar of Temple Theology offered a thorough assessment and analysis of first century Jewish worship at the Temple and compared it with Orthodox worship today. British scholar Dr. Margaret Barker, who read Theology at the University of Cambridge, delivered this past January’s 29th annual Fr. Alexander Schmemann memorial lecture to students and faculty at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) in Crestwood, New York.
Her brilliant presentation, titled “Our Great High Priest: The Church is the New Temple”, focused on Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the “priest-king” Melchizedek in relation to the evolution of Jewish Temple worship and theology. Dr. Barker also demonstrated the many connections and continuities between first century Israelite worship and Orthodox liturgical worship through the centuries and made the case that, related to its unique continuation of many elements of first century Israelite worship, the Orthodox Church is the “New Israel”.
Courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio, you can listen to the entirety of Dr. Barker’s lecture here. A St Vladimir’s Seminary transcript of her lecture can be found here. A related podcast discussion on Ancient Faith Radio by Fr. Gabriel Rochelle on the history of Christian worship (and the Divine Liturgy’s roots in much of Jewish Temple worship) can be found here.