“Then he went around throughout the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom.”—MATTHEW 4:23.
AGAIN and again in the Gospel record, we find Jesus in a synagogue. Whether in Nazareth, the town where he was reared, or in Capernaum, the city that came to be his home base, or in any of the towns and villages that he visited during the busy three and a half years of his ministry, Jesus often chose the synagogue as the place to preach and teach about God’s Kingdom. In fact, looking back on his ministry, Jesus said: “I always taught in a synagogue and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.”—John 18:20.
Likewise, Jesus’ apostles and other early Christians often taught in Jewish synagogues. How, though, did the Jews come to worship in synagogues? And what were those houses of worship like back in Jesus’ day? Let us take a closer look.
A Central Feature of Jewish Life Three times in the year, Jewish males would travel to Jerusalem for the festivals held at the sacred temple there. But for their day-to-day worship, the local synagogue served their needs, whether they lived in Palestine or in one of the many Jewish colonies that were established abroad.
When did the synagogue come into use? Some believe it was about the time of the exile of the Jews to Babylon (607-537 B.C.E.), a period when the temple of Jehovah lay in ruins. Or it might have been soon after the Jews returned from exile, when Ezra the priest urged his people to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of God’s Law.—Ezra 7:10; 8:1-8; 10:3.
Originally, the word for “synagogue” simply meant “assembly” or “congregation.” It was used that way in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. In time, though, the word came to refer to the building where people assembled for worship. By the first century C.E., virtually every town Jesus visited had its own synagogue; cities had several; Jerusalem had many. What were those buildings like?
A Modest House of Worship When setting out to build a synagogue, the Jews would generally seek an elevated spot and plan the building so that its entrance (1) would face Jerusalem. It seems that such standards were fairly flexible, though, for they could not always be met.
When finished, the synagogue was often modest, the furnishings fairly sparse. A central feature, though, was an ark (2), or repository, that contained the community’s most prized possession—the scrolls of the Sacred Scriptures. When meetings were held, the portable ark was placed in position, to be returned to a secure room afterward (3).
Near the ark and facing the congregation were the front seats (4) for the presiding officers of the synagogue and any distinguished guests. (Matthew 23:5, 6) Near the center of the hall was a raised platform with a stand and a seat for the speaker (5). Facing the platform on three sides were benches for the congregation (6).
Usually, the synagogue was operated and supported by the local congregation. Voluntary contributions by all, wealthy and poor alike, kept the building maintained and in good repair. What, though, were synagogue meetings like?
Worship at the Synagogue The worship program at the synagogue included praise, prayer, the reading of Scripture, as well as teaching and preaching. The congregation would begin by reciting the Shema, what amounted to the Jewish confession of faith. It received its name from the first word of the first scripture recited: “Listen [Shema], O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.”—Deuteronomy 6:4.
Next, there was a reading and exposition from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which were penned by Moses. (Acts 15:21) Another reading would follow, using excerpts from the writings of the prophets (haftarahs) and offering explanation and application. At times, visiting speakers carried out this part of the program, as Jesus did on the occasion described at Luke 4:16-21.
Of course, the scroll that was handed to Jesus at that meeting was not marked with chapters and verses the way our modern Bibles are. So we can picture Jesus unrolling the scroll with his left hand while rolling it up with his right until he found the passage he sought. After the reading, the scroll was rewound to the beginning.
Most often, these readings were in the original Hebrew and translated into Aramaic. In Greek-speaking congregations, the Septuagint was used.
Central to Daily Life So central to daily Jewish life was the synagogue that it, along with other buildings attached to it or located in the same complex of buildings, served a variety of purposes. Sometimes court hearings were held there, as well as community meetings and even assemblies with meals served in connected dining rooms. Travelers were sometimes put up in rooming facilities in the synagogue complex.
In virtually every town, the synagogue also featured a school, often within the same building. We may picture a room full of young students learning to read the large letters written on a wax tablet by a teacher. Such schools were an important reason why ancient Jewish society was literate, even the common people being familiar with the Scriptures.
The main purpose of the synagogue, though, was to provide a setting for regular worship. It is not surprising, then, that the meetings of first-century Christians had much in common with those Jewish synagogue meetings. In Christian meetings, the purpose was likewise to worship Jehovah by means of prayer, songs of praise, and readings and discussions of God’s Word. The similarities did not end there. In both places of worship, various needs and expenses were met by voluntary contributions; in neither was the privilege of reading and discussing God’s Word restricted to a clergy class; in both cases, the meetings were organized and directed by responsible older men.