The Jews developed the synagogue sometime after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple and carried the Jews into Babylonian Captivity. No one knows whether it was then or after the return from exile that the synagogue was invented. In all likelihood, it was an idea that began outside Israel and became standardized over time as the people and the rabbis saw the advantages of the practice.
You see, even after the Jews were allowed to return to Palestine to rebuild the temple under Ezra and Nehemiah, most Jews lived elsewhere and so could not travel to Jerusalem. It was hard to live as a Jew outside of Palestine.
The synagogue was thus developed to serve as a place of study and prayer. It was not referred to as a house of “worship,” likely to avoid any sense that the synagogue could replace the Temple. And the focus of the synagogue was study of Torah and the training of children. You see, one purpose of the synagogue was to pass their faith down to their children. And it worked.
Thus, the synagogue served as a school for children, a place of study, a community center, a house of prayer, and even a place of judgment. The rulers of the synagogue had the authority to expel or otherwise punish wayward Jews.
And the Sabbath thus became a day to gather in the synagogue, to read the Torah, to hear a lesson, to pray, to chant, and even to sing. The singing was not nearly as central to the service as Torah study, but they did sing. You see, a copy of the first five books of the Bible was incredibly expensive, and so the community shared resources to buy a Torah scroll, which was shared on the Sabbath with public readings, lessons, and discussions.
Everett Ferguson, an early church scholar at Abilene Christian who advocates for a cappella singing in Christian worship, has concluded that the First Century synagogues used no instruments — although there may have been exceptions as practices were not entirely uniform across the Roman Empire. The reason given was that instruments were a part of the Temple service and so the synagogues could not attempt to duplicate what was uniquely a part of the Temple.
Ironically enough, one could argue that the Jews refused to use instruments because to do so would have been to “worship,” and true worship was exclusive to the Temple.
Jesus himself said,
(John 4:20-22) Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
The implication is clear that until the time comes, worship is indeed only in Jerusalem — Jesus using “worship” in this technical, Old Testament sense.
The early church
The early church was Jewish — not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the Empire. Paul generally preached first to Jews and to “God fearers” — Gentiles who served God. For centuries, the early church had a very Jewish flavor. After all, the apostles were all Jews, and Jesus was a Jew. They taught from the Jewish scriptures, and they worshiped the God of the Jews.
Later on, the church authorities tried to remove Judaic influences from Christianity — so much so that to “Judaize” was considered heresy. Much of this resulted from the Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 and the second Jewish revolt of AD 116-117 against the Emperor Trajan, which led to Jewish persecution across the Empire the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
After these rebellions, it became quite dangerous to be known as a Jew. But even then, the Jewish flavor of early Christianity persisted, despite the desire of many Christian leaders to escape any association with Judaism. But their effort ultimately succeeded, so much so that even today most Christian paintings of Jesus don’t look remotely Jewish, and we treat the Old Testament as a dead letter.
But early on, the early church was openly Jewish and later was still much more defined by its Jewish roots than it is today. But even so, the early church had no synagogues. For a while, they met in synagogues, and Christian rabbis, such as Paul, were allowed to teach in the synagogues, but soon enough, the Jewish authorities refused to allow the Christians to meet in the synagogues. The Romans weren’t about to give an outlaw group access to public buildings. And so they met in private homes, with no more than 30 in a single house — that’s all a First Century dwelling would hold.
But even though there were no buildings that duplicated the synagogue, the early church had elders, which followed synagogue practice. And the elders had the authority to discipline members, to teach, etc. Sunday became the day for Christian assembly, and the assemblies involved singing, study of the scriptures (originally the Old Testament, as the New Testament wouldn’t be written for decades and not assembled from across the Empire until much later), prayer, singing, and a common meal called the love feast.
And they met to take the Lord’s Supper — sometimes with a common meal, but not always. And this was very different from Jewish practice. The Jews did not eat in the synagogue, whereas the Christians met in homes, and just as our small groups typically do together, they ate together. It’s what people who love each other do when they meet in a home.
It’s pretty clear that the early church followed the synagogue practice of having no instruments. No reason is given in the New Testament, and the writings of the early Christians give several different reasons — including refusing to use instruments so as to not “Judaize.”
My own thinking is that due to Jewish sensibilities, it just made sense to remain a cappella. The gatherings were small, skilled players would have been rare among the Christians, and the gatherings weren’t centered on the singing as much as own the Lord’s Supper, the love feast, and the scriptures.
In an earlier post, I summarized the reasons given by the early church to reject the instrument in worship —
There is a clear desire to be unlike the Jews — but in such ignorance of Jewish practice that the Christians actually worshipped on Sundays much as the Jews worshipped on Saturdays!
There’s a desire to flee any association with the military or with the licentiousness of pagan society. And there’s some Platonic thought, associating instruments with the corruption of the flesh and the voice with the purity of the human spirit.
None of this is biblical. The early Christians don’t use a single argument used by the conservative Churches of Christ today. Rather, they continued Jewish practice and built their arguments either on prejudice against the Jews, cultural considerations, or Greek attitudes toward material things.