Synagogues: Their Origin, Structure, and Outward Arrangements
For many years, the site of the Ancient Capernaum has been unknown. Now the modern Tell Hum is so satisfactory that few would question it as being the right site for the ancient city. Even more important is the fact that the ruins of this synagogue that the centurion of Matthew 9:1 spoke of has been brought to light. To make doubting even more impossible, its architecture is without a doubt that of the Herodian period. The Bible talks about how Jesus fed the 5,000 people who were hungry, having 12 baskets left over. That same night the disciples were crossing the lake when a horrible storm blew in from the mountains. Jesus came to them walking across the lake and calmed the fierce waters.
When the next morning arrived, the people realized that Jesus was gone, so they crossed the lake looking for Him in Capernaum. Since no ordinary home would have held the many people, they made their way to the synagogue. John 6: 59 tells us “These things said He in the synagogue, as He taught in Capernaum.” The remarkable thing is that the lintel of this very synagogue has been found. The saying written there bears an extreme close reference to the question which the Jews put to Jesus as they entered the synagogue and said: “Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:31).
The lintel that archaeologists found at the synagogue in Capernaum had a pot of manna carved on it. It was also ornamented with a flowing pattern of vine leaves and clusters of grapes, of which Jesus told so many parables about as He taught in the synagogue. This same synagogue was also filled with rich and elaborate carvings of cornices, columns and capitals, and niches.
From the Bible, it is known that the ruler of this same synagogue was Jairus. His cry of anguish and faith brought Jesus to his house to speak the life-giving “Talitha cumi” over his daughter who lay dead in the chamber, while the crowd was still outside along with the hired mourners. They were crying and mourning as Jesus was inside bringing the girl back to life.
Their internal arrangement seems to have been built upon the plan of the original Temple, or even the Tabernacle. The oldest known still standing synagogue is that of the Cyrenian Jews in the island of Gerbe. According to a missionary there called Dr. Ewald, that synagogue is modeled in three parts: after the model of the Court, the Holy, and the Most Holy Place. In all synagogues there is the body of the building itself, with the space around it set apart for the women, which represents the Court of Women of the old Temple. Then the innermost and highest place contains the rolls of the Law, which represents the Sanctuary itself. The synagogue also seems to have been adopted as the model for the very earliest Christian churches, hence the name “basilica”. Also, the very term “bema” is incorporated in Rabbinical language. This is only what might have been expected, since the earliest Christians were Jews by nationality. Heathenism could have offered no type of facilities, so it had to have been based on Jewish heritage.
It was deemed for a person as wrong to pray behind a synagogue without turning their face toward it. In antiquity there is told a story of Elijah appearing in the form of an Arab merchant and punishing a person who was guilty of doing this. It is said that he told the man – “Thou standest before thy Master as if there were two Powers (or Gods), and he drew his sword and killed him.”
It was also thought that a person must advance inside the synagogue the length of at least “two doors” before he could settle down to prayer. This was justified by a reference to Proverbs 8: 34 – “Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.” This inference is somewhat peculiar as taken from the above verse, but is certainly not more strange than many other sayings in the Talmud itself. On a preceding page it discusses the precise duration of the wrath of the Almighty, and concludes that Balaam had been the only person who knew it exactly, since it is written of him in Numbers 24: 16 that he “knew the thoughts of the Most High!”
Another thing written in the Talmud was that one should leave the synagogue with slow steps, but to go towards it as fast as possible. The Rabbis took the latter attitude from Hosea 6:3 – “Let us pursue to know the Lord.” Rabbi Seira wrote that at one time he had been scandalized by seeing the Rabbis running on the Sabbath to attend a sermon, because the Sabbath was a day of rest. Then he wrote that when he understood how Hosea 11:10 applied to the teaching of the Halachah, he himself joined in their race. The Rabbi concluded: “The reward of a discourse is the haste” with which people run to it – no matter, it would appear, whether they get in to hear it, or whether there is anything in the discourse worth the hearing.
Most of the time, the synagogues were built at the expense of the congregation, with some contributing more than others. Sometimes they were even erected at the cost of private individuals, which was supposed to involve special merit. Most of the time, though, when there was only a small number, they met in a large room at a private house that was set apart for the purpose. This must be where the phrase “Church in the house” comes from in the New Testament. It would definitely imply that a room in a private house had been set aside specifically for the purpose of Christians joining together in worship.
Rules of decorum in the synagogues were the same as those that been enforced in the Temple, and were applied to everyone who attended. Decency and cleanliness in dress, and quietness and reverence in demeanor were prescribed in the most minute of details and distinctions. Money collections were only to be made for the poor or for the redemption of captives. If the building had deteriorated to a dangerous condition, it could be torn down provided that another one was built as rapidly as possible in its place.
Even if the building was torn down, though, the sanctity of it remained and it could not be converted into a mourning place, used as a thoroughfare, ropes could not be hung up in it, nets could not be spread, nor fruits laid out for drying. It also could not be used for anything else that would not be considered as sanctified in its purposes.
Money collected for building a synagogue could be used for another purpose unless absolutely necessary, but if they had already bought beams, stones, etc., these could not be resold because they were regarded as dedicated. A town synagogue absolutely could not be disposed of, but those in villages could be disposed of under the direction of the local Sanhedrim. This was done provided that it was not afterwards to be used as a public bath, a wash-house, a tannery, or a pool. The money received from the sale was to be devoted to something more sacred than the mere stone and mortar of a synagogue – say, the ark in which the copies of the law were kept. The “oratories”, or “Places where prayer was wont to be made” talked about in Acts 16:13, were not the same thing as the synagogues. They were generally placed outside the towns in the vicinity of running water or the sea. This was because of the customs they had that were connected with prayer.
The separation of the sexes was observed even in the Temple at the time of Christ. It was strictly carried out in the synagogues with a petition that was boarded off and provided with doors to which there was separate access. This practice seems to be just more in alignment with Eastern manners and modes of thinking. The Rabbis, though, had to have some kind of Scripture authority for everything that they did, however trivial a trail it might be. In this case they found a few small crumbs in Zechariah 12: 11-14 where the “wives” are no less than five times spoken of as “apart”, while engaged in their prayerful mourning.
The synagogue was so placed that when the worshippers entered it they were facing Jerusalem. At one end of it rose a platform for the Rabbi or teacher to speak from. Those who were called up to it for reading ascended by the side nearest, and descended by that most remote from their seats in the synagogue. On this platform, or “bima”, stood the pulpit, or lectern. From here the prescribed portions of the law and prophets were read, and messages delivered. The reader stood and the preacher sat. Thus we find in Luke 4:20 that after Jesus read a portion from the prophet Isaiah, He “closed the book, and He gave it again to the minister, and sat down”, before delivering His discourse in the synagogue of Nazareth.
Prayer was also offered standing, unless they were in the Temple itself. There they prayed while prostrating themselves. Just as we have already talked about the synagogue being built on the model of the tabernacle and temple, the “bima” was placed in front of “the ark”. In reality the “ark” consisted of a press or chest, in which the rolls of the law were deposited and kept for safety. It was made so that it could be moved, and was brought out of the synagogue on occasions of public fasting and prayer, in order to have it placed in the street or market-place where the people gathered. Sometimes there was also a second chest for the rolls of the prophets, in which the disused or damaged rolls of the law were likewise deposited. In front of the “ark” hung the “vilon”, or veil, that was placed in imitation of that before the Holy Place.
Above all this was suspended the ever-burning lamp, “ner olam”, and near to that stood the eight-branched candlestick. It was lit during the eight days of the feast of the dedication of the Temple. It is thought that at the time of Jesus, the candlestick was only used for special occasions and not kept continuously lit as it had been in the Tabernacle.
There is also no way that we can know the various processes they went through to copy out the synagogue-rolls that embodied the five books of Moses, or what details would be in them that would render them useless. There are twenty different things that are mentioned by the Rabbis.
At the present time, the vellum on which the Pentateuch is written is affixed to two rollers. As each portion of the law is read, it is unrolled from the right and rolled on to the left roller. The roll itself is fastened together by linen wrappers or cloths and then placed in a case.
It should also be noted that at first the people probably stood in the synagogues or sat on the ground. As the services became more popular, though, they provided sitting accommodations. The congregation sat facing the ark. The Rabbis, distinguished Pharisees, and others who sought the honor of men, claimed the “chief seats”, which were placed with their backs to the ark and faced the worshippers. These seats bear the same name as in the New Testament and were made objects of special ambition. Rank, dignity, or seniority entitled a Rabbi or other influential man to bump others out so that he could sit there.
Jesus referred expressly to this in Matthew 23:6 as one of the characteristic manifestations of Pharisee pride. Some of this same spirit and practice had also crept into some of the early churches, as James warned the people against an un-Christ-like “respect of persons”, which would assign a place high up in synagogues of Christians to the mere possession of “goodly apparel” or the wearing of the “gold ring.”