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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Synagogue

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During the time of the Jews’ captivity in Babylon, they were unable to carry out sacrificial rituals. Not only were they in a foreign land, but their place of sacrifice, the Jerusalem temple, had been destroyed in 587 BC. The Jewish religious leaders therefore placed greater emphasis on teaching the moral commandments of the law than on teaching temple rituals. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple (completed in 516 BC), they maintained this emphasis on teaching and explaining the law (Nehemiah 8:1-4; Nehemiah 8:7-8; Nehemiah 9:1-3). This teaching activity was a contributing factor in the emergence of local meeting places known as synagogues (from a Greek word meaning ‘to gather or bring together’).

Community centre

A synagogue was a centre for prayer, worship, teaching and administration in any locality where there were enough Jews to make such a centre workable. It was a gathering point for the Jews in the locality, a place where they had fellowship and discussed community affairs. The gathering as well as the building could be called the synagogue (Luke 12:11). There was no altar in a synagogue and no sacrifices were offered there.

Wherever the Jews went they built synagogues, with the result that there were synagogues in many countries of the ancient world (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16; Acts 9:1; Acts 13:5; Acts 13:14; Acts 17:1; Acts 17:10; Acts 18:1; Acts 18:4; Acts 19:8). These synagogues soon became more important in the development and operation of Judaism than the temple in Jerusalem. They helped give Judaism the particular features with which we are familiar in the New Testament.

The leaders of the synagogues were the recognized leaders in the Jewish community and were known as elders (Mark 15:1; Luke 7:3-5). They had power to punish wrongdoers, even to the extent of arresting them, whipping them, or expelling them from the synagogue community (Matthew 10:17; Matthew 23:34; John 9:22; John 16:2; Acts 22:19).

Religious services

In design a synagogue was a simple building. It consisted of a main meeting room entered through a porch, with an open court outside. During religious services, women and men sat on opposite sides of the room, with the leaders sitting in the chief seats, facing the audience (Matthew 23:6). The chief leader was known as the ruler of the synagogue (Mark 5:22; Acts 18:8).

Synagogue services were conducted at least every Sabbath and were under the control of the leaders (Mark 1:21; Luke 13:14; Acts 13:14-15). The service opened with prayers, followed by readings from the Old Testament scrolls. These were kept in a special box and were handed to the reader by an attendant (Luke 4:16-17; Luke 4:20; Acts 15:21).

Since many Jews were not familiar with the Hebrew language, a paraphrase or interpretation of the Old Testament readings was usually given. (These paraphrases, known as targums, later became authorized interpretations and eventually were put into writing.) Then followed an address. This was usually based on the previously read portion of Scripture (Luke 4:20-21), and was given either by one of the leaders or by some other suitable person whom the leaders invited (Luke 4:16-17; Luke 6:6; Acts 13:15; Acts 17:10-11; Acts 18:4). The service was closed with prayers.

By the time of Jesus, the people who most influenced the teaching given in the synagogues were the scribes, or teachers of the law. These people had risen to places of power during the centuries leading up to the New Testament era (see SCRIBES), but instead of teaching the law of Moses they taught Judaism, a system of religious regulations that they had developed (Matthew 23:2-8; Mark 7:1-5; Mark 12:38-39; Luke 6:6-7).

Because of the scribes, the synagogues became more of a hindrance than a help to God’s people. Jesus often came into conflict with the synagogue authorities, and so did the early Christians (Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 10:17; Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 13:14-15; John 9:22; John 12:42; Acts 14:1-2; Acts 17:1-5; Acts 18:4-7; Revelation 2:9; Revelation 3:9).


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Synagogue'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/s/synagogue.html. 2004.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, January 17th, 2019
the First Week after Epiphany
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