Ancient synagogues (Acts 9)

Illustration: Ruins of the ancient synagogue of Kfar Bar’am in the Galilee

The earliest archaeological evidence of ancient synagogues derives from Greek inscriptions found in Egypt dating from the third century B.C., although the synagogue as an institution dates from much earlier time. Literary and epigraphic sources employ terms for these structures, which indicate the range of functions for which they were used. The Greek term sometimes used, proseuche, literally “a place of prayer”, attests to the synagogue as a location for worship and communal prayer; this usage is found in the New Testament (Acts 16:13, 16). The later term synagogue, which eventually became dominant, means “a place of assembly” and suggests a range of corporate functions, most particularly the public reading, exposition and study of Scripture.

The Theodotus inscription unearthed in the Jerusalem excavations of 1913-1914 describes the essential functions of a first century A.D. synagogue. This Greek dedicatory inscription mentions a certain Theodotus, the son and grandson of a priest and ruler of the synagogue (cf. Mark 5:35, Luke 13:14, Acts 18:8, 17), who constructed the synagogue “for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments”. The text also refers to guest rooms and accommodations for those traveling from abroad.

Ancient synagogues served as a central meeting place for local Jewish communities. The synagogues played a complementary role to the temple by providing a venue for local services of word and prayer, as well as a forum for communal assemblies, study, hospitality and even religious courts. Synagogues are mentioned in a wide variety of Jewish literary works.

  • According to Talmudic sources there were som 480 synagogues in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the temple. Josephus (Against Apion 2.17) considered the public reading and learning of the Torah to be the essential element of the weekly synagogue service, a practice he perceived to have been ordained by Moses.
  • Philo likewise referred to synagogues as schools at which the ancestral philosophy was taught (Life of Moses 2.39).
  • The New Testament corroborates this general picture (Acts 15:21) and also presents numerous examples of reading and teaching Scripture in synagogues by Jesus (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:21, Luke 4:16-21, John 6:59, 18:20), Paull (Acts 9:20, 17:10, 19:8) and other early leaders (Acts 13:5, 14:1).
  • According to rabbinic sources the synagogue service included the recitation of the Shema and its blessings (i.e. Numbers 15:37-41, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21), and the Amidah or Prayer of the weekly Torah portion, a reading from the Prophets, an exposition or translation of the Scripture and the priestly benediction. Those in attendance were seated according to age and status (cf. Matthew 23:6, Luke 20:46), and the entire congregation was orientated toward the Most Holy Place in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 8:48).

Synagogues were typically built in close proximity to rivers or other bodies of water that could provide for the ritual washings required of those participating in the service (cf. Act 16:13). Architectural styles of ancient synagogues varied considerably. In fact, the earlier synagogue meetings mat have been held within large private dwellings, with synagogue buildings appearing as separate edifices approximately one century after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70.

The building was usually oriented toward Jerusalem, perhaps reflecting the practice of praying toward this sacred city (cf. 1 Kings 8:44-48, Daniel 6:10). The Torah ark (the box containing the Torah) represented the visual focal point of the synagogue, communicating a holiness flowing from the temple in Jerusalem. Synagogues are distinguished archaeologically by the presence of Jewish religious symbols such as the menorah (candelabrum), shofar (ram’s horn) and a niche for the Torah. As a further stage of development, during the late Roman and Byzantine periods, Biblical scenes and even characters were depicted in elaborate stone mosaics. Surprisingly, even astrological symbols appear in some mosaics. Spectacular examples of such mosaics have been uncovered in excavations at the synagogues of Beth Alpha, Gerasa, Hammath and Dura Europos.

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