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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Synagogue (2)


1. The name.συναγωγή is the Gr. equivalent for the Heb. כְּנֵסָח derived from the rare verb בָּנִם of which the radical meaning is ‘to gather.’ The term means primarily a gathering together of any objects or persons for any purpose, in Scripture an assembly of the members of a local community either for the purpose of worship or for joint action under professedly religious sanctions (Luke 12:11; Luke 21:12). Thence the word was applied to the building in which such a meeting was held, and in that sense is of frequent occurrence in the NT. For a time the term was current amongst Christians as the designation of their meetings or places of meeting; cf. James 2:2, Hebrews 10:25 (Gr.), and such Patristic notices as Epiphanius, Haer. xxx. 18, συναγωγὴν δὲ οὖτοι καλοῦσι τὴν ἑαυτῶν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ οὐχὶ ἐκκλησίαν. This usage lingered amongst the Ebionites and longer still amongst the Marcionites, but in other quarters a distinction early appeared. Either because of the growing divergence between the two faiths, or because ἐκκλησία was regarded as a better expression of the genius of Christianity with its preference for other than ethnic or racial ideals, the terms ‘church’ and ‘synagogue’ ceased to be interchangeable. The two senses of each were retained, as an assembly and a place of ‘assembly; but a strictly Christian or Jewish association was definitely attached to each.

2. Origin and history.—In NT times the institution of the synagogue was popular and widespread, and was believed to date back ‘from generations of old’ (Acts 15:21); but few materials are available for assistance in the attempt to trace its actual history, and its origin can only be conjectured. Later traditions (e.g. Pal. [Note: Palestine, Palestinian.] Targ. [Note: Targum.] on Exodus 18:20, a Midrash in Pesikta, ed. Buber, 129b) connect it with the primitive times after the settlement in Canaan. During the exile in Babylon, worship at the Temple necessarily ceased, and the conditions of the Captivity have consequently been regarded as a favourite soil for the germs of the institution (Wellhausen, IJG [Note: JG Israelitische und Jüdische Geschichte.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] 193). But the purposes served by the synagogue make it indispensable that some such institution should have been in existence centuries earlier. The synagogue was a school and a court of local government before it became pre-eminently a place of worship. In ancient times the scattered peoples might go up to the Temple at the festivals, and in the intervals avail themselves of the local sanctuaries; but as business connexions multiplied (cf. § 7), the father could no longer be relied upon for the regular instruction of his sons, whilst a centre would have to be found in every village or group of villages for the administration of justice, and for the transaction of the affairs of the community, in subordination to the recognized authority, whether regal or priestly. Hence the germs of the institution are to be sought far back in the exigencies that arose as civilization became more complex; and the Exile marks not the first stage in the origin of the synagogue, but an important modification of its functions, worship becoming thenceforward the principal though far from the sole occupation, and the administrative functions falling for a time into abeyance. After the Temple was rebuilt, popular usage may well be conceived as temporarily reverting to the previous practice; hence the silence of the later part of the OT, Psalms 74:8 (though Briggs in loc. substitutes ‘festivals’ for ‘synagogues,’ whilst retaining the latter term in his lexicon, cf. Oxf. Heb. Lex. s.v. מוֹעֵר) containing the only explicit reference. In the OT Apocr. [Note: Apocrypha, Apocryphal.] the silence is even more complete; and the post-Maccabaean revival of the strong accentuation upon the religious side of the functions of the synagogue was contemporaneous with the revival of interest in the study of the Law at the close of the bitter struggle for national independence.

3. A feature of normal Jewish life.—In the 1st cent. a.d. synagogues abounded wherever a Jewish population was found. In Jerusalem itself the number is variously given as 394 (Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Kethub. 105a) or 480 (Jer. Megilla, 73d). The figures are, of course, exaggerated, but are an indication of the degree to which the institution had extended. In addition, there was a synagogue within the Temple itself, with others for the communities of foreign Jews settled in the city (Acts 6:9; cf. Acts 9:29). Galilee was studded with synagogues, as the thickness of its population would lead one to expect. Mention is made in the Gospels of those at Nazareth (Matthew 13:54, Mark 6:2, Luke 4:16) and at Capernanm (Mark 1:21, Luke 7:5, John 6:59). It is not improbable that the last-named should be identified with the ruins recently discovered at Tell Hûm—one of eleven groups of ruined synagogues found in Northern Galilee and dating in part from the 1st cent. (SWP [Note: WP Memoirs of the Survey of W. Palestine.] i. 231 f., 252, 397 ff., 401). Agrippa I. built a synagogue at Dora (Josephus Ant. xix. vi. 3), in imitation of his grandfather’s practice elsewhere. The same state of things obtained outside Palestine. In Asia Minor and Greece, St. Paul found synagogues everywhere. Philo speaks of ‘thousands of houses of instruction’ opened on the Sabbath day (Mangey, ii. 282). And in our Lord’s time the synagogue was as common a feature of Jewish life as places of worship are of conventional life in our own country to-day.

4. Site, architecture, equipment.—Two rules as to the building of synagogues require that they should stand on an elevated site, and, like the Temple, be entered from the east. The Galilaean ruins show that these rules were not followed in the 1st cent. in Palestine; for the ruins do not occupy prominent positions, and in every instance except one the entrance is from the south. In different countries the local style of architecture was adopted, and there never was any style peculiar to synagogues. In Palestine, as the ruins indicate, Graeco-Roman influences can be traced, with an over-elaboration of ornament that was rather Oriental in its character. The building proper consisted of a quadrilateral, divided into three or five aisles by means of two or four rows of pillars. Admission was gained through three doors, in front of which was sometimes a highly decorated portico. Of the equipment the most important item was the press or ark containing the sacred writings. Above it was a canopy, and in front a curtain; and each of the rolls was wrapped in an embroidered cloth. In small synagogues, near the ark, which stood probably against the wall opposite the entrance, was a raised tribune, furnished with a lectern for the reader and a chair for the speaker (Luke 4:20). In larger buildings this platform was brought forward nearly to the centre. The chief seats (Matthew 23:6, Mark 12:39, Luke 11:43; Luke 20:46) were in front of the platform and ark, or in larger synagogues at the further end of the building, opposite the doors, and in either case faced the congregation, who generally sat on chairs or mats arranged across the building, sometimes lengthways, with an open space between the first ranks on either side. Lamps were a regular part of the furniture, and were probably in use in our period, since two early traditions refer to the oil that was burnt and to the custom of keeping the lamps lighted through the Day of Atonement (Terumoth, xi. 10; Pesachim, iv. 4). The adoption of a screened gallery or even of separate seats for women was a late arrangement, and not the custom in our period. No such rule occurs in the Talmud or other ancient source, whilst the evidence points to the actual participation of women in the synagogal service (cf. JBL [Note: BL Journal of Biblical Literature.] , 1898, 111 ff.; and Abrahams, Jew. Life in Mid. Ages, 25 f.), and their qualification to serve in the Diaspora even as ἀρχισυνάγωγος (REJ [Note: EJ Revue des Etudes Juives.] vii. 161 ff.), which should not be resolved into a mere title of honour.

5. Officials.—In a large synagogue a numerous staff might be employed, the principal officials being duplicated, and a variety of teachers and interpreters added. But no synagogue would be without two officers. The duty of the ruler of the synagogue was not to conduct the service himself, but to choose and invite competent persons for the purpose (cf. Acts 13:15), and to check any indecorum or disorder (Luke 13:14). In all probability he was responsible also for the maintenance of the synagogue in good repair, and for the safe keeping of its property. He might or might not be, but probably generally was, one of the elders, who occupied with him the chief seats, and formed together the governing body of the community. The other indispensable official was the attendant (hazzan or ὑπηρέτης, Luke 4:20), whose duties were varied and, whenever possible, distributed. He had to prepare the building for the public services, and to announce with a thrice repeated trumpet-blast from the roof the advent of the Sabbaths and other festivals. In the course of the services he presented the sacred roll to the reader, and in due course replaced it ceremoniously in the ark. In small congregations he had to read the lesson himself (Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Meg. 25b gives an instance at the beginning of the 2nd cent.), and to lead the prayers (Jer. Berakh. 12d). Besides all this, he had to teach the children, and to scourge such culprits as the synagogue, when acting as a court of law, condemned to that punishment. For the faithful discharge of these manifold duties he was treated with special respect (ib. 6a), and classed in rank with one of the grades of scribes. Other officials, where the synagogue was large enough to need them, comprised the administrators and collectors of alms, and the translators of the Scripture lessons from Hebrew into the vernacular of the congregation. In our Saviour’s time these offices, where they existed, were honorary, as was probably always the case with the controllers of the charities.

6. The synagogue as a place of worship.—Before the destruction of the Temple the ordinary services were simpler than they afterwards became; but the order followed generally the rule prescribed at a later date in the Mishna (Meg. iv. 3). Of the four principal parts (a) the first was the Shema‘ (so called from the opening word of Deuteronomy 6:4, which should read ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one,’ as cited in Mark 12:29), with introductory and closing benedictions. It is true that this verse is cited in the NT without any mention of its liturgical use; but other evidences point to a contrary conclusion. The Shema‘ comprised altogether Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41, in which the wearing of frontlets and fringes is prescribed as a symbolic reminder of legal obligations. That these injunctions were interpreted literally by the zealous legalists of our Saviour’s time is shown by His references to the wearing of phylacteries (Matthew 23:5). This practice is difficult to explain except on the assumption that the passages quoted in justification were supposed to be invested with special sanctity. Both customs may be confidently referred to the period of the ascendency of the Ḥasidim, a century and more before the birth of Christ; and the recitation of the Shema‘ with its accompanying ritual was a confession, both of faith in the unity of God and of the imperative obligation to keep His Law. (b) What prayers originally followed the recitation of the Shema‘, it is impossible at present to say. Those adopted at a later time would be inappropriate before the destruction of the Temple, the memory of which colours several of the phrases. From the example of the Baptist in teaching his disciples to pray, and from the request for similar instruction addressed to Jesus (Luke 11:1), it may be inferred that forms of prayer were not yet familiar to the Jews, and possibly that a disposition towards the adoption of such forms was now arising. Psalms or selections may have been used; but the time had apparently not yet come for anything more, (c) The reading of extracts from the Law and the Prophets was the central part of the synagogal worship on the Sabbath day. That this was customary in NT times appears from many passages (e.g. Luke 4:17, cf. Acts 13:15; Acts 15:21, 2 Corinthians 3:15). The sections of the Law were apportioned among several members of the congregation, any male who was acquainted with Hebrew being eligible. Next a passage was read from the Prophets by any one upon whom the choice of the ruler of the synagogue fell. Eventually an official lectionary was adopted, so arranged that the reading of the Pentateuch was completed in a year, the section from the Prophets being selected as far as possible with a view to enforce the lesson of that from the Law; but in the time of Christ the reader of the Prophetic section seems to have been at liberty to select whatever part he liked (Luke 4:17). (d) With the reading of the Scripture the service proper terminated. Gradually, as Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language, it was found necessary to translate the lessons into Aramaic or Greek or whatever might be the vernacular of the congregation. For this purpose an interpreter (methurgeman) was employed, or the schoolmaster or any competent man amongst the audience acted in his stead. The lesson from the Law was paraphrased verse by verse, that from the Prophets by three verses at a time (Meg. iv. 4). These paraphrases were not literal translations, but rather condensed interpretations, of a passage, and mark an important stage in the history of preaching. The next development was an extended exposition, which was the usage in NT times (Matthew 4:23, Mark 1:21; Mark 6:2, Luke 6:6, John 18:20). The instruction was didactic rather than rhetorical, as may be inferred from the sitting posture (Luke 4:20, cf. Matthew 5:1; Matthew 26:55, John 8:2); and though naturally the Rabbis were looked to for such service, they had not yet become a class of professional preachers, but any distinguished stranger (cf. Acts 13:15), or even any ordinary member of the community, might be invited to give an address.

7. The synagogue school.—The OT ideal makes parents responsible for the education of their children, and draws an idyllic picture of the father and the son turning every opportunity to profit for instruction in religion and in duty (Deuteronomy 6:7). Such an arrangement was suitable only to primitive times (cf. § 2); and as trade extended, and the father’s absence from home became necessary and frequent, the need of public elementary schools made itself felt. The main idea of the synagogue service was originally instruction rather than worship, for which in its associated forms the Temple was provided, and in its intimate forms privacy could be secured. Not only does the NT make teaching the chief function, but Philo in one place (Mangey, ii. 168) almost protests against synagogues being regarded as other than schools. The adults in their regular services educated themselves in the Law, and strengthened the social as well as the private sense of obligation. The children were gathered regularly for instruction of a similar kind in the synagogue itself or an adjoining room, under the care of the hazzan, or, in larger centres of population, of a professional teacher. For advanced studies and for technical Jewish training, provision was made in some of the towns or near the residence of some distinguished Rabbi; but everywhere the elementary school was an inseparable adjunct of the synagogue. See artt. Boyhood (Jewish), and Education.

8. The synagogue as a court.—Under the strict conception of a theocracy there can be no distinction between things ecclesiastical and things civil. Hence, in places where the population was preponderantly Jewish, local administration was in the hands of a court, which took cognizance of all the Jewish interests of the neighbourhood, and of which the Roman over-rule was apt to avail itself for both executive and minor judicial business. Where the Jews were outclassed in numbers or influence, the synagogal authority was proportionately reduced, though without any loss of respect within the Jewish community. If there were several synagogues in a Jewish town, all were knit together into some kind of organization, under a controlling council which regulated also all the civil affairs of the community. The case of a town with but a single synagogue was simpler, but not radically distinct. Here the council, or local Sanhedrin (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 10:17, Mark 13:9), met in the synagogue, where their plans were matured, their decisions taken, and often their penalties exacted. The court proper consisted of twenty-three members where the population was considerable, elsewhere of seven; and this college of elders (Luke 7:3) or rulers (Matthew 9:18; Matthew 9:23, Luke 8:41) exercised a wide jurisdiction. For minor offences (Makkoth iii. 1) the penalty was scourging (Matthew 10:17; Matthew 23:34, cf. Acts 22:19; not to be confused with the Roman penalty of scourging of Matthew 20:19 and John 19:1), limited to forty stripes save one (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24), and administered in the synagogue by the hazzan. Excommunication was the punishment of offences that were thought to imperil the stability of the Jewish community (Luke 6:22, John 9:22; John 12:42; John 16:2). See art. Excommunication in vol. i. p. 559a.

9. Other uses of the synagogue.—There are indications in early Jewish literature, belonging some of them to the 1st cent., that the synagogue served also the purposes of a public hall or general meeting-place, and regulations for its reverent treatment were gradually adopted. Notices respecting the interests of the community at large, or even of private members, were given there (Baba mezia, 28b). It was the place for funeral orations over the death of men of distinction, and at a later period could be used for some of the ceremonies of private mourning (ib.). Josephus says (Vita, 54) that political meetings were held in the synagogues at the time of the war against Rome. They became increasingly a common meeting-ground for the Jews of the neighbourhood, where their affairs might be discussed informally or in a summoned assembly, and a variety of matters might be conveniently settled. Thus a secularizing—or, from a Jewish point of view, a communal—tendency developed, such as had already shown itself in the case of the courts of the Temple (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:14 ff.); and arrangements had eventually to be made in the interest of decorum. People were forbidden to discuss trifles on the premises of a synagogue, or to walk aimlessly about, to shelter there from the heat or rain, to come in with soiled shoes or garments, or to make a thoroughfare of the courts. Some of these regulations are of a later date than the Gospels, but their necessity arose from habits that were already becoming fixed. The synagogue was not only a place of authoritative instruction in the Law, but the centre of the Jewish life of a district, and, as such, its purposes were determined by both social and racial needs.

10. Financial administration.—Most of the officials of the synagogue were honorary; but the schoolmaster and the attendant would require at least partial support, whilst the cost of erection, with that of repairs and maintenance, must have been considerable, to say nothing of the fees paid at a later period to ‘ten unemployed men’ as the minimum of a congregation. It is a problem, for the settlement of which sufficient materials are not at present available, how these expenses were met. In some cases a wealthy man, Jew or Gentile, wishing to ingratiate himself with the people or out of pure kindness, may have provided a synagogue (cf. Luke 7:5; Jos. [Note: Law of Holiness.] Ant. xix. vi. 3). In other cases, though the authorities are not explicit, the synagogue must have been erected by means of a general levy upon the community, and the revenue for its maintenance provided in the same way. The Mishna invests the whole property, including buildings and equipment, in the civic community (Meg. iii. 1; Nedarim, v. 5), and classes it thus with the baths and roads of the neighbourhood. But as to the principle on which the necessary moneys were raised, and the means by which payment was enforced, very little is at present known. A set of synagogue accounts from the early part of the 1st cent, would be a discovery of much value.

Literature.—Of the works cited in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , Schürer is still the most important. The German edition is the best; the reference to the English translation is n. [Note: note.] ii. 52–89. Add Dalman’s art. ‘Synagogaler Gottesdienst’ in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] vii. 7–19; Nowack, Heb-Arch. ii. 83 ff.; Dembitz, Jewish Services in Syn. and Home. Any of the technical Cyclopaedias may be consulted; but care should be taken, especially in the case of Hamburger, by checking the dates of the original authorities, to distinguish the periods for which they stand.

R. W. Moss.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Synagogue (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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