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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. Meaning and history . Like its original synagôgç (lit. a gathering, assembly for its use in LXX [Note: Septuagint.] see Congregation), ‘synagogue’ is used in NT in a double signification: (1) in the sense of a community organized for religious purposes, as Acts 6:9; Acts 9:2 (cf. Revelation 2:9; Revelation 3:9 ‘the synagogue of Satan’); and (2) to denote the building in which the community met for worship so some 50 times in the Gospels and Acts from Matthew 4:23 onwards. The strict Heb. equivalent in the latter sense is ‘the house of assembly.’ Of other names for the synagogue as a place of worship may be mentioned the older term proseuchç ( Acts 16:13 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘place of worship’; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Life , § 54, of the synagogue of Tiberias)

The origin of the synagogue as a characteristic institution of Judaism is hidden in obscurity. Most probably it took its rise in the circumstances of the Hebrew exiles in Babylonia. Hitherto worship had practically meant sacrifice, but sacrifice was now impossible in a land unclean (cf. Hosea 3:4; Hosea 9:3 f.). There was still left to the exiles, however, the living word of the prophet, and the writings of God’s interpreters from a former age. In those gatherings in the house of Ezekiel of which we read ( Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 20:1-3 ) we may perhaps detect the germs of the future synagogue. We are on more solid ground when we reach the religious reform of Ezra and Nehemiah (b.c. 444 443). With the introduction of the ‘Law of Moses’ as the norm of faith and life, the need for systematic instruction in its complex requirements was evident to the leaders of the reform, as is clear from Nehemiah 8:7 f. The closing century of the Persian rule, b.c. 430 330, may therefore be regarded as the period of the rise and development of the synagogue. From this period, more precisely from the reign of Artaxerxes iii. Ocbus (358 337), may be dated the only mention of the synagogue in OT, viz. Psalms 74:8 ‘they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.’ The papyrus finds of recent years have contained not a few references to the synagogues of the Jewish communities in Egypt, from the time of the third Ptolemy, Euergetes, b.c. 247 221, onwards (details in Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 4 ii. 499 f.).

By the first century of our era the synagogue was regarded as an institution of almost immemorial antiquity. In referring it back to Moses himself, Josephus ( c. Apion . ii. 17) is only echoing the contemporary belief, which is also reflected in the words of the Apostle James, ‘for Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath’ ( Acts 15:21 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). For the wide extent and historical importance of the synagogues of ‘the Dispersion,’ see below, § 5 .

2. The synagogue building and its furniture . Remains, more or less extensive, of Jewish synagogues still survive from the second and third, more doubtfully from the first, centuries of our era, chiefly in Galilee. The examination of these remains, first undertaken by the Palestine Exploration Fund (see Survey of West Pal . i. 224 ff. with plans), has recently been carried out more fully by the German Orient Society, and the results published in the Society’s Mittheilungen (Nos. 23, 27, 29 [1904, 1905]). In plan and details of ornamentation these Galilæan synagogues display a general similarity. The buildings are rectangular in shape, and divided into three or five aisles by two or three rows of pillars. The entrance is almost always in the south front, and often consists of a large main, and two smaller side, entrances. The most elaborate was the synagogue of Capernaum, where, as elsewhere, traces were found of galleries running round three sides of the central aisle. These were probably assigned to the women (for a similar arrangement in Herod’s Temple, see Temple § 11 ( b )), although the question of the separation of the sexes in NT times is one on which the best authorities disagree.

As regards the furniture of the synagogue, the most important item was the chest or cupboard ( tçbâ , the ‘ark’), in which the sacred rolls of the Law and the Prophets were kept. The synagogues of NT times were also doubtless provided with a raised platform ( bçmâ ), on which stood the reading-desk from which the Scriptures were read. The larger portion of the area was occupied by benches for the congregation, the worshippers facing southwards, in Galilee at least, towards the holy city. A few special seats in front of the bçmâ , and facing the congregation, were occupied by the heads of the community. These are the ‘chief seats in the synagogues’ coveted by the Pharisees ( Matthew 23:5 and ||). In front of the ‘ark’ a lamp burned day and night.

3. The officials of the Synagogue . The general management of the synagogue of a Jewish town, where it served also as a court of justice and in the smaller towns and villages at least as a school, was in the hands of the elders of the community. It had no special priest or ‘ minister ,’ as will appear presently. It was usual however, to appoint an official called ‘ the ruler of the synagogue ’ ( Mark 5:22 , Luke 8:41 , and oft.), to whom the authorities of the community committed the care of the building as well as the more important duty of seeing that everything connected with the public services was done ‘decently and in order.’ Hence the indignation of the ruler of Luke 13:14 at the supposed breach of the decorum of worship related in the preceding verses (vv. 10 13). It lay with the ruler also to select the readers for the day, and to determine the order in which they were to be called up to the reading-desk. Occasionally, it would seem, a synagogue might have two or more rulers, as at Antioch of Pisidia ( Acts 13:15 ).

The only other permanent official was the chazzân , ‘the ‘ attendant ’ of Luke 4:20 RV [Note: Revised Version.] (A V ‘ minister ’ in the same, but now obsolete, sense; cf. Acts 13:5 ). The duties of the synagogue ‘officer’ (as we say in Scotland) were somewhat varied. He was responsible for the cleaning and lighting of the building; and during service it was his special duty to convey the sacred rolls from the ark to the readers at the desk, and to restore them when the reading was over, as recorded in Luke 4:17-20 . To him fell also the duty of scourging criminals condemned by the court ( Matthew 10:17; Matthew 23:34 etc.), but not, as is usually represented, the teaching of the school children (art. ‘Education’ in DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] i. 650 a ).

4. The synagogue service in NT times . For this part of our subject we are dependent mainly on the fuller information preserved in the Mishna, which reflects the later usage of the 2nd century. According to Megillah , iv. 3, the service consisted of four parts, and with this the scattered hints in the Gospels and Acts agree. These parts are: ( a ) the recitation of the Shema ’, ( b ) the lifting up of hands, i.e. the prayers, ( c ) the lessons from the Law and the Prophets, and ( d ) the priestly benediction. Two elements of the full service, however, are here omitted as not strictly belonging to the essentials of worship, viz. the translation of the lessons into the vernacular, and the sermon.

( a ) The recitation of the Shema ’. The shema ’ is the standing designation of three short sections of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (which opens with the word Shema ’ = ‘Hear,’ whence the name) Deuteronomy 11:13-21 , Numbers 15:37-41 . Their recitation by the congregation was preceded and followed by one or two short benedictions, such as that beginning, ‘Blessed be thou, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, who didst form the light and create darkness.’

( b ) The lifting up of hands . In contrast to the first item of the service, in which all took part, the prayers were said by a single individual chosen for the purpose, named ‘the deputy of the congregation,’ the worshippers’ however, repeating the Amen at the close of each collect. This mode of prayer in the public services was taken over by the early Church, as is attested by 1 Corinthians 14:16 (where the word rendered ‘the giving of thanks’ is the Gr. equivalent of that rendered ‘benediction’ below). By the middle of the 2nd cent. a.d. a formal liturgy had been developed the famous ‘eighteen benedictions,’ which may be read in any Jewish prayer-book. It is impossible, however, to say with certainty how many of these were in use in our Lord’s day. Dalman is of opinion that at least twelve of the eighteen collects are older than a.d. 70. These he arranges in three groups, consisting of three opening benedictions, six petitions, and three closing benedictions (see his art. ‘Gottesdienst [synagogaler]’ in Hauck’s PRE [Note: RE Real-Encykl. für protest. Theol. und Kirche] 3 vii.).

( c ) The OT lessons . The liturgy was followed by a lesson from the Law. The five books were divided into 154 (or more) Sabbath pericopes or sections, so that the whole Pentateuch was read through in three years (or 3 1 / 2 years, half of a Sabbatic period). The custom of calling up seven readers in succession a priest, a Levite, and five others may be as old as the 1st century. After the Law came, at the Sabbath morning service only a lesson from the Prophets, read by one person and left to his choice. It was the haphtarâ , as the prophetic lesson was termed, that our Lord read in the synagogue of Nazareth ( Luke 4:16 ff.). ‘The Hagiographa except Esther, were not at this period read at Divine service. Even the Psalms had no place in the usual service’ (Dalman).

In order that the common people might follow the lessons with Intelligence, these were translated into Aramaic, the vernacular of Palestine, by an interpreter ( methurgemân our ‘dragoman’ is from the same root). The unique position of the Law in the estimation of the time is shown by the fact that the Pentateuch lessons had to be translated a verse at a time, while the Prophets might he rendered three verses at a time. Reader and interpreter stood while at the reading-desk.

At this point in the service at the principal diets of worship, the sermon was introduced. The preacher sat while giving his exposition, which is so often described in NT as ‘teaching’ (Matthew 4:23 , Mark 1:21; Mark 6:2 etc.). In the synagogue there was full liberty of prophesying.’ Any member of the community was free to exercise his gift. When a likely stranger was present, he was invited by the ruler of the synagogue to address the congregation ( Acts 13:15 ). ( d ) The service was closed by a priest pronouncing the priestly benediction , Numbers 6:24-26; if no priest was present, it is said that a layman gave the blessing in the form of a prayer.

On some occasions, at least, it was usual to ask the alms of the congregation (Matthew 6:2 ) on behalf of the poor. The full service, as sketched above, was confined to the principal service of the week, which was held on the forenoon of the Sabbath. At the other services, such as those held daily in the larger towns, where ten ‘men of leisure’ were available to form the minimum legal congregation, and the Monday and Thursday services, some of the items were omitted.

5. The influence of the Synagogue . This article would be incomplete without a reference, however brief, to the influence of the synagogue and its worship not only upon the Jews themselves, but upon the world of heathenism. As to the latter, the synagogue played a conspicuous part in the preparatio evangelica . From the outworn creeds of paganism many earnest souls turned to the synagogue and its teaching for the satisfaction of their highest needs. The synagogues of ‘the Dispersion’ ( John 7:35 , Jam 1:1 , 1 Peter 1:1 , all RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) became in consequence the seed-plots of Christianity, as every student of the Book of Acts is aware.

The work which the synagogue did for Judaism itself is best seen in the ease with which the breach with the past involved in the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70, and the cessation of sacrificial worship, was healed. The highest religious life of Judaism had already transferred its channels from the grosser and more material forms of the Temple to the spiritual worship of the synagogue.

Nor must a reference be wanting to the fact that the synagogue, and not the Temple, supplied the mould and model for the worship of the Christian Church.

6. The Great Synagogue. In late Jewish tradition Ezra is alleged to have been the founder and first president of a college of learned scribes, which is supposed to have existed in Jerusalem until the early part of the Gr. period ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 300). To ‘the men of the Great Synagogue,’ or rather ‘of the Great Assembly,’ were ascribed the composition of some of the later OT books, the close of the Canon, and a general care for the development of religion under the Law. Recent writers, however, have in the main accepted the results of Kuenen’s careful investigation in his Gesamm . Abhandlungen (Germ. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] 125 160), and now regard the Great Synagogue as unhistorical, the tradition of its existence having arisen from a distorted view of the nature and purpose of the great popular assembly, of which we read in Nehemiah 8:1-18; Nehemiah 9:1-38; Nehemiah 10:1-39 .

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Synagogue'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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