Being cast out or excommunicated would be a "profound religious dislocation:"
The synagogue meetings, the public liturgy, the festivals, and observances were all now denied them, and the authoritative interpretation of the sacred scripture itself was in the hands of their opponents. What was threatened was thus the enitre universe of shared perceptions, assumptions, beliefs, ideals, and hopes that had given meaning to their world within Judaism.
The personal consequences would be significant since those who came to believe Jesus was the Christ, still considered themselves as "Jews" as Paul would say:
- Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” (Acts 21:39)
The three Synoptic Gospels do record Jesus predicting the disciples would experience conflict from the synagogues:
- “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. (Mark 13:9)
- Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, (Matthew 10:17)
- Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town,
- 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. (Luke 21) [ESV]
Rather than be "put out," the disciples would be beaten, flogged, and delivered up. This last may reference being put to death. Acts states both types of punishment were used:
- I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women (Acts 22:4)
- And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:11)
Even Paul received discipline, presumably from the synagogue:
- Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. (2 Corinthians 11:24)
The New Testament is clear "Christians" who came from Judaism who expressed their faith in Jesus as the Christ should expect some type of discipline from the synagogues.
Excommunication vs Death
Typically two types of synagogue discipline are recognized, niddui which is milder and herem which is the more severe and likely means excommunication:
The sources that refer to Niddui are earlier and suggest that Niddui was a means of communal discipline used to support and defend halakic decisions against recalcitrant members, especially (or only?) sages of the community. Herem, in contrast, seems to have come into use in the sense of “excommunication,” that is, permanent exclusion from the community, only after 200 CE.
Katz, like many scholars sees no evidence of excommunication from the synagogue before the third century. This would make the statement in John false or at best, anachronistic. However, William Horbury points out excommunication was used as a substitute for karet (which could mean the death penalty) and offers several examples to support this claim:
- It is likely mentioned in Isaiah; it is described in Ezra and Nehemiah. Additionally Artaxerxes's letter to Ezra ended with, Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.
- Josephus and Philo both understand the exclusion of aliens and Jews with physical defects in Deuteronomy 23 includes exclusion for ethical disobedience
- Josephus describes how Jews of Shechem received those who had been accused of breaking a law which brought expulsion from Jerusalem (Ant. xi ch 8, 7)
- The Qumran society effectively "excommunicated" themselves and would expel a member for violating the code of conduct
- Paul instructed the Corinthians to excommunicate a man for sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5). As this is done without discussion, it presupposes Paul is applying a custom from Judaism.
In this case, excommunication would serve as a less severe, and more enforceable substitute for putting one to death. Moreover, any right to enforce the death penalty (as Paul states occurred) would likely not be able to be enforced outside Judea (hence the need to bring them to Jerusalem) or continue after 70AD when the Temple and formal judicial system were destroyed. Also the explicit reference of Paul authorized by the high priest to go to the synagogues of Damascus and "bind" all followers of the way to be brought to Jerusalem (to face the death penalty) implies the synagogues were willing to participate in this type of removal.
Finally, expulsion of the Hellenistic Christians from the synagogues in Jerusalem is certainly implied in the initial persecution of the church. Stephen disputed with 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 (Acts 6:9). If this took place in the synagogue, as is likely, then the implication is the Hellenistic Jews who became Christians continued in their synagogues until the persecution caused them to leave.
(His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.) (John 9:22)
The historical accuracy of John's statement is possible. The strongest evidence may be Paul's letter to the Corinthians which suggests a practice from Judaism brought over to the church. However, as is clear, this was not the only or even the most common discipline, at least in the earliest years of the Church.
If Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written before the destruction of the Temple and the Fourth Gospel written after, then the loss of the Temple, which elevated the importance of the synagogue, goes a long way to explain why the Fourth Gospel is so different. Prior to 70AD, Jerusalem and the Temple were the focal point of both Judaism and Christianity. Formal discipline from Judaism would be Temple centered; after 70AD the synagogues assume a more important almost exclusive role.
In addition, the loss of the Temple led to the demise of the Sanhedrin (notably absent in the Fourth Gospel) and a significant change in Judaism:
The destruction of the Temple and the sudden cessation of its time-honored worship was a stunning blow. All at once the Jewish people found themselves without their hallowed sanctuary and its divine service. A spiritual hollowness encompassed them and threatened their survival as a religious community. It would have proved fatal had it no been for the collateral religious institution, the synagogue, which already existed in every Jewish settlement. The synagogue stood ready to meet the religious needs of the people, and it was ideally suited to the new situation of the Jewish national and spiritual homelessness.
The loss of the Temple, which forced all liturgy to the synagogues had the collateral effect of placing a higher priority in a "unified Judaism." In other words, where the presence of Jewish-Christians was once seen as an internal matter to be addressed by correction (including putting one to death) primarily as directed from leadership in Jerusalem; it was now a matter to be resolved locally which was best handled by removal and permanent separation.
Thus Matthew, Mark, and Luke should be understood as describing the initial response to Christians, when expulsion was uncommon as the other types were employed. On the other hand, John describes the type of discipline which endured beyond 70AD when other types including the death penalty were no longer used or practical.
- Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial, Hendrickson Publishers, 2000, p. 278
- David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community, Westminsiter Press, 1996, p. 27
- Steven T. Katz, Issues in the Separation of Judaism and Christianity after 70 C.E.: A Reconsideration, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 103, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), p. 48
- William Horbury, Extirpation and Excommunication, Vetus Testamentum
Vol. 35, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1985), pp. 13-38
- Abraham Millgram, Jewish Worship, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971, pp. 79-80
- There is also the likelihood that synagogue leaders had come to realize other types of disciple were not going to change or cause the Jewish-Christian to recant their belief in Jesus as the Christ: the best solution for the synagogue was immediate expulsion.