As I began researching my latest book Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, I realized that a basic question was a puzzle to me. How was the Bible read and preached in the first-century synagogue?
Every Sabbath for thousands of years, the synagogue service has focused on the reading of the Torah and the Prophets. This is mentioned in Acts 13:15. For dozens of centuries, the tradition has been to read through the Torah over a year, and to read a corresponding passage from the Prophets.
Is that what Jesus would have known? Yes and no. The Torah and Prophets were read each week, but the current liturgy was developed around 400 years later in synagogues in Babylon. Before that, an older, earlier tradition existed that was largely unknown to scholars until about a century ago.
The Triennial Reading Tradition
In the earliest period, the readings were spread over approximately three and a half years, differing slightly from town to town. Also, synagogues did not have a single leader who preached every week, like a rabbi or pastor does today.
Instead, one adult member of the congregation (or an educated visitor) would be invited to read the Torah portion. He would then choose a prophetic passage that fit the Torah reading, and would give a brief meditation on how the passages relate to each other.…