The Synagogue

By L.A. Stauffer

Synagogues have been the center of Jewish religious and social life for more than 2000 years. Although their origin is wrapped in the obscurity of Jewish history between Old and New Testament times, they were prominent throughout the Graeco-Roman world by the time of Jesus and the apostles. Why and how they arose is fathomable in part, but some historians and theologians believe they served a far more extensive and valuable purpose than merely a place for Jewish worshipers to assemble. Some scholars cannot resist the conclusion that synagogues developed for just such a time as the arrival of the Messiah, the prophesied kingdom, and the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose to redeem mankind. 

Synagogues indisputably provided an arena in which Jesus could challenge the scribes, Pharisees, and other leaders of Judaism; a place where he could put the right construction on the law and prophets and announce the fullness of times. They were likewise auditoriums for evangelism by apostles who, taking the Scriptures in hand, alleged and proved from prophecy that Jesus was the Christ and that the time for the messianic kingdom had come. But all this is to get ahead of the story of the synagogue.

Bible readers and students leave the holy precinct of Old Testament revelation, pass over 400 years of profane history, enter the sacred grounds of New Testament Scriptures, and suddenly read about Sadducees, Pharisees, Edomite rulers, Roman governors in Palestine, and synagogues. Some undoubtedly, especially those unfamiliar with the history between the covenants, are startled by the presence of synagogues in every part of the Roman empire at the opening of the first century A.D. And yet, those acquainted with that history would be as equally surprised if there were no synagogues in those cities.

When the Old Testament comes to end with the book of Malachi, only a small remnant of Jews have returned to Jerusalem and their Palestinian home. The remainder of the nation in great numbers adapted to the Greek culture that engulfed the world through the influence of Alexander the Great and established homes and businesses in the cities of every province of Rome. Would these Jews of the Diaspora forsake God? Would they reject his law completely? Would they join the pagans in their heathenistic worship, especially after being exiled from their land for adopting the  ways of the Gentiles? After learning in captivity the lessons of apostasy and compiling the sacred writings in both Hebrew and Greek, it is to be expected that some among them would seek to honor God. But where? Certainly not at pagan temples. Isolation from Jerusalem and dispersion among the nations are the circumstances that demand in every city a place to assemble for the reading of Scripture, prayer, teaching, and exhortations to faithfulness. This is the setting for the beginning of Jewish synagogues.

The word “synagogue” does not at first mean a building in which to assemble. The term grows out of the Greek prefix (sun) which means “together” and the Greek verb (ago) “to go, come, bring.” This combination gave Greeks the word sunagoge, which means “a coming or bringing together” of a group — whether people, animals, commodities, or other items. From Thycidides on it might refer to the gathering of a harvest, a union of barbers, the mustering of an army, and a host of similar applications.

Sunagoge is first associated with the Jewish nation in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures about 275 to 250 B.C. There it is used some 200 times and translates a dozen or so words. It primarily denotes the “community” or “congregation” of Israel, whether assembled or not. It is likewise employed to describe a collection of revenue, a pile of stones, a swarm of bees, a herd of cattle, and the Babylonian and Assyrian armies and nations. But it principally translates edah and occasionally qahal, Hebrew words that refer to the “assemblies” of Israel and the “community” or nation of Israel itself (see Kittle, VIII: 798-841).

Sunagoge in time followed the history of the English word “church” and came to denote the building in which Jewish worshipers assembled. The origin of buildings and the use of “synagogue” to denote meeting houses is apparently lost to the annals of history. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to trace synagogues to the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Jewish captives of Babylon and Persia. The first documented inscription of a “place” of assembly outside Jerusalem is in Schedia, Egypt at the time of Ptolemy Euergetes who ruled from 247-221 B.C. Even then the building was called a house or “place of prayer” (proseuch ) rather than a synagogue (The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10: 120; see Acts 16:13). By the time of Jesus and the apostles, buildings flourished both in Palestine and every corner of the Roman world. Generally, they bore the name “synagogues” and were established in any community where ten Jewish males lived.

Synagogues were places of assembly both for worship and the conduct of community business. There schools were conducted for children, alms were taken up for the poor, sentence was pronounced against criminals, scourgings were administered to the guilty, and convicted citizens were excommunicated from Jewish society (see Matt. 6:2, 5; 10:17; 23:34; Mark 13:9; John 12:42; Acts 22:19). But mainly it was a place of worship on certain week days, on the sabbath, and on feast days and other special occasions.

The synagogue itself was no innovation per se, but an aid to provide a place for the nation to do what Ezra and Nehemiah did when after captivity they tried to rebuild the people as a holy nation and an elect race. While synagogues were generally places of worship, the “main object of these Sabbath day assemblages . . . was not public worship in its stricter sense, i.e., not devotion, but religious instruction.” Philo called them “houses of instruction” (The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Emil Schurer, Division II, II:54; see Acts 15:21). From the teaching of the New Testament and Talmudic compilations the traditional service at the synagogue is reasonably clear. 

The service opened with a recitation of the Shema, a compilation of verses from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. Next followed a reading from the Torah (law) and the prophets. The Torah, according to Schurer, was divided into 154 sections and was read in its entirety every three years. This was followed by a prayer, a blessing from one of the priests, and a discourse from a scribe, rabbi, or a selected guest among the visitors. The service ended with the utterance of the Shemmeh Esreh — a prayer repeated by dedicated Jews three times a day. The prayer in part included: praise to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for his gracious blessings; a request for wisdom and forgiveness; a call for help to do what is right and to endure affliction; a plea for God to reign over them and bring justice to evil-doers; a cry for mercy to the      righteous and restoration of the nation to Jerusalem; an appeal for God to accept their prayers and worship; a final offer of praise and thanksgiving (Schurer 85-87).

The synagogue and its service, according to Jewish authorities, was a revolutionary departure from the Temple service of a special priesthood and sacrifices. The synagogue possessed no inherent sanctity and its service included no sacrificial or sacramental ritual. It required no intermediary services of a priest, but was a democratic fellowship of worshipers who sought God directly in eagerness to learn the law (Jewish Encyclopedia 120).

The exact structure or layout of synagogues cannot be easily determined. Archaeological remains of synagogues — some 150 sites in places as diverse as Galilee, Syria, Babylon, Greece, Asia Minor, Italy, Spain, Egypt, northern Africa — are of post-Christian times and may not necessarily represent the design of synagogues in the time between the covenants and at the beginning of the first century. They were usually located at the highest point of a city and faced either east or toward Jerusalem. Evidence, according to some writers, indicates that the structures may have been patterned after the Temple. But since there were no rabbinic regulations, synagogues may have varied from locality to locality, depending on the size and wealth of the Jewish population. Schurer notes that the design of A.D. 200 and onward, of which there are many examples, did not arise immediately and may well reflect the earlier time of the first century. The most notable examples show two-columned auditoriums with a central nave and two narrower seating aisles on either side. More elaborate synagogues contained galleries that extended over the side aisles with separate entrances from the outside and included a pillared porch or stoop at the main entrance. 

What is known with a good bit of certainty about the furnishings of synagogues is that they had either concrete or wooden benches which were often backless. Some benches, probably at the front of the auditorium facing the assembly, were what the New Testament calls “chief seats” where men of prominence were seated: elders, scribes, rabbis, or wealthy and otherwise important figures of the community (see Matt. 23:6; Mark 12:29; Luke 11:43; 20:46). Also at the front of the synagogue was a raised dais (bema)               where a reading desk stood and a box known as the “ark” (geniza) in which scrolls of the Old Testament Scriptures, wrapped in linen cloths, were housed. Mention is also made of candlelabras for lighting and trombones and trumpets for sounding the time of special events and days.

The personnel in charge of the synagogue and its services were not necessarily priests, scribes, or elders. No doubt in any community where these men resided they took part in the synagogue services at regular intervals. But even young men from the synagogue schools were called on to read the Scriptures and visitors were asked to speak. The ruler of the synagogue and the minister or attendant at the service were not necessarily rabbis or scribes. The ruler of the synagogue was chosen from the community to arrange and set in order the procedure for worship.

Historians and theologians, as noted earlier, often view the rise of the synagogue in the context of the “fullness of times” or “last days” — a time purposed by God, foreseen in Old Testament prophecy, and fulfilled in the life of Jesus and the revelation of the gospel of salvation (see Isa. 2:2; Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:1; 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:11). The public ministry of Jesus opened with the announcement that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). God had set a time within his own authority for the arrival of the kingdom, according to Jesus, who then sent the twelve to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth with the good news of salvation (see Acts 1:6-8).

How convenient were those places of worship in every community in Palestine when God sent forth his Son in the fulness of time to implant his universal rule into the hearts of men through the gospel. There — at those synagogues — Jesus began his public ministry, spake with authority, revealed and demonstrated his identity as the Christ, and announced the arrival of the messianic kingdom (Matt. 4:23; Luke 4:16-30). From synagogues in the rest of the known world the apostles heralded in every nation the will and purpose of God to sum up all things in heaven and earth in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10, 11). There the gospel of grace through faith was announced first to the Jews, among whom were God-fearing proselytes. From there the good news radiated outward to the Gentiles of the community and churches were established alongside the synagogues (Acts 13:5, 14, 42; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 7, 19, 26; 19:8).

The synagogue, it is evident, was not only an expedient for Jewish worshipers scattered among the nations, but was likewise an aid for disciples of Christ who were dispersed by God’s command into all nations to preach the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15,16; Luke 24:47-49).

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p1  May 4, 2000