What is the meaning of “synagogue” in the Bible?
A synagogue is a place dedicated to Jewish worship and instruction. These buildings became the primary place of Jewish worship after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. But were there ancient synagogues in Israel—and in the diaspora—while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem?
In “Synagogues—Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple” from the May/June 2015 issue of BAR, Professor Rachel Hachlili of the University of Haifa examines ancient synagogues in Israel and throughout the ancient Near East.
Rachel Hachlili explains that there is some debate as to whether or not synagogues existed before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. On the one hand, we have textual evidence—such as the New Testament—that identifies certain structures as synagogues where Torah reading, teaching and prayer took place. For example Mark 1:21 says that Jesus and his disciples traveled to Capernaum, and “when the Sabbath came, he [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught.”
Additionally, we have uncovered buildings from the Second Temple period (before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.) that look similar to post-destruction synagogues. Later synagogues were sometimes built on top of these earlier structures, thereby suggesting a continuity of use.
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However, all of the Second Temple-period synagogues lack the main architectural characteristic of later synagogues: the Torah Shrine. Usually situated on the wall of the synagogue facing Jerusalem, the Torah Shrine was the receptacle for the ark containing the Torah Scrolls. It became the focus of the later synagogues: “The Torah Shrine determined the arrangement of the interior of the post-destruction synagogue. This synagogue plan usually consisted of a hall divided by columns into a central space with side aisles and sometimes with a front (or side) courtyard. It all focused on the Torah Shrine.”
Should the earlier structures without the Torah Shrine still be called synagogues? If not, what is the meaning of “synagogue” in the Bible?
In her BAR article, Rachel Hachlili analyzes the main differences between the post-destruction synagogues and their possible earlier precursors:
The Second Temple-period buildings were used for Torah reading and as a study center. They had a didactic aim and also served as a meeting place for the community. The synagogues of Late Antiquity, by contrast, emphasized prayer and ceremonies; their functions were liturgical and ritualistic. The focal point of the early buildings was the center of the hall, while that of the later synagogue was the Torah Shrine built on the Jerusalem-oriented wall. In the early structures, benches were constructed along all four walls; they faced the center for the hall. In the later synagogues, the benches faced the Torah Shrine. Architectural decoration in the pre-destruction buildings was simple. The later synagogues were richly ornamented both outside and inside and included mosaic floors and wall paintings.
While there were differences between the pre-destruction and post-destruction synagogues, they still shared many similarities—both architectural and functional. Regardless of whether these earlier structures deserve the term “synagogue” by the current definition, the meaning of “synagogue” in the Bible almost certainly refers to these Second Temple-period buildings.
For further details about ancient synagogues in Israel and in the diaspora, read the article “Synagogues—Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple” by Rachel Hachlili in the May/June 2015 issue of BAR.
Interested in mosaics and synagogue imagery? Learn more in “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols: Zodiac mosaics in ancient synagogues” by Walter Zanger and the Scholar’s Study “Explore the Huqoq Mosaics.”
“First Person: The Sun God in the Synagogue”
“Scholar’s Update: New Mosaics from the Huqoq Synagogue”
“Turkey’s Unexcavated Synagogues”
“New Synagogue Excavations In Israel and Beyond”
“Godfearers in the City of Love”
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 6, 2015.
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Nice to see this! I was a Biblical archaeology student on the second season of Gamla, digging under the phenomenal Shemariyah Gutman. Fantastic!
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In 1492 Spain two sisters, Isobel and Elizabeth Gold, who had to flee to Ipswich, England for not becoming Catholic for Fernando y Isobella (this was their holocaust), later visiting Geneva, taking instruction, and, becoming founders of the Congregational movement in England, set a pattern continued in colonial New England ascribed to Puritanism, which I grew up with. The lack of hierarchy of clergy and simplicity of structure of the early Congregational Church reminds one of the early synagogues. I’m proud to be descended from one of the Gold sisters; they fought back, becoming dissatisfied with the Anglican Church, which too much resembled Catholicism.
Before the Temple was destroyed, synagogues would have lacked the features and parts of the service that are clearly substitutes for the vanished cult and priesthood. They were, as the article says, houses of study and meeting (beit midrash, beit knesset).
After the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue structure and service was altered in ways still recognizable. The Torah ark came to substitute for the Holy of Holies, with a perpetual light (ner tamid) above it — when the Ark is open, you’re not supposed to turn your back to it, as in the inner sanctum of the Temple. The public Torah recitation was adapted to recognize the special status of the high priests and junior priests (kohanim and levi’im). A new part of the service (the Amidah) substituted for the animal and vegetable offerings on the altar. The architecture of synagogues changed presumably because each was viewed as a miniature substitute for the Temple, even though the sacrificial cult was no longer allowed and the priesthood lost almost all of its function.
I was wondering…. The first captivity about 722 BC and 605 BC (Ezekiel, Daniel, Etc) and a large number about 586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar nearly emptied the land.
The first went to Assyria (present day Iran) and the following went to Babylon, (present day Iraq).
Surely those people had places to gather for teaching, meetings, and worship.
I have heard that the present day Kurdish people are descendents of the 722 Israelites, but have not sought to confirm this.
Thank you for the work of Biblical Archaeology!
Thank you for giving so much so freely!
Synagogue is a group of people it is not a building just as church is the people not the building.
For centuries after Ezra Jews met for prayer and study. They did not need or have special buildings. Any house or courtyard, outside under a tree was enough. They did not need a great organization before they began. The archaeological study comes many centuries after they were in existence.
In the Greek Septuagint the two words ek·kle·siʹa, meaning “assembly” or “congregation,” and sy·na·go·geʹ (a bringing together) are used interchangeably. The word “synagogue” eventually took on the meaning of the place or building where the assembly was held. However, it did not completely lose its original meaning, for the Great Synagogue was not a large building but an assembly of noted scholars, credited with settling the Hebrew Scripture canon for the Palestinian Jews. It is said to have had its beginning in the days of Ezra or of Nehemiah and to have continued until the time of the Great Sanhedrin, about the third century B.C.E. James uses the word in the sense of a Christian meeting or public gathering.—Jas 2:2.
In Revelation 2:9; 3:9, “synagogue” applies to an assembly under the domination of Satan. Also, we read of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.”—Ac 6:9; see FREEDMAN, FREEMAN.
It is not known just when synagogues were instituted, but it seems to have been during the 70-year Babylonian exile when there was no temple in existence, or shortly following the return from exile, after Ezra the priest had so strongly stressed the need for knowledge of the Law.