In the Greek Septuagint the two words ek·kle·siʹa, meaning “assembly” or “congregation,” and sy·na·go·geʹ (a bringing together) are used interchangeably. The word “synagogue” eventually took on the meaning of the place or building where the assembly was held. However, it did not completely lose its original meaning, for the Great Synagogue was not a large building but an assembly of noted scholars, credited with settling the Hebrew Scripture canon for the Palestinian Jews. It is said to have had its beginning in the days of Ezra or of Nehemiah and to have continued until the time of the Great Sanhedrin, about the third century B.C.E. James uses the word in the sense of a Christian meeting or public gathering.
It is not known just when synagogues were instituted, but it seems to have been during the 70-year Babylonian exile when there was no temple in existence, or shortly following the return from exile, after Ezra the priest had so strongly stressed the need for knowledge of the Law.
In the days of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, each town of any size in Palestine had its own synagogue, and the larger cities had more than one. Jerusalem had many. There is even an instance in the Scriptures of a synagogue that was built for the Jews by a Roman army officer. (Lu 7:2, 5, 9) One of the finest synagogue ruins yet discovered has been excavated at Tell Hum (Kefar Nahum), the likely site of ancient Capernaum. The edifice originally had two stories. Dates given by scholars for this synagogue vary from the late second century C.E. to the early fifth century C.E. The structure itself was built on the site of an earlier synagogue dating back to the first century C.E. The earlier synagogue, which was partially excavated recently, was 24.2 m (79.4 ft) long and 18.5 m (60.7 ft) wide.
One feature of ancient synagogues was a repository for Scripture rolls. Evidently the oldest custom was to keep the scrolls either outside the main building or in a separate room, for safety’s sake. Eventually they came to be kept in a portable ark, or chest, that was put in position during worship. In later synagogues, the ark became an architectural feature of the building itself, being built into or onto one of the walls. Adjacent to the ark and facing the congregation was seating for the presiding officers of the synagogue and any distinguished guests. (Mt 23:6) The reading of the Law was done from an elevated platform, traditionally located in the center of the synagogue. Around the three sides was seating space or benches for the audience, possibly including a separate section for women. It seems that the orientation of the building was considered important, an effort being made to have the worshipers face Jerusalem.
Program of Worship. The synagogue served as a place for instruction, not sacrifice. Sacrifices were made only at the temple. Synagogue exercises appear to have consisted of praise, prayer, recital and reading of the Scriptures, as well as exposition and exhortation or preaching. The giving of praise featured the Psalms. Prayers, while taken from the Scriptures to an extent, in time came to be long and ritualistic and were often recited for pretext or show.
One element of synagogue worship was the reciting of the Shema, or what amounted to the Jewish confession of faith. It received its name from the first word of the first scripture used, “Listen [Shemaʽʹ], O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.” (De 6:4) The most important part of the service was the reading of the Torah or Pentateuch, which took place on Mondays, Thursdays, and each Sabbath. In many synagogues, the Law was scheduled to be read entirely in the course of one year; in others the program took three years. It was because of the emphasis on the reading of the Torah that the disciple James could well observe to the members of the governing body at Jerusalem: “From ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.” (Ac 15:21) The Mishnah (Megillah 4:1, 2) also refers to the practice of reading excerpts of the prophets, known as the haftarahs, each with its exposition. When Jesus entered the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth, he was handed one of the scrolls that contained the haftarahs to be read, after which he made an exposition upon it, as was the custom.
After the reading of the Torah and the haftarahs, together with their exposition, came preaching or exhortation. We read that Jesus taught and preached in the synagogues throughout the whole of Galilee. Likewise Luke records that it was “after the public reading of the Law and of the Prophets” that Paul and Barnabas were invited to speak, to preach.
Paul’s Preaching. Following Pentecost of 33 C.E. and the establishment of the Christian congregation, the apostles, particularly Paul, did much preaching in the synagogues. When entering a city, Paul usually went first to the synagogue and preached there, giving the Jews the first opportunity of hearing the good news of the Kingdom, afterward going to the Gentiles. In some cases he spent considerable time, preaching for several Sabbaths, in the synagogue. In Ephesus he taught in the synagogue for three months, and after opposition arose, he withdrew the disciples who believed and used the school auditorium of Tyrannus for about two years.
Paul was not using the Jewish synagogues as places of meeting for a Christian congregation. Neither was he having Sunday meetings, for he was using the Jewish Sabbath, which was Saturday, to preach to the Jews because of their being gathered together on that day.
Christian Similarities. It was not difficult for the first Jewish Christians to conduct orderly, educational Bible study meetings, for they had the basic pattern in the synagogues with which they were familiar. We find many similarities. In the Jewish synagogue, as also in the Christian congregation, there was no set-apart priesthood or clergyman who did virtually all the talking. In the synagogue, sharing in the reading and in the exposition was open to any devout Jew. In the Christian congregation, all were to make public declaration and to incite to love and fine works, but in an orderly way. (Heb 10:23-25) In the Jewish synagogue, women did not teach or exercise authority over men; neither did they do so in the Christian assembly. First Corinthians chapter 14 gives instructions for the meetings of the Christian congregation, and it can be seen that they were very similar to synagogue procedure.
Synagogues had presiding officers and overseers, as did the early Christian congregations. (Mr 5:22; Lu 13:14; Ac 20:28; Ro 12:8) Synagogues had attendants or assistants, and so did the Christians in their form of worship. There was one called the sent one or messenger of the synagogue. While finding no counterpart in the historical record of the early Christian congregation, a similar designation, “angel,” appears in the messages that Jesus Christ sent to the seven congregations in Asia Minor.
Among other respects in which the synagogue served as a precursor of the Christian assemblies are the following: The local synagogues recognized the authority of the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, even as Christian congregations recognized the authority of the governing body at Jerusalem, as Acts chapter 15 so clearly shows. In neither were collections taken, and yet in both provision was made for contributions for the assembly and its ministers and for the poor.
Both also served as courts. The synagogue was the place where minor cases involving Jews were heard and disposed of; and so also the apostle Paul argues that Christians should let the mature ones in the congregation judge matters involving Christians rather than go to worldly courts to settle such differences. (1Co 6:1-3) While the synagogue arrangement made provision for the administering of stripes, in the Christian congregation such punishment was limited to rebukes. Similar to the arrangement for Jews in the synagogue, in the Christian congregation the severest measure that could be taken against the one professing to be a Christian was that of expelling him, disfellowshipping or excommunicating him, from the Christian congregation.
Jesus foretold that his followers would be scourged in the synagogues (Mt 10:17; 23:34; Mr 13:9) and that they would be put out, expelled. (Joh 16:2) Some of the rulers among the Jews believed in Jesus, but for fear of being expelled from the Jewish congregation, they would not confess him. (Joh 12:42) For giving testimony in behalf of Jesus, a man Jesus had healed from congenital blindness was thrown out by the Jews.