Synagogues: Their Origin, Structure, and Outward Arrangements
Rabbi Jochanan taught the people that if they prayed in their house, it would be surrounded and fortified as if it had a wall of iron around it. He also taught that this only held good where a man was alone, because if there were several people offering prayers, he said that they needed to be offered in the synagogue. It is much easier for us now to understand the value that was attached to the synagogue after the destruction of the Temple. Since people couldn’t go there to worship anymore, they began to attach more and more importance to the synagogue until it exceeded all bounds of moderation or reason. Thus Scriptural sayings such as Isaiah 66:20; 55:6; and Psalms 82:1 were applied to it.
The Babylon Talmud goes even farther in its stipulations. Below are a few of them:
A man’s prayer would not be answered if he did not pray it in the synagogue
If an individual missed even one day of going, God would hold him accountable
God’s anger would be kindled if he found fewer than ten people in the synagogue at any time holding a worship service
If a person had a synagogue in their own town and did not go to it, he was called an evil neighbor, and risked the chance that both he and his family could be exiled
On the other hand, though, if the people went early on to the synagogue, they were supposed to have longevity of life.
Long before this time, though, the dispersion of the Jews accounted for the tremendous growths of the synagogues. They were so used to worshiping in the Temple, that it was just ingrained in them that they must worship somewhere. At the time of Jesus, synagogues were dotted all over the land. They were also under the rule of certain authorities who could exercise discipline. The services were regulated to the degree that part of them consisted of reading the prophets.
The word synagogue is Greek and means “gathering together” for religious purposes. Its real origin is lost in the obscurity of tradition, but it is traced by the Rabbis to the patriarchs. The Targum Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targum talk about Joseph attending the synagogue, and Rebekah was said to go there for advice about the unnatural feeling she had about her two sons while they were still in her womb. There was no room at all for synagogues in the very earliest of Israelite times as a nation, though. During this era, Israel was to worship as a whole nation.
After the Israelites no longer had the Temple as their mainstay of worship, it was necessary that they find another way to worship so they wouldn’t fall back into heathenism. Many of the people did fall back, but not all of them. There were still many that adhered to the old ways of purity and worship – they just used the synagogues instead of the Temple. Actually they probably started sometime in the period after the Jews returned from Babylon. At this time, though, they were quite rudimentary and were mainly built for the purposes of instructing those who had come back. Many of them would be ignorant of the Jewish ways and would have been at least into some heathenism.
Just as they were starting to follow some ways of getting normal again, came the terrible Syrian oppression and persecutions. This went on for some time before the Maccabeans rose up against the terrible tyranny. It is pretty easy to understand how under such dire circumstances the institution of the synagogue could develop, and gradually assume the gigantic proportions and meaning of which it afterwards obtained. The great significance of the Temple and worship there was gigantic in the minds of the Israelites. Judaism had become a matter of outward ordinances and actions. When the Temple was taken away, they would have felt like they must replace its significance with something. So it came to be that at the time of Christ that there was not any settlement of Jews that did not have one or more synagogues. The Talmud speaks of the one in Alexandria that was especially gorgeous. The synagogues were thickly planted all throughout Palestine.
Ten men were the smallest number that could form a congregation. They arrived at that number because there were ten men who came back with Joshua and Caleb who did not believe that the Israelites could inhabit the Promised Land. Larger cities had sometimes many synagogues. We know that was the case in Jerusalem because of Acts 6: 9. Tradition has also left us an account of the synagogue of “the Alexandrians”. This is the class of Jews that Stephen may have belonged to by birth or education.
The Rabbis have it that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the city had at least 460 synagogues there. As any stranger entered into town, it would have never been difficult to find a synagogue nearby. For the ones that did not have a spire, they were built on the highest ground that could be found in that area. This was to symbolize that what went on here was above anything else that the Jews did as far as importance. If a high area could not be found, it was placed at the corner of a street or at a main intersection. This may have been what Jesus had in mind when He talked of those who loved to pray “standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets” in Matthew 6:5. At this time it was very common practice to say a prayer upon entering a synagogue.
If no prominent site could be obtained, a pole was attached to the roof so that something on the synagogue would be taller than the nearest house. Any city whose synagogue was lower than the other dwellings was regarded as in danger of destruction.
There have been many recent excavations of synagogues in Palestine that enable us to get a good idea about them. Internally they were simply a rectangular or round building. They had either a single or double colonnade and usually were adorned with carvings. On the outside they generally had some sacred symbol that was carved on the lintels. This might have been the seven-branched candlestick or pot of manna.
In Capernaum there was only one synagogue that was built at the cost of the centurion there. Until recently, the site of the Ancient Capernaum had not been known. But now the ruins of that ancient synagogue have been uncovered and its architecture is without a doubt that of the Herodian period. In the next text, this will be covered much more in depth.