1. History.—The word synagogue (συναγωγή), which means a “congregation,” is used in the New Testament to signify a recognized place of worship. A knowledge of the history and worship of the synagogues is of great importance, since they are the characteristic institution of the later phase of Judaism. They appear to have arisen during the exile, in the abeyance of the temple-worship, and to have received their full development on the return of the Jews from captivity. The whole history of Ezra presupposes the habit of solemn, probably of periodic, meetings. Ezra 8:15; Neh. 8:2; 9:1; Zech. 7:5. After the Maccabæan struggle for independence, we find almost every town or village had its one or more synagogues. Where the Jews were not in sufficient numbers to be able to erect and fill a building, there was the proseucha (προσευξή), or place of prayer, sometimes open, sometimes covered in, commonly by a running stream or on the seashore, in which devout Jews and proselytes met to worship, and perhaps to read. Acts 16:13; Juven. Sat. iii. 296. It is hardly possible to overestimate the influence of the system thus developed. To it we may ascribe the tenacity with which, after the Maccabæan struggle, the Jews adhered to the religion of their fathers, and never again relapsed into idolatry.
Ruined Synagogue at Merion.—Site of Capernaum. (From a Photograph.)
2. Structure.—The size of a synagogue varied with the population. Its position was, however, determinate. It stood, if possible, on the highest ground, in or near the city to which it belonged. And its direction too was fixed. Jerusalem was the Kibleh of Jewish devotion. The synagogue was so constructed that the worshippers, as they entered and as they prayed, looked toward it. The building was commonly erected at the cost of the district. Sometimes it was built by a rich Jew, or even, as in Luke 7:5, by a friendly proselyte. In the internal arrangement of the synagogue we trace an obvious analogy to the type of the tabernacle. At the upper or Jerusalem end stood the ark, the chest which, like the older and more sacred ark, contained the Book of the Law. It gave to that end the name and character of a sanctuary. This part of the synagogue was naturally the place of honor. Here were the “chief seats,” for which Pharisees and scribes strove so eagerly, Matt. 23:6, and to which the wealthy and honored worshipper was invited. James 2:2–3. Here, too, in front of the ark, still reproducing the type of the tabernacle, was the eight-branched lamp, lighted only on the greater festivals. Besides this there was one lamp kept burning perpetually. More toward the middle of the building was a raised platform, on which several persons could stand at once, and in the middle of this rose a pulpit, in which the reader stood to read the lesson or sat down to teach. The congregation were divided, men on one side, women on the other, a low partition, five or six feet high, running between them. The arrangements of modern synagogues, for many centuries, have made the separation more complete by placing the women in low side-galleries, screened off by lattice-work.
Ruins of a Jewish Synagogue.
3. Officers.—In smaller towns there was often but one rabbi. Where a fuller organization was possible, there was a college of elders, Luke 7:3, presided over by one who was “the chief of the synagogue.” Luke 8:41, 49; 13:14; Acts 18:8, 17. The most prominent functionary in a large synagogue was known as the sheltı̂ach (= legatus), the officiating minister who acted as the delegate of the congregation, and was therefore the chief reader of prayers, etc., in their name. The chazzân or “minister” of the synagogue, Luke 4:20, had duties of a lower kind, resembling those of the Christian deacon or sub-deacon. He was to open the doors and to prepare the building for service. Besides these there were ten men attached to every synagogue, known as the batlanim (= otiosi). They were supposed to be men of leisure, not obliged to labor for their livelihood, able therefore to attend the week-day as well as the Sabbath services. The legatus of the synagogues appears in the angel, Rev. 1:20; 2:1, perhaps also in the apostle of the Christian Church.
4. Worship.—It will be enough, in this place, to notice in what way the ritual, no less than the organization, was connected with the facts of the New Testament history, and with the life and order of the Christian Church. From the synagogue came the use of fixed forms of prayer. To that the first disciples had been accustomed from their youth. They had asked their Master to give them a distinctive one, and he had complied with their request, Luke 11:1, as the Baptist had done before for his disciples, as every rabbi did for his. “Moses,” was “read in the synagogues every Sabbath day,” Acts 15:21, the whole law being read consecutively, so as to be completed, according to one cycle, in three years. The writings of the prophets were read as second lessons in a corresponding order. They were followed by the derash, Acts 13:15, the exposition, the sermon of the synagogue. The conformity extends also to the times of prayer. In the hours of service this was obviously the case. The third, sixth, and ninth hours were in the times of the New Testament, Acts 3:1; 10:3, 9, and had been probably for some time before, Ps. 55:17; Dan. 6:10, the fixed times of devotion. The same hours, it is well known, were recognized in the Church of the second century, probably in that of the first also. The solemn days of the synagogue were the second, the fifth, and the seventh, the last or Sabbath being the conclusion of the whole. The transfer of the sanctity of the Sabbath to the Lord’s day involved a corresponding change in the order of the week, and the first, the fourth, and the sixth became to the Christian socity what the other days had been to the Jewish. From the synagogue, lastly, come many less conspicuous practices, which meet us in the liturgical life of the first three centuries: Ablution, entire or partial, before entering the place of meeting, John 13:1–15; Heb. 10:22; standing, and not kneeling, as the attitude of prayer, Luke 18:11; the arms stretched out; the face turned toward the Kibleh of the east; the responsive amen of the congregation to the prayers and benedictions of the elders. 1 Cor. 14:16.
5. Judicial functions.—The language of the New Testament shows that the officers of the synagogue exercised in certain cases a judicial power. It is not quite so easy, however, to define the nature of the tribunal and the precise limits of its jurisdiction. In two of the passages referred to—Matt. 10:17; Mark 13:9—they are carefully distinguished from the councils. It seems probable that the council was the larger tribunal of twenty-three, which sat in every city, and that under the term synagogue we are to understand a smaller court, probably that of the ten judges mentioned in the Talmud. Here also we trace the outline of a Christian institution. The Church, either by itself or by appointed delegates, was to act as a court of arbitration in all disputes among its members. The elders of the church were not, however, to descend to the trivial disputes of daily life. For the elders, as for those of the synagogue, were reserved the graver offences against religion and morals.