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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Synagogue

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συναγωγη , "an assembly," Revelation 2:9 ; Revelation 3:9 . The word often occurs in the Gospels and in the Acts, because Jesus Christ and his Apostles generally went to preach in those places. Although the sacrifices could not be offered, except in the tabernacle or the temple, the other exercises of religion were restricted to no particular place. Accordingly we find that the praises of God were sung, at a very ancient period, in the schools of the prophets; and those who felt any particular interest in religion, were assembled by the seers on the Sabbath, and the new moons, for prayers and religious instruction, 1 Samuel 10:5-11 ; 1 Samuel 19:18-24 ; 2 Kings 4:23 . During the Babylonish captivity, the Jews, who were then deprived of their customary religious privileges, were wont to collect around some prophet or other pious man, who taught them and their children in religion, exhorted to good conduct, and read out of the sacred books, Ezekiel 14:1 ; Ezekiel 20:1 ; Daniel 6:11 ; Nehemiah 8:18 . These assemblies, or meetings, became, in progress of time, fixed to certain places, and a regular order was observed in them. Such appears to have been the origin of synagogues. In speaking of synagogues, it is worthy to be noticed, that there is nothing said in respect to the existence of such buildings in Palestine, during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. They are, therefore, by some supposed to have been first erected under the Maccabean princes, but that, in foreign countries, they were much more ancient. Whether this statement be correct or not, it is nevertheless certain, that in the time of the Apostles, there were synagogues wherever there were Jews. They were built, in imitation of the temple of Jerusalem, with a court and porches, as is the case with the synagogues in the east at the present day. In the centre of the court is a chapel, supported by four columns, in which, on an elevation prepared for it, is placed the book of the law, rolled up. This, on the appointed days, is publicly read. In addition to the chapel, there is erected within the court a large covered hall or vestry, into which the people retire, when the weather happens to be cold and stormy, and each family has its particular seat. The uppermost seats in the synagogue, that is, those which were nearest the chapel where the sacred books were kept, were esteemed peculiarly honourable, Matthew 23:6 ; James 2:3 . The "proseuchae," προσευχαι , are understood by some to be smaller synagogues, but by others are supposed to be particular places under the open sky, where the Jews assembled for religious exercise. But Josephus calls the proseucha of Tiberias a large house, which held very many persons. See PROSEUCHAE. The Apostles preached the Gospel in synagogues and proseuchae, and with their adherents performed in them all the religious services. When excluded, they imitated the Jews in those places, where they were too poor to erect these buildings, and held their religious meetings in the houses of individuals. Hence we not only hear of synagogues in houses in the Talmud, but of churches in houses in the New Testament, Romans 16:5 ; 1 Corinthians 16:19 ; Colossians 4:15 ; Philippians 2; Acts 3:46; Acts 5:42 . The Apostles sometimes hired a house, in which they performed religious services, and taught daily, Acts 19:9 ; Acts 20:8 . Συναγωγη means literally a convention or assembly, but by metonymy, was eventually used for the place of assembling; in the same way that εκκλησια , which means literally a calling together, or convocation, signifies also at the present time the place of convocation. Synagogues were sometimes called by the Jews schools; but they were careful to make an accurate distinction between such, and the schools, properly so called, the מדרשים , or "sublimer schools," in which the Talmud was read, while the law merely was read in the synagogues, which they placed far behind the Talmud.

The mode of conducting religious instruction and worship in the primitive Christian churches, was derived for the most part from the practice which anciently prevailed in synagogues. But there were no regular teachers in the synagogues, who were officially qualified to pronounce discourses before the people; although there were interpreters who rendered into the vernacular tongue, namely, the Hebraeo-aramean, the sections, which had been publicly read in the Hebrew.

The "synagogue preacher," דרשן , whose business it is, in consequence of his office, to address the people, is an official personage that has been introduced in later times; at least we find no mention of such a one in the New Testament. On the contrary, in the time of Christ, the person who read the section for the Sabbath, or any other person who was respectable for learning and had a readiness of speech, addressed the people, Luke 4:16-21 ; Acts 13:5 ; Acts 13:15 ; Acts 15:21 ; Matthew 4:23 .

The other persons who were employed in the services and government of the synagogue, in addition to the one who read the Scriptures, and the person who rendered them into the vernacular tongue, were as follows:

1. "The ruler of the synagogue," αρχισυναγωγος , ראש הבגסת , who presided over the assembly, and invited readers and speakers, unless some persons who were acceptable voluntarily offered themselves, Mark 5:22 ; Mark 5:35-38 ; Luke 8:41 ; Luke 13:14-15 ; Acts 13:15 .

2. "The elders of the synagogue," וקנים , πρεσβυτεροι . They appear to have been the counsellors of the head or ruler of the synagogue, and were chosen from among the most powerful and learned of the people, and are hence called αρχισυναγωγοι , Acts 13:15 . The council of elders not only took a part in the management of the internal concerns of the synagogue, but also punished transgressors of the public laws, either by turning them out of the synagogue, or decreeing the punishment of thirty- nine stripes, John 12:42 ; John 16:2 ; 2 Corinthians 11:24 .

3. "The collectors of alms," גבאי צדקה , διακονοι , "deacons." Although every thing which is said of them by the Jews was not true concerning them in the time of the Apostles, there can be no doubt that there were such officers in the synagogues at that time, Acts 6.

4. "The servants of the synagogue," חזן , υπηρετης , Luke 4:20 ; whose business it was to reach the book of the law to the person who was to read it, and to receive it back again, and to perform other services. The ceremonies which prevail in the synagogues at the present day in presenting the law were not observed in the time of our Saviour.

5. "The messenger or legate of the synagogue," שליה צבור . This was a person who was sent from synagogues abroad, to carry alms to Jerusalem. The name, messenger of the synagogue, was applied likewise to any person, who was commissioned by a synagogue, and sent forth to propagate religious knowledge. A person likewise was denominated the messenger, or angel, αγγελλος , της αγγελλος εκκλησιας , &c, who was selected by the assembly to recite for them the prayers; the same that is called by the Jews of modern times the synagogue singer, or cantilator, Revelation 2:1 ; Revelation 2:8 ; Revelation 2:12 ; Revelation 2:18 ; Revelation 3:1 ; Revelation 3:7 ; Revelation 3:14 .

The Jews anciently called those persons who, from their superior erudition, were capable of teaching in the synagogue, פרנסים , "shepherds," or "pastors." They applied the same term, at least in more recent times, to the elders of the synagogue, and also to the collectors of alms, or deacons. The ground of the application of this term in such a way, is as follows: the word פרנם is, without doubt, derived from the Greek word πυρνος , "bread," or "a fragment of bread;" and, as it is used in the Targums, it corresponds to the Hebrew verb רעה , "to feed." It is easy to see, therefore, how the word פרנס might be applied to persons who sustained offices in the synagogue, in the same way as רעה is applied to kings, &c.

We do not find mention made of public worship in the synagogues, except on the Sabbath, Matthew 12:9 ; Mark 1:21 ; Mark 3:1 ; Mark 6:2 ; Luke 4:16 ; Luke 4:32-33 ; Luke 6:6 ; Luke 13:10 ; Acts 13:14 ; Acts 15:21 ; Acts 16:13-25 ; Acts 17:2 ; Acts 18:4 . What is said of St. Paul's hiring the school of one Tyrannus at Ephesus, and teaching in it daily, is a peculiar instance, Acts 19:9-10 . Yet there can be no doubt that those Jews who were unable to go to Jerusalem attended worship on their festival days, as well as on the Sabbath, in their own synagogues. Individuals sometimes offered their private prayers in the synagogue. When an assembly was collected together for worship, the services began, after the customary greeting, with a doxology. A section was then read from the Mosaic law. Then followed, after the singing of a second doxology, the reading of a portion from the prophets, Acts 15:31 ; Luke 4:16 . The person whose duty it was to perform the reading, placed upon his head, as is done at the present day, a covering called tallith, to which St. Paul alludes, 2 Corinthians 3:15 . The sections which had been read in the Hebrew were rendered by an interpreter into the vernacular tongue, and the reader or some other man then addressed the people, Luke 4:16 ; Acts 13:15 . It was on such occasions as these, that Jesus, and afterward the Apostles, taught the Gospel. The meeting, as far as the religious exercises were concerned, was ended with a prayer, to which the people responded Amen, when a collection was taken for the poor.

The customs which prevail at the present day, and which Vitringa has treated of, were not all of them practised in ancient times. The readers, for instance, were not then, as they are at the present day, called upon to perform, but presented themselves voluntarily, Luke 4:16 ; the persons also who addressed the people were not rabbins expressly appointed for that purpose, but were either invited from those present, or offered themselves, Acts 13:15 ; Luke 4:17 . The parts to be publicly read, likewise, do not appear to have been previously pointed out, although the book was selected by the ruler of the synagogue, Luke 4:16 . Furthermore, the forms of prayer that are used by the Jews at the present time do not appear to have been in existence in the time of Christ; unless this may perhaps have been the case in respect to the substance of some of them, especially the one called שמפּ? קרי , concerning which the Talmudists, at a very early period, gave many precepts.

It was by ministering in synagogues that the Apostles gathered the churches. They retained also essentially the same mode of worship with that of the synagogues, excepting that the Lord's Supper was made an additional institution, agreeably to the example of Christ, Acts 2:42 ; Acts 20:7-11 ; 1 Corinthians 11:16-34 . They were at length excluded from the synagogue and assembled at evening in the house of some Christian, which was lighted for the purpose with lamps, Acts 20:7-11 . The Apostle, with the elders, when engaged in public worship, took a position where they would be most likely to be heard by all. The first service was merely a salutation or blessing, namely, "The Lord be with you," or, "Peace be with you." Then followed the doxologies and prelexions, the same as in the synagogues. The Apostle then addressed the people on the subject of religion, and urged upon them that purity of life which it required. Prayer succeeded, which was followed by the commemoration of the Saviour's death in the breaking and distribution of bread. The meeting was ended by taking a collection for the poor, especially those at Jerusalem, 2 Corinthians 9:1-15 .

Those who held some office in the church were the regularly qualified instructers in these religious meetings; and yet laymen had liberty to address their brethren on these occasions the same as in the synagogues; also to sing hymns, and to pray; which, in truth, many of them did, especially those who were supernaturally gifted, not excepting the women.

Those females who were not under a supernatural influence were forbidden by the Apostle Paul to make an address on such occasions, or to propose questions; and it was enjoined on those who did speak, not to lay aside their veils, 1 Corinthians 11:5 ; 1 Corinthians 14:34-40 . The reader and the speaker stood; the others sat; all arose in the time of prayer. Whatever was stated in a foreign tongue was immediately rendered by an interpreter into the speech in common use. This was so necessary, that Paul enjoined silence on a person who was even endowed with supernatural gifts, provided an interpreter was not at hand, 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 . It was the practice among the Greek Christians to uncover their heads when attending divine service, 1 Corinthians 11:11-16 ; but in the east, the ancient custom of worshipping with the head covered was retained. Indeed, it is the practice among the oriental Christians to the present day, not to uncover their heads in their religious meetings, except when they receive the eucharist.

It is affirmed that in the city of Jerusalem alone there were no less than four hundred and sixty or four hundred and eighty synagogues. Every trading company had one of its own, and even strangers built some for those of their own nation. Hence we find synagogues of the Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asiatics, appointed for such as came up to Jerusalem from those countries, Acts 6:9 .


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Synagogue'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/s/synagogue.html. 1831-2.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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