Prayer and Liturgy
In both early Judaism and Christianity a religious service developed in which the public reading of the Torah formed an important part. This service was not necessarily linked to the existence of synagogues and churches, for which archaeological evidence is sparse before the fourth century CE (see Levine 2000). It could take place in multi-functional assembly houses or even in private dwellings, as the literary references to the so-called house-churches in the letters of Paul attest. This custom may have developed initially in the Diaspora, at some distance from the Jerusalem Temple. The earliest epigraphical and archaeological evidence for synagogues stems from Egypt and other Diaspora locations in Hellenistic times. The gospels, Josephus, and the Theodotus inscription suggest that Torah reading in a public setting also took place in Roman Palestine before the destruction of the Temple, but it may not have been widespread at that time.
As already pointed out, Torah study and observance became the central focus of Jewish identity only after 70 CE. But even then, some time may have elapsed until public Torah reading and prayer services became a widespread practice. Both the literary and the archaeological evidence converge in late antiquity. Rabbinic sources from the third to fifth centuries attest to the existence of Jewish elementary schools, whose main function was to teach boys to read from the Torah (see Hezser 2001: 49–54); that is, to increase the pool of possible Torah readers at a time when the literacy rate amongst adults was very low. For approximately the same period of time, the archaeological evidence for synagogue buildings increases dramatically. Late antique synagogues were lavish buildings with artistic decorations which formed the religious centres of the Jewish communities (on ancient Jewish art see Hachlili 1988 and 1998). The very fact of the emergence of the synagogue as the local Jewish religious centre in late antiquity, as well as the synagogue's architectural style and features, may have been influenced by the building of churches in Byzantine Palestine (see Schwartz 2001; Milson 2002).
The synagogue service with its focus on Torah reading, translation (targum), and interpretation, on the one hand, and communal prayer, on the other, developed gradually and did not reach a fixed form until the Middle Ages (see Hoffmann 1979). In the first centuries CE rabbis agreed about the central significance of the Shema‘ and the Amidah (the so- called Eighteen Benedictions), but the exact wording of the Amidah was still disputed, as was the wording of many other benedictions and prayer formulas. One may assume that each local congregation developed its own liturgy, with its own versions of the prayers. Greek-speaking congregations may even have recited some prayers—and read the Torah?—in Greek, although rabbis were opposed to these practices. Since rabbis were not the leaders of synagogues in antiquity, their influence on the development of the liturgy remains uncertain. Disputes in rabbinic literature may reflect the variations in local practice rather than the rabbis' influence on it.