All four of the Canonical Gospels situate Jesus’s ministry within synagogues. According to Mark 1:39, Jesus “went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Matthew 4:23 and Luke 4:14-15 similarly set Jesus’s Galilean teaching activity within synagogues, and Luke 4:43-44 places Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God within the synagogues of Judea. Finally, in John 18:20, Jesus states that he has “always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.”
The synagogue was intrinsic rather than incidental to Jesus’s life and career: He taught in synagogues, customarily attended synagogue gatherings (Luke 4:16), performed exorcisms and healings in synagogues (Mark 1:21-28; Mark3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17), and discussed and debated the interpretation and practice of Jewish law in synagogues (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:14-17; John 6:30-59). The study of ancient synagogues can help us to better contextualize and interpret the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus’s activities. In turn, this can greatly aid us in reconstructing a Jesus who was fully at home in first-century Jewish Galilee.
Our understanding of synagogues during the early Roman period (63 BCE–135 CE) in the southern Levant has grown exponentially in recent years.1 Since the well-publicized discovery of the spectacular synagogue uncovered at Magdala in 2009,a the remains of buildings plausibly identified as ancient synagogues from the early Roman period have been excavated at Tel Rekhesh, Khirbet Majduliyya, and Beth Shemesh.b Fragmentary remains of Jewish public buildings dated to the early Roman period have been uncovered at Shikhin and Khirbet Wadi Hamam, and in both cases, the excavators have identified the buildings as synagogues. The discovery of a second synagogue at Magdala was also announced in December 2021.c
These six new finds can be tentatively added to the list of previously discovered synagogues dated prior to 135 CE—bringing the total to 16. These earlier discoveries include the remains of structures at Capernaum, Gamla, Herodium, Jericho, Jerusalem (in the form of an inscription), Khirbet Cana, Magdala, Masada, Modi’in (Umm el-Umdan), and Qiryat Sefer (Khirbet Badd Isa). Although the identification of the structures at Capernaum and Jericho is in question, the growing pool of archaeological evidence is exciting and gives us some solid information upon which to build.
Synagogue buildings in the early Roman period featured a main assembly hall, which was quadrilateral in shape. Stepped benches typically lined the walls, meaning that the attendees sat facing the center of the room, and people seated along opposite walls would have faced one another. The seating arrangement was thus designed to facilitate discussion, particularly among people seated along different and especially opposite walls. This architecture is reminiscent of other public buildings of the Greco-Roman world, including certain forms of the bouleuterion and the ekklesiasterion.
Synagogue assembly rooms also typically featured columns, usually in the central floor area, which supported a clerestory ceiling. The columns would have obscured the view of the central floor from the benches, which indicates that synagogues were likely designed with hearing rather than seeing in mind.2 In short, the architectural evidence reveals that synagogues of the early Roman period were places of community assembly, made for listening and discussing.
The synagogue at Qiryat Sefer in the West Bank was located in the center of a small agricultural village with an estimated population of just over 100.3 This shows that very small villages could have a synagogue building, and its location in the middle of the village underscores its importance as a public place. Similarly, the synagogue at Tel Rekhesh in Galilee was located in a small, rural farmstead.
By contrast, the synagogue at Gamla, a large town in the Golan, represents the sort of synagogue that might be typical of a larger settlement. It is very well constructed—with carved basalt ashlars and columns—and estimated to have seated more than 400 people. Furthermore, archaeological evidence for a synagogue in Jerusalem was discovered in the form of a Greek inscription found in the Ophel, popularly known as the Theodotus Inscription. The inscription, which originally belonged to an ancient synagogue in Jerusalem, describes the synagogue’s main features, including accommodations and water facilities for pilgrims. Thus, synagogues existed in the smallest to the very largest of Jewish towns and communities.
The decoration of the first synagogue found at Magdala indicates that these buildings could be colorful, vibrant places. It featured multicolored wall frescoes and red painted columns. Its mosaic floor shows us that the practice of paving synagogue floors with mosaics has roots that extend back to at least the early Roman period.
The discovery of a second synagogue at Magdala provides an archaeological parallel to ancient sources that mention or imply the existence of multiple synagogues in a single municipality and may even help us to better understand Jewish assemblies in urban contexts.4 The seating capacity of the first Magdala synagogue was likely no more than 200, which is just a fraction of the adult population of an urban settlement like Magdala. The existence of multiple synagogue buildings may help to partially explain such a large difference between settlement size and synagogue seating capacity. It is also possible that one or both synagogues belonged to a particular group or association (see below).
The most obvious function of synagogues is exactly what the archaeological evidence has shown: Synagogues were places of assembly and discussion for communities. As premier gathering places, synagogues that belonged to the municipality were political institutions, much like town halls, as much as they were religious institutions (see in the Mishnah, e.g., Nedarim 5:5). These are what some scholars call “public synagogues.” 5 A clear example of a public synagogue in the New Testament would be the synagogue at Nazareth mentioned in Luke 4:16–30 (cf. Mark 6:1-6).
However, synagogues could also belong to a specific group, such as the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Acts 6:9. Such synagogues, which are similar to clubs, are called “association synagogues.” They would have been gathering places for the group to which they belonged rather than for the general population and would not have had the “town hall” function of public synagogues.
The synagogues depicted in the Gospels are clearly public institutions rather than sectarian associations. When Jesus says, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (John 18:20), the logic of the claim to have spoken openly to the world requires an understanding that the referenced synagogues were public assembly places. Moreover, the description of Capernaum’s synagogue in Luke 7:5 implies that it was owned by the town. Municipal ownership of public synagogues is also attested in the Mishnah (Nedarim 5:5).
Synagogues in the Gospels are generally depicted as gathering places belonging to local communities where Jesus could interact with the assembled people. By taking part in synagogue gatherings, Jesus was engaging with the common Judaism practiced in the early Roman period. By participating in synagogues, Jesus was involved in normal, public Jewish life. The public reading of the Torah and other Jewish scripture in synagogues is widely attested by the Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish philosopher Philo, the New Testament, and early rabbinic literature.6 Likewise, the Theodotus Inscription, discovered in Jerusalem, states that the synagogue to which it was attached was built “for reading of the law and teaching of the commandments.” Fragments of both the books of Deuteronomy and Ezekiel were discovered in a side room in the Masada synagogue, perhaps providing an archaeological parallel to the literary evidence.
As the local town hall and place of Jewish law, public synagogues also served other civic functions, especially that of a court of law and justice. The Gospels and Acts mention this on a number of occasions (Mark 13:9; Matthew 23:34; Luke 12:11-12; Acts 22:19). Likewise, the Old Greek version of the apocryphal Book of Susanna locates Susanna’s trial in a synagogue (28), and the apocryphal Book of Sirach describes a woman charged with adultery being brought before the local assembly for punishment (23:24). Similar hints at the judicial function of synagogues appear in the Mishnah as well (Makkot 3:12; Shevu’ot 4:10).
Given that synagogues were designed for listening and discussion, the descriptions that appear in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 6:2; Luke 4:22-30; Acts 6:8-12) and in Philo’s writings (e.g., Hypothetica 7.13; On the Life of Moses 2.215) related to the reading, interpretation, and discussion of Torah within the synagogue make good sense. Because some synagogues were local public assemblies akin to town halls, the deliberations and decisions on issues that took place in synagogue settings could impact the town as a whole. Thus, these discussions could have high stakes.
The Gospels depict Jesus not only teaching and proclaiming his message in synagogues, but also debating and discussing with the gathered public. It was important to be persuasive in synagogue gatherings. Thus, Ben Sira in the Book of Sirach presents the local assembly as a setting in which one can attain honor through public recognition (38:33; 44:15) or be put to shame (41:18; 42:11). The synagogue assembly wielded real power on the local stage. Susanna’s trial is decided by the opinion of the townspeople (Susanna 41). Likewise, Josephus recounts that the assembled people of Tiberias were able to disagree with their leadership and to make decisions in their synagogue for their city’s course of action in the Jewish revolt (Life 276–303).
In the Gospels, when Jesus and the synagogue assemblies are engaged in discussion and debate, they are doing something normative that synagogues were designed to facilitate. This is, for example, how we should understand the depiction of the lengthy back-and-forth discussion between Jesus and the synagogue assembly at Capernaum in the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-59). The debate between Jesus and a synagogue official in Luke 13:10-17 over the legality of healing on the Sabbath is an example of a synagogue dispute. The story ends with Jesus successfully answering the official’s challenge with a compelling reply, such that his opponents are put to shame and the crowd rejoices at his deeds, indicating that the public was persuaded by Jesus’s response. In this case, we see the assembly deciding in favor of the legality of Jesus’s act of Sabbath healing against the opinion of a local elite.
Who would have attended synagogues in early Roman Galilee?
No clear archaeological or literary evidence exists for the separation of seating by gender in synagogues of this period. In fact, Luke 13:11 depicts Jesus encountering a woman with a bent back in a synagogue, which implies that they both belonged in the same space. Both common people and elites appear in accounts of public synagogue gatherings. For example, Josephus describes several meetings at the synagogue in Tiberias that included a local magistrate, the local council, and the “leading men” of the city (Life 276–303).
The synagogues that we might classify as “association synagogues” belonged primarily to particular groups and their members. As mentioned above, the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Acts 6:9 is a good example of an association synagogue. Similarly, Philo discusses synagogues that specifically belong to Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect (Every Good Man Is Free 81). By contrast, public synagogues belonged to the local community. That means that they did not belong to one particular sect, but could be attended by the general public as well as by members of different groups.
The narratives involving Jesus’s interactions with Pharisees within synagogues (Mark 3:1-6; John 12:42) can be contextualized in light of this. The synagogues in these narratives probably do not belong to the Pharisees. It is more likely that the Pharisees are a faction within the assembly who were attempting to exert their influence over the public synagogue, much like a political party. We can thus read episodes such as the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over healing a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6) in terms of competition between parties attempting to exert influence on the town through the court of public opinion, which was very much part of public synagogue discourse.
The synagogues of Galilee made perfect sense as a venue for Jesus to teach and to proclaim his message, where his words could be discussed and debated, and accepted or rejected by the assembly. Sometimes Jesus’s teachings were accepted, as in Luke 13:10-17. Other times, the message was rejected. Perhaps such corporate rejection lies behind the woes that Jesus pronounces on the Galilean villages of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Luke 10:13-16; Matthew 11:20-24).
The recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship on synagogues have helped to recover a vital piece of early Jewish life and culture. So too was it a vital piece of Jesus’s life and times.
In 2009, archaeologists discovered a richly decorated rectangular stone in the first Magdala synagogue, often called the “Magdala Stone.” Some scholars have argued that this stone may have been a table from which Torah scrolls were read aloud (as illustrated, for example, in the reconstruction in feature text above). However, this hypothesis is somewhat speculative, and a growing number of scholars, myself included, are not convinced.
It is possible that the stone did not have a practical purpose. It may simply have been decorative or symbolic. Some scholars suggest that the shape of the stone, resembling an altar with four “horns” on its top face, combined with the stone’s carved artwork, including the columns and colonnades, the menorah, and the rosette “wheels,” may represent Temple imagery. If that is the case, perhaps the stone’s primary function could have been to symbolically represent the Temple. However, other scholars note that the columns and rosettes are common in Jewish art of this period, and that the menorah can be used in non-Temple contexts in Jewish artwork from this era. It seems that we cannot yet draw firm conclusions about the Magdala Stone’s function.
There were, however, two other limestone blocks found in the first synagogue at Magdala, both with grooves on either end, which may have been used as reading surfaces for scrolls. One was found in secondary usage in the main hall and the second in an ancillary room with benches. The grooves on the blocks might have held wooden dowels—used as rollers—on either end of the scroll and allowed the reader to easily scroll through the text while sitting at the stone. However, this is only a theory, and there are other possible interpretations of these carved stones, including that they could have served as bases for chairs or tables.
1. For a full discussion and citations, see Jordan J. Ryan, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).
2. As shown by James F. Strange, “Archaeology and Ancient Synagogues up to about 200 C.E.” in Birger Olsson and Magnus Zetterholm, eds., The Ancient Synagogue from Its Origins Until 200 C.E.: Papers Presented at an International Conference at Lund University, October 14–17, 2001, CBNTS 39 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiskell, 2003), pp. 37–62.
3. Population estimates here and following come from Chad S. Spigel, Ancient Synagogue Seating Capacities: Methodology, Analysis and Limits (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), pp. 82, 293–295.
4. Acts 9:1–20; 13:5; 24:12; Josephus, Contra Apion 2.10. In later rabbinic literature, see y. Ta‘anit 4, 8, 69a; b. Gittin 58a; b. Berakhot 8a; y. Kil’aim 9, 4, 32b.
5. Credit is due particularly to Anders Runesson for detailing and popularizing the distinction between “public” and “association” synagogues.
6. Josephus, Against Apion 2.175; Jewish Antiquities 16.43; Jewish War 2.292; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 156; Hypothetica 7.12; Every Good Man Is Free 81–82; Luke 4:16–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21; t. Megillah 2:18; t. Sukkah 4:6; m. Megillah 3:1–4:9.
b. See Boaz Gross, “The Other Side of Beth Shemesh: Salvage Archaeology Exposes Deep History of Famed Biblical Site,” Bible History Daily (blog), May 28, 2021.
c. See Nathan Steinmeyer, “Archaeologists Discover New First Century Synagogue in Magdala, Israel,” Bible History Daily (blog), December 15, 2021.