How did synagogues originate?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Our English word is a transliteration of the Greek “sunagoge,” meaning “meeting, assembly, congregation” (“sun–,” “together;” “agein” “bring”). According to Jewish tradition, a minimum of 10 Jewish men—a “minyan”—was needed to form a synagogue.

According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon: “…an assembly of Jews formally gathered together to offer prayer and listen to the reading and exposition of the Holy Scriptures; assemblies of the sort were held every sabbath and feast-day, afterward also on the second and fifth days of every week (see references below): Luke 12:11; Acts 9:2; Acts 13:43; Acts 26:11…. Synagogues seem to date their origin from the Babylonian exile. In the time of Jesus and the apostles every town, not only in Palestine but also among the Gentiles if it contained a considerable number of Jewish inhabitants, had at least one synagogue, the larger towns several or even many. That the Jews held trials and even inflicted punishments in them, is evident from such passages as Matthew 10:17; Matthew 23:34; Mark 13:9; Luke 12:11; Luke 21:12; Acts 9:2; Acts 22:19; Acts 26:11.”

When the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and razed Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:8-9; 2 Chronicles 36:19), the Jews no longer had any formal place of worship and religious study. Prior to King Solomon, they had the Tabernacle dating back to Moses’ time. The Jews assembled around these structures for religious services. Now removed from the land of Palestine during the 70-year Babylonian Captivity, the Israelites began establishing houses of worship throughout the foreign territories to which they had been scattered. While a remnant of Jews returned to the land of Israel during the ministries of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the majority remained in Gentile domains. Some 500 years after the return from Babylon and the building of Zerubbabel’s Temple, the nation Israel was still dispersed around the world. Hence, we read the following concerning the Day of Pentecost: “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven (Acts 2:5).

A few decades before Christ’s birth, King Herod the Great renovated and expanded Zerubbabel’s Temple, and this (“Herod’s Temple”) functioned until the Roman troops destroyed it in A.D. 70. This was the Temple operating during Christ’s earthly ministry. In the 2,000 years since its demolition, synagogues have played an integral role in Judaism (Jewish religion).

Being Bible students, we are most familiar with synagogues because of their prominence during Christ’s earthly ministry and the Apostle Paul’s “Acts” ministry. For example, “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23). “And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:35). “And he preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and cast out devils” (Mark 1:39). “And he preached in the synagogues of Galilee” (Luke 4:44). “Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:20).

As noted earlier, synagogues were places where Jews gathered to read and study Holy Scripture (Old Testament only). “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:21). Look at Luke chapter 4: “[16] And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. [17] And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, [18] The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, [19] To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. [20] And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. [21] And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.”

In the case of the city of Philippi, there was no synagogue (see next paragraph). Remember, according to Jewish tradition, a synagogue needed a minimum of 10 Jewish men (“minyan”). One historical authority continues, “Where the Jews were not in sufficient numbers to be able to erect and fill a building, there was the proseucha, or place of prayer, sometimes open, sometimes covered in, commonly by a running stream or on the seashore, in which devout Jews and proselytes met to worship, and perhaps to read.”

Acts chapter 16 provides an example: “[12] And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days. [13] And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither. [14] And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. [15] And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.”

Synagogues were often constructed of stone, and, if possible, set on the point of highest elevation in the city. They were always oriented so people entering them would be facing Jerusalem (as King Solomon instructed in 1 Kings 8:29,30,35 and 2 Chronicles 6:20,26). Toward the synagogue’s “Jerusalem end” was a chest or box that held the Old Testament Bible scrolls—like the Ark of the Covenant contained such holy documents in the Jerusalem Temple (see Deuteronomy 31:25-27). Within two centuries before Christ, the Pharisees began to lead synagogues (see John 12:42).

Near the middle of the synagogue building was a raised pulpit where guests could speak or read, as revealed in Acts chapter 13: “[14] But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. [15] And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. [16] Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience.”

Regardless of the synagogue’s size, at least two officials were present. One was “the ruler of the synagogue” (see Mark 5:22,35,36,38; Luke 8:41,49; Luke 13:14; Acts 18:8,17). He oversaw the building and property, organized the public service and kept order, selected people to read Scripture and pray, and asked visitors to speak to the group. Some synagogues had more than one ruler (Acts 13:15). The other synagogue official was the “minister” or attendant, paid to care for the building and furniture. Undoubtedly, his most important role was looking after the Old Testament scrolls—handing them out to speakers and putting them away after use (see Luke chapter 4, quoted earlier—especially verses 17 and 20).

Never forget, Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry and the Apostle Paul in the Acts period visited synagogues because they were where Jews had gathered for worship service and Bible study. Synagogues were the best place to reach Israel concerning the Scriptures, as they would have been most receptive to spiritual truths. Unfortunately, despite all that exposure to the Holy Bible, there was overwhelming unbelief in Israel. It was dead, worthless religion! Had they been studying their Hebrew Scriptures in faith, they would have seen Jesus as Christ, a fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. Through the Apostle John, the Lord Jesus applies a most uncomplimentary title to these Jewish unbelievers! “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9). “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee” (Revelation 3:9).

Saul of Tarsus—Paul the Apostle when he was a lost man, before he trusted Christ—visited synagogues to arrest and execute all Messianic Jews (those who trusted Jesus as Christ). “And [Saul] desired of him [the high priest] letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). “And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee” (Acts 22:19). “And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:11).

Then, Saul of Tarsus met the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ in Acts chapter 9—and Saul trusted Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour! “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). For the Apostle Paul’s other visits to synagogues as he preached the Gospel of Grace (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Acts 20:24), read Acts 13:14-42, Acts 14:1-4, Acts 17:1-17, Acts 18:4-8, Acts 18:19-21, and Acts 19:8-9. As Acts chapter 18 shows, the first members of the Church the Body of Christ at Corinth came from the synagogue literally next-door!

Also see:
» What does “joined hard” mean in Acts 18:7?
» Can you explain Paul’s “Acts” ministry?
» Why does the Book of Acts end so abruptly?