Holman Bible Dictionary
Origin Some Jewish traditions say that the synagogue was begun by Moses, but the Old Testament does not support this claim. Local worship was discouraged during most of the Old Testament because it often was associated with pagan practices. Worship centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 74:8 , written late in Old Testament times, seems to refer to local places of worship destroyed when the Temple was destroyed. Some English translations use the word synagogues for these local places of worship, but we know nothing else about them.
The synagogue, as we find it in the New Testament, had its roots in the time after Solomon's Temple was destroyed and many of the people were carried into Exile. Local worship and instruction became necessary. Even after many of the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple, places of local worship continued. By the time of Jesus these places and assemblies were called synagogues.
Facts about synagogues Synagogues existed not only among the many Jews who lived outside Palestine but also among those who lived in Palestine. While the Temple stood until A.D. 70, it continued to be the center for sacrificial worship. Faithful Jews continued to go to the Temple for the appointed feasts. They also participated in their local synagogues. During Jesus' time, there was even a synagogue within the Temple itself. This was probably the part of the Temple where the twelve-year-old Jesus was talking with the teachers (Luke 2:46 ).
Most communities of any size had at least one synagogue; some had several. Jewish sources indicate that a synagogue was to be established wherever there were as many as ten Jewish men. The principal meeting was on the Sabbath. A typical service consisted of the recitation of the Shema (confession of faith in the one God), prayers, Scripture readings from the Law and the Prophets, a sermon, and a benediction. Luke 4:16-21 is the best biblical passage on what happened in a synagogue service in first-century Palestine. See Shema .
Local elders had general oversight of the synagogue. They often appointed a ruler of the synagogue. The ruler was a layman who cared for the building and selected those who participated in the service. The ruler was assisted by an attendant. One of his duties was to deliver the sacred scrolls to those who read and return them to the special place where they were kept (Luke 4:17 ,Luke 4:17,4:20 ).
Jesus and Synagogues Jesus customarily went to the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16 ). After Jesus began His public ministry, He frequently taught and preached in synagogues throughout the land (Matthew 4:23 ; Matthew 9:35 ; Mark 1:39 ; Luke 4:44 ). Early in His ministry, Jesus healed a man in the synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28 ; Luke 4:31-37 ).
Jesus often encountered opposition in synagogues. Luke 4:16-30 tells what happened in His home synagogue of Nazareth (see also Matthew 13:54-58 ; Mark 6:1-6 ). It shows how Jesus' preaching and teaching aroused strong negative reactions. Luke 13:10-16 tells of Jesus healing a woman in a synagogue on the Sabbath. This brought an angry reaction from the ruler of the synagogue. Jesus, in turn, rebuked the man for his hypocrisy.
Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of those who paraded their righteousness in the synagogue. He warned against giving and praying in order to be seen and praised (Matthew 6:2 ,Matthew 6:2,6:5 ). He also rebuked those who sought the chief seats (Matthew 23:6 ; Mark 12:39 ; Luke 11:43 ; Luke 20:46 ).
As opposition to Jesus increased, He warned His disciples of a future time when they would be persecuted in the synagogues of their people (Matthew 10:17 ; Matthew 23:34 ; Mark 13:9 ; Luke 12:11 ; Luke 21:12 ).
Synagogues in Acts The early part of the Book of Acts seems to reflect a period when some Jewish believers continued to worship in the synagogues. Saul went into the synagogues to find and persecute believers in Christ (Acts 9:2 ; Acts 22:19 ; Acts 26:11 ). This shows that Christian Jews were still in some synagogues, especially those outside Palestine. As persecution developed, the believers were forced out of the synagogues.
After Saul's conversion, he immediately preached Christ in the synagogues in Damascus (Acts 9:20 ). During Paul's missionary journeys, he customarily began his work in a new city by going into the synagogue (Acts 13:5 ,Acts 13:5,13:14 ; Acts 14:1 ; Acts 17:1 ,Acts 17:1,17:10 ,Acts 17:10,17:17 ; Acts 18:4 ; Acts 19:8 ). The exception in Philippi was probably because there were not enough Jews there to have a synagogue. Paul, therefore, went to a place where faithful Jews met to pray on the Sabbath (Acts 16:13 ).
Generally, Paul was welcomed and given the opportunity to present his views. He found special interest among the Gentiles who attended the synagogue, but some Jews also believed (Acts 13:42-43 ). Others strongly opposed Paul. Usually, he was forced to leave the synagogue and go elsewhere with the band of believers (Acts 18:6-8 ; Acts 19:8-10 ). Thus did the church and synagogue go their separate ways.
Influence of the Synagogue The synagogue was the means of preserving Jewish faith and worship. Jews all over the ancient world continued to maintain their distinctive faith. These synagogues became the seedbed for Christian faith as missionaries took the message of Christ to new places. Nearly everywhere the missionaries went, they found a Jewish synagogue. The first-century synagogue worshipers believed in the one true God, studied the Scriptures, and looked for the coming Messiah. What better place for Paul and others to go first with the message of Jesus Christ!
Robert J. Dean
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Synagogue'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/s/synagogue.html. 1991.