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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Syn´agogue, a Jewish place of worship. The Greek, from which the word is immediately derived, denotes 'an assembly;' but afterwards, by a natural deflection of meaning, came to designate the building in which such assembly met.
The precise age of the introduction of synagogues among the Israelites, it does not appear easy to determine. In all probability, however, they had their origin about the period of the exile; and there were then peculiar circumstances which called for their establishment. Deprived of the solemnities of their national worship, yet still retaining their religious convictions, and keenly feeling the loss they had endured, earnestly, too, longing and praying for a restoration of their forfeited privileges, the captive Israelites could not help meeting together for the purposes of mutual sympathy, counsel, and aid, or of prayer and other devout exercises. But prayer makes every spot holy ground. Some degree of secrecy, too, may have been needful in the midst of scoffing and scornful enemies. Thus houses of prayer would arise; and the peculiar form of the synagogue worship—namely, devotion apart from external oblations—would come into being.
The authority of the Talmudists (such as it is) would go to show that a synagogue existed wherever there were ten families. What, however, is certain is, that in the times of Jesus Christ synagogues were found in all the chief cities and lesser towns of Palestine. From , it appears that every separate tribe and colony had a synagogue in Jerusalem. Synagogues were built sometimes on the outside of cities, but more frequently within, and preferably on elevated spots. At a later period they were fixed near burial-places. A peculiar sanctity was attached to these spots, even after the building had fallen to ruin. In the Synagogue pious Israelites assembled every Sabbath and festival day, the women sitting apart from the men; and at a later period, on every second and fifth day of each week, for the purposes of common prayer, and to hear portions of the sacred books read; which was performed sometimes by anyone of the company (), or, according to Philo, by anyone of the priests or elders, who expounded each particular as he proceeded. The writings thus read aloud and expounded were the Law, the Prophets, and other Old Testament books (; ).
The expositor was not always the same person as the reader. A memorable instance in which the reader and the expositor was the same person, and yet one distinct from the stated functionary, may be found in , sq., in which our Lord read and applied to himself the beautiful passage found in the prophecy of Isaiah ().
At the head of the officers stood the 'ruler of the synagogue.' who had the chief direction of all the affairs connected with the purposes for which the synagogue existed (;; , seq.; ). Next in rank were the elders (), called also 'heads of the synagogue' (; ), as well as 'shepherds' and 'presidents,' who formed a sort of college or governing body under the presidency of the chief ruler. There was in the third place 'the angel of the church,' who in the synagogue meetings acted commonly as the speaker, or as the Protestant minister, conducting the worship of the congregation, as well as performed on other occasions the duties of secretary and messenger. Then came, fourthly, 'the minister' (), the attendant who handed the books to the reader, was responsible for the cleanliness of the room, and for its order and decency, and opened and closed the synagogue, of which he had the general care. In addition, there probably were almoners or deacons (), who collected, held, and distributed the alms of the charitable.
In regard to the furniture of the synagogue, seats merely are mentioned in the New Testament (; ). The 'chief seats,' or rather 'front seats,' were occupied by the Scribes and Pharisees. The outfit may have been more simple in the days of Christ; still there was probably then, as well as at a later period, a sort of pulpit, and a desk or shelf, for holding the sacred books. Some sort of summary judicature seems to have been held in the synagogues, and punishments of flogging and beating inflicted on the spot (;;;;;;; ). The causes of which cognizance was here taken were perhaps exclusively of a religious kind. It certainly appears from the New Testament that heresy and apostasy were punished before these tribunals by the application of stripes.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Synagogue'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​s/synagogue.html.