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Question #99

What is the origin of the synagogue?

What is the origin of the synagogue? Are synagogues mentioned in the Old Testament?

The Answer:

The term synagogue refers to an assembly or congregation of Jews for the purpose of worship and study (Acts 13:43 – “congregation” (KJV) is from the Greek word for synagogue), or the building in which such an assembly me (Luke 7:5). James uses the same word to refer to a Christian assembly (James 2:2, KJV).In America, the term is generally not used for Reform congregations which prefer the term “temple.”

Although the tabernacle and the temple were built according to God’s instructions and were the place of His presence, the synagogue is generally considered the most central and the most enduring Jewish institution. Yet its origin is shrouded in mystery. The synagogue is not mentioned in the Pentateuch. First-century literary sources, including the New Testament, indicate that synagogues flourished beginning with the dispersion of the Jews in Babylon and in Galilee. Rabbinic sources connect the origin of the synagogue and many of its practices with Moses and Ezra. Rabbinic tradition also attributes special innovations to Ezra and the “Men of the Great Synagogue.”

Three different eras have been suggested by modern scholars for the origin of the synagogue: preexilic, exilic, and post exilic. Preexilic is assumed by the rabies, while at the same time recognizing that some important contributions were made as the result of Ezra’s work in the postexilic period. Some connect the emergence of the synagogue with the Deuteronomic reforms (great religious reformation instituted in the reign of King Josiah of Judah (c. 640–609 BC, so called because the book of the Law found in the Temple of Jerusalem (c. 622 BC), which was the basis of the reform, is considered by scholars to be the same as the law code in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 12–26), which demolished sanctuaries across the land and created a new need for worship patterns away from Jerusalem. Some Biblical references, “meeting places of God” (Psalm 74:8; AV “synagogues of God” and “the house of the people” Jeremiah 39:8, are considered cryptic references to the incipient institution.

Most scholars support the theory that the synagogue originated in exile and in Babylonia. They surmise that it began as spontaneous gatherings of Jews for Sabbaths and festivals, for communal worship and for mutual support. The synagogue owes its formation to these gatherings of the exiles. There are several references in Ezekiel that are taken to refer to synagogue meetings, but they have other explanations as well that are in fact more likely. In Babylonia there was a tradition that the synagogue Shab we-Yatib in Nehardea had been established by the exiles who accompanied Jehoiakin.

More recently growing attention has been given to a postexilic date for the synagogue as a Pharisaic parallel to temple worship. When the Jews returned from Babylon they proceeded to rebuild the temple. They may have needed encouragement to complete the task (cf. Hag. 2:1-9), but there is no suggestion that the synagogue had replaced the temple. In fact, there is no mention of a synagogue in Ezra, Nehemiah, or the postexilic Prophets. But when references to the synagogue did appear (certainly by the 1st century A.D.), it was already well established. Therefore, its roots must have gone back either to the Exile or to the beginning of the Second Temple period.

Sacrifices could not be offered on foreign soil, which was considered unclean, hence prayer became a substitute. The postexilic prophets and profane sources all testify to the development of prayer in the early Second Temple period. In fact, the rabbis came to believe that prayer was greater than all the sacrifices. According to the Talmud, the Amidah, Kiddush, and Havdalah were composed by Ezra and the Men of the Great Synagogue. It is reasonable to assume that a “house of prayer” was serving as a substitute for or in addition to the temple. There is abundant literary evidence of the synagogue from the first century on. The Talmud gives the number of synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple at 480. It has been estimated that approximately four million Jews of the Dispersion had more than a thousand synagogues by the time the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.

Synagogue buildings, like synagogue worship, took time to evolve into the standardized form that became normative. The process itself is not clearly recorded. The earliest surviving synagogues in Palestine are the first-century structures in Masada, Herodion, Magdala, and Gamla. In both Masada and Herodion, structures originally built for other purposes were converted into synagogues by later occupants of the sites. Only the Theodotus inscription remains from an earlier period. The Greek stone inscription, found near Jerusalem and dated 1st century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., states, “Theodotus . . . son of the head of the synagogue grandson of the head of the synagogue built the synagogue for the reading of the law and teaching of the commandments . . . . Most ancient synagogue buildings in the Holy Land, of which archeology has identified more than a hundred, belong to the 3rd century and later. Some of the important ones are at Gush Halav, Hammath-Tiberias, and Capernaum.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)