Hebrew eedah, "a congregation" or "appointed solemn meeting," in the Pentateuch; qaahaal, "a meeting called", represents ekklesia the "Church". (See CHURCH.) In the New Testament synagogue (Greek) is used of the Christian assembly only by the most Judaic apostle (James 2:2). The Jews' malice against Christianity caused Christians to leave the term "synagogue" to the Jews (Revelation 2:9). The first hints of religions meetings appear in the phrases "before the Lord," "the calling of assemblies" (Isaiah 1:13). The Sabbaths were observed from an early time by gatherings for prayer, whether at or apart from the tabernacle or temple (1 Samuel 20:5; 2 Kings 4:23).
Jehoshaphat's mission of priests and Levites (2 Chronicles 17:7-9) implies there was no provision for regular instruction except the septennial reading of the law at the feast of tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). In Psalm 74:4; Psalm 74:8 (compare Jeremiah 52:13; Jeremiah 52:17, which shows that the psalm refers to the Chaldaean destruction of the sanctuary) the "congregations" and "synagogues "refer to the tabernacle or temple meeting place between God and His people; "mo'eed mo'adee" in the psalm is the same word as expresses "the tabernacle of congregation," or meeting between God and His people, in Exodus 33:7, compare Exodus 29:42-43. So in Lamentations 2:6, "He (the Lord) hath destroyed His places of assembly." But the other places of devotional meetings of the people besides the temple are probably included. So Psalm 107:32, "the congregation of the people ... the assembly of the elders" (Ezra 3:1). The prophets' assemblies for psalmody and worship led the way (1 Samuel 9:12; 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 19:20-24).
Synagogues in the strict and later sense are not mentioned until after the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. The want of the temple in the Babylonian captivity familiarized the exiles with the idea of spiritual worship independent of locality. The elders often met and sat before the prophet, Ezekiel to hear Jehovah's word (Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 11:15-16; Ezekiel 14:1; Ezekiel 20:1); in Ezekiel 33:31 the people also sit before him to hear. Periodic meetings for hearing the law and the prophets read were customary thenceforth on the return (Ezra 8:15; Nehemiah 8:2; Nehemiah 9:1; Zechariah 7:5; Acts 15:21). When the Jews could not afford to build a synagogue they built "an oratory" (proseuchee) by a running stream or the seashore (Acts 16:13). The synagogue was the means of rekindling the Jewish devotion and patriotism which shone so brightly in the Maccabean struggle with Antiochus.
The synagogue required no priest to minister; this and the reading of the Old Testament prepared the way for the gospel. Sometimes a wealthy Jew or a proselyte built the synagogue (Luke 7:5). The kibleh or "direction" was toward Jerusalem. The structure, though essentially different from the temple (for it had neither altar nor sacrifice), resembled in some degree that of the temple: the ark at the far end contained the law in both; the lid was called the kopereth or "mercy-seat"; a veil hung before it. Here were "the chief seats" sought by the Pharisees and the rich (Matthew 23:6; James 2:2-3). In the middle was a raised platform on which several could be together, with a pulpit in the middle for the reader to stand in when reading and to sit when teaching. A low partition separated men on one side from women on the other. Besides the ark for "the law" (torah) there was a chest for the haphtaroth or "roll of the prophets". In the synagogue a college of elders was presided over by the chief or ruler of the synagogue (Luke 7:3; Luke 8:41; Luke 8:49).
The elders were called parnasiym, "pastors," "shepherds" (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1), ruling over the flock (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7); they with the ruler managed the affairs of the synagogue and had the power of excommunication. The officiating minister was delegate (sheliach, answering to the term apostle, "sent") of the congregation, the forerunner of "the angel (messenger sent) of the church" (Revelation 1:20; Revelation 2:1). The qualifications required were similar to those of a bishop or presbyter; he must be of full age, father of a family, apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). The chazzan or "minister" (Luke 4:16-20, where Christ by rising indicated that as a member of the synagogue at Nazareth. He desired to undertake the office of maptir or "reader of the lesson from the prophets", and was at once permitted owing to His fame) answered to our deacon or subdeacon; besides getting the building ready for service he acted as schoolmaster during the week.
There were also the ten batlaniym or "men of leisure", permanently making up a congregation (ten being the minimum (minyan "quoram") to constitute a congregation), that no single worshipper might be disappointed; also acting as alms collectors. Three were archisunagogai, "chiefs of the synagogue"; then also the "angel" or "bishop" who prayed publicly and caused the law to be read and sometimes preached; and three deacons for alms; the interpreter of the old Hebrew Testament, who paraphrased it; also the theological schoolmaster and his interpreter (Lightfoot, Horae. 4:70). The government of the church evidently came from the synagogue not from the Aaronic priesthood. So also did the worship; with the addition of the new doctrines, the gifts of the Spirit, and the supper of the Lord; fixed liturgical forms, creeds, as the shema, "Hear O Israel," etc. (Deuteronomy 6:4), and "prayers", the kadish, shemoneh 'esreh, berachoth; (compare brief creeds, 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 1:13, the "Lord's prayer" (Luke 11), the "order" (1 Corinthians 14:40);) the teaching out of the law, which was read in a cycle, once through in three years.
The prophets were similarly read as second lessons; the exposition (derash) or "word of exhortation" followed (Acts 13:15; Acts 15:21). The psalms were selected to suit "the special times"; "the times of prayer" (shacharit, minchah, 'arabit) were the "third", "sixth", and "ninth" hours (Acts 3:1; Acts 10:3; Acts 10:9); so in Old Testament, Psalm 55:17; Daniel 6:10. Clemens Alex. (Strom.) and Tertullian (Orat. 25) state the same in the church of the second century. Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday were the devotional days of the synagogue as of the church. The custom of ending the Saturday Sabbath with a feast formed the connecting link between the seventh day Jewish sabbath and the first day, Christian Lord's day and Lord's supper (1 Corinthians 11:20; Revelation 1:10).
Preparatory ablutions (Hebrews 10:22; John 13:1-15; Tertullian, Orat. 11), standing in prayer, not kneeling (Luke 18:11; Tertullian 23), the arms stretched out (Tertullian 13), the face toward the E. (Clemens Alex., Strom.), the Amen in responses (1 Corinthians 14:16), the leaping as if they would rise toward heaven in the Alexandrian church (Clemens Alex., Strom. 7:40) as the Jews at the tersanctus of Isaiah 6 (Vitringa 1100, Buxtorf 10), are all reproductions of synagogue customs. However the Hebrew in prayer wears the talith ("prayer shawl") drawn over his ears to the shoulders (a custom probably later than apostolic times), whereas the Christian man is bareheaded (1 Corinthians 11:4). The synagogue officers had judicial power to scourge, anathematize, and excommunicate (Matthew 10:17; Mark 13:9; Luke 12:11; Luke 21:12; John 12:42; John 9:22): so the church (1 Corinthians 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20; Matthew 18:15-18); also to seize and send for trial before the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem (Acts 9:2; Acts 22:5).
The Great Synagogue (Mark 7:3 "the elders"; Matthew 5:21-27; Matthew 5:33, "they of old time") is represented in the rabbinical book, Pirke Aboth ("The Sayings of the [Jewish] Fathers"), of the second century A.D., to have succeeded the prophets, and to have been succeeded by the scribes, Ezra presiding; among the members Joshua, the high priest Zerubbabel, Daniel, the three children Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Nehemiah, Mordecai; their aim being to restore the crown or glory of Israel, the name of God as great, mighty, and terrible (Daniel 9:4; Jeremiah 32:18; Deuteronomy 7:21); so they completed the Old Testament canon, revising the text, introducing the vowel points which the Masorete editors have handed down to us, instituting "the feast" Purim, organizing the synagogue ritual. Their motto, preserved by Simon high-priest, was "set a hedge about the law." (See SCRIBES.)
The only Old Testament notice of anything like such a body is Nehemiah 8:13, "chiefs of the fathers of all the people, the priests; and the Levites ... Ezra the scribe" presiding. The likelihood is that some council was framed at the return from Babylon to arrange religious matters, the forerunner of the Sanhedrin. Vitringa's work on the synagogue, published in 1696, is the chief authority. In the last times of Jerusalem 480 synagogues were said to be there (see Acts 6:9). Lieut. Conder found by measurement (taking the cubit at 16 in.) that a synagogue was 30 cubits by 40, and its pillars 10 ft. high exactly.
There are in Israel eleven specimens of synagogues existing; two at Kefr Bir'im, one at Meiron, Irbid, Tell Hum, Kerazeh, Nebratein, two at El Jish, one at Umm el 'Amed, and Sufsaf. In plan and ornamentation they are much alike. They are not on high ground, nor so built that the worshipper on entering faced Jerusalem, except that at Irbid, The carved figures of animals occur in six out of the eleven. In all these respects they betray their later origin, as vitally differing from the known form of synagogue and tenets of the earlier Jews. Their erection began probably at the close of the second century, the Jews employing Roman workmen, at the dictation of Roman rulers in the time of Antoninus Pins and Alexander Severus, during the spiritual supremacy of the Jewish patriarch of Tiberias. (See TIBERIAS.) Their date is between A.D. 150 and 300. frontExploration Quarterly Statement, July 1878, p. 123.)
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