Synagogues are mentioned throughout the New Testament, but curiously, there is virtually no mention of them in the Old Testament. A number of profitable truths can be gleaned from a historical and Biblical study of synagogues.
The History of Synagogues — The first synagogues probably originated during the Babylonian captivity of 606-536 B.C. Enslaved Jewish exiles who had been carried far from their homeland obviously could not travel to the temple to worship, and so they began to gather together in communities (“assemblies,” or “synagogues”) dedicated to preserving the word of God and their devotion to the Old Covenant. Although the Jews were permitted to return home in 536 B.C. (Ezra 2), millions never returned to Israel, but instead continued to live dispersed through various parts of the world. In Jesus’ day, there were 4.5 million Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, a most of whom belonged to a local synagogue in the community where they lived. Thus, there were faithful “pockets” of Judaism scattered throughout the civilized world because of the existence of synagogues. These synagogues would later play a quite significant role in the spread of New Testament Christianity.
Synagogues were prolific in the Roman Empire; nearly every civilized town had at least one. To establish a synagogue, a community first needed to have ten adult Jewish males. Having met this requirement, a synagogue would be established as a place of worship, teaching and fellowship for Jews in a local community. Synagogues also sometimes served as a means of instructing Gentiles in the ways of the one true God. Judaism was attractive to many Greeks and Romans because it encouraged family stability, practiced monotheism (as opposed to the confusing array of mythological “gods” worshipped by the Romans), offered a well-defined moral and ethical code, and placed a high value on human life. Thus, many Greeks and Romans became noadiches, or “God-fearers.” These noadiches, while not converted to Judaism and the Law of Moses, were permitted to come to the synagogues, provided that they recognized and worshipped the God of Israel alone (cf. Acts 18:4-7).
Items in the Synagogues — The architecture of synagogues in Bible times appears to have varied somewhat from place to place. However, history teaches that Jews often preferred to build synagogues at the highest locations possible as a symbol of the fact that worship of God was the highest endeavor in which one could involve himself. When high points were not available for constructing a synagogue, the buildings were often located near a river or sea.
Nearly every synagogue contained a “holy ark” (a chest or cabinet) in which the scrolls of God’s word were kept. The scrolls themselves were carefully constructed copies of the Old Testament Scriptures. At the end of each service, the scrolls would be carefully and reverently placed in the “holy ark” until the next service. It is not inaccurate to say that the Scriptures were considered the most sacred item inside a synagogue.
Each synagogue had a bema or platform at the center or one end of the room. The bema contained a reading desk (what we would call a “podium”) and the “chief seats” for those leading or presiding over the service (see Matt. 23:6; Luke 14:7). Seating was arranged so that everyone faced the bema. In many (but not all) synagogues, it appears that women customarily sat separate from men. Often, the walls of synagogues would be adorned with elaborate carvings reminding the Jews of their history and heritage. Continued next week — JB
The Synagogue (2)
By the first century A.D., the synagogue had become a center of Jewish religious and social life in most communities. It is fascinating indeed to examine what Scripture and history have to teach about synagogues in Bible times.
Officers of the Synagogue — A number of specialized tasks and responsibilities were handled by certain individuals in each local synagogue. For example, each synagogue had a, “head,” “director,” or “ruler,” of the Synagogue who was chosen from among the elders to arrange and supervise the orderliness of services (cf. Luke 13:14; Acts 13:15). Another official, known as the hazzan or “minister,” was often a paid employee responsible for blowing the shofar (ram’s) horn three times from the roof to signal the Sabbath. The hazzan was also responsible for copying and keeping scrolls in good condition, and he was responsible for reading the Scriptures in the public assembly if not enough readers were present. If a synagogue was especially fortunate, their hazzan would also be a trained scribe — someone who had studied the Law extensively for years in order to be able to teach others better (cf. Ezra 7:10; John 7:14-15). In many parts of the ancient world, synagogues also needed interpreters or translators. Scripture would often be read in Hebrew or Greek and then translated into the native tongue of that region.
Worship in the Synagogue — Generally, any Jewish male could lead a prayer or read and translate Scripture. Every service began with specific readings that had been prescribed by the scribes and rabbis. Most commonly read was the shema (“hear”) passage (Deut. 6:4-9). Nearly every service gave much attention to reading sections from the Law, the Prophets, and especially the Psalms. The congregation would stand as Scripture was read (cf. Neh. 8:1-8), and the reader was forbidden to take his eyes off the scroll in order to ensure that the word of God was communicated accurately (cf. Luke 4:16-20). Following a reading, a male in the synagogue (usually prepared in advance) would seek to apply the Scripture to life in the form of a brief sermon. Visiting rabbis were frequently asked to bring sermons to local synagogues (see Acts 13:15ff.).
Other Uses of the Synagogue — In addition to a worship location, the synagogue also served other functions in a community. It was a school for training Jewish children in the Laws and ways of the Lord. It was not uncommon in the first century to find young children hard at work in synagogues memorizing the Torah, or Law of Moses. The synagogue also served as something of a community center for festivals, times of mourning and fasting, and as a center for feeding strangers and the poor. Sometimes the synagogue functioned as a court of law in which important questions regarding God’s law were decided. People could be banned from the synagogue (Jn. 9:22; 12:42), and sometimes corporal punishment (administered by the hazzan) could be applied for rebellion against the authorities — usually 39 lashes to honor God’s commandment (cf. Deut. 25:3).
Some applications for Christians come to mind based on all these facts:
We ought to love and respect Scripture, and practice Scripture reading more, especially in our public assemblies. It was an essential part of synagogue worship.
We need to get serious about teaching our children the Bible — in many cases that was the only education available in the first century
We need to appreciate the value of fellowship with both God and man (1 Jn. 1:7) -JB
Works Referenced for this article:
Elwell, Walter and Robert Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.
“Synagogue.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915. 4 vol. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.