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.”
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 6, 2015.
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