First Century Synagogues by Chad Spigel

According to the New Testament Gospels, Jesus often taught in synagogues, one of which was in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), in northern Israel. The book of Acts suggests that the apostle Paul also taught in synagogues (Acts 17:1-2). But what exactly were synagogues in the first century C.E.? Were they different from modern synagogues? The answers to these questions not only illuminate stories in the New Testament, they also shed light on the early years of an important Jewish institution.

“Synagogue” is a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people but also refers to the place of assembly. Although the origin of the synagogue as a Jewish institution is unclear, by the first century C.E. they were found in both Palestine and the Diaspora, where they were used for a variety of communal needs: as schools (Josephus, Antiquities 16.43), for communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216), as hostels, as courts (Acts 22:19), as a place to collect and distribute charity (Matt 6:2), and for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289). Worship also took place in first-century synagogues, although this would not develop into something like modern Jewish synagogue worship until much later.  Nonetheless, reading and interpreting the Torah and Prophets is well attested in first-century synagogues (Acts 15:21), and although scholars disagree about the extent of communal prayers, literary sources suggest that Jews prayed in at least some synagogues at this time (Matt 6:5, Josephus, Life 280-295). 

Since first-century synagogues were local communal institutions, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for a centralized group that determined what took place inside of them. Although scholars used to assume that the Pharisees (the likely precursors to the rabbis) were in charge of synagogues, most first-century sources identify elders, priests, and archisynagogoi (Greek for “heads of synagogues”) as the leaders of synagogues (Philo, Hypothetica 7.12-3, Theodotus Inscription, Mark 5:22-23). Rabbinic leadership of synagogues (which is what we are familiar with today) was limited in the first few centuries C.E. and didn’t crystallize until the medieval period.

Though literary sources prove that first-century synagogues existed, there are few archaeological remains. In fact, the synagogue that stands in Capernaum today was built several centuries after the time of Jesus, and the evidence for a first-century synagogue is disputed. Nonetheless, there are remains of a few first-century synagogues in Israel and Palestine, including buildings in Gamla, Masada, and Herodium. Unlike synagogues from later centuries, which are identified by furnishings used for worship and Jewish inscriptions and art, first-century synagogues didn’t have “Jewish” features and were simply public buildings with benches along the walls. In other words, the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centers, with worship as a secondary use of the space.

Until the year 70 C.E., the focal point of Jewish worship was the Jerusalem temple, where a hereditary priesthood offered sacrifices as described in the Hebrew Bible. Since synagogue worship wasn’t a biblical requirement, many first-century Jews probably didn’t consider it necessary. Therefore, though synagogues were found in some first-century communities, their status as places of worship was limited until after the temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Without the temple, synagogues provided already-established communal institutions that would ultimately develop into the new centers of Jewish worship.

Chad Spigel, "First Century Synagogues", n.p. [cited 20 Feb 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/first-century-synagogues

Contributors

Chad Spigel

Chad Spigel
Assistant Professor, Trinity University

Chad Spigel is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. His book, Ancient Synagogue Seating Capacities: Methodology, Analysis and Limits, was published by Mohr Siebeck in 2012.   

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A fortified settlement on a hill in the Judean Desert, which was the last Jewish holdout during the First Jewish Revolt. The Jews of Masada killed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Mark 1:21-28

The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.22They were astounded at his teaching, f ... View more

Acts 17:1-2

The Uproar in Thessalonica
1After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews ... View more

Acts 22:19

19And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you.

Matt 6:2

2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others ... View more

Acts 15:21

21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Matt 6:5

Concerning Prayer
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that t ... View more

Mark 5:22-23

22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the po ... View more

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