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The Background to the New Testament #15

The Synagogue and its Structure

                    BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TESTAMENT #15

From the book "Sketches of Jewish Social Life" by Alfred


     IT was a beautiful saying of Rabbi Jochanan (Jer. Ber. v.
i), that he who prays in his house surrounds and fortifies it, so
to speak, with a wall of iron. Nevertheless, it seems immediately
contradicted by what follows. For it is explained that this only
holds good where a man is alone, but that where there is a
community prayer should be offered in the synagogue. We can
readily understand how, after the destruction of the Temple, and
the cessation of its symbolical worship, the excessive value
attached to mere attendance at the synagogue would rapidly grow
in public estimation, till it exceeded all bounds of moderation
or reason. Thus, such Scriptural sayings as Isa. lxvi. 20;  Iv.
6, and Ps. lxxxii. 1 were applied to it. The Babylon Talmud goes
even farther. There we are told (Ber. 6 a), that the prayer which
a man addresses to God has only its proper effect if offered in
the synagogue; that if an individual, accustomed to frequent
every day the synagogue, misses it for once, God will demand an
account of him; that if the Eternal finds fewer than ten persons
there gathered, His anger is kindled, as it is written in Isa. 1.
2 (Ber. 6 b); that if a person has a synagogue in his own town,
and does not enter it for prayer, he is to be called an evil
neighbour, and provokes exile alike upon himself and his
children, as it is written in Jer. xii. ; while, on the other
hand, the practice of early resorting to the synagogue would
account for the longevity of people (Ber. 8 a). 
     Putting aside these extravagances, there cannot, however, be
doubt that, long before the Talmudical period, the institution of
synagogues had spread, not only among the Palestinian, but among
the Jews of the dispersion, and that it was felt a growing
necessity, alike from internal and external causes.

     Readers of the New Testament know, that at the time of our
Lord synagogues were dotted all over the land; that in them "from
of old " Moses had been read (Acts xv. 21); that they were under
the rule of certain authorities, who also exercised discipline;
that the services were definitely regulated, although
considerable liberty obtained, and that part of them consisted in
reading the prophets, which was generally followed by an
"exhortation" (Acts xiii. 15) or an address (Luke iv. I7). 


     The word "synagogue" is, of course, of Greek derivation, and
means "gathering together" - for religious purposes. The
corresponding Rabbinical terms, "chenisah," "cheneseth," etc.,
"zibbur," "vaad," and "kahal," may be generally characterised as
equivalents. But it is interesting to notice, that both the Old
Testament and the Rabbis have shades of distinction, well known
in modern theological discussions. To begin with the former.     

     Two terms are used for Israel as a congregation: "edah" and
"kahal;" of which the former seems to refer to Israel chiefly in
their outward organisation as a congregation - what moderns would
call the visible Church - while "kahal" rather indicates their
inner or spiritual connection. Even the LXX. seem to have seen
this distinction. The word "edah" occurs one hundred and thirty
times, and is always rendered in the LXX. by "synagogue," never
by "ecclesia" (church); while "kahal" is translated in seventy
places by "ecclesia," and only in thirty-seven by "synagogue."
     Similarly, the Mishnah employs the term "kahal" only to
denote Israel as a whole; while the term "zibbur," for example,
is used alike for churches and for the Church - that is, for
individual congregations, and for Israel as a whole.
     The origin of the synagogue is lost in the obscurity of
tradition. Of course, like so many other institutions, it is
traced by the Rabbis to the patriarchs. Thus, both the Targum
Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targum represent Jacob as an attendant
in the synagogue, and Rebekah as resorting thither for advice
when feeling within her the unnatural contest of her two sons.   
     There can be no occasion for seriously discussing such
statements. For when in 2 Kings xxii. 8 we read that "the book of
the law" was discovered by Shaphan the scribe in "the house of
the Lord," this implies that during the reign of King Josiah
there could have been no synagogues in the land, since it was
their main object to secure the weekly reading, and of course the
preservation, of the books of Moses (Acts xv. 21). Our Authorised
Version, indeed, renders Ps. lxxiv. 8, "They have burned up all
the synagogues of God in the land." But there is good authority
for questioning this translation; and, even if admitted, it would
not settle the question of the exact time when synagogues
originated. On the other hand, there is not a hint of
synagogue-worship either in the law or the prophets; and this of
itself would be decisive, considering the importance of the
subject. Besides, it may be said that there was no room for
such meetings under the Old Testament dispensation. There the
whole worship was typical - the sacrificial services alike
constituting the manner in which Israel approached unto God, and
being the way by which He communicated blessings to His people.  

     Gatherings for prayer and for fellowship with the Father
belong, so far as the Church as a whole is concerned, to the
dispensation of the Holy Spirit.   It is quite in accordance with
this general principle, that when men filled with the Spirit of
God were raised up from time to time, those who longed for deeper
knowledge and closer converse with the Lord should have gathered
around them on Sabbaths and new moons, as the pious Shunammite
resorted to Elisha (2 Kings iv. 23), and as others were no doubt
wont to do, if within reach of "prophets" or their disciples.    


     But quite a different state of matters ensued during the 
Babylonish captivity. Deprived of the Temple services, some kind
of religious meetings would become an absolute necessity, if the
people were not to lapse into practical heathenism - a danger,
indeed, which, despite the admonitions of the prophets, and the
prospect of deliverance held out, was not quite avoided. For the
preservation, also, of the national bond which connected Israel,
as well as for their continued religious existence, the
institution of synagogues seemed alike needful and desirable.    

     In point of fact, the attentive reader of the books of Ezra
and Nehemiah will discover in the period after the return from
Babylon the beginnings of the synagogue. Only quite rudimentary
as yet, and chiefly for the purposes of instructing those who had
come back ignorant and semiheathenish--still, they formed a
     Then came the time of terrible Syrian oppression and
persecutions, and of the Maccabean rising. We can understand, how
under such circumstances the institution of the synagogue would
develop, and gradually assume the proportions and the meaning
which it afterwards attained. For it must be borne in mind, that,
in proportion as the spiritual import of the Temple services was
lost to view, and Judaism became a matter of outward ordinances,
nice distinctions, and logical discussion, the synagogue would
grow in importance. 


     And so it came to pass, that at the time of Christ there was
not a foreign settlement of Jews without one or more synagogues -
that of Alexandria, of which both the Talmuds speak in such
exaggerated language, being specially gorgeous while throughout
Palestine they were thickly planted. It is to these latter only
that we can for the present direct attention.

     Not a town, nor a village, if it numbered only ten men, who
could or would wholly give themselves to Divine things, 1  but
had one or more synagogues. If it be asked, why the number ten
was thus fixed upon as the smallest that could form a
congregation, the reply is that, according to NUM. xiv. 27, the 
"evil congregation" consisted of the spies who had brought a bad
report, and whose number was ten - after deducting, of course,
Joshua and Caleb. Larger cities had several, some of them many,
synagogues. From Acts vi. 9 we know that such was the case in
Jerusalem, tradition having also left us an account of the
synagogue of "the Alexandrians," to which class of Jews Stephen
may have belonged by birth or education, on which ground also he
would chiefly address himself to them.  The Rabbis have it that,
at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, that city had not


1 The so-called "Batlanim." The exact meaning of the term has
given rise to much learned discussion.


than 480, or at least 450, synagogues.  Unless the number 480 was
fixed upon simply as the multiple of symbolical numbers (4 x 10 x
12), or with a kindred mystical purpose in view, it would, of
course, be a gross exaggeration. But, as a stranger entered a
town or village, it could never be difficult to find out the
synagogue. If it had not, like our churches, its spire, pointing
men, as it were, heavenward, the highest ground in the place was
at least selected for it, to symbolise that its engagements
overtopped all things else, and in remembrance of the prophetic
saying, that the Lord's house should "be established in the top
of the mountains," and "exalted above the hills" (Isa, ii. 2).   
     If such a situation could not be secured, it was sought to
place it "in the corners of streets," or at the entrance to the
chief squares, according to what was regarded as a significant
direction in Prov. i. 21. Possibly our Lord may have had this
also in view when He spoke of those who loved "to pray standing
in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets" (Matt. vi.
5), it being a very common practice at the time to offer prayer
on entering a synagogue. But if no prominent site could be
obtained, a pole should at least be attached to the roof, to
reach up beyond the highest house. A city whose synagogue was
lower than the other dwellings was regarded as in danger of


     Of the architecture of ordinary synagogues, not only the
oldest still in existence, but the recent excavations in
Palestine, enable us to form a correct idea. Internally they were
simply rectangular or round buildings, with a single or double
colonnade, and more or less adorned by carvings. Externally they
had generally some sacred symbol carved on the lintels - commonly
the seven-branched candlestick, or perhaps the pot of manna. 1
     There is one remarkable instance of the use of the latter
emblem, too important to be passed over. 2 
     In Capernaum, our Lord's "own city" (Matthew ix. 1), there
was but one synagogue - that built at the cost of the pious
centurion. For, although our Authorised Version renders the
commendation of the Jewish elders, "He loveth our nation, and has
built us a synagogue" (Luke vii. 5), in the original the article
is definite: "he hath built us the synagogue " - just as in a
similar manner we infer that Nazareth had only one synagogue
(Matt. xiii. 54). The site of the ancient Capernaum had till
comparatively recently been unknown. But its identification with
the modern Tell Hum is now so satisfactory, that few would care
to question it. What is even more interesting, the very ruins of
that synagogue which the good centurion built have been brought
to light; and, as if to make doubt impossible, its architecture
is evidently that of the Herodian period. And here comes in the
incidental but complete confirmation of the gospel narrative. We
remember how, before, the Lord Jesus had by His word of blessing
multiplied the scanty provision, brought, it might be
accidentally, by


1 "Of the tabernacle in which the ark rested at Shiloh, from the
time of Joshua to that of Samuel, no trace, of course, remains.
But on the summit of a little knoll we find the remains of what
was once a Jewish synagogue, afterwards used as a church, and
subsequently as a mosque. On the lintel over the doorway, between
two wreaths of flowers, is carved a vessel, shaped like a Roman
amphora. It so closely resembles the conventional type of the 
'pot of manna,' as found on coins and in the ruins of the
synagogue at Capernaum, that it doubtless formed part of the
original building. It is a not improbable conjecture that the
synagogue may have been erected on the sacred spot which for so
many generations formed the centre of Jewish worship." - "Those
Holy Fields."
2 Pointed out by Canon Williarns, the learned author of "The Holy
City. See The Bible, as Illustrated by Modern Science and Travel;
Papers read before the Church Congress at Dublin" (1868), pp.31


a lad in the company of those five thousand who had thronged to
hear Him, so that there was not only sufficient for their wants,
but enough for each of the twelve apostles to fill his basket
with the fragments of what the Saviour had dispensed.  That day
of miraculous provision had been followed by a night of equally
wondrous deliverance. His disciples were crossing the lake, now
tossed by one of those sudden storms which so frequently sweep
down upon it from the mountains. All at once, in their
perplexity, it was the Master whom they saw, walking on the sea,
and nearing the ship. As the light of the moon fell upon that
well-known form, and, as He drew nigh, cast His shadow in
increasing proportions upon the waters which, obedient, bore His
feet, they feared. It was a marvellous vision - too marvellous
almost to believe it a reality, and too awful to bear it, if
a reality. And so they seem to have hesitated about receiving Him
into the ship. 1  But His presence and voice soon reassured them,
and "immediately the ship was at the land."  That "land" was the
seashore of Capernaum. The next morning broke with the usual calm
and beauty of spring on the lake. Presently white sails were
spreading over its tranquil waters; marking the approach of many
from the other side, who, missing "the Prophet," whom, with the
characteristic enthusiasm of the inhabitants of that district,
they would fain have made a king, now followed Him across the
water. There could be no difficulty in "finding Him" in "His own
city," the home of Peter and Andrew (Mark i. 21,29).   But no
ordinary dwelling would have held such a concourse as now
thronged around Him. So, we imagine, the


1 Such, at least, is the impression conveyed to my mind by John
vi. 21, as compared with vers. 19 and 20.


multitude made their way towards the synagogue. On the road, we
suppose, the question and answers passed, of which we have an
account in John vi. 25-28. They had now reached the entrance to
the synagogue; and the following discourse was pronounced by the
Lord in the synagogue itself, as we are expressly told in ver.59:
"These things said He in the synagogue, as He taught in
     But what is so remarkable is, that the very lintel of this
synagogue has been found, and that the device upon it bears such
close reference to the question which the Jews put to Jesus, that
we can almost imagine them pointing up to it, 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     
vi.31). For, in the words of Canon Williams, "The lintel lying
among the ruins of the good centurion's synagogue at Capernaum
has carved on it the device of the pot of manna. What is further
remarkable, this lintel is ornamented besides with a flowing
pattern of vine leaves and clusters of grapes, another emblem of
the mystery of which our Lord discoursed so largely in this

     Before parting from this most interesting subject, we may
place beside the Master, as it were, the two representatives of
His Church, a Gentile and a Jew, both connected with this
synagogue. Of its builder, the good centurion, Canon Williams
thus writes: "In what spirit the large-hearted Roman soldier had
made his offering, the rich and elaborate carvings of cornices
and entablatures, of columns and capitals, and niches, still
attest."  As for the ruler of that same synagogue, we know that
it was Jairus, whose cry of anguish and of faith brought Jesus to
his house to speak the life-giving "Talitha cumi" over the one
only daughter, just bursting into womanhood, who lay dead in that
chamber, while the crowd outside and the hired minstrels made
shrill, discordant mourning.


     Thus far as to the external appearance of synagogues. Their
internal arrangement appears to have been originally upon the
plan of the Temple, or, perhaps, even of the Tabernacle. At
least, the oldest still standing synagogue, that of the Cyrenian
Jews, in the island of Gerbe, is, according to the description of
a missionary, Dr.Ewald, tripartite, after the model of the Court,
the Holy, and the Most Holy Place. And in all synagogues the body
of the building, with the space around, set apart for women,
represents the Court of the Women, while the innermost and
highest place, with the Ark behind, containing the rolls of the
law, represents the sanctuary itself. In turn the synagogue seems
to have been adopted as the model for the earliest Christian
churches. Hence not only the structure of the "basilica," but the
very term "bema," is incorporated in Rabbinical language. 1 
     This is only what might have been expected, considering that
the earliest Christians were Jews by nationality, and that
heathenism could offer no type for Christian worship. To return. 


     As concerned the worshippers, it was deemed wrong to pray
behind a synagogue without turning the face to it; and a story is
told (Ber. 6 b) of Elijah appearing in the form of an Arab
merchant, and punishing one guilty of this sin. "Thou standest
before thy Master as if there were two Powers [or Gods]," said
the seeming Arab; and with these words "he drew his sword and
killed him." A still more curious idea prevailed, that it was
requisite to advance the length of at 


1 This subject is fully discussed in Vitringa, "Synag." pp.


least "two doors" within a synagogue before settling to prayer,
which was justified by a reference to Prov. viii. 34 (Ber. 8 a).
The inference is peculiar, but not more so, perhaps, than those
of some modern critics, and certainly not more strange than that
of the Talmud itself, which, on a preceding page, when discussing
the precise duration of the wrath of the Almighty, concludes that
Balaam had been the only person who knew it exactly, since it is
written of him (Numb. xxiv. 16), that he "knew the thoughts of
the Most High!" Another direction of the Talmud was to leave the
synagogue with slow steps, but to hasten to it as rapidly as
possible, since it was written (Hos. vi. 3, as the Rabbis
arranged the verse), "Let us pursue to know the Lord." Rabbi
Seira tells us how, at one time, he had been scandalised by
seeing the Rabbis running on the Sabbath - when bodily rest was
enjoined - to attend a sermon; but that, when he understood how
Hos. xi. 10 applied to the teaching of the Halachah, he himself
joined in their race. And so Rabbi Seira, as it seems to us,
somewhat caustically concludes: "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.


     As a rule, synagogues were built at the expense of the
congregation, though perhaps assisted by richer neighbours.
Sometimes, as we know, they were erected at the cost of private
individuals, which was supposed to involve special merit. In
other cases, more particularly when the number of Jews was small,
a large room in a private house was set apart for the purpose.   
This also passed into the early Church, as we gather from Acts
ii. 46; v 42.  Accordingly we understand the apostolic
expression, "Church in the house " (Rom. xvi. 3,5; 1 Cor. xvi.
19; Col. iv. 15; Philemon 2), as implying that in all these and
other instances a room in a private house had been set apart, in
which the Christians regularly assembled for their worship.


     Synagogues were consecrated by prayer, although, even thus,
the ceremony was not deemed completed till after the ordinary
prayers had been offered by some one, though it were a passing
stranger. Rules of decorum, analogous to those enforced in the
Temple, were enjoined on those who attended the synagogue.  
Decency and cleanliness in dress, quietness and reverence in
demeanour, are prescribed with almost wearisome details and
distinctions. Money collections were only to be made for the poor
or for the redemption of captives. If the building were in a
dangerous condition, the synagogue might be broken down, provided
another were built as rapidly as possible in its place. But even
so, the sanctity of the place remained, and synagogue ruins might
not be converted into mourning places, nor used as thoroughfares,
nor might ropes be hung up in them, nor nets spread, nor fruits
laid out for drying. The principle of sanctity applied, of
course, to all analogous uses to which such ruins might have been
put. Money collected for building a synagogue might, if absolute
necessity arose, be employed by the congregation for other
purposes; but if stones, beams, etc., had been purchased for the
building, these could not be resold, but were regarded as
dedicated. A town synagogue was considered absolutely
inalienable; those in villages might be disposed of under the
direction of the local Sanhedrim, provided the locale were not
afterwards to be used as a public bath, a wash-house, a tannery,
or a pool. The money realised 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. 


     Different from synagogues, though devoted to kindred
purposes, were the so-called "oratories" or "places where prayer
was wont to be made" (Acts xvi. 13). These were generally placed
outside towns and in the vicinity of running water or of the sea
(Jos. Ant. xiv. 10, 23), for the purpose of the customary
lustrations connected with prayer (Philo. ii. 535). 


     The separation of the sexes, which was observed even in
Temple at the time of Christ, was strictly carried out the
synagogues, such division being made effectual by a partition,
boarded off and provided with gratings, to there was separate
access. The practise seems simply in accordance with Eastern
manners and modes of thinking. But the Rabbis, who seek Scripture
authority for every arrangement, however trivial, find in this
case their warrant in Zech. xii. 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, on entering it, the
worshippers would face towards Jerusalem - mere "orientation," as
it is now called, having no meaning in Jewish worship. 


     Beyond the middle of the synagogue rose the platform or
"bima," as it was anciently, or "almmeor," as it is presently
named. 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 "bima" stood the pulpit, or rather
lectern, the "migdal ez," "wooden tower" of Neh. viii. 4, whence
the prescribed portions of the law and of the prophets were read,
and addresses delivered. The reader stood; the preacher sat. Thus
we find (Luke iv. 20) that, after reading a portion from the
prophet Isaiah, our Lord "closed the book, and He gave it again
to the minister, and sat down," before delivering His discourse
in the synagogue of Nazareth. Prayer also was offered standing,
although in the Temple the worshippers prostrated themselves, a
practice still continued in certain of the most solemn litanies. 


     The pulpit or lectern "migdal" (tower), "chisse" and
"churseja" (chair or throne), or "pergulah" (the Latin "pergula,"
probably elevation) stood in the middle of the "bima," and in
front of "the ark." The latter, which occupied the innermost
place in the synagogue, as already noticed, corresponded to the
Most Holy Place in the Temple, and formed the most important
part. It was called the "aron" (ark), the "tevah," or "tevutha"
(chest, like that in which Noah and Moses were saved), or the
"hechal" (little temple). In reality, it consisted of a press or
chest, in which the rolls of the law were deposited. This "ark "
was made movable (Taan. ii. 1,2), so as to lift out 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 press 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" ("velum," veil), in
imitation of that before the Holy Place. Above it was suspended
the "ner olam," or ever-burning lamp, and near to it stood the
eight-branched candlestick, lit during the eight days of the
feast of the dedication of the Temple (John x. 22), or Candlemas.


     The practice of lighting candles and lamps, not merely for
use, but in honour of the day or feast, is not unknown in the
synagogues. Of course, in regard to this, as to other practices,
it is impossible to determine what was the exact custom at the
time of our Lord, although the reader may be able to infer how
much and what special practices may have been gradually


     It would lead beyond our present scope to describe the
various directions to be observed in copying out the
synagogue-rolls, which embodied the five books of Moses, or to
detail what would render them unfit for use. No less than twenty
such causes are mentioned by the Rabbis. At present the vellum,
on which the Pentateuch is written, is affixed to two rollers,
and as each portion of the law is read it is unrolled from the
right, and rolled on to the left roller. The roll itself was
fastened together by linen wrappers or cloths ("mitpachoth"), and
then placed in a "case" ("tik," the Greek "theke"). All these
articles are already mentioned in the Mishnah. Later practices
need not here occupy our attention. 


     Lastly, it should be noted, that at first the people
probably stood in the synagogues or sat on the ground. But as the
services became more protracted, sitting accommodation had to be
provided. The congregation sat facing the ark. On the other hand,
"the rulers of the synagogue," Rabbis, distinguished Pharisees,
and others, who sought honour of men, claimed "the chief seats,"
which were placed with their backs to the ark, and facing the
worshippers. These seats, which bear the same name as in the New
Testament, were made objects of special ambition (Matt. xxiii.
6), and rank, dignity, or seniority entitled a Rabbi or other
influential man to priority. Our Lord expressly refers to this
(Matt. xxiii. 6) as one of the characteristic manifestations of
Pharisaical pride. That both the same spirit and practice had
crept into some of the early churches, appears from the warning
of St.James (Jas. ii. 2,3) against an un-Christlike "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." Hitherto we have chiefly described
the outward arrangements of synagogues. It will now be necessary,
however rapidly in this place, to sketch their various uses,
their worship, and their officials, most of which are also
referred to in various parts of the New Testament.


To be continued

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