Exploring the Synagogue in Jesus’ Day, Part 1

Posted on June 26, 2020

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By David Ettinger

This is the first of a four-part blog series.

synagogue
The ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum

Reading through the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, it is clear that synagogues played a huge role in His ministry. It was at these local houses of worship that Jesus:

  • taught (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 54; Luke 4:44; John 18:20);
  • cast out demons (Mark 1:25; Luke 4:35);
  • preached (Mark 1:39);
  • healed infirmities (Mark 3:5);
  • and confronted unbelievers (Mark 6:1-4; Luke 4:23-24).

Jesus spent a large amount of time in the synagogues of Israel, which says a great deal about the prominence they held in society, and why He considered them so crucial to His missionary purpose.

Just how important was the synagogue to Jewish life at the time of Jesus? It is no exaggeration to say that the synagogue was at the very heart and soul of Jewish culture, and that most of religious and civic life centered around the synagogue. In fact, it is safe to say that to the majority of Jews in A.D. 30, the synagogue had surpassed the Temple in Jerusalem in personal influence and relevance.

Jesus knew this well, and made it a priority to visit as many synagogues as possible during His earthly ministry. This is as good a reason as any to explore the institution of the synagogue in Jesus’ day, and to determine just why our Lord placed so much importance on it.

babylon lion

Origins
So, where, when, and how did the institution of the synagogue begin?

First, let’s define the word “synagogue.” The term is Greek, and its root means “gathering-together-places” or “a gathering together.” Specifically, synagogues were – and are – places where Jewish people could pray, sing songs, and read the Tanach – the Old Testament – together.

It is generally believed that the synagogue began during Israel’s Babylonian exile – a 70-year period (605-535 B.C.) when the Jews were out of the land of Israel and could not worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. While in exile, the Hebrews of the Diaspora (“dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel”) survived religiously by meeting together on the Sabbath to learn about their laws and traditions.

This practice of meeting together became so crucial to the unity of the Jewish people that upon returning from exile they continued it, building worship houses throughout Israel. Within a century of being back in the land, the synagogue became a formal institution. At the same time, the synagogue remained a staple of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

It is important to note that the synagogue was never meant to compete with the Temple, which for centuries was regarded as the paramount venue of Jewish worship. The synagogue was the lesser-regarded “younger brother” of the Temple, and during the early days of the synagogue, there was no disputing this fact.

mosaic law

Purpose
Those who lived far from Jerusalem – particularly those of the Diaspora – could only manage a few visits yearly to the Temple, if not a few in a lifetime. So, in time, the synagogue slowly morphed into the central place of worship in the hearts of the common man and woman. For faithful attenders, there was a warmth about the synagogue, a place where they could sit with friends and neighbors and listen to the reading of the Mosaic Law. It was a place where Jews could literally sing the praises of God (many of the Psalms were turned into song), and learn about their heritage. The synagogue was also a place where Jews could pray together. It was certainly more cordial and personal than the Temple.

More than anything, however, the chief purpose of the synagogue was to foster understanding and proper observance of the Mosaic Law.

Growth
With its hospitable atmosphere and practicality, the synagogue exploded in popularity. Because Israeli towns were small, the synagogue, usually located in the center of town, was easy to reach, even for those living at the outskirts. In time, synagogues – in an effort to counteract the cultural effect of Israel’s ruling empires – Greece (332-63 B.C.) and Rome (63 B.C.-A.D. 313) – elected to expand the Tanach teaching days to beyond the Sabbath (Friday night and Saturday) to Mondays and Thursdays, Israel’s heaviest market days.

Eventually, the synagogue became a natural environment for theological training, and in this way it became more than just a house of worship. By the first century B.C., the synagogue building became the local school for Jewish children, the headquarters for local government, and the location for civic meetings.

pharisees

It did not take long for Israel’s religious leaders to realize the benefits of the synagogue as a tool for influencing the hearts and minds of Israelites. At the Temple, the Sadducees pretty much “ruled the roost,” controlling the sacrificial system and collecting the tithes for the upkeep of the Temple. Also, the Sadducees only held to the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament – and denied such biblical truths as angels and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23).

The Pharisees, on the other hand, adhered to the entire Old Testament cannon, and were much more loyal to the teaching of the prophets. They opposed the teachings and beliefs of the Sadducees and saw the synagogue as a place to advance their doctrine to the people of Israel. Though the Sadducees and other sects – the Zealots most prominently – used the synagogue as a platform for voicing their opinions, the Pharisees did so far more effectively.

Because of the pressing desire of the Pharisees to influence the hearts and minds of the Israelites through the synagogue, the institution blossomed, and by 50 B.C. synagogues inhabited just about every Israeli village with a Jewish population of any size. (It took only 10 adult males to form a synagogue, a modest enough number for even the tiniest of Israeli hamlets.)

Up Next: Part 2.