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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(συναγωγή; other equivalent terms are προσευχή or προσευκτήριον, i.e. chapel; Heb. אֵל מוֹעֵד, or assembly of God; Aramaic בי כנשתא, כנשתא ), in the Jewish place of worship in post-Biblical and modern times. However obscure the origin of these establishments, they eventually became so important and characteristic as to furnish a designation of the Jewish Church itself in later literature.
It may be well to note at the outset the points of contact between the history and ritual of the synagogues of the Jews, and the facts to which the inquiries of the Biblical student are principally directed. 1. They meet us as the great characteristic institution of the later phase of Judaism. More even than the Temple and its services, in the time of which the New Test. treats, they at once represented and determined the religious life of the people. 2. We cannot separate them from the most intimate connection with our Lord's life and ministry. In them he worshipped in his youth and in his manhood. Whatever we can learn of the ritual which then prevailed tells us of a worship which he recognized and sanctioned; which for that reason, if for no other, though, like the statelier services of the Temple, it was destined to pass away, is worthy of our respect and honor. They were the scenes, too, of no small portion of his work. In them were wrought some of his mightiest works of healing (Matthew 12:9; Mark 23; Luke 13:11). In them were spoken some of the most glorious of his recorded words (4:16; John 6:59); many more, beyond all reckoning, which are sot recorded (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 13:54; John 18:20, etc.). 3. There are the questions, leading us back to a remoter past. In what did the worship of the synagogue originate? What type was it intended to reproduce? What customs, alike in nature, if not in name, served as the starting-point for it? 4. The synagogue, with all that belonged to it, was connected with the future, as well as with the past. It was the order with which the first Christian believers were most familiar, from which they were most likely to take the outlines, or even the details, of the worship, organization, and government of their own society. Widely divergent as the two words and the things they represented afterwards became, the ecclesia had its starting- point in the synagogue.
I. Name and its Signification. — The word συναγωγή, which literally signifies a gathering, is not unknown in classical Greek (Thucyd. 2, 18; Plato, Republ. 526 D), but became prominent in that of the Hellenists. It appears in the Sept. as the translation of not less than twenty-one Hebrew words in which the idea of a gathering is implied (Tromm, Concordant. s.v.). But, although the word is there used to denote any kind of gathering, heap, mass, or assemblage, such as a gathering of fruits (for the Heb. אס, אסי, Exodus 23:16; Exodus 34:22), of water (מקום, מקוה, Genesis 1:9; Leviticus 11:36), a heap of stones (גל, Job 8:17), a band of singers (מחול, Jeremiah 31:4; Jeremiah 31:13), a mass or multitude of people or soldiers (אספה, חיל, Isaiah 24:22; Ezekiel 37:10), a tribe or family (בית, 1 Kings 12:21), etc., yet its predominant usage in this version is to denote an appointed meeting of people either for civil or religious purposes, thus being synonymous with ἐκκλησία. This is evident from the fact that the Sept. uses συνάγωγή 130 times for the Hebrew עֵדָה, and twenty-five times for קָהָל, which in seventy instances is rendered in the same version by ἐκκλησία . The synonymous usage in the Sept. of these two expressions is also seen in Proverbs 5:14, where ἐκκησία and συναγωγή stand in juxtaposition for the Hebrew קהל and עדה .
In the books of the Apocrypha, the word, as in those of the Old Test., retains its general meaning, and is not used specifically for any recognized place of worship. For this the received phrase seems to be τόπος προσευχῆς (1 Maccabees 3:46; 3 Maccabees 7:20). In the New Test., however, we find συναγωγή, like ἐκκλησία, used metonymically, more especially for an appointed and recognized Jewish place of worship (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 9:35, etc.). Sometimes the word is applied to the tribunal which was connected with or sat in the synagogue in the narrower sense (Matthew 10:17; Matthew 23:34; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12; Luke 12:11). Within the limits of the Jewish Church it perhaps kept its ground as denoting the place, of meeting of the Christian brethren (James 2, 2). It seems to have been claimed by some of thepseudo-Judaizing, half-Gnostic sects of the ‘ Asiatic churches for their meetings (Revelation 2, 9). It was not altogether obsolete, as applied to Christian meetings, in the time of Ignatius (Fp. ad Trall. c.v; ad Polyc. c. 3). Even in Clement of Alexandria the two words appear united as they had done in the Sept. (ἐπὶ τὴν συναγωγὴν ἐκκλησίας, Strom. 6:633). Afterwards, when the chasm between Judaism and Christianity became wider, Christian writers were fond of dwelling on the meanings of the two words which practically represented them, and showing how far the synagogue was excelled by the ecclesia (August. Enarr. in Psalms 80; Trench, Synonyms of N.T. § 1). The cognate word, however, σύναξις, was formed or adopted in its place, and applied to the highest act of worship and communion for which Christians met (Suicer, Thesaur. s.v.).
More definite than the Greek term synagogue is the ancient Hebrew name, beth tephillah (בֵּית תְּפַלָּה, τόπος προσευχῆς , or simply προσευχή ) = house of prayer (Acts 16:13, for which the Syriac rightly has ביה צלותא; Josephus, Life, 54), which is now obsolete, or beth hak-keneseth (בֵּית הִכְּנֵסֵת ) = house of assembly, which has superseded it. This definite local signification of the term synagogue among the Jews has necessitated the use of another expression for the members constituting the assembly, which is כנישתא or צבור, to express our secondary sense of the word ἐκκλησία .
II. History of the Origin and Development of the Synagogue.
1. According to tradition, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob instituted the prayers three times a day (Berakoth, 26 b), and had places of worship (comp. the Chaldee paraphrases of Onkelos, Jonathan ben-Uzziel, and the Jerusalem Targum on Genesis 24:62-63; Genesis 25:27). We are informed that there were synagogues, in the time of the pious king Hezekiah (Sanhedrin, 94 b); that the great house (בית גדול ) was a stupendous synagogue; that the many houses of Jerusalem (בתי ירושלים ) which Nebuchadnezzar burned (2 Kings 25:9) were the celebrated 480 synagogues that existed in Jerusalem (Jerusalem Megillah, 3, 1), and that in Babylon the synagogue was to be seen in which Daniel used to pray (Erubin, 21 a). We have thetestimony of Benjamin of Tudela, the celebrated traveler of the Middle Ages, that he himself saw-the synagogues built by Moses, David, Obadiah; Nahum, and Ezra (Itinerary, 1, 90, 91, 92, 106, 153, ed. Ascher [London, 1840]). It is in harmony with this tradition that James declares "Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day" (Acts 15:21; comp. Philo, 2. 167, 630; Josephus, Apion, 2, 18; Baba Kama, 82 a; Jerusalem Megillah, 4,1). But these are simply traditions, which love to invest everything with the halo of the remotest antiquity.
2. In the Old Test. itself we find no trace of meetings for worship in synagogues. On the one hand, it is probable that if new moons and Sabbaths were observed at all, they must have been attended by some celebration apart from, as well as at, the tabernacle or the Temple (1 Samuel 20:5; 2 Kings 4:23). On the other, so far as we find traces of such local worship, it seems to have fallen too readily into a fetich religion, sacrifices to ephods and teraphim (Judges 8:27; Judges 17:5) in groves and on high-places, offering nothing but a contrast to the "reasonable service," the prayers, psalms, instruction in the law, of the later synagogue. The special mission of the priests and Levites under Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 12:7-9) shows that there was no regular provision for reading the "book of the law of the Lord" to the people, and makes it probable that even the rule which prescribed that it should be read once every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles had fallen into disuse (Deuteronomy 31:10). With the rise of the prophetic order we trace a more distinct though still a partial approximation. Wherever there was a company of such prophets, there must have been a life analogous in many of its features to that of the later Essenes and Therapeutse, to that of the coenobia and monasteries of Christendom. In the abnormal state of the polity of Israel under Samuel, they appear to have aimed at purifying the worship of the high-places from idolatrous associations, and met on fixed days for sacrifice and psalmody (1 Samuel 9:12; 1 Samuel 10:5).
The scene in 1 Samuel 19:20-24 indicates that the meetings were open to any worshippers who might choose to come, as well as to "the sons of the prophet," the brothers of the order themselves. The only pre-exilian instance which seems to indicate, that the devout in Israel were in the habit of resorting to pious leaders for blessings and instruction on stated occasions is to be found in 2 Kings 4:23, where the Shunammite's husband asks, "Wherefore wilt thou go to him (Elisha) today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath." Yet 2 Kings 22:8, etc.; 2 Chronicles 34:14, etc., testify undoubtedly against the existence of places of worship under the monarchy. The date of Psalms 24 is too uncertain for us to draw any inference as to the nature of the "synagogues of God" (מוֹעֲדֵי אֵל, meeting-places of God), which the invaders are represented as destroying (Psalms 24:8). It ‘ may have belonged to the time of the Assyrian or Chaldaean invasion (Vitringa, De Synag, p. 396-405). It has been referred to that of the Maccabees (De Wette, Psalmen, ad loc.), or to an intermediate period when Jerusalem was taken and the land laid waste by the army of Bagoses, under Artaxerxes II (Ewald, Poet. Biich. 2, 358). The, "assembly of the elders," in Psalms 107, 32, leaves us in like uncertainty.
3. During the Exile, in the abeyance of the Temple worship, the meetings of devout Jews probably became more systematic (Vitringa, De Synag. p. 413-429; Jost, Judenthum, 1, 168; Bornitius, De Synagog. in Ugolino, Thesaur. 21), and must have helped forward the change which appears so conspicuously at the time of the Return. The repeated mention of gatherings of the elders of Israel, sitting before the prophet Ezekiel and hearing his word (Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 14:1; Ezekiel 20:1; Ezekiel 33:31), implies the transfer to the-land of the Captivity of the custom that had originated in the schools of the prophets. One remarkable passage may possibly contain a more distinct reference to them. Those who still remained in Jerusalem taunted the prophet and his companions with their exile, as outcasts from the blessings of the sanctuary. "Get ye far from the Lord; unto us is this land; given in a possession." The prophet's answer is that it was not so. Jehovah was as truly with them in their "little sanctuary" as he had been in the Temple at Jerusalem. His presence, not the outward glory, was itself the sanctuary (11, 15, 16). The whole history of Ezra presupposes the habit of solemn, probably of periodic, meetings (Ezra 8:15, Nehemiah 8:2; Nehemiah 9:1; Zechariah 7:5). To that period, accordingly, we may attribute the revival, if not the institution, of synagogues, or at least of the systematic meetings on fasts for devotion and instruction (Zechariah 8:19). Religious meetings were also held on Sabbaths and fasts to instruct the exiles in the divine law, and to admonish them to obey the divine precepts (Ezra 10:1-9; Nehemiah 8:1; Nehemiah 8:3; Nehemiah 9:1-3; Nehemiah 13:1-3). These meetings, held near the Temple and in other localities, were the origin of the synagogue, and the place in which the people assembled was denominated הכנסת בית, the house of assembly; hence, also, the synagogue in the Temple, itself. The elders of this synagogue handed the law to the high-priest (Mishna, Yoma, 7:1; Sotah, 7:7, 8), aided in the sacrifices (Tamid, 5, 5), took charge of the palms used at the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkah, 4:4), accompanied the pilgrims who brought their first-fruits (Tosiphta Bikkurim, 2), officiated as judges (Makkloth, 3, 12), and superintended the infantschools (Sabbath, 1, 3). Assuming Ewald's theory as to the date and occasion of Psalms 124, there must, at some subsequent period, have been a great destruction of the buildings, and a consequent suspension of the services. It is, at any rate, striking that they are not in any way prominent in the Maccabean history, either as objects of attack or rallying-points of defense, unless we are to see in the gathering of the persecuted Jews at Maspha (Mizpal), as at a "place where they prayed aforetime in Israel" (1 Maccabees 3:46), not only a reminiscence of its old glory as a holy place, but the continuance of a more recent custom. When that struggle was over, there appears to have been a freer development of what may be called the synagogue parochial system among the Jews of Palestine and other countries. The influence of John Hyrcanus, the growing power of the Pharisees, the authority of the Scribes, the example, probably, of the Jews of the "dispersion" (Vitringa, De Synag. p. 426), would all tend in the same direction. Well-nigh every town or village had its one or more synagogues. Where the Jews were not in sufficient numbers to be able to erect and fill a building, there was the προσευχή, or place of prayer, sometimes open, sometimes covered in, commonly by a running stream or on the sea-shore, in which devout Jews and proselytes met to worship, and, perhaps, to read (Acts 16:13; Josephus, Ant. 14:10, 23; Juvenal, Sat. 3,. 296). Sometimes the term προσευχή (= בֵּית תְּפַלָּה ) was applied even to an actual synagogue (Josephus, Life, § 54). Eventually we find the Jews possessing synagogues in the different cities of Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, and wherever they resided. We hearof the apostles frequenting the synagogues in Damas-cus, Antioch, Iconium, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, etc. (Acts 9:2; Acts 9:20; Acts 13:14; Acts 14:1; Acts 17:1; Acts 10:17; Acts 18:4; Acts 18:19; Acts 19:8). There were numerous synagogues in Palestine: in Nazareth (Matthew 13:54, Mark 6:2; Luke 4:16), Capernaum (Matthew 12:9; Mark 1:21; Luke 7:5; John 6:59), etc.; and in Jerusalem alone there were 480 (Jerusalem Megillah,. 3, 1; Jerusalem Kethuboth, 13) to accommodate the Jews from foreign lands who visited the Temple. There were synagogues of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and of the Asiatics (Acts 6:9; comp. Tosiphta Megillah, 2; Babylon Megillah, 26 a). When it is remembered that more than 2,500,000 Jewscame together to the metropolis from all countries§ to celebrate the Passover (Josephus, Ant. 6:9, 3; Pesachim, 64 a), this number of synagogues in Jerusalem. will not appear at all exaggerated. An idea may be formed of the large number of Jews at the time of Christ, when it is borne in mind that in Egypt alone, from the Mediterranean to the border of Ethiopia, there resided nearly a million of Jews (Philo, Against Flaccus, 2, 523), and that in Syria, especially in the metropolis, Antioch, the Jews constituted a large portion of the population (Gratz [2nd ed.] 3, 282).
III. Site, Structure, Internal Arrangement, Use, and Sanctity of the Synagogue. —
1. Taking the Temple as the prototype, and following the traditional explanation of the passages in Proverbs 1:21 and Ezra 9:9, which were taken to mean that the voice of prayer is to be raised on heights (בראש תקרא ), and that the sanctuary was therefore erected on a summit (בית אלהיכ לרומם את ), the Jewish canons decreed that synagogues are to be built upon the most elevated ground in the neighborhood, and that no house is to be allowed to overtop them (Tosiphta Megillah,3; Maimonides, lad Ha-Chezaka Hilchoth Tephila, 11:2). So essential was this law deemed, and so strictly was it observed in Persia, even after the destruction of the Temple, that Rab (A.D. 165-247) prophesied a speedy ruin of those cities in which houses were permitted to tower above the synagogue, while rabbi Ashi declared that the protection of Sora was owing to the elevated site of its synagogues (Sabbath, 11 a). Lieut. Kitchener, however, states (Quar. Statement of the "Pal. Explor. Fund," July, 1878, p. 123 sq.) that the ruins of the fourteen specimens of ancient synagogues extant in Palestine (all in Galilee) do not correspond to these Talamudical requirements as to location, nor yet to those below as to position; for they are frequently in rather a low site, and face the south if possible. Failing of a commanding site, a tall pole rose from the roof to render it conspicuous (Leyrer, in Herzog's Real-Encyklop. s.v.).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Synagogue'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/synagogue.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.