1.2 The Synagogue Became a Substitute For The Temple

We have looked at how the liturgy developed in the old Testament from simple sacrifices held by heads of households to the giving of the Law and God-given instructions for a much more elaborate liturgy. We also have looked at how the Israelites started their own traditions that accompanied some of these rituals in books like the Haggadah where additional details were added to the Seder meal.

Next, we are going to look at the development of the synagogue which was in full swing by the time of original Christianity. While the Temple was major in Judaism at that time and others, the synagogue became more of a center of everyday Jewish life.

The origins of the synagogue are uncertain, but we do know a few things. When the law was given the Tabernacle was the center of worship. Once the Temple was built the Temple became the center of worship. The temple was unavailable, however, during periods of Exile or when it was destroyed. So it is believed that the synagogue became a replacement for the Temple at that time.

The Babylonian captivity started in 597 BCi. The general opinion is that that is when synagogues started. By the time of Jesus, synagogues appeared wherever Jews lived together.ii

Similar to the Greek word for church, ekklesia, meaning called out or assembly the greek word for synagogue is sunagoge, also meaning assembly. While both words later came to also mean the buildings where people assembled, both words actually refer to the gathering of people together.

A synagogue, then, is a gathering of God’s chosen people. There is a record in Ezekiel of a gathering of elders that some think is a reference to a synagogue:

In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD, and sat before me. (Eze 20:1)

Ezekiel was a prophet at the time of the Babylonian captivity and lived in exile in Babylon and this verse looks like him meeting with the leadership of a Babylonian synagogue, but that is not certain.

Also in the Book of Ezekiel is a reference that Jewish leadership interpreted as meaning that the synagogue would be a substitute for the Temple for Jews that lived in other nations:iii

Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.’ (Eze 11:16)

Synagogues did not have defined dimensions and specifications from the Torah like the Temple so the edifice itself depended on the wealth and abilities of the participants although there are specifications given in the Talmud.

There is a description in Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah of an ancient synagogue that describes various beautiful ornamentations on the doors and moldings, two colonnades forming a passageway east and west separating the gallery of men from the pulpit and chief seats, the structure including a supposed women’s gallery, the floor being a slab white limestone and the walls impressively two to seven feet thick. There was an area for the movable ark, the Bima (elevated stand) that held the luach or desk where the scrolls were read, and a chair for the speaker to sit. (The law is read standing, the sermon is given seated.)iv

These were a few of the guidelines that the Jews themselves apparently enacted. Other guidelines include the participants seated facing Jerusalem, the building should be conspicuous, preferably on the highest ground around with the roof above surrounding buildings.v

Synagogues were segregated, men alone in the main chamber with women and children separated from the men to avoid distractions. The ruler of the synagogue was elected by the elders. The order of service was a creed, prayers, readings from the scrolls, a sermon, and a question and answer period for men to question the minister. There was the movable ark of sacred scrolls in a curtained alcove behind the pulpit, only to be opened by doctors of the law. Between the alcove and the pulpit were the chief seats, also known as Moses seats where the chief teachers and readers sat.vi

The purpose of the synagogue was not sacrificing as in the Temple, but rather instruction. Teachers of the Law taught and expounded. There was also praying and singing. Priests weren’t in charge of synagogues, but they would be honored guests. Also, tithes were not used to finance the synagogue, they were dependent on free will offerings. Persons known to be knowledgeable would be allowed to speak, especially people who were good at explaining the law.vii

The main difference between the Temple and the synagogue besides the Temple being in Jerusalem and synagogues being built everywhere is that in the synagogue the reading of the Torah took the place of sacrifice in the Temple.viii

The synagogue was a community center besides being a place of worship. It housed the local school, the local government including the local court, as well as being a public meeting place. The elders of the synagogue were magistrates and local authorities.ix

The synagogue appears to have become the place where God was brought to the people in substitution for the Temple. I don’t know how this became okay in light of God’s declaration that he would name the place for worship and sacrifice (Deut 12:5) but it is clear that there was no sacrifice at synagogue so all the details of this verse are not being violated.

The Gospels talk about the courts and disciplining that happened in the synagogue:

Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, (Mat 10:17)

In an adjunct room to the assembly hall, the synagogue housed the local court system where the law was strictly interpreted, and the punishment was often severe. Punishments included excommunication, scourging, and death. Scourging was limited to 40 stripes, but to avoid mistakes (a punishable mistake itself) stripes were limited to 39. There were 168 faults for which the punishment was scourging.x There is also more than one form of excommunication.

The Talmud does have specifics on synagogues. I could not find any ancient Talmud references about the synagogue but there are some online for the current times.xi There are specifications there for both the structure and what needs to be in the building. Many details are given including the building direction, the windows, The Ark, the bimah (table), the Amud (lecturn), the Mechitzah (partition between men and women), and a number of other things.

We are at the end of the development of liturgy in the Old Testament and we are discussing a topic, synagogues, from which there is no, or hardly any reference in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms while there are guidelines that were set up both in the Talmud and from other Jewish authorities. That is very interesting. And that is the setting upon which Jesus arrived.


iiThe New Bible Dictionary, Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, Michigan, J.D. Douglas Editor, 1962 p. 1227

iiiIbid, p. 1227

ivLife and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, Alfred Edersheim, 1953, p. 787 available at http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/The%20Life%20and%20Times%20of%20Jesus%20the%20Messiah.pdf

vManners and Customs of the Bible, Logos International, Plainfield, New Jersey, James M Freeman, 1972 p. 334-335

viHandbook to the Bible, Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, Michigan, David Alexander and Patricia Alexander, 1973, p. 96

vii Manners and Customs of the Bible, Logos International, Plainfield, New Jersey, James M Freeman, 1972 p. 334-335

viiiNew Bible Dictionary, p. 1227

ixHandbook to the Bible, p.494

xIbid, p 347


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