Hebrew scriptures sometimes insinuate that the whole people of Israel at given occasions congregated for worship (cf. Neh 8:2; 2 Chr 30:1–13; Deut 5:1; 29:2; Josh 23:2; 24:1; Jer 44:1, 15). Countless generations of Bible interpreters took this ideal concept for granted, limiting the discussion of “cult and worship” to “all-Israel affairs.” Other constrictions of exegetical perspectives include the idea of antique ceremonialism always implying animal sacrifice or the puristic view of Israel’s faith being unique and incomparable to that of its contemporary neighbors. In consequence, word communication with God was sometimes considered noncultic; on the other hand, ancient Near Eastern religious rituals were kept out of consideration (cf. Kraus, 1962; Rowley, 1967). These and other shortcomings increasingly, since the 1990s, have led to a proliferation of questions asked and avenues taken. Correspondingly, the horizon of cult and worship drawn here is a wide one, encompassing ritual performance to communicate with the divine on all social levels. The ancient Near Eastern background of Israel’s worship has to be taken into account. Cultural anthropology and, in particular, ritual studies on a global basis may be consulted on the strength of persisting analogies in cultic performance (Bell, 2009; Grimes, 2013). Cult may be considered the formal structure of worship and worship, the inner life of cult.


Old and New Testament evidence as to the practice and theology of worship remains a prime supplier of knowledge. But extracanonical Jewish and Christian writings as well as relevant texts from ancient Near Eastern cultures have to be taken into account. Also, archaeological finds of religious artifacts like remains of sanctuaries, sacrificial materials, cultic objects, and iconographic items within Israel and throughout neighboring territories (Keel, 2010) are helpful in reconstructing ceremonial practices of that time. Translations of archaic documents into modern languages are essential for this task (e.g., Kaiser, 1982–2013). Occasionally, witnesses from more distant cultures may have an illuminating effect on biblical ways of adoring God. In that case discussions and collaborations with fellow researchers in cultural anthropology, sociology of religion, and ritual studies are instructive. The concepts of “cult” and “worship” should be employed loosely to include all sorts of collective ritual performances and communitarian religious sentiments.

Family and Local Cults.

The forms, articulations, and theologies of cultic enactments largely depend on the pertinent social bodies. Family and clan structures produce their own significant ways of venerating their deities.

Old Testament domestic religion.

Household cults are well known from ancient Near Eastern cultures and the Hebrew scriptures. They emerge also, under changed conditions, in the early Christian church. There are traces of family religion (Toorn, 1996) in the Old Testament. Terapim (NRSV: “household gods,” “idol”), little statuettes or masks (Gen 31:19, 34–35; 1 Sam 19:13; cf. Judg 17:5; 18:17–18, 20), apparently also called ʾĕlohîm, “divine being” (Exod 21:6), were used in domestic rituals. The “God of my father” was the protective deity of a given family (Gen 31:42, 53) enlisted by an ancestor (Gen 28:13, 20–22). Individual psalms of lament and thanksgiving reflect the close relationship of household members and their family god. The deity is present at childbirth (Ps 22:10), blesses the offspring (Ps 128:3–4), protects against evil-mongers (Pss 3:7–8; 35; 55) and demons (Pss 59; 91), heals deadly diseases (Ps 38), and saves from death (Pss 30; 32; 69). Family worship can be deduced from countless archaeological finds in private Israelite homes: figurines of mostly female deities (Schroer, 1987), incense stands, and small offering tables. Family theology in ancient times (just as today) focused on family welfare. Health, good luck, safety, and well-being for the primary group were the ingredients of personal spirituality. In the ancient Near East the personal god was believed to introduce his or her client to superior deities in case the problems were unsolvable. Therefore, preserved Babylonian prayers of individuals are quite often directed to the highest numina of the pantheon (Cunningham, 1997).

New Testament house congregations.

Christians of the first century C.E. generally met in private homes (Klinger et al., 2004; Bradshaw, 2010). There also were synagogue affiliations and mass reunions at Jewish festivals (Acts 2). But Paul already testifies to the deep split between Synagogue and Christian communities (2 Cor 11:21–25; Acts 17:1–9). Lack of funds and safety prohibited the construction of proper meeting rooms. Christian domestic congregations differed from the Old Testament variety however. The early church was no isolated family affair but considered itself the universal body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12:12–30). Furthermore, Christians came together not to offer incense and sacrifices but to sing hymns, partake in the communion, and listen to the gospel of Christ’s coming, preaching, suffering, being killed, and resurrected. They celebrated communion with the risen Lord (1 Cor 11:23–34). The liturgical forms of house worship, in all probability, were gleaned from the Jewish synagogue (see Elbogen, 1931). Still, the intimacy of private homes had its impact on the spirituality and theology of Christian thinking. The admonitions of Paul, for instance, are mainly concerned with individual behavior and personal salvation rather than with the problems of society in general or of humankind in its totality. The called-upon God, father of Jesus Christ and Lord of the world, in the reality of early Christian life was mostly dedicated to the endangered tiny groups of his believers. Even the apocalyptic dimensions of scripture, inherited from radical Jewish groups, serve the survival of relatively few steadfast believers (cf. Rev 7:4–8). Only from the second century C.E. onward did Christian worship become more organized liturgically (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol., ch. 67). Gradually, regional standards for reading scriptures, praying, and celebrating the Eucharist were established.

Ancient Israelite local shrines.

Ancient Israelite settlements were small, comprising between 50 and 2,000 inhabitants. Their social organization grew out of clan structures. Heads of families formed a council of elders who sat together on demand to resolve common problems (Ruth 4:1–2). Living together in a larger-than-family group quite naturally created problems of law, order, and faith (Gerstenberger, 2002). Household services were unable to offer solutions. Apparently, each town had a sanctuary of its own (Heb. bāmâ, “high place”; Gleis, 1997) where local deities could be approached. The typical equipment of such local shrines was an altar, often dedicated to Baʿal, and a pole symbolizing Asherah (Dahm, 2003). Hebrew scriptures refer to open-air holy places at Ramah (1 Sam 9), Ophrah (Judg 6:11–30), Gibea (1 Sam 10:5), Gibeon (1 Kgs 3:4), Beth-El (1 Kgs 12:32), Shechem (Gen 12:6; 35:4), Mamre (Gen 13:18), Gilgal (Josh 4–5), Zaanim (Josh 19:33), and Beersheba (Gen 21:33; 26:23–25; Amos 5:5; 8:14). The Judean city of Arad even possessed a small temple within its walls. Local cults focused on the contingencies of common (agrarian) work and life. People hoped for favorable weather conditions, protection against enemies, and help in calamities like drought, epidemics, and defeat but also for justice and equity in their own ranks. An old city god of Jerusalem probably was Zedek, “Justice” (cf. Melchizedek, Gen 14:18). Some village names possibly testify to the veneration of female deities (cf. Anatot, 1 Kgs 2:26; Ashterot, Josh 13:31). The inhabitants would gather annually or at special occasions on the holy ground and bring praise, offerings, and supplications to their deities (1 Sam 9:12, 22).

Modern Community Services.

Our modern world still cherishes local shrines and religious (including secularized) practices in a confined place of the well-known habitat. All parish activities belong in this category: Sunday services, Sunday school, rites that accompany the human life cycle, local emergencies—these and other concerns still dominate local worship in spite of the fact that a vast part of Western populations no longer lives as farmers. The industrial society created mobility and disrupted social ties. Internet opportunities provide virtual realities. But there remains a longing for local and real worship within the realms of everyday life. Pastoral activities and practical theology are oriented toward this inner circle of cult and worship. The secularized forms of local religion pervade neighborhoods and stimulate clubs and a great variety of associations, interest groups, professional societies, and political parties. They all share the goal of looking for meaning in this world and participate in a reasonable construction of the close and beloved local scene.

Regional and Centralized Worship.

Human social organization did not stop with townships and extended clan lineages. Commerce and power politics created larger associations that eventually evolved into states and empires. They all needed space, time, and expertise for their proper religious ceremonies.

Some regional sanctuaries in the Hebrew scriptures outshine the local ones, for example, Gilgal, Nob, Shiloh, and Shechem. A man from Ephraim, Elkanah, is said to have made the pilgrimage to Shiloh with his family once every year (1 Sam 1–2). He wants to venerate Yahweh Sabaoth, who may have been unavailable at his hometown (1 Sam 1:3; is this Yahweh the Lord of the ark?). There is a Yahweh Shomeron, “Yahweh of Samaria,” and a Yahweh Teman, “Yahweh of Teman,” in the Judean Kuntillet Adjrud inscriptions. Gilgal seems to have been a sanctuary of major renown as well (cf. Hos 4:15; Amos 4:4; 5:5); Gibeon even is attested with such a title (1 Kgs 3:4). What makes people seek the encounter with gods residing at a certain distance? It is, most plausibly, the search for spiritual enhancement and well-being that makes people leave their immediate habitat (cf. 1 Sam 1–2). Regional shrines have to offer other and purportedly superior divine powers.

Israelite Tribal Centers.

Social anthropologists study tribal groupings during the long history of human development. Hebrew scriptures report that Israel came to be a tribal society through Jacob and his 12 sons (Gen 29–30; 49; Deut 33). Tribal affiliation was of highest importance for any ancient Israelite, especially when determining one’s extraction from the tribe of Levi and its priestly branches (cf. 1 Chr 6, but also 1 Chr 1–5; 7–9). Tribal genealogies and priestly descent are significant for orthodox Jews to this day. Unfortunately, the political history of ancient Israelite tribes is blurred in the scriptures. Especially the cultic institutions are no longer verifiable. Earlier generations of Old Testament scholars (most notably Martin Noth and Gerhard von Rad) confidently attributed a central, Yahwistic cult rally at Shechem to a supposed “tribal amphictyony,” with the promulgation of divine law as the main liturgical agenda. This concept of an intertribal religious system has long since vanished from scholarly debate. What we may maintain as a historical possibility are some genealogical constructions that arose among settled Israelite immigrants in Canaan and a few alliances among neighboring clans (cf. Judg 5:13–18, mentioning eight tribes, among them Machir, unknown to other lists; six of them take part in the battle against the king of Hazor). Those loosely knit war alliances under a martial deity may have functioned in premonarchic Israel. Victory hymns like Judges 5 and Psalm 68 may be echoes of tribal war ceremonies. Similar rituals prevailed among North American Indians (e.g., sun dances). Some ancient Israelites may have taken over the mountain god Yahweh from the Midianites (cf. Exod 3; 18), who actually was a tribal deity. This would tie in with other vestiges of Yahweh being a belligerent God fighting for his people (Isa 63:1–6). The cult of the ark, the portable seat of the invisible God, belonged to tribal rites partly absorbed by state religion (cf. Num 10:33–36; 1 Sam 4–6; 2 Sam 6; Ps 132).

Monarchic State Religion in the Old Testament.

Israelite society developed from clannish or tribal structures into a bureaucratic, centralized state in the eleventh to tenth centuries B.C.E. The impact, also for religious life, was considerable. Against a strong opposition (cf. Judg 9:7–15) a king was crowned and, later on, a dynasty installed at Jerusalem (1 Sam 10–11; 2 Sam 5). Centralized power needs religious legitimation. Therefore, King David established a state sanctuary at his new capital, the Jebusite city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 6; Ps 132). His administrative staff included two priests, Zadok and Abiathar (2 Sam 8:17), the first of whom was a Jebusite (Zadok > Zedek). Quite likely, the Jebusite temple may have been used as the state sanctuary, although tradition has it that the ark of Yahweh, the tribal icon, had to stay in a tent (2 Sam 7:2). Cities and states organized as monarchies in the ancient Near East as a rule built up a theocratic system managed by the ruling king. He was considered the vice-regent of the supreme God or even as his son (Ps 2:7: “I will announce Yahweh’s decision: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have become your father’ ” (lit. “I begot you”) (author’s translation; cf. Pss 89:27; 45:7; 2 Sam 7:14). Given this intimate relationship to God, the monarch was liable (an ancient Near Eastern ideal; e.g., the building hymn of Gudea of Lagash, ca. 2100) to build and maintain a state temple that served primarily to guarantee the survival of the ruling dynasty and thereby to ensure the well-being of the people. After all, the divine blessings were now channeled to the Israelites by way of the king (see the royal hymns Pss 20; 21; 45; 72; 110, etc.). The official state cult administered by state priests had nothing to do with popular religion. Worshipping activities at the levels of family, village, and possibly tribal organization were not affected by state religion. Yahweh had become the supreme god of the Davidic dynasty. Old Testament polemics against “other gods” have been staged only in retrospect, that is, in deuteronomic and deuteronomistic writings of exilic and postexilic provenance. New Testament statements related to the church–state relationship are rare. Jesus and Paul recognize the existence of a political power (Matt 22:21; Rom 13:1–7). Authority is given by God to keep human affairs in order. Faith, however, is owed to God and Christ, not to political entities. Here is a general separation of faith community and state exigencies; the latter are presupposed and endorsed. Later experiences of brutal persecution by state authorities made Christians aware of precarious living conditions in a hostile and ultimately condemned world (cf. 1 Pet 3).

Dynastic Cults through the Ages.

It was not old Israel that invented the monarchic structure of society. More than two millennia before, in the Sumerian early dynastic era, very similar political patterns were already in existence. In the second half of the third millennium B.C.E. the Semitic Old Akkadian kingdom already functioned well enough, and at the end of that period the Neo-Sumerian Empire of the third dynasty of Ur had a perfectly organized system of state cults (see Sallaberger, 1993). Ever since throughout ancient Near Eastern and subsequent Western history the idea of a divinely sanctioned institution of kingship (von Gottes Gnaden, “by the grace of God”) was kept alive. The forms of this theocratic model of society did vary, but the basic patterns remained the same. The proclamation of biblical stories and doctrines cemented the concept in the Christian tradition. Interestingly, Jewish faith was hardly affected by monarchic allure because, excepting the Hasmonean interlude (167–63 B.C.E.), Judaism was never aligned to state authority before 1948. But after Constantine the Great initiated (313 C.E.) the movement to make Christianity the obligatory state religion, mainstream Christianity adopted monarchical theocracy as the God-given model of society. The empire of Byzantium (476–1453 C.E.) created a peculiar rite for worship services, inspired by the Holy Spirit and the mystical union with God. Austrians and Germans until the end of World War I believed in the Heilige Römische Reich deutscher Nation (“Holy Roman Empire of German Nationality”), with all the concomitant religious and pseudoreligious rituals as well as bombastic sacred architecture. Some renitent ideologists held up that banner for a long time afterward. Growing democratic societies in the Western world enforced readjustments also in liturgical concepts. The Roman Catholic world council Vatican II, for example, reformed the mass liturgy (Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963) by implanting vernacular languages as the basic norm, strengthening active lay collaboration in the service, and letting the priest face the congregation. Innumerable Protestant churches have been remolding their worship agendas and hymnals ever since the Reformation age.

Cesaro-Papism in Christianity.

The theological heritage of the ancient Near East, repacked and relabeled by Hebrew scriptures and preached incessantly by the main Christian churches for about 2,000 years, has exercised profound influence on the Western mentality and Christian worship and spirituality. The worst part of it is the fact that state churches adopted the absolutism and exclusivity of their glorified rulers. Submission to the king as divinely ordained governor of spiritual and secular affairs stood tantamount for obedience over against God. Anyone who deviated in doctrine, cultic performance, or way of life from the path delineated by church and state was considered an outcast. Even the churches of the Reformation, among them the New England Puritans, quickly adopted the same principle for their own governance. Only small minority groups learned, under pressures and persecutions, the lesson of tolerance and all-embracing worship. Mainstream Christian churches often still disdain democratic forms of organization (“not divinely ordained,” “people cannot know truth”), favoring outdated monarchical or totalitarian structures. There is still a widespread tendency to deprive members of their freedom to choose any religious creed guaranteed by modern concepts of human rights and dignity.

Jerusalem the Holy City.

Holy cities did exist, for example, in Mesopotamia, long before Israel and Judaism came into existence. The exclusive abode of Yahweh in his “unique” temple at Jerusalem is a special case in the religious history of holy places (cf. Keel, 2007; Fuss, 2012). Surely, the claim of exclusiveness in the Hebrew scriptures is a utopian demand. Several temples of Yahweh are known archaeologically, for example, the sanctuary of Arad in Judah and the temple of Elephantine in Egypt belonging to the Jewish troops stationed there. But Deuteronomy 12 requires unconditionally that there be only one place for all believers where sacrifices may be brought to Israel’s God. Presupposed is the belief that Yahweh has taken lodgings once and for all in his house at Zion/Jerusalem. It is the place he has elected. Consequently, he has to be served nowhere else (Deut 12:5–14). When, why, and where did this solemn ordinance arise? Deuteronomistic tradition places it into the reign of Josiah (r. ca. 632–609 B.C.E.; 2 Kgs 23). The story of Josiah’s reform is likely a retrospective construction without historical value. For different reasons (e.g., the Yahweh community emerged much later; see Gerstenberger, 2002), the exclusive, confessing faith in Yahweh was not yet a general criterion of monarchic Israel. The book of Deuteronomy in itself is nonroyal in character. Deuteronomy 17:16–20 presents a caricature of a reigning prince. Torah—lost for generations and rediscovered by chance (2 Kgs 22–23)—is a fable told for theological effects to denounce the kings’ period as godless. Cult centralization in Jerusalem makes sense after the Exile has taken place; it counteracts centrifugal forces of Diaspora situations. For these and more reasons, the idea of monarchic involvement in the formation of a Yahweh community is futile. The decisive evolutions in spiritual Israel have to be located in the exilic and postexilic periods, for the most part under Persian rule (see Gerstenberger, 2011). The temple architecture inspired various Old Testament writers (cf. Exod 25–31; 35–40; 1 Kgs 6; Ezek 40–43; 2 Chr 2–4). Yahweh resided in the innermost, dark “Holy of Holies” (1 Kgs 8:12; cf. v. 17). The priests served the incense altar in the antechamber and the slaughter altar in front of the sanctuary. Parishioners were only admitted to the courtyards outside the holy precincts.

God’s dwelling in the Temple.

When did the theology of holy Jerusalem arise (Fuss, 2012)? The most remote origins of the myth of God’s dwelling in a temple are discernible in Mesopotamian religions. Enlil resided in the Ekur (“mountain house”) at Nippur, Enki underneath Eridu, Utu at Ur, Inana at Uruk. Top Babylonian and Assyrian deities had their preferred abodes in state capitals, just as the Hittite numina. The idea of a preferential living place for the highest deities, then, is connected with empire aspirations of human dynasties. The most pretentious temples signaled the glory and power of the reigning kings.

Yahweh, the warrior god of tribal times, in the oldest texts was located at some mountainous area in the south of Judah. He “comes from Seir” (Judg 5:4), from Sinai (Ps 68:9), or from Mt. Bashan (Ps 68:16) to help his people. But he chose to reside at Mt. Zion/Jerusalem forever (cf. Pss 68:17; 46; 48; cf. Pilger and Witte, 2013). It is particularly in the Psalms (Mowinckel, 1962) that we find vestiges of that fundamental change. The so-called Zion psalms may go back to monarchical times. They reflect the strong interests of the Davidic dynasty to legitimate the state sanctuary allegedly constructed by Solomon (1 Kgs 6). Without doubt, the royal temple was highly important as long as the Davidic dynasty lasted. What is more significant, however, is that the central state sanctuary did not lose its significance after the collapse of the Judean kingdom. On the contrary, it shifted and enlarged its spiritual and liturgical weight to include the whole (stateless) “ecclesiastic” Yahweh community of laypeople, priests, Levites, scribes, singers, wise folks, and community leaders. The king was no longer part of this group, if we ignore, for a moment, his survival as a messianic figure. Proof of this assertion is Solomon’s prayer for the dedication of “his” Temple, allegedly built in the tenth century B.C.E. The prayer likely portrays the reopening of the Temple in 515 B.C.E. or even the initiation of a synagogue. Solomon does not mention sacrificial services, which would be the proper function of a royal and state sanctuary, but makes intercession for several groups of supplicants. In short, he treats the Temple as a “house of prayer” (1 Kgs 8:27–53; note that supplications spoken from distant parts, that is, from exile, toward Jerusalem are highlighted, vv. 44–50; cf. Isa 56:7).

Rites and ceremonies of Zion.

Hymns praising the divine abode draw on age-old myths of a “northern” sacred mountain (Ps 48:3), also known in Ugaritic epic tales as the dwelling place of Baʿal (see Xella, 1981). Zion is imagined as the fountainhead of the four world streams (Ezek 47:1–9; Ps 87:7; Gen 2:10–14) and the place where God will establish final peace on earth (Ps 46:10–11; cf. Ps 87). This center of the universe was the place for festivities and adoration (Ps 48) and future restoration (Isa 2:2–4; Ezra 3). Processions took place (Ps 48:13–14), whether real or imagined, within regular seasonal cycles or were hoped for at the end of time. The founding story was rehearsed (Ps 132), the enthronement of a (messianic) king was enacted (Pss 2; 110), and victory over unnamed foes was celebrated (Ps 46). Zion was the place of heavenly jubilee. It continues in this symbolic role today, for example, in Christian hymns for Advent and Christmas. We do not know how the Zion festivities were tied in with seasonal celebrations. Beginning in exilic times (cf. Ps 137), Jerusalem became the object of spiritual longing and the symbol of Jewish identity. Pilgrimages to the Holy City became increasingly popular (cf. Pss 84; 120–134). The chroniclers emphasize Passover feasts at Jerusalem (cf. 2 Chr 30:1–13; 35:1–19). Other parts of scripture seem to advocate as principal days of Israel’s convention the Feasts of Atonement and of Booths (cf. Lev 23:26–43). Be that as it may, the Second Temple period was filled with movements toward Jerusalem. Emerging Judaism created one geographical fixed point for all the dispersed communities. Yahweh’s presence in the Temple made Jerusalem the exclusive Holy City: “My very being longs, even yearns, for Yahweh’s courtyards” (Ps 84:2 and 84:10), “Better is a single day in your courtyards than a thousand days anywhere else!” (Ps 84:11, author’s translations). The sentiment of the Jewish believers is akin to that of Muslims longing for Mecca. The dissident Qumran congregation apparently still clung to the Temple. It perused the Old Testament Psalter and a proper collection of hymns, the Hodayot. The Qumran Temple Scroll meticulously preserved and elaborated the priestly regulations of Leviticus (Garcia Martinez, 1994).

Jerusalem in Christian worship.

The New Testament community continues along the same vein. Jerusalem lost the Temple in 70 C.E., a severe blow to Jews around the world. For Christians the Holy City had been the place of Christ’s suffering, death, and burial, which was reason enough to make it a sacred space. Paul, the apostle, held contact to the renowned congregation of early disciples of Jesus. The founding event of the universal Christian church, according to Acts 2 (note the ethnic plurality in vv. 9–11), took place in Jerusalem. Later, in the fourth century C.E., Christian pilgrimage began to the holy sites of Christ’s final days, which were considered decisive for the fate of all humankind. Emperor Constantine ordered a church to be built over Jesus’s grave (Küchler, 2007). Ever since, Christian attention to the Holy Land has focused on Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and, prominently, Jerusalem. Easter processions along the via dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are part of the essential rites for many Christians. Another set of theological concepts aligned itself to Jesus’s burial. Christ’s resurrection and ascension opened up the vision of his second coming and the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Jerusalem was the right place to expect that new age and new creation. In the light of prophetic announcements (Isa 2:1–4; 60–62), the new capital of the world was hailed in exuberant rhetoric (Rev 21:9–22:5). The city of God needs neither temple nor sunlight because “the LORD God Almighty and the Lamb” are sufficient sources of life (Rev 21:22–24). Paradisiac waters will give force to all the nations (Rev 22:1–2).

Jerusalem in Muslim tradition.

Residences of deities frequently hand down the holiness of their locals to succeeding religions. Thus, Israel probably inherited the sacred Jerusalem tradition from the Jebusites. Jewish Jerusalem gave its divine glory to the Christian emperors, only to lose it to Muslim conquerors in the seventh century C.E. During the crusades Christian armies came back to establish the (Christian) Kingdom of God in his capital. The conquest did not last; in 1099 C.E. Saladin won back the coveted sacred place. The temple hill ever since has been topped by two important Islamic shrines. Muhammad’s new religion certainly took over some of the Old Testament and Christian traditions concerning the presence of God at his Jerusalem abode. And Muslim folklore and scriptures added their own narration of how Allah had blessed his people with the gift of this ancient city. Sure 17:1 of the Qurʾan suggests that the Prophet ascended to heaven from the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Before going he is said to have prayed together with Old Testament prophets and Jesus. The fact is that the early caliphs built the Dome of the Rock and the said mosque rivaling, in a way, the Kaaba at Mecca. Jerusalem, after Mecca and Medina, is the third in line of holy places for Muslims. Small wonder that the religious and political claims of other religious entities are contested by the Islamic world.

Jerusalem Tripartite.

Holy places in great variety remain in vogue among many religions. Each of them creates its own special rituals and theologies. Jerusalem is dear to at least three religions, the confessional divisions of which run into the hundreds. While Jewish rites concerning the Temple are restricted to the Wailing Wall, a survival of the Herodian support structure, and Muslim activities concentrate on the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Christian ceremonies have their center in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the via dolorosa to reenact the Passion story of the Gospels. Because of an intricate system of rights to parts of the Church of the Sepulchre, Franciscan, Orthodox, and Armenian clergy continue to celebrate their particular liturgies in strict separation. The emphasis is on Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

Community-Based Adoration.

Besides temple worship and adherence to a central holy place, emerging Jewish spirituality created a new form of faith community, which in turn needed and fashioned special ways of cult and worship (Brueggemann, 2005). Because of the Diaspora situation and the remoteness of the central sanctuary, Yahweh believers to a large extent relied on verbal communication of God’s presence.

Torah and synagogue service.

Readings, sermons, responses of the congregation, prayers, songs, and music constituted the basic pattern of postexilic worship under Torah (cf. Neh 8:1–8; 12:27–43). Exiled Judeans were settled in Babylonia. At least five villages are known by name: Tel-abib (Ezek 3:15); Casiphia (Ezra 8:17); Tel-Melah, Tel-harscha, Cherub Addon Immer ([the last reference possibly contains three places] Neh 7:61). Granted that these settlements were allowed to practice a certain autonomy in their civil affairs (cf. Ezek 8:1; Jer 29:5–7; business documents of the Babylonian Murashu Company showing Judean clients), one may surmise that chances existed also for religious activities. Prophetic preaching among the exiles (e.g., 2 Isaiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah) is also some evidence in favor of an unhampered spiritual life, especially during the Persian period (Gerstenberger, 2011). Historical writings in the Hebrew Bible attribute much influence of the returnees from Babylonia in the community and religious affairs of Jerusalem (e.g., Ezra, Nehemiah). In short, one may not go wrong assuming that the cult and worship of the deportees, who belonged mainly to upper-class Judahites (2 Kgs 25:11–12; Jer 52:28–30), were adapted to the new situation in a foreign, polytheistic (Babylonia) and monotheistic (elite Persian religion) imperial society. The priestly layers of the Pentateuch for quite some time already are believed to have originated among the Judean exiles.

The very backbone of Jewish congregational life in the Diaspora became the revealed word of Yahweh, written down in the book(s) of Torah supposedly more than a half-millennium earlier under the auspices of Moses—lawgiver, judge, warrior, negotiator—and, to a certain extent, his brother, the archpriest Aaron. The concepts of revelation and codification of a sacred book to be regularly read to the believers obviously go back to new theological insights, unheard of in the history of religions (unless Zoroastrian faith emerging in that period already had started to become a “book” religion). Nehemiah 8 presents an early example (middle to end of fifth century B.C.E.) of a worship liturgy, which shaped the forms of synagogue and church assemblies to this very day. Ezra, the scribe and “priest,” recites Torah for hours, being assisted by Levites who translate and interpret (the beginning of the homily) the divine affirmations (Neh 8:2–5, 7–8). The reciter blesses the assembly and receives its responses (Neh 8:5–6). The basic elements of sabbath meetings and later Christian Sunday service thus have been formed; prayers, hymn singing, instrumental music, Eucharist, etc. were added in due course. Reading scripture, prayer, hymn singing, homilies, and instrumental music constitute main elements of congregational service under the Word up to the present day.

Cultic calendars.

Deportees, just as voluntary immigrants throughout the ages, tend to cultivate their accustomed ways of life in order not to lose their identity. Much of the popular faith and custom nurtured by Judean exiles was integrated into theological parameters produced by their leaders. Under existing circumstances (lack of political autonomy and autochthonous dynasty) Judeans in Babylonia built up a unifying and preserving, predominantly religious group consciousness centered in sabbath worship. The sociological genre “religious community,” in contrast to clan, city, and state societies, was born. As we know from Hebrew scriptures, this new type of organization represented itself mostly in the correct service to Yahweh in rites, symbols, and confessional steadfastness. Israel is summoned to convene (cf. Deut 29–31; Josh 23–24; Ps 50), to commemorate God’s caring and saving acts (Pss 104; 78; 105; Deut 32; Exod 23:14–17) or lament serious setbacks (cf. Lam; Zech 7:3; 8:19), to listen to the Torah (Neh 8), to renew the covenant (Exod 24:3–8; Deut 5–6; 29–31; Neh 10), and to pledge allegiance to its God (Deut 30:15–20; 31:9–13; Josh 24:14–24). The sabbath was to be hallowed by refraining from any self-sustaining or remunerative work (Exod 20; Deut 5; Neh 13:15–22). Circumcision became mandatory (Gen 17:1–14; Exod 12:43–48). Supposedly, quite soon in this period regular Torah service came up for the Lord’s hallowed day. Synagogue worship shines through already in the famous Ezra appearance of Nehemiah 8. Some seasonal celebrations were obligatory for Jewish males (Exod 23:14, 17; Deut 16:16: agricultural high points of a farming community). To “appear before Yahweh” in postexilic times implied a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (cf. Pss 120–134). Spiritually, the real presence of Israel’s God can be experienced only at his place of residence (cf. Pss 84; 87). Only one sanctuary can give this supreme satisfaction; apparently, this implies some devaluation of the (local) service of Torah. Circumcision of male babies became a decisive sign of membership in the “church” community (cf. Isa 52:1; Ezek 32:19–32; Rom 2:25–29).

Profession of faith.

Early Jewish services required personal/communal pledges of allegiance to Yahweh. Individual complaints put affirmations of confidence before God, assuring the deity of one’s loyalty to motivate him or her to help (cf. Pss 31:3, 15; 143:10: “You are my God”; Ps 22:5: “In you our ancestors trusted”). In communal services a clear choice between Yahweh and other deities is in order (similarly in the early Avestan gathas of Zoroaster). Moses confronts the assembly with the choice of “life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut 30:15). Joshua and Elijah expect an unambiguous answer of the people pro or con Yahweh worship (Josh 24:14–18; 1 Kgs 18:21). Communal complaints insist on Yahweh’s solidarity with his people (cf. Pss 44:21; 79:9; 80:8, 20; 85:2–8; Isa 63:7—64:11), thereby claiming his covenant obligations. The attitude expressed in all these liturgies amounts to firm belief in God’s partnership with mutual responsibilities (cf. Gen 17:1–14; Exod 24:3–8; Deut 27:1–10; 28–29; Josh 24; Neh 10). Each new alignment, perhaps periodically celebrated, requires a personal and communal decision to enter such a relationship and bear the consequences. This pattern of faith and worship was laid down in the postexilic period and remains the principle of Judaism and Christianity.

Purity and impurity in the Old Testament.

For holiness rules and daily ethos in general, see Knohl (1995). Priestly influence on developing community organization and worship liturgies was considerable in the formative period of Jewish beginnings. After all, priests and Levites lost their jobs in Jerusalem and were partially deported to Babylonia. On their insistence, it seems, the priestly rules of saintliness and purity, fundamental, for example, for Leviticus 11–15, were fully applied to the congregation of believers. “You must be holy, because I, Yahweh, your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2) is the resumé of such belief. Therefore, the emerging Jewish congregations had to lead a perfect life. Torah communicated everything Yahweh wanted the people to do. The sages and scribes counted 613 literal commandments of God in the Pentateuch that had to be kept faithfully. Sexual and dietary regulations loom large in the web of purity concepts. Pollutions, including sometimes moral faults (cf. Lev 19; Pss 15; 24), would exclude a person from worship. Purifications (ablutions) under priestly surveillance could rehabilitate the affected person (cf. Lev 14:1–32; 15:5–12; Num 5:11–31). A case of permanent exclusion from cult practice was the skin disease psoriasis (Lev 13:45–46).

Other faiths and alien gods.

The inner structure of the congregation is complemented by behavior patterns over against other groups, customs, and beliefs. One strong advertisement of deuteronomic/deuteronomistic provenience is the prohibition of alien cults for reasons of faith: “I am Yahweh, your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:2–3; cf. Deut 6:4–5). In the priestly layers of the Old Testament, worship of other gods (i.e., of neighboring peoples) has become a defiling deed (Lev 19:1–4; 20:1–6). Impurity is contracted by just contacting foreign sanctuaries, territory, or persons. Sacred sites must be destroyed (Exod 23:24, 32–33), people of other cultic affiliation in some passages must be annihilated (Deut 20:16–18). Eventually, theologians require purification of the community from everything that could transport outside maculation including imported wives (cf. Ezra 10; Neh 13). The problem of “other gods” and their worshippers has remained virulent through the millennia of Jewish–Christian–Islamic tradition and can be resolved today only by relinquishing one’s own exclusive claims to possess ultimate truth.

Theologies of Worship.

The Old Testament is geared more to orthopraxis than to orthodoxy. Only in the New Testament doctrinal affirmations, mostly about the function and merits of Jesus, the Christ, are found decisive contents of faith. But the criteria of correct worship continue into the Christian tradition. Abominations of heathen cults are denounced in both testaments. What are the main characteristics of biblical spirituality and ceremonialism, and how did they shape theological thinking down to our own times?

Locals and architectures of worship.

The presence of divine powers or personalities has always been a matter of concern in the history of worship. Where can deities be found and venerated? Biblical experiences range over wide fields, from a niche inside the living quarters to sacred rocks, trees, wells, rivers, and mountains to temples, shrines, and the immaterial Spirit. Alongside these ancient localizing concepts we find communication with the divine through word, gestures, and music, that is, through nontopographical accesses to God. Ritual determines surroundings and architecture. Primitive altars in the Levant were a podium for slaughter; the priest ascended them on earthen or stone steps (Exod 20:22–26). Stelae symbolized male potency; trees or poles, female fertility. Temple buildings housed an image of the venerated deity. Central shrines served a wider region or state. Synagogues for Torah worship and teaching started as simple meeting rooms of variable shape and size. Reading the Word of Yahweh, listening to sermons, praying, and singing did not require specific installations except, perhaps, for the elevated rostrum of the liturgist (see Neh 8:4). The house congregations of early Christians were also unspecific, while Christian churches and cathedrals later took Roman basilica style as the basic form for their model, adding, in due course, heavenward steeples and bells. Sacred architecture through centuries served word communication and sacraments in allegiance with the most powerful God of the universe. Only in the past century has church architecture liberated itself from fixed doctrinal standards and experimented with new forms and purposes.

Sacrifice and Eucharist.

The ancient center of worship seems to have been bloody sacrifice with ensuing meal (1 Sam 1:3–5). Sacrificial rites, especially their word elements, remain obscure in spite of some detailed descriptions (Lev 1–7). Supplications for individuals, on the other hand, from the beginning encompassed extensive word elements and reduced animal offerings (cf. Pss 38; 40–43; 55; 59; 69; 1 Kgs 8:27–53; for Babylonian rites see Maul, 1994). Focusing on sacrifice, the idea of establishing a wholesome relationship, for example, through atonement, with God by gifts of blood, never completely vanished from liturgical agendas. Animals may be substituted by Christ’s unique self-sacrifice, symbolized by the holy host. Other biblical traditions offer confession of sins, a contrite heart, and abjuration of evil thoughts and deeds instead of a material gift (cf. Pss 40:7; 50:7–15; 51:18–19). God is experienced as a merciful, forgiving sovereign and increasingly (on the basis of, e.g., Isa 63:16; 64:8; Ps 103:13; Matt 6:9–14) as a loving father. Christ, on the other hand, from the beginning has been venerated in different ways according to varied Christological concepts. He becomes the sacrificial victim who atones for the whole world, the hero giving his life to establish the kingdom of justice on earth, or the descended embodiment of God to rescue imprisoned souls. Worship patterns and contents alternate according to these and other theological models. The bifurcation of adoration into sacrificial and verbal branches is not an absolute schism in the Bible, even though word communication has superseded bloody sacrifice.

The Word of God.

On the basis of earlier word communication theologies, early Jewish as well as later Christian and Muslim congregations concentrated their faith on divine revelation put down on scrolls or in “books.” Possibly, the original idea of a “revealed” and “written-down” religion came out of Zoroastrian circles. The Eastern prophet is portrayed in the oldest layers of Avesta, a holy tradition of Old Persian provenience, as the sole mediator of the will of Ahura Mazda. This “Lord of Wisdom” together with the good powers (ameisha spentas) was considered the exclusive ruler of the universe, diametrically opposed to the forces of evil (e.g., lies, darkness, injustice; see Gerstenberger, 2011). The written communications of God, received through Moses and Muhammad, likewise became the basis of Jewish and Muslim faith. Christianity does not have a proper receiver and communicator of the Word of God but claims to possess the fulfiller of Jewish scriptures incorporating the Word in his person. In this way Christian churches become the heirs of the Mosaic tradition. Revelation, celebrated in each worship service, is thought of in all four branches of monotheistic thinking as the comprehensive announcement of universal truth valid for all humankind. Men (and women?) of God receiving all kinds of instruction from above are held to write down each message. The plenitude of piecemeal advertisements given through a period of time is believed to serve as divine orientation until the end of time. They include counsels for many situations of life, from cultic affairs to ethical behavior. Later Jewish exegetes counted 613 commandments in the Pentateuch which, of course, needed to be continually proclaimed, discussed, and applied within a certain margin of meaning. But in ultimate analysis this divine Word was sufficient for everyone and along all human history. The Torah, in consequence, is praised as the perfect source of divine orientation and guarantee of God’s presence (Pss 119; 19:8–11). Small wonder that Torah became the object of reverence and the very epitome of God’s grace, to be celebrated every sabbath and at pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem (Neh 8:1–8). Holy scripture to this day is at the center of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worship. The great God, ever since the Jewish (or Zoroastrian) beginnings, dominates the world through verbal communication (not, e.g., by anonymous forces or powers of nature).

Hymn singing as response and participation.

The Word of God demanded ears to hear and minds to follow the commandments. But the Jewish community also responded in song and prayer to the reports of God’s revelation, that is, orientation. Hymns of praise according to ancient Near Eastern beliefs not only acknowledged the supreme authority of the deity by doing obeisance to him or her but also enhanced the power of the numen. “Give to Yahweh glory and power!” (Ps 29:1) is an exhortation to the heavenly beings, also extant in Ugaritic epics, which applies to human praise as well. The chthonic forces “clap their hands” (Ps 98:8); all the entities of the universe join in jubilation before God (cf. Pss 96; 98; 148).

Music, both vocal and instrumental, has had an important role in worship since time immemorial and throughout the ancient Near East (cf. Ps 150; 1 Chr 16; 25; 2 Chr 29:25–30; Neh 12:27–47). The New Testament communities used Jewish hymns and prayers (cf. Matt 26:30; Jas 5:13) but also composed new songs (cf. Phil 2:6–11; Eph 5:19; Rev 5:9). Inspired by the combined Old and New Testaments as well as by extrabiblical traditions, the early Christian church handed down a rich heritage of sacred songs (church fathers like Ephraim, Chrysostomos, Ambrosius) that was influential in shaping Christian liturgies. Jews and Muslims developed for their respective scripture and prayer services a wealth of melodies and songs, with some restrictions in the use of instruments. Cantors in both religions are highly respected and well trained. Christian churches developed elaborate vocal and orchestral ceremonies that tended to expand into secular music halls. The theological significance of linking the proclamation of the Word with musical expressions may be a desired transition into another world. Everyday language remains on a factual level, while poetics and songs conjure up another dimension of reality. They touch emotive depths and mystic heights of existence inaccessible to plain verbal communication. Therefore, cult and worship within the three religions indicated and beyond are typically permeated with musical articulations. This feature gives voice to more than one performer, frequently involving choirs, orchestras, and the assembled congregation on the whole. Theologically, it may be considered as the community’s response to the preceding graces the deity has bestowed on them and as its grateful contribution to God’s honor and strength.

Supplication, lament, and thanksgiving.

Besides hymn singing the emerging Jewish congregations everywhere in the ancient world practiced supplication and lament, as well as personal and collective thanksgiving in a variety of rituals. Relics of these services are visible in the Psalter (Mowinckel, 1962) and in some narrative passages. The basic impetus of the worshippers is to get new access to God, to assuage his temper, to plead for mercy and restitution, and to secure benevolence and blessings. All these motions presuppose a fundamentally firm but temporarily disturbed relationship with the procured deity. A theology of sin or defilement looms behind or may be the outcome of such ritual endeavors.

Contemplation, instruction, wisdom.

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshipping always included elements of reflection and teaching. Thus, the supplicant who had been saved by God was supposed to communicate the experience to the congregation (Pss 22:23; 32:8). The liturgist (singer) admonishes the congregation to ponder past salvation history (Pss 78; 105; 106). The transiency of human life (Pss 39; 49; 90), injustices of society (Pss 9/10; 37; 73), and obedience to Torah (cf. Pss 1; 19; 119) are thematized in public rituals. Prophetic speech and homiletic discourse (which may be identical in the Old Testament) often have an exhortative character. Subsequent Christian and Muslim catechetical efforts fall into the same line. Educational strands eventually outgrow distinct worship situations and become separate schooling institutions (yešivah and madrasa, Hebrew and Arabic, respectively, for “houses of learning”).

The Ethos of Worship.

Fidelity, justice, and equity are signs of the Kingdom of God. Biblical witnesses often refer to the social dimensions of cult and worship, as did their predecessors in ancient Near Eastern religions. God “who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed” (Ps 146:6–7; cf. Pss 9/10; 37; 73) wants his kings to administer truth and equity (cf. Pss 45:7–8; 72). A group of psalms is dedicated especially to the protection and rehabilitation of the poor (cf. Pss 9/10; 37; 73). The evildoers are chided (Pss 50:16–23; 82). In the same vein prophetic addresses aim at individual persons or at groups of people, sometimes at the whole of Israel or Judah, imagining a full gathering (e.g., Jeremiah’s sermons in chs. 10; 11; 18). The topics of being absolutely loyal to Yahweh (and despising other deities) and exercising solidarity with fellow believers are closely intertwined. And both constitute central themes of community worship. Preoccupation with social issues permeates theological debates in all four monotheistic religions (Roman Catholic social encyclicals like Rerum Novarum, 1891).

One God, One World.

Oneness in plurality is the dream of our time. Conceptualizations of the divine certainly occur in the realm of academic and other studies of religion. To a large degree, however, theological thinking is coined in and by cultic practice. Liturgies, sermons, and sacraments are active theological forces, recognized, for example, by the orthodox Christian churches, liturgical movements (e.g., the Brotherhood of Taizé), liberation theologies, and youth organizations. In correspondence with biblical witnesses a prominent profile of God today is that of a universal, almighty, and loving deity. All religions, however, need mediators of God’s demanding and comforting presence, be it on the human plane (clergy) or on a spiritual level (embodiments of God, saints, angels). A pure monotheism arguably does not exist in reality. So the real problem, arising not from doctrinal reasoning but from living faith as performed in worship, is this: How can we revere the unique “ground of being,” “depth of existence,” “absolute meaning” (see Paul Tillich) while we are living in a complex, atomized world with countless dichotomies and antagonisms? Worship may teach us to recognize the deep mysteries of God’s being and actions in our midst and through a great variety of means, persons, and powers. Thus, we might liberate ourselves from overly doctrinaire thinking within narrow confessional horizons.




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Erhard S. Gerstenberger