Exploring the Synagogue in Jesus’ Day, Part 2

Posted on June 27, 2020


By David Ettinger

This is the second of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here.


Ruins of the synagogue of Capernaum

By the time of Jesus, synagogues were familiar sights throughout Israel. They were easy to spot because of where they were located. If not constructed in the geographical heart of a town, synagogues were built on the highest elevation which could reasonably be reached. If in a “flat” area of Israel, the synagogue usually possessed an architectural feature, such as a dome or augmented base, to help it stand out.

Unlike modern churches, synagogues were not interested in being structurally innovative or different from one another. Just about every synagogue in Jesus’ time was built to a common pattern where Jews could feel at home, even if they were traveling to another village and walked into its synagogue for the first time.

As the worshiper entered the synagogue, the first thing he saw was a raised pulpit, or “bema” – a lectern where the prescribed portions of the Mosaic Law and the Prophets were read, and the sermon was preached.

Nearby was a chest in which the scrolls of the Law were kept. During services, religious leaders sat in front of the chest which faced the people. The chairs occupied by these religious leaders (rabbis, teachers, scribes, and Pharisees) were called “Moses Seats” or “Seats of Moses” (Matthew 23:2). These “Seats of Moses” could well have been named so in recognition of Moses’ role as judge of the Hebrews (Exodus 18:21-27).

seat of moses
A “Seat of Moses”

(When the synagogue was being used as a courtroom on the non-Sabbath days, it was usually the scribes who filled the role of judges. When they rendered a judicial verdict, they did so while sitting in the “Moses Seat.” A “seat of Moses” was found in the ruins of several synagogues, including Chorazin.)

Another major characteristic of the synagogue during the time of Jesus was that men and women sat separately and in different sections. If the synagogue was large and had a balcony, the men sat on the ground floor and the women upstairs. For smaller synagogues, the men sat in the middle section and the women on the sides, usually with a partition in between. Many synagogues had separate entrances for the men and women.

How the Synagogue Worked
In regular Sabbath services, the Scriptures were read, God was extolled, and a sermon was preached (Luke 4:16-21). This, at least, was how the synagogue worked in the early days. Many scholars believe this pattern of worship was established in the Book of Nehemiah (Chapter 8) where Ezra led the great assembly in Jerusalem. It seems that the order of service in the early synagogue paralleled those of the Ezra gathering.

Regarding reading the Torah (the five Books of Moses), we read: “And Ezra the priest brought [read] the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month” (Nehemiah 8:2).


Regarding the worship of God, we read: “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:6).

Regarding the sermon which followed the reciting of Scripture, we read: “So they [the Levites] read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8).

Singing psalms was added later, along with one more very interesting element: a time of asking questions and having discussion. We see this in Acts 6:9-10 when Stephen spoke with great wisdom in the synagogue. During Jesus’ day, it is safe to assume that much of the discussion in the synagogue centered around the identity of the young Rabbi from Nazareth who claimed to be Israel’s Messiah. Was He or wasn’t He? Those must have been fascinating debates.

For the most part, it was the rabbi who read the Scriptures and explained the Law. (By the way, this activity inspired the Muslims centuries later to nickname the Jews “the people of the Book.”) Scripture reading consisted of the Shema, which means “hear” (Deuteronomy 6:4 and then expanded to verses 5-9, 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41; and the Ten Commandments). Following the time of Jesus, added to the synagogue service was the Amida or Shemonah Esreh (“The 18 Benedictions”), a complex body of praise, petition, and thanksgiving.


Sometimes, the rabbi would only expound upon the scripture passage, but defer the reading of it to someone else. We see this in Luke 4:14-19 when Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. Sometimes, if that reader other than the rabbi was capable of explaining the passage he read, he would be permitted to do so, as was in the case of Jesus.

Those called to read from out of the congregation would ascend the stairs to the lectern and descend by another set of stairs.

Another element of the synagogue at the time of Jesus was the reciting of prayers (Matthew 6:5). Sources outside the Bible tell us that worship services consisted of a invocational (calling upon God to be present) prayer, other types of prayers, and the benediction.

Interestingly, the priests, who in the days of ancient Israel were to be teachers of the Law (Deuteronomy 33:10), played but a small role in the synagogue, that being the public reading of the Law and pronouncing the benediction.

It is also interesting to note that not all synagogues had rabbis, due to the tiny communities in which they were located. In this situation, anyone who had knowledge of the Scriptures and proper piety could lead the congregation in worship.

Up Next: Part 3