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American Tract Society Bible Dictionary

Synagogue

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A word which primarily signifies an assembly; but, like the word church, came at length to be applied to the buildings in which the ordinary Jewish assemblies for the worship of God were convened. From the silence of the Old Testament with reference to these places of worship, many commentators and writers of biblical antiquities are of opinion that they were not in use till after the Babylonish captivity; and that before that time, the Jews held their social meetings for religious worship either in the open air or in the houses of the prophets. See 2 Kings 4:23 . In Psalm 74:8 , it is at least very doubtful whether the Hebrew word rendered synagogues, refers to synagogue-buildings such as existed after the captivity. Properly the word signifies only places where religious assemblies were held. In the time of our Savior they abounded.

Synagogues could only be erected in those places when ten men of age, learning, piety, and easy circumstances could be found to attend to the service, which was enjoined in them. Large towns had several synagogues; and soon after the captivity their utility became so obvious, that they were scattered over the land, and became the parish churches of the Jewish nation. Their number appears to have been very considerable; and when the erection of a synagogue was considered a mark of piety, Luke 7:5 , or a passport to heaven, we need not be surprised to hear that they were multiplied beyond all necessity, so that in Jerusalem alone there were not fewer than 460 or 480. They were generally built on the most elevated ground, and consisted of two parts. The westerly part of the building contained the ark or chest in which the book of the law and the section of the prophets were deposited, and was called the temple by way of eminence. The other, in which the congregation assembled, was termed the body of the synagogue. The people sat with their faces towards the temple, and the elders in the contrary direction, and opposite to the people; the space between them being occupied by the pulpit or reading desk. The seats of the elders were considered more holy than the others, and are spoken of as "the chief seats in the synagogues," Matthew 23:6 . The women sat by themselves in a gallery secluded by latticework.

The stated office-bearers in every synagogue were ten, forming six distinct classes. We notice first the Archisynagogos, or ruler of the synagogue, who regulated all its concerns and granted permission to address the assembly. Of these there were three in each synagogue. Dr. Lightfoot believes them to have possessed a civil power, and to have constituted the lowest civil tribunal, commonly known as "the council of three," whose office it was to judge minor offences against religion, and also to decide the differences that arose between any members of the synagogue, as to money matters, thefts, losses, etc. To these officers there is perhaps an allusion in 1 Corinthians 6:5 . See also Revelation 2:3 .

The service of the synagogue was as follows: The people being seated, the "angel of the synagogue" ascended the pulpit, and offered up the public prayers, the people rising from their seats, and standing in a posture of deep devotion, Matthew 6:5 Mark 11:25 Luke 18:11,13 . The prayers were nineteen in number, and were closed by reading the execration. The next thing was the repetition of their phylacteries; after which came the reading of the law and the prophets. The former was divided into fifty-four sections, with which were united corresponding portions from the prophets; (see Acts 13:15,27 15:21 ) and these were read through once in the course of the year. After the return from the captivity, an interpreter was employed in reading the law and the prophets, Nehemiah 8:2-8 , who interpreted them into the Syro-Chaldaic dialect, which was then spoken by the people. The last part of the service was the expounding of the Scriptures, and preaching from them to the people. This was done either by one of the officer, or by some distinguished person who happened to be present. The reader will recollect one memorable occasion on which our Savior availed himself of the opportunity thus afforded to address his countrymen, Luke 4:20 ; and there are several other instances recorded of himself and his disciples teaching in the synagogues. See Matthew 13:54 Mark 6:2 John 18:20 Acts 13:5,15,44 14:1 17:2-4,10 18:4,26 19:8 . The whole service was concluded with a short prayer or benediction.

The Jewish synagogues were not only used for the purposes of divine worship, but also for courts of judicature, in such matters as fell under the cognizance of the Council of Three, of which we have already spoken. On such occasions, the sentence given against the offender was sometimes, after the manner of prompt punishment still prevalent in the East, carried into effect in the place where the council was assembled. Hence we read of persons being beaten in the synagogue, and scourged in the synagogue, Matthew 10:17 Mark 13:9 Acts 22:19 26:11 2 Corinthians 11:24 . To be "put out of the synagogue," or excommunicated from the Jewish church and deprived of the national privileges, was punishment much dreaded, John 9:22 12:42 16:2 . In our own day the Jews erect synagogues wherever they are sufficiently numerous, and assemble on their Sabbath for worship; this being conducted, that is, the reading or chanting of the Old Testament and of prayers, in the original Hebrew, though it is a dead language spoken by few among them. Among the synagogues of Jerusalem, now eight or ten in number, are some for Jews of Spanish origin, and others for German Jews, etc., as in the time of Paul there were separate synagogues for the Libertines, Cyreians, Alexandrians, etc., Acts 6:9 .


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These files are public domain and are a derivative of the topics are from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary published in 1859.

Bibliography Information
Rand, W. W. Entry for 'Synagogue'. American Tract Society Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/ats/s/synagogue.html. 1859.

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Thursday, January 17th, 2019
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