[Gr., sy·na·go·geʹ, a bringing together].
In the Septuagint Bible translation the two words ek·kle·siʹa, meaning assembly or congregation, and sy·na·go·geʹ 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. In Revelation 2:9; 3:9, “synagogue” applies to an assembly under the domination of Satan. Also, we read of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” (Acts 6:9; see FREEDMAN, FREEMAN) James uses the word in the sense of a Christian meeting or public assembly.—Jas. 2:2.
It is not known just when synagogues were instituted, but it seems to have been during the seventy-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 being built for the Jews by a Roman army officer.—Luke 7:2, 5, 9.
The synagogue had an ark or chest containing the Scripture scrolls. The speaker’s stand was in front, on each side of which were the seats so much coveted by the scribes and Pharisees. These front seats faced the audience and were occupied by the presiding officers of the synagogue and any distinguished guests. However, it was from the center of the synagogue that most of the service was conducted, this at once making it easy for anyone to participate and all to hear. Around the three sides were benches for the audience, with a separate section for women.—Matt. 23:6.
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, exposition and exhortation or preaching. Praise-giving featured the Psalms. Prayers, while taken from the Scriptures to an extent, came in time to be long and ritualistic and were often recited for pretext or show.—Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47.
The most important part of synagogue worship was the reading and exposition of the Torah. The reading of the Scriptures consisted of three parts. First came the reciting of the Shemá, 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.” (Deut. 6:4) Next came the reading of the Torah or Pentateuch, the Law, which, in many synagogues, was scheduled so as to be covered in the course of a year. 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: “For 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.” (Acts 15:21) Following this there was a reading from excerpts of the prophets, known as the Haftaʹrahs, each with its exposition. When Jesus entered the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth, he was handed one of the scrolls that contained the Haftaʹrahs to read, after which he made an exposition upon it, as was the custom.—Luke 4:17-21.
After the reading of the Torah and the Haftaʹrahs, together with their exposition, came the preaching or exhortation, which was done from the front of the synagogue, the preceding instruction being done from its center. 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.—Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:15, 16.
Following Pentecost, 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.—Acts 13:14; 17:1, 2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-10.
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.
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 nor 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. The fourteenth chapter of First Corinthians gives instructions for the meetings of the Christian congregation, and it can be seen that they were very similar to that of the synagogue procedure.—1 Cor. 14:31-35; 1 Tim. 2:11, 12.
Synagogues had presiding officers and overseers, as did the early Christian congregations. (Mark 5:22; Luke 13:14; Acts 20:28; Rom. 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.—Luke 4:20; 1 Tim. 3:8-10; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14.
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.—2 Cor. 9:1-5.
Both also served as courts. The synagogue was the place where all 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 rather than go to worldly courts to settle differences between themselves. While the synagogue arrangement made provision for the administering of stripes, in the Christian congregation such punishment was limited to rebukes. (1 Cor. 6:1-3) Like 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, disfellowshiping or excommunicating him from the Christian congregation.—1 Cor. 5:1-8, 11-13; see CONGREGATION; EXPELLING.
Jesus foretold that his followers would be scourged in the synagogues (Matt. 10:17; 23:34; Mark 13:9), and that they would be put out, expelled. (John 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. (John 12:42) For giving testimony in behalf of Jesus, a man whom he had healed from congenital blindness was thrown out by the Jews.—John 9:1, 34.