ANCIENT SYNAGOGUE LIFE


SYNAGOGUE RITUALS AND CUSTOMS

After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, many Temple rituals were incorporated into synagogue activities. Daily services and prayers have traditionally been held at the same times that animal sacrifices were performed at The Temple.

Services and prayers are held everyday, but many members only visit the synagogue on the Sabbath as Christians do with their local church. The liturgical services are often led by laymen. A full service can not take place without a miryan , a group of ten men. It is said that God becomes angry if he visits a synagogue and a minyan is not present. Worshipers are required to keep their heads covered during the service. Men usually wear yarmulkes.

Services have traditionally been centered around readings of the scrolls. When the Torah is read the handles are held upright with both hands so that text of the Torah faces the reader. During a synagogue service, everyone stands when the Torah is taken out of the ark. When the Torah scrolls are ceremoniously lifted the congregation declares: “This is the Law which Moses set before children of Israel." Sephardic Jews have traditionally raised the Torah before it is read while Eastern European Jews raised it after a reading. See Torah Care and Customs.

A flame on a candle or altar lamp is left continually burning in a synagogue to indicate God's constant presence and as reminder of the golden candlestick that continually burned in The Temple in Jerusalem.

Ancient Synagogues in Galilee

Josephus wrote in Vita 276ff in the A.D. 1st Century: “All along the road from Tarichaeae to Tiberias I posted a number of others to pass down the line to me any information obtained from those in the town. The next day there was a general assembly in the synagogue, a huge building, capable of accommodating a large crowd. Jonathan, who entered with the rest, while not venturing to speak openly of defection, said that their city required a better general. Jesus, the magistrate, however, had no such scruple and said bluntly, "Citizens, it is better for us to take our orders from four men than from one, men, too, of illustrious birth and intellectual distinction," indicating Jonathan and his colleagues. Justus next come forward, and, by his approval of the previous speaker, aided in converting some of the people to this views. The majority, however, were not convinced by these speeches, and a riot would inevitably have ensued, had not the arrival of the sixth hour, at which it is our custom on the Sabbath to take our midday meal, broken off the meeting. Jonathan and his friends, accordingly, adjourned the council to the following day and retired without effecting their object.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org , Binder is Rector of Historic Pohick Church, colonial parish of George Washington and George Mason, near Mt. Vernon, Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from SMU (1997) and has written extensively on the topic of Second Temple period synagogues ^^^]


Magdala synagogue

Dr. Donald D. Binder writes: “This is the first part of Josephus' account of the activities within a synagogue in Tiberias (Galilee) at the beginning of the Jewish War (67 CE). Here, several of Josephus' rivals try to convince the Tiberians that Josephus, who was in charge of the war-effort in Galilee, was not fit for command. A measure of the size of this "huge building" can be determined from the fact that Josephus subsequently writes that the "entire city council (boulê) and a crowd of the populace (dêmos)" gathered inside it (Vita 284). The Tiberian council alone had 600 members (BJ 2.641). The above passage demonstrates that not only religious activities but also political discussions could take place within the sabbath synagogue gatherings. This underscores the close relationship between religion and politics within the Second Temple period.” ^^^

According to Mark 1:21-29: “They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching - with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.”

Luke 7:1-5 says: “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us".” John 6:59 sys: “[Jesus] said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.” ^^^

Binder writes: “These three passages provide triple independent attestation for a synagogue at Capernaum--the remains of which have been found beneath a synagogue built in the fourth century. Note that the Lucan passage is probably a portion of the Q source omitted by Matthew (who usually drops or recrafts passages reflecting a positive relationship between Jesus and Jewish authorities), while the segment from John is likely an early tradition retained to frame a discourse written in a typical Johannine style.” ^^^

Josephus wrote in BJ 7.139–152: “But nothing in the procession excited so much astonishment as the structure of the moving stages; indeed, their massiveness afforded ground for alarm and misgiving as to their stability, many of them being three or four stories high, while the magnificence of the fabric was a source at once of delight and amazement. For many were enveloped in tapestries interwoven with gold, and all had a framework of gold and wrought ivory. The war was shown by numerous representations, in separate sections, affording a very vivid picture of its episodes. Here was to be seen a prosperous country devastated, there whole battalions of the enemy slaughtered; here a party in flight, there others led into captivity; walls of surpassing compass demolished by engines, strong fortresses overpowered, cities with well-manned defenses completely mastered and an army pouring within the ramparts, an area all deluged with blood, the hands of those incapable of resistance raised in supplication, temples set on fire, houses pulled down over their owners’ heads, and, after general desolation and woe, rivers flowing, not over a cultivated land, nor supplying drink to man and beast, but across a country still on every side in flames.

“For to such sufferings were the Jews destined when they plunged into the war; and the art and magnificent workmanship of these structures now portrayed the incidents to those who had not witnessed them, as though they were happening before their eyes. On each of the stages was stationed the general of one of the captured cities in the attitude in which he was taken. A number of ships also followed. The spoils in general were borne in promiscuous heaps; but conspicuous above all stood out those captured in the temple at Jerusalem. These consisted of a golden table, many talents in weight, and a lampstand, likewise made of gold, but constructed on a different pattern from those which we use in ordinary life. Affixed to a pedestal was a central shaft, from which there extended slender branches, arranged trident-fashion, a wrought lamp being attached to the extremity of each branch; of these there were seven, indicated the honour paid to that number among the Jews. After these, and last of all the spoils, was carried a copy of the Jewish Law.” ^^^

Binder writes: “This is Josephus' description of the Roman triumph (essentially a victory parade with public spectacles) following the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE. Most synagogue scholars undertand the allusion to the demolished "temples" (hiera) depicted in the parade as a reference to Jewish synagogues ravaged during the course of the war. “Because the triumph seems to have progressed chronologically, the synagogue representations probably correspond to the first part of the war, which took place in Galilee.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogues in Judea and Jerusalem


ancient synagogue in Kanatir

Josephus wrote in BJ 2.285–305 in the A.D. 1st Century: “The Jews in Caesarea had a synagogue adjoining a plot of ground owned by a Greek of that city; this site they had frequently endeavoured to purchase, offering a price far exceeding its true value. The proprietor, disdaining their solicitations, by way of insult further proceeded to build upon the site and erect workshops, leaving the Jews only a narrow and extremely awkward passage. Thereupon, some of the hot-headed youths proceeded to set upon the builders and attempted to interrupt operations. Florus having put a stop to their violence, the Jewish notables, with John the tax-collector, having no other expedient, offered Florus eight talents of silver to procure the cessation of the work. Florus, with his eye only on the money, promised them every assistance, but, having secured his pay, at once quitted Caesarea for Sebaste, leaving a free field to sedition, as though he had sold the Jews a license to fight the matter out. [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

“On the following day, which was a sabbath, when the Jews assembled at the synagogue, they found that one of the Caesarean mischief-makers had placed beside the entrance a pot, turned bottom upwards, upon which he was sacrificing birds. This spectacle of what they considered an outrage upon their laws and a desecration of the spot enraged the Jews beyond endurance. The steady-going and peaceable members of the congregation were in favour of immediate recourse to the authorities; but the factious folk and the passionate youth were burning for a fight. The Caesarean party, on their side, stood prepared for action, for they had, by a concerted plan, sent the man on to the mock sacrifice; and so they soon came to blows. Jucundus, the calvary commander commissioned to intervene, came up, removed the pot and endeavoured to quell the riot, but was unable to cope with the violence of the Caesareans. The Jews, thereupon, snatched up their copy of the Law and withdrew to Narbata, a Jewish district sixty furlongs distant from Caesarea.”

Binder writes: “Josephus records here a dispute arising just prior to the outbreak of the Jewish War (c. 65) between the members of a synagogue in Caesarea Maritima and a Greek owning an adjoining plot of land. Of particular interest is the fact that the bribe of eight talents offered to Florus is equivalent in today's currency rates to about US $1,920,000. Even if this figure is exaggerated, the entire episode suggests that the Caesarea synagogue was a sacred, monumental building that could not easily be rebuilt elsewhere.” ^^^

Josephus wrote in BJ 4.406-409: “Throughout the other parts of Judaea, moreover, the predatory bands, hitherto quiescent, now began to bestir themselves. And as in the body when inflammation attacks the principal member all the members catch the infection, so the sedition and disorder in the capital gave the scoundrels in the country free license to plunder; and each gang after pillaging their own village made off into the wilderness. Then joining forces and swearing mutual allegiance, they would proceed by companies--smaller than an army but larger than a mere band of robbers--to fall upon temples and cities. The unfortunate victims of their attacks suffered the miseries of captives of war, but were deprived of the chance of retaliation, because their foes in robber fashion at once decamped with their prey. There was, in fact, no portion of Judaea which did not share in the ruin of the capital.” ^^^

Binder writes: “Josephus here describes Jewish bandits pillaging the Judean countryside during the course of the Jewish revolt. Most synagogue scholars take the allusion to the ravaged "temples" (hiera) as a reference to the looting of Judean synagogues. Other literary evidence indicates that synagogues frequently served as local treasuries, thus explaining why these structures would have been attractive targets for the outlaws.” ^^^

According to Josephus Apion said: “Moses, as I have heard from old people in Egypt, was a native of Heliopolis, who, being pledged to the customs of his country, erected synagogues, open to the air, in the various precincts of the city, all facing eastwards; such being the orientation also of Heliopolis. In place of obelisks he set up pillars, beneath which was a model of a boat; and the shadow cast on this basin by the statue described a circle corresponding to the course of the sun in the heavens (Apion ap. Josephus, Ap. 2.10–11).” ^^^

Binder writes: “In this passage, Josephus quotes Apion, an anti-semitic Greek author who lived in the first half of the first century CE, as ascribing the erection of Jerusalem synagogues to Moses. While this is an anachronism, Apion apparently knew of synagogues in Jerusalem in his own day and used this knowledge to make his slur--a slur that may be a veiled reference to Onias' rival temple in Egypt.” ^^^

According to Acts 6:9: “Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.” Acts 24:11b–12 says: “ It is not more than twelve days since I [Paul] went up to worship in Jerusalem. They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city.” According to Acts 26:9–11: “ I myself was convinced that I [Paul] ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.” ^^^ ▪ Binder writes: “In these three places, Luke alludes to the existence of synagogues in Jerusalem. The synagogue of the freedmen, mentioned in the first citation, is sometimes speculatively identified with the synagogue of Theodotus. While the latter two citations are Lucan compositions, Luke, following standard rhetorical practices of the day, would have sought to present the trappings of these speeches as realistically as possible in order to persuade his readers.” ^^^

Ritual Purity in Ancient Synagogues


ritual bath in Maon synagogue

In Judaism, ritual purity has nothing to do with being “sinless” as sin is understood in the western Christian model. Ritual impurity is a temporary state, which ONLY meant you could not bring a sacrifice into the temple, which you noted was not a frequent occurrence; outright, if the people were going to the temple, many people would do a ritual purification that largely involves bathing oneself in a live body of water and possibly saying a blessing.

2 Macc 12:38 says: “When Judas assembled his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was coming on, they purified themselves according to the custom, and kept the sabbath there.” Binder writes: “This quotation attests the practice of ritual bathing in preparation for the sabbath from at least the first century BCE (when 2 Macc was written), a century earlier if the document is historically accurate on this point. [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Josephus wrote in Ant. 14.256–258: “Decree of the people of Halicarnassus. "In the priesthood of Memnon, son of Aristides and, by adoption, of Euonymus . . . of Anthesterion, the people passed the following decree on the motion of Marcus Alexander. Whereas at all times we have had a deep regard for piety toward the Deity and holiness, and following the example of the people of Rome, who are benefactors of all mankind, and in conformity with what they have written to our city concerning their friendship and alliance with the Jews, to the effect that their sacred services to God and their customary festivals and religious gatherings shall be carried on, we have also decreed that those Jewish men and women who so wish may observe their Sabbaths and perform their sacred rites in accordance with the Jewish laws, and may build synagogues near the sea, in accordance with their native custom. And if anyone, whether magistrate or private citizen, prevents them, he shall be liable to the following fine and owe it to the city".” ^^^

Binder writes: “This decree from Halicarnassus (western Turkey) dates to the first or second century BCE. The permission given the Jews to build a synagogue by the sea "in accordance with their native custom" is likely an allusion to the practice of ritual bathing before entry into a synagogue on the sabbath. All Second Temple synagogues hitherto discovered have either been located near a natural body of water or have had a ritual bath located close by.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Deus. 7–9: “For to whom should we make thank-offering save to God? and wherewithal save by what He has given us? for there is nothing else whereof we can have sufficiency. God needs nothing, yet in the exceeding greatness of His beneficence to our race He bids us bring what is His own. For if we cultivate the spirit of rendering thanks and honour to Him, we shall be pure from wrongdoing and wash away the filthiness which defiles our lives in thought and word and deed. For it is absurd that a man should be forbidden to enter the temples save after bathing and cleansing his body, and yet should attempt to pray and sacrifice with a heart still soiled and spotted. The temples are made of stones and timber, that is of soulless matter, and soulless too is the body in itself. And can it be that while it is forbidden to this soulless body to touch the soulless stones, except it have first been subjected to lustral and purificatory consecration, a man will not shrink from approaching with his soul impure the absolute purity of God and that too when there is no thought of repentance in his heart? He who is resolved not only to commit no further sin, but also to wash away the past, may approach with gladness: let him who lacks this resolve keep far away, since hardly shall he be purified. For he shall never escape the eye of Him who sees into the recesses of the mind and treads its inmost shrine.” ^^^

Binder writes: “While most commentators have taken this as a reference to practices within pagan temples, Philo's use of "temples" (hiera) here is best understood as an allusion to the Egyptian synagogues since his audience is primarily Jewish and he recommends worship within the structure--advice he would hardly give to his audience if the building were understood as an idol temple ("sacrifice" [thyein] can be used of any religious ritual). Philo's exhortation to enter the presence of God not only outwardly cleansed but inwardly purified finds parallels in earlier Jewish writings (e.g., Ps 51:7).” ^^^

Votive Offerings at Ancient Synagogues


Roman-era votive offering with a mother and child

Josephus wrote in BJ 7.44–45 in the A.D. 1st Century: “For, although Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes sacked Jerusalem and plundered the temple [naos], his successors on the throne restored to the Jews of Antioch all such votive offerings as were made of brass, to be laid up in their synagogue, and, moreover, granted them citizen rights on an equality with the Greeks. Continuing to receive similar treatment from later monarchs, the Jewish colony grew in numbers, and their richly designed and costly offerings formed a splendid ornament to the temple [hieron].” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Binder writes: “Josephus here writes of a synagogue in Antioch, the capital of Syria in Greco-Roman times. Following the death of Antiochus IV (164 BCE), his successors are said to have transferred votive offerings from the sacked Jerusalem Temple to this structure. Moreover, later Greek kings are reported to have contributed their own votive offerings to this synagogue, which Josephus calls a "temple" or "sacred place" (hieron) in the second half of the passage.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Legat. 132–139: “They collected great bodies of men to attack the synagogues, of which there are many in each section of [Alexandria]. Some they ravaged, others they demolished with the foundations as well, others they set fire to and burnt regardless in their frenzy and insane fury of the fate of the neighbouring houses, for nothing runs faster than fire when it gets hold of something to feed it. I say nothing of the tributes to the emperors which were pulled down or burnt at the same time, the shields and gilded crowns and the slabs and inscriptions, consideration for which should have made them spare the rest . . .The synagogues which they could not raze or burn out of existence, because so many Jews live massed together in the neighbourhood, they outraged in another way, thereby overthrowing our laws and customs. For they set up images of Gaius in them all and in the largest and most notable a bronze statue of a man mounted on a chariot and four . . . no doubt they had extravagant hopes of getting praise and reaping greater and more splendid benefits for turning our synagogues into new and additional precincts consecrated to him, though their motive was not to honour him but to take their fill in every way of the miseries of our nation.

“In three hundred years there was a succession of some ten or more [kings of Egypt], and none of them had any images or statues set up for them in our synagogues by the Alexandrians, although they were of the same race and kin as the people and were acknowledged, written and spoken of by them as gods. It was only natural that they who at any rate were men should be so regarded by those who deified dogs and wolves and lions and crocodiles and many other wild animals on the land, in the water and the air, for whom altars and temples and shrines and sacred precincts have been established through the whole of Egypt.” ^^^

Binder writes: “In this revealing passage, Philo recounts the pillaging of the Alexandria synagogues in 38 CE. He is careful to distinguish between the various shields, crowns and inscriptions dedicated in the synagogues on behalf of the emperors, and the graven images set up in the synagogues by the Greek mobs. Because the latter not only were in violation of the Second Commandment but also represented the worship of the emperor as a god, they were particularly offensive to the Alexandrian Jews. Note also that it took merely the insertion of idols into the synagogues to transform them into sacred precincts of the imperial cult.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogues, Money and Sacred Funds


Roman-era coins with image of Agrippa II

According to Philo, Agrippa I said: "While I have a great abundance of evidence to show the wishes of your great-grandfather Augustus I will content myself with two examples. The first is a letter which he sent to the governors of the provinces in Asia, as he had learnt that the sacred first-fruits were treated with disrespect. He ordered that the Jews alone should be permitted by them to assemble in synagogues. These gatherings, he said, were not based on drunkenness and carousing to promote conspiracy and so to do grave injury to the cause of peace, but were schools of temperance and justice where men while practising virtue subscribed the annual first-fruits to pay for the sacrifices which they offer and commissioned sacred envoys to take them to the temple in Jerusalem. Then he commanded that no one should hinder the Jews from meeting or subscribing or sending envoys to Jerusalem according to their ancestral practice. For these were certainly the substance if not the actual words of his instructions" (Agrippa I [?] ap. Philo, Legat. 311–313).” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Binder writes: “Here, King Agrippa I (or Philo writing in his name) urges Caligula to reconsider his plan to place a statue of Zeus inside the Jerusalem Temple (40 CE). Interestingly, he appeals to Augustus' earlier decree regarding the Asian synagogues, wherein the emperor allowed their establishment and their collection of sacred monies. Josephus records the actual decree.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Legat. 155–157: “[Augustus] was aware that the great section of Rome on the other side of the Tiber is occupied and inhabited by Jews, most of whom were Roman citizens emancipated. For having been brought as captives to Italy they were liberated by their owners and were not forced to violate any of their native institutions. He knew therefore that they have synagogues and meet together in them, particularly on the sacred sabbaths when they receive as a body a training in their ancestral philosophy. He knew too that they collect money for sacred purposes from their first-fruits and send them to Jerusalem by persons who would offer the sacrifices. Yet nevertheless he neither ejected them from Rome nor deprived them of their Roman citizenship because they were careful to preserve their Jewish citizenship also, nor took any violent measures against the synagogues, nor prevented them from meeting to receive instructions in the laws, nor opposed their offerings of the first-fruits. Indeed so religiously did he respect our interests that supported by wellnigh his whole household he adorned our temple through the costliness of his dedications, and ordered that for all time continuous sacrifices of whole burnt offerings should be carried out every day at his own expense as a tribute to the most high God.” Binder writes: “Philo writes here of how the synagogues in Rome itself collected sacred monies and sent envoys to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices on behalf of the local congregations.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Spec. 1.76–78: “The revenues of the temple are derived not only from landed estates but also from other and far greater sources which time will never destroy. For as long as the human race endures, and it will endure for ever, the revenues of the temple also will remain secure co-eternal with the whole universe. For it is ordained that everyone, beginning at his twentieth year should make an annual contribution of first-fruits . . .As the nation is very populous, the offerings of first-fruits are naturally exceedingly abundant. In fact, practically in every city there are banking places for the holy money where people regularly come and give their offerings. And at stated times there are appointed to carry the sacred tribute envoys selected on their merits, from every city those of the highest repute, under whose conduct the hope of each and all will travel safely.” Binder writes: “Given the above references, Philo's mention of "banking places" where the Jewish sacred monies were collected is probably an allusion to diaspora synagogues serving in this capacity.” ^^^

According to Josephus, Julius Caesar said: “Now it displeases me that such statutes should be made against our friends and allies [the Jews] and that they should be forbidden to live in accordance with their customs and to contribute money to common meals and sacred rites, for this they are not forbidden to do even in Rome. For example, Gaius Caesar, our consular praetor, by edict forbade religious societies to assemble in the city, but these people alone he did not forbid to do so or to collect contributions of money or to hold common meals. Similarly do I forbid other religious societies but permit these people alone to assemble and feast in accordance with their native customs and ordinances. (Julius Caesar, ap. Josephus, Ant. 14.213–216).” ^^^

Binder writes: “Julius Caesar issued this decree c. 49 BCE, chastising the people of Delos for their mistreatment of the Jews on that Greek island. In the letter, he alludes to the permission given the Jews in Rome to meet and collect monies during his praetorship. In view of Philo's testimony above, it is likely that the monies primarily constituted donations to the Jerusalem Temple.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogues as Law Courts


Caperneum synagogue

Sus 28 says:“But the lawless men turned away, murmuring threats among themselves and plotting to put [Susanna] to death. They came to the synagogue of the city where they sojourned, and all the Israelites who were there assembled (Sus 28, OG; translation, John J. Collins, Daniel).” Binder writes: “This passage from the Old Greek version of Susanna contains one of the earliest literary references to a synagogue (c. 100 BCE). In the tale, Susanna is placed on trial inside the local synagogue for supposed promiscuous behavior. The young hero Daniel comes forward to prove the deceit of her accusers. In the later Theodotus version of this story, the trial takes place at the scene of the alleged crime.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

According to Josephus, Marcus Agrippa said: "“Agrippa to the magistrates, council and people of Ephesus, greeting. It is my will that the care and custody of the sacred monies belonging to the account of the temple in Jerusalem shall be given to the Jews in Asia in accordance with their ancestral customs. And if any men steal the sacred monies of the Jews and take refuge in places of asylum, it is my will that they be dragged away from them and turned over to the Jews under the same law by which temple-robbers are dragged away from asylum. I have also written to the praetor Silanus that no one shall compel the Jews to give bond to appear in court on the Sabbath (Marcus Agrippa ap. Josephus, Ant. 16.167).” ^^^

Binder writes: “This decree, written near the turn of the era by Marcus Agrippa to the Ephesians, is significant because it orders that perpetrators caught stealing from the Jewish sacred monies were to be handed over not to the local authorities, but to the Jews themselves. This indicates that the Ephesian Jews had at least limited authority to prosecute and punish culprits. Because other passages indicate that these proceedings normally took place in the synagogues, this was probably also the case at Ephesus.” ^^^

Mark 13:9 says: "As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them". According to Matt 10:17: "Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues.” (Luke 21:12 says: "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” Binder writes: “Here, the Marcan passage with its Lucan and Matthaean parallels portrays the synagogues as places where criminal prosecutions and punishments were enacted.” ^^^

Acts 9:1-2 says: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” According to Acts 22:19: "And I [Paul] said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you'.” Acts 26:10-11 says: "And that is what I [Paul] did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities" According to 1 Cor 15:9: For I [Paul] am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. Five times I [Paul] have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one (2 Cor 11:24).” ^^^

Binder writes: “In the first three passages, the writer of Acts depicts Paul as taking legal action against the Christians within the synagogues, a portrayal that receives at least partial confirmation from the Apostle's own writings. The final passage suggests that Paul himself received floggings within the synagogues as a result of his extensive missionary efforts.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogues as Schools

Philo wrote in Dec. 20: “[Moses] wills that no king or despot swollen with arrogance and contempt should despise an insignificant private person but should study in the school of the divine laws and abate his supercilious airs.” Philo wrote in Praem. 66: “From [Jacob's] household, increased in the course of time to a great multitude, were founded flourishing and orderly cities, schools of wisdom, justice and religion, where also the rest of virtue and how to acquire it is the sublime subject of their research.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Binder writes: “Philo's brilliant mind and hunger for knowledge help explain why he frequently referred to the synagogues as "schools" (didaskaleia). The fact that he uses this term only to refer to the synagogues (5x total) suggests that, in Alexandria and elsewhere throughout the empire, these structures served as Jewish counterparts to the Greek philosophical schools, which commonly met in the stoas within the agoras or public squares.” ^^^

Scripture Reading and Exposition in the Ancient Synagogues


alcove of the Hirbat Sumek ancient synagogue

Josephus wrote in Ap. 2.175: “For ignorance [Moses] left no pretext. He appointed the Law to be the most excellent and necessary form of instruction, ordaining, not that it should be heard once for all or twice or on several occasions, but that every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Law and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it, a practice which all other legislators seem to have neglected.” Binder writes: “Josephus here ascribes to Moses the custom of assembling on the sabbath for the reading of Torah.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Philo wrote in Somn. 2.123–128: “Not long ago I knew one of the ruling class who when he had Egypt in his charge and under his authority purposed to disturb our ancestral customs and especially to do away with the law of the Seventh Day which we regard with most reverence and awe . . ."Suppose," he said, "there was a sudden inroad of the enemy or an inundation caused by the river rising and breaking through the dam, or a blazing conflagration or a thunderbolt or famine, or plague or earthquake, or any other trouble either of human or divine agency, will you stay at home perfectly quiet? Or will you appear in public in your usual guise, with your right hand tucked inside the left held close to the flank under the cloak lest you should even unconsciously do anything that might help to save you? And will you sit in your synagogues and assemble your regular company and read in security your holy books, expounding any obscure point and in leisurely comfort discussing at length your ancestral philosophy? No, you will throw all these off and gird yourselves up for the assistance of yourselves, your parents and your children, and the other persons who are nearest and dearest to you, and indeed also your chattels and wealth to save them too from annihilation". Binder writes: “In this passage, Philo alludes to an unnamed ruler (perhaps Flaccus), who attempted to persuade the Alexandrian Jews to abandon their sabbath custom of gathering in the synagogues to read and discuss scripture. Needless to say, the attempt clearly failed.” ^^^

Luke 4:16-21 reads: “When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing".” ^^^

Binder writes: “This passage, while a Lucan expansion of Mark 6:1-6, nevertheless appears to accurately reflect a portion of the Palestinian sabbath service in the synagogue. A passage from the Torah would also have been read, probably prior to a reading from the Prophets. Note that Luke relies on the Greek Septuagint for his translation of the two Isaiah passages (which he carefully splices). Within Palestine it seems that the readings would have been in Hebrew, perhaps with an Aramaic translation given. The ensuing discussions would have been in Aramaic.” ^^^

Acts 15:13-21 reads: “After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord - even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.' Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues".” Binder writes: “The author of Acts here depicts James as stating that the reading of Torah in the synagogues on the sabbath was a very ancient custom.” ^^^

Acts 18:24–26 says: “Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” ^^^

Binder writes: “This is one of many portrayals in Acts of a Jewish itinerant being allowed to speak out during the discussions of scripture in the synagogue assemblies. This suggests a general freedom of expression in the discussions, though the message of Christian preachers eventually pushed the tolerance level within most congregations past the breaking point, leading to the departure (or expulsion) of Christians from the synagogues.” ^^^

Prayer in Ancient Synagogues


The Decree of Sardis reads: “The following decree was passed by the council and people on the motion of the magistrates. Whereas the Jewish citizens living in our city have continually received many great privileges from the people and have now come before the council and the people and have pleaded that as their laws and freedom have been restored to them by the Roman Senate and people, they may, in accordance with their accepted customs, come together and have a communal life and adjudicate suits among themselves, and that a place be given them in which they may gather together with their wives and children and offer their ancestral prayers and sacrifices to God; It has therefore been decreed by the council and people that permission shall be given them to come together on stated days to do those things which are in accordance with their laws, and also that a place shall be set apart by the magistrates for them to build and inhabit, such as they may consider suitable for this purpose, and that the market-officials of the city shall be charged with the duty of having suitable food for them brought in (Decree of Sardis ap. Josephus, Ant. 14.259–261).” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Binder writes: “This decree from Sardis (modern Turkey), which may date as early as the second century BCE, specifically mentions prayer as a function of the regular gatherings of the Sardian Jews. The "place" (topos) that the Jews are authorized to build for their meetings on "stated days" (i.e., the sabbath) is almost certainly a synagogue. Incidentally, the term translated "sacrifices" (thysia) can refer to any type of religious ritual. Note also how women and children are named as participants within the regular services.” ^^^

According to Josephus, Agatharchides wrote:“The people known as Jews, who inhabit the most strongly fortified of cities, called by the natives Jerusalem, have a custom of abstaining from work every seventh day; on those occasions they neither bear arms nor take any agricultural operations in hand, nor engage in any other form of public service, but pray with outstretched hands in the temples until the evening. Consequently, because the inhabitants, instead of protecting their city, persevered in their folly, Ptolemy, son of Lagus, was allowed to enter with his army; the country was thus given over to a cruel master, and the defect of a practice enjoined by law was exposed. That experience has taught the whole world, except that nation, the lesson not to resort to dreams and traditional fancies about the law, until its difficulties are such as to baffle human reason.” Josephus wrote: “Agatharcides finds such conduct ridiculous; dispassionate critics will consider it a grand and highly meritorious fact that there are men who consistently care more for the observance of their laws and for their religion than for their own lives and their country's fate.” (Agatharchides ap. Josephus, Ap. 1.209–211)

Binder writes: “The first passage is written by Agatharchides of Cnidus, a Greek historian of the second century BCE, who describes an attack on Jerusalem in the fourth century BCE. He attributes the city's easy capture to the fact that the inhabitants spent the sabbaths "praying with outstretched hands." The allusion to "temples" (hiera) is probably a reference to synagogues, though Agatharchides may be projecting the situation in the diaspora--where synagogue buildings clearly existed in Agatharchides' day--onto the Jewish homeland.” “Josephus, commenting on Agatharchides' remarks, states that such practices were the norm for Jews and should be commended rather than ridiculed.” ^^^

Bib. Ant. 11.8 says: “Take care to sanctify the sabbath day. Work for six days, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord. You shall not do any work on it, you and all your help, except to praise the LORD in the assembly of the elders and to glorify the Mighty One in the council of the older men.” Binder writes: “The author of Biblical Antiquities rewrites the Fourth Commandment, adding to it Psalm 107:32. The result is that the sabbath assemblies are represented as days devoted to the praise and adoration of God.” ^^^

Josephus wrote in Vita 290–295: “One of their number, however, a depraved and mischievous man named Ananias, proposed to the assembly that a public fast should be announced, in God's name, for the following day, recommending that they should reassemble at the same place and hour, without arms, in order to attest before God their conviction that without his aid no armour could avail them. This he said, not from motives of piety, but in order to catch me and my friends in this defenseless condition. I [Josephus] felt bound to acquiesce, for fear of being thought contemptuous of a pious suggestion. As soon, therefore, as we had retired to our homes, Jonathan's party wrote instructions to John to come to them next morning with as large a force as he could muster, as he might have me at once at his mercy and do what he chose with me. On receipt of this letter John prepared to act accordingly.

“For my part, on the following day I ordered two of my bodyguard, of the most approved valour and staunch loyalty, to accompany me, with daggers concealed under their dress, for self-defense in the event of an assault on the part of our foes. I wore a breastplate myself and, with a sword so girt on so as to be as little conspicuous as possible, entered the synagogue. Orders having been given by Jesus, the chief magistrate, who kept a watch on the door himself, to exclude all my companions, he allowed only me and my [two] friends to enter. We were proceeding with the ordinary service and engaged in prayer, when Jesus rose and began to question me about the furniture and uncoined silver which had been confiscated after the conflagration of the royal palace, asking who had the keeping of them. He raised this point merely in order to occupy the time until John’s arrival.” ^^^

Binder writes: “This series of scenes is set inside a synagogue in Tiberias (Galilee) during the Jewish War. One of the men proposes a "public fast" for the following day, a suggestion accepted by the multitude. Josephus subsequently mentions the service, though very briefly. Note that the second set of offset words is better translated: "When we had performed the customary service and had engaged in prayer, Jesus rose and began to question me." The Greek word translated "customary service" (nomima) normally referred to a well-established proceeding. Unfortunately, we must remain in the dark as to its exact content.” ^^^


Ancient synagogue in Arbel


Philo wrote in Flacc. 122–124: “At dawn pouring out through the gates, they made their way to the parts of the beach near at hand, since their synagogues had been taken from them, and standing in the most open space cried aloud with one accord, "Most Mighty King of mortals and immortals, we have come here to call on earth and sea, and air and heaven, into which the universe is partitioned, and on the whole world, to give Thee thanks They are our only habitation, expelled as we are from all that men have wrought, robbed of our city and the buildings within its walls, public and private, alone of all men under the sun bereft of home and country through the malignancy of a governor. Thou givest also a glimpse of cheering hopes that Thou wilt amend what remains for amendment, in that Thou hast already begun to assent to our prayers. For the common enemy of the nation, under whose leadership and by whose instruction these misfortunes have befallen it, who in his pride thought that they would promote him to honour, Thou hast suddenly brought low; and that not when he was afar off, so that they whom he ill-treated would hear it by report and have less keen pleasure, but just here close at hand almost before the eyes of the wronged to give them a clearer picture of the swift and unhoped-for visitation".” ^^^

Binder writes: “In this passage, Philo presents a moving portrayal of an outpouring of public thanksgiving immediately following the arrest of Flaccus, a Roman prefect who had severely persecuted the Alexandrian Jews in 38 CE. Note that Philo mentions that the multitude assembled on the beach for this public thanksgiving service because Flaccus had deprived them of access to their synagogues, where such activities normally took place.” ^^^

Matt 6:5 reads: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward". Binder writes: “This segment from Matthew's Gospel expresses disapproval of individuals who prayed immodestly within the synagogues.” ^^^

Communal Meals in Ancient Synagogues

According to Josephus, Julius Caesar said: “Julius Gaius, Praetor, Consul of the Romans, to the magistrates, council and people of Parium, greeting. The Jews in Delos and some of the neighbouring Jews, some of your envoys also being present, have appealed to me and declared that you are preventing them by statute from observing their national customs and sacred rites. Now it displeases me that such statutes should be made against our friends and allies and that they should be forbidden to live in accordance with their customs and to contribute money to common meals and sacred rites, for this they are not forbidden to do even in Rome. For example, Gaius Caesar, our consular praetor, by edict forbade religious societies to assemble in the city, but these people alone he did not forbid to do so or to collect contributions of money or to hold common meals. Similarly do I forbid other religious societies but permit these people alone to assemble and feast in accordance with their native customs and ordinances . . . if you have made any statutes against our friends and allies, you will do well to revoke them because of their worthy deeds on our behalf and their goodwill toward us (Julius Caesar ap. Josephus, Ant. 14.213–216).” Binder writes: “Julius Caesar here chastises the Delians for hindering the Jews of Delos from collecting money and from holding common meals. In the process, he alludes to permission being given the Jews in Rome for such common meals.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

3 Macc 7:18–20 reads: “[The Jews] celebrated their deliverance, for the king had generously provided all things to them for their journey until all of them arrived at their own houses. And when they had all landed in peace with appropriate thanksgiving, there too in like manner they decided to observe these days as a joyous festival during the time of their stay. Then, after inscribing them as holy on a pillar and dedicating a synagogue at the site of the festival, they departed unharmed, free, and overjoyed, since at the king’s command they had all of them been brought safely by land and sea and river to their own homes.” Binder writes: “In this passage, the dedication of an Egyptian synagogue is associated with an obscure festival that seems to have been celebrated annually in Egypt to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish population there from the wrath of one of the early Ptolemaic rulers.” ^^^


Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci


Women in Ancient Synagogues

Luke 13:10-17 reads: “Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” Binder writes: “This passage, which is peculiar to Luke's Gospel, specifically mentions the presence of a woman inside a Palestinian synagogue.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library pohick.org ^^^]

Acts 16:13-16 reads: “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a synagogue; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us. One day, as we were going to the synagogue, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” ^^^

Binder writes: “This text is puzzling because it seems to indicate that, aside from Paul and his entourage, only women were present in this synagogue just outside of Philippi. Possibly the Jewish population in Philippi was so slight that it consisted only of the Jewish wives of Roman citizens (Philippi was a Roman colony) and female God-fearers. Alternatively, men and women may have assembled at separate gatherings. In this case, Paul, as a newcomer, would not have been aware of the segregated assembly times.” ^^^

The following series of passages from Acts portrays both Jewish and Gentile women as routinely being present in the sabbath synagogue services in the diaspora.” Acts 17:1-4 reads: “After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you." Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”

Acts 17:10-14 says: “That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind.”


Dura Europos synagogue fresco


Acts 18:24-26 says: “Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately .” ^^^

Philo wrote in Spec. 3.171–172: “A woman, then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion. She should not shew herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple, and even then she should take pains to go, not when the market is full, but when most people have gone home, and so like a free-born lady worthy of the name, with everything quiet around her, make her oblations and offer her prayers to avert the evil and gain the good.” Binder writes: “Because Philo is writing about Alexandria and within a Jewish context, the mention of the "temple" (hieron) is likely a reference to the synagogue, as this word is elsewhere used in this way. Displaying his patriarchy, Philo recommends that women stay indoors, except to go to the synagogue to offer their prayers. Even then, they are to go at the end of the day, after the agora has closed. Note that this last implies that synagogues were commonly located near agoras, perhaps those especially catering to Jewish dietary laws.” ^^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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