The word synagogue is derived from the Greek word “sunago” meaning to gather together. The earliest reference to a synagogue, which is dated to the reign of Ptolemy III (246-221 BC), is an inscription from near Alexandra. It reads, “On behalf of King Ptolemy and Queen Berenice, his sister and wife, and their children, the Jews built this house of prayer (proseuche) (1).
Most historians regard the terms “synagoge”and “proseuche” as synonymous. In Flaccus, Philo appears to regard the two terms as synonymous (2) and in his Life of Moses, he ascribed the activities of a synagogue of teaching on the Sabbath to a “proseuche”(3). Josephus refers to the synagogue at Tiberius as a “proseuche” where on the Sabbath the Jews did not just meet to pray, but to discuss his leadership in the war (4).
Although our earliest surviving reference to a synagogue dates from mid-third century BC Egypt, that does not necessarily mean that the synagogue began there. Most historians believe that the synagogue originated during the Babylonian exile or after the Jews had returned from exile(5). Some believe that after the Temple had been destroyed, the exiles in Babylon needed a house of prayer. Solomon Zeitlin suggests that the synagogue had its origins after exile, “When the Jews returned to Palestine, they did not settle in one place only, as in Jerusalem, but were scattered all over Judea, in various villages and towns. In these smaller settlements, where they had to meet the social and economic problems that confronted them in their practical life, they summoned all the inhabitants of the town or village.” (6)
The problem with this hypothesis is that the same conditions existed before the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations. The Jews were not all concentrated in Jerusalem, but had more territory than they did under the Persians. If this was the reason for the development of the synagogue, there was arguably more need for it before the exile than after.
According to Acts, the Jews of the first century apparently believed the synagogue was instituted by Moses(7). This does not mean there were synagogue buildings since Moses. Louis Finkelstein suggests that the Jews met together to pray in places other than the Temple during the First Temple period (8). The alternative, that Jews never prayed together other than in the Temple, sounds implausible.
A problem with these theories about the origin of the synagogue in Israel after the exile in Judea, is the absence of references to synagogue in Israel before the first century AD. When 1 Maccabees describes Antiochus’ attacks on Judaism, it does not say that he did anything to the synagogues(9). Admittedly, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but when we compare the absence of references to synagogues in Israel before the first century with the many references in the New Testament and Josephus, we have to wonder if they were really there.
Lee Levine has pointed out that in the Old Testament people would gather at the city gates where business transactions were witnessed (10), kings sat to listen to petitions (11), judgements were made and punishments were carried out (12). In Nehemiah the people gathered together (“synechthesan” in the Septuagint) at the city gate to hear Ezra read the Law and then prayed and worshipped (13). The area at the city gates sounds like a community meeting area (14). Levine suggests that during the Hellenistic period, advances in siege warfare meant that the area at the city gates had to be more heavily fortified and could no longer be used as a meeting area. The community activities of the city gate were transferred to a building which became the synagogue (15). This later development of the synagogue as a building would explain the absence of the synagogue during Antiochus’ persecution.
Perhaps the first evidence for the synagogue is in Egypt rather than Israel because Jews in the Diaspora would have been more conspicuous if they met at the city gates or in open areas where their Gentile neighbours, who already often regarded them as strange, would have disapproved. It was easier for them to meet inside.
Paul Flesher argues that “the synagogue and the activities that took place in it constitute an inherently different form of Judaism from that of the Jerusalem Temple, the cultic center of Israelite religion” (16) and the synagogue “arose in a region without access to the Temple cult (i.e. Egypt).” (17) Regardless of whether or not the synagogue originated in Egypt, this argument is flawed because there were also two Jewish temples in Egypt. The Jews of Egypt had access to a temple, but they also had synagogues so the lack of a temple was not behind the development of the synagogue.
Flesher is dismissive of the evidence for synagogues in Judea before 70 AD. He argues that the references in the Gospels to Jesus’ teaching in synagogues in Galilee suggests there were synagogues in Galilee, but not Judea (18). Jesus preached in synagogues in Galilee because that is where his ministry largely took place, not because there were no synagogues in Judea for him to teach in. In the speeches of Paul recorded in Acts, he says that he persecuted Christians in the synagogues in Jerusalem (19). As already mentioned, the city gates performed a legal role. This appears to have transferred to the synagogue. Flesher claims that “these are literary constructions composed by Luke and thus reflect a post-70 diaspora situation.”(20) Those, who believe Acts was written after 70 AD, also believe the Gospels were written after 70 AD. Flasher is being inconsistent when he selects evidence from the Gospels when it supposedly supports his argument but rejects evidence from Acts when it does not support it. Even if Acts was written 20 to 30 years after 70 AD, this does not necessarily mean that its information about synagogues in Jerusalem is wrong. The synagogue did change after the destruction of the Temple. More formal prayer and liturgy developed. Inscriptions describe the synagogue as a holy place, suggesting that it came to be regarded with greater sanctity. There were architectural changes such as the introduction of the Torah shrine (21). However, these changes did not happen overnight in 70 AD. They were gradual. The synagogues of the 90s, the latest date when the Gospels and Acts were written, were little different from the ones before 70, so the arguments of Flesher and others that the New Testament cannot be used as evidence for Second Temple synagogues are hardly valid.
One piece of evidence for Judean synagogues, which Flesher does not mention, is when Josephus described how the zealots “fell upon the holy places (hera) and cities” in Judea(22). Josephus referred to the synagogue at Antioch as both a “synagoge”and “heron”(23). The multiple “hera” which the zealots attacked, can only mean synagogues in Judea.
The Theodotus inscription, which was found in Jerusalem, and is usually dated to before 70 AD, says that Theodotus “built the synagogue for purposes of reciting the Law and studying the commandments, and the hostel, chambers and water installations to provide for the needs of itinerants from abroad.” Flesher points out that one of the primary purposes of this synagogue was as a hostel for visitors to Jerusalem and “the inscription does not provide evidence to indicate that the synagogue had gained acceptance in Jerusalem as a religious institution alongside the Temple cult.” (24) He basically ignores the other stated purposes of reciting the Law and studying the commandments. Flesher agrees that studying the Law was one of the purposes of the synagogue(25). It is far-fetched to suggest that the Jews were taught the Law in synagogues in Galilee and the Diaspora, but the only Jews, who were taught the Law in synagogues in Jerusalem, were foreign visitors.
Instead of trying too hard to explain the evidence, it is more plausible that there were also synagogues in Jerusalem and Judea. The two institutions were not in competition as evident when Philo records that in Asia and Italy the synagogues would collect money which was sent to the Temple in Jerusalem(26).
They supplemented each other and met different needs. The most significant difference between the two institutions was that there were no sacrifices in the synagogue. Even after the destruction of the Temple, the Jews did not attempt to replace its sacrificial role and incorporate it into the local synagogue, like the sacrifices in the local pagan temple.
During the Second Temple period the synagogue was not as sacred to the Jews as the Temple was. Philo wrote that it was “less conspicuous and held in lower esteem.”(27) Both Philo and Josephus record incidents when images of Caesar were set up in synagogues against the Jews’ wishes(28). While the Jews were angry about this, they did not rise up in revolt as they would have if Gaius had succeeded in setting up his statue in the Jerusalem Temple. Desecrating a synagogue was apparently not as bad as desecrating the Temple.
There is no agreement about how many synagogues from the Second Temple period have been found. Synagogues have been identified at Masada, Herodium and Gamla although Flesher believes that only Gamla is a synagogue(29). Recently, archaeologists believe they have uncovered early synagogues at Jericho and Migdol(30). In the Diaspora there is a Second Temple period synagogue at Delos, although his may be a Samaritan synagogue, rather than a Jewish one, and a synagogue at Ostia. Although there are inscriptions referring to synagogues in Egypt, the synagogues themselves have not been found. The problem with identifying early synagogues is their lack of distinctive features. There are no Torah shrines or inscriptions like those found in later synagogues. A common feature of the potential early synagogues is benches along three of the walls and the entrance at the fourth. Luke records that when Jesus visited the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, he stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah, then sat down to speak and “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”
(31). It sounds like he sat to speak on one of the benches around the walls. The early synagogues must have had a “democratic” atmosphere, with people facing each other, speaking and teaching, rather than facing a priest or leader at the front who was speaking. When we consider the way Paul could arrive in a city, go to the synagogue and expect to be allowed to speak, it seems that the structure of synagogue meetings must have somewhat informal at this stage without a program or structure which had to be followed.
In concluding, the synagogue appears to have its roots in Jews meeting together for both religious and secular reasons in their local town, rather than the Temple. By the first century AD these meetings were held in buildings. From the contemporary evidence we can see that Second Temple period synagogues had a variety of roles, studying and discussing the Law, prayer, judicial courts, a hostel for visitors, community meetings and raising money for the Temple. There is no suggestion that the synagogue was competing with the Temple for the Jews’ religious affections or was a Temple-substitute. Instead, they supplemented each other.
(1) Feldman, L.H., and Reinhold, M., Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans, Primary Readings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p 47
(2) Philo, Flaccus, 48-49
(3) Philo, Life of Moses, 2:216
(4) Josephus, Life, 54-55
(5) Levine, L.I., Ancient Synagogues Revealed (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1982), p 3
(6) Zeitlin, s., “The Origin of the Synagogue, A Study in the Development of a Jewish Institution”, in Gutman, J. (editor), The Synagogue: Studies in Origin, Archaeology and Architecture (New York: Ktan, 1975), p 20
(7) Acts 15:21
(8) Finkelstein, L., “The Origin of the Synagogue” in The Synagogue: Studies in Origin, Archaeology and Architecture , op cit., p 3-13
(9) 1 Maccabees 1:41-50
(10) Genesis 23
(11) 2 Samuel 15:, 19:8
(12) Deuteronomy 17:5, 22:24
(13) Nehemiah 8:1-12
(14) Levine, L.I., “The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 115, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), p 432-436
(15) Ibid., p 436-438
(16) Flesher, P.V.M., “Palestinian Synagogues before 70 CE. A Review of the Evidence” in Urman, D., and Flesher. P.V.M., Ancient Synagogues, Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1995), p 28
(17) Ibid., p 28
(18) Ibid., p 31
(19) Acts 22:19, 24:12, 26:11
(20) “Palestinian Synagogues before 70 CE. A Review of the Evidence”, op cit., p 32
(21) “The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue reconsidered”, op cit., p 445-446
(22) Josephus, The Jewish War 4:7:5
(23) Josephus, The Jewish War, 7:3:3
(24) “Palestinian Synagogues before 70 CE. A Review of the Evidence”, op cit., p 33-34
(25) Ibid, p 30
(26) Philo, Embassy, 155-157, 311-313
(27) Philo, Embassy, 191
(28) Philo, Embassy, 346, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 19:6:3
(29) “Palestinian Synagogues before 70 CE. A Review of the Evidence”, op cit., p 38-39
(30) Shanks, H., “Is It or Isn’t It – A Synagogue”, Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 27, No. 6 (November/December 2001), p 51-57
(31) Luke 4:16-21
Feldman. L.H., and Reinhold, M., (editors), Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996)
Gutman, J. (editor), The Synagogue: Studies in Origin, Archaeology and Architecture (New York: Ktan, 1975)
Levine, L.I. (editor), Ancient Synagogues Revealed (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1982)
McKay, H.A., Sabbath and Synagogue (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994)
Shanks, H., Judaism
in Stone, The Archaeology of Ancient Synagogues (Washington D.C. :Biblical Archaeology Society, 1979)
Urman, D., and Flesher P.V.M., Ancient Synagogues, Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995)
White, L.M., Building God’s House in the Roman World (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990)
Binder, D.B., “Second Temple Synagogues”, http://www.pohick.org/sts/index.html
Levine, L.I., “The Nature and Origin of Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 115, No. 3. (Autumn, 1996), p 425-448
Shanks, H., “Is It or Isn’t It – A Synagogue”, Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 27, No. 6 (November/December 2001), p 51-57