Exploring the Synagogue in Jesus’ Day, Part 3

Posted on June 28, 2020


By David Ettinger

This is the third of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here.

Several elders arranged the details of the worship service as well as civic and governmental meetings which occurred at the synagogue. The senior elder, or chief ruler (Jairus, Luke 8:41, was one), planned the service. He would often be the one who invited different speakers or readers to the synagogue.

Ruins from the synagogue in Capernaum

These synagogue elders and officers were administrative, not religious. Depending on the size of a particular congregation, there could be anywhere from one to six elders. There was also a hazzan (prayer leader) who was responsible for the order of service, acted as attendant (Luke 4:20), and occasionally served as the synagogue schoolmaster.

The Sad Reality
There was much to commend the synagogue at the time of Christ, but it lacked one crucial element: the sacrificial system which at the time served as the means for atonement. Of course, sacrifices in the synagogue were not possible because the Lord prohibited sacrifices being made anywhere other than the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:57).

This aspect of the synagogue became particularly tragic following the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, and the cessation of animal sacrifice. Because of this, the Jewish people came to believe that prayer was the “sacrifice of the heart,” making prayer the central act of synagogue worship.

This was (and is) the sad reality of synagogue worship, but there is another sad reality which existed at the time of Christ and beyond. The sad reality is that Jesus lived and ministered among His Jewish brothers and sisters for approximately three years and, for the most part, they would not accept Him. In all His synagogue appearances, the Jewish people rejected His claim of deity and messiahship. In all their discussion sessions on the Sabbath and other days of the week in the synagogue – and there must have been many of them regarding Jesus – they would not accept that He was the One sent from God to make atonement for their sins.

sky cross

And what of those such as Jairus, the synagogue ruler, who saw firsthand the miraculous workings of Jesus. Did he tell those who attended his large synagogue in Capernaum about Jesus? If he did, how did they react? What about those who were healed by the Lord, such as the woman with the issue of blood? Did she tell her story in the synagogue – a place from where her infirmity would have caused her to be banned?

We don’t know the answers to these questions as Scripture is silent on them, but we can reasonably speculate. Considering the worshipful and willing-to-learn nature of synagogue patrons, surely Jesus of Nazareth was a frequent – and no doubt controversial – topic of discussion. How can He not have been, especially considering how much of a presence He was. Within the synagogue were those who were healed by Jesus, beheld a healing by Jesus, or knew someone who was healed by Jesus. Did they speak of what they knew in the synagogue? Would their testimonies have been accepted, or contradicted and denied?

No doubt the synagogue during the time of Jesus sizzled with talk about Him, as it was the hub of spiritual and civic life in first century Israel. Jesus knew this as He brought His ministry to so many of these ubiquitous houses of worship. Unfortunately, Jesus faced far more rejection in the synagogue than He did acceptance (Luke 4:14-37).

Sadly, the same holds true today. It is our prayer that God will open the eyes of His chosen Jewish people that they may recognize the One who came to die for their sins and give them everlasting life!

Up Next: Part 4, The Synagogue School