Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

synagogue, meaning "assembly house." In the N.T., a community meeting place for Jews; used mainly for worship, but also for schools and other gatherings.
Although not mentioned in the O.T., synagogues probably originated during the exile in Bablyon as meetings of the people to hear the writings and to pray. By the time of Jesus, each community of Jews, anywhere in the Roman world, had its synagogue. The building was rectangular, and its doorway faced Jerusalem. Along the walls on the inside were benches. A board of elders supervised each synagogue, and there were other officers, such as the ruler. The services in a synagogue consisted of readings, a talk (or sermon), and prayers. The great annual feasts were still celebrated at the temple in Jerusalem, the only place where sacrifices were made. Matt. 12:9; Mark 5:36; Luke 4:15; John 16:2; Acts 9:2; 18:4.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

synagogue, a Greek word meaning a ‘gathering of things’ or an ‘assembly of people.’ The Jewish synagogue is both a congregation of Jews who pray, read Scripture, and hear teaching and exhortation based on Scripture and the place where the congregation assembles. As the synagogue developed in rabbinic Judaism, it also became a place for study of the Bible, its commentaries, and Talmudic materials. The origin of the synagogue is obscure, but it certainly existed by the first century a.d. in both Palestine and the Diaspora.

First-century a.d. synagogues in Palestine are attested by the Gospels. Jesus preached and discussed with Jewish leaders and congregations in synagogues (e.g., Matt. 4:23; 9:25; Mark 1:21; 3:1-6; Luke 4:16-28; 13:10). The synagogue was a place of prayer, reading of Scripture, preaching, and teaching. It is uncertain whether the many references to synagogues in the Gospels reflect the situation during Jesus’ lifetime or the period after the destruction of the Temple (a.d. 70) when the Gospels were finally written. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the late first century, speaks of a few synagogues in the north of the Holy Land. Synagogues were certainly common in the Diaspora. Philo, the first-century Egyptian Jewish writer, attests to the presence of numerous synagogues in Alexandria. Inscriptions found at various places in the Roman Empire show that Jewish congregations were found in many places. Acts portrays Paul as teaching in synagogues wherever he goes (e.g., Acts 18:4; 19:8).

Origin: The origin of the synagogue remains unknown, but the question has produced a number of theories. Many have suggested that the synagogue arose in the Babylonian exile as a response to the loss of the Temple as the center of Jewish religious life. Though the suggestion is reasonable, no direct evidence exists for its presence and the biblical passages cited (Ezek. 11:16; 14:1) are far from convincing. In addition, no mention of the synagogue is made in Ezra and Nehemiah, nor is any destruction of synagogues mentioned during the Maccabean revolt. The public reading of Torah is described in Nehemiah 8 and mentioned in 1 Macc. 3:48, but these assemblies are extraordinary public gatherings; we do not know whether these practices were regularly done. Some scholars suggest that the Hellenistic crisis during the second century b.c., in which there was a conflict among Jews over acculturation and fidelity to tradition, produced the synagogue as a mode of resistance to Hellenism, i.e., Greek culture and custom. Since the synagogue existed in developed form in the first century a.d., it is likely that it came into being in the two centuries preceding, but no direct evidence for it then exists. In the Diaspora, some Egyptian inscriptions from the third and second centuries b.c. mention a ‘place of prayer’ (Gk. proseucheµ), but we do not know what went on in the houses of prayer and it is not certain that these refer to synagogues.

A building has been found on the island of Delos in the Nile that has been identified as a Jewish synagogue, but the building has no clear Jewish symbols or characteristics to identify it unambiguously as a synagogue. It is likely that Jews often met in a large room in a house. A building set aside for special religious purposes had to await a certain level of material prosperity and community development. In only four recently dug sites in Palestine have rooms or buildings been identified as synagogues: Masada, Herodium, Magdala (Migdal, Tarichaeae), and Gamala. The results of these excavations are preliminary and the identifications are not certain in all cases, especially for Masada and Herodium. Existing structures were transformed into assembly halls, but that they were specifically synagogues is not certain. In all cases the buildings or rooms are relatively small and unadorned and vary greatly in plan.

Physical Structure: Buildings that can be clearly identified as synagogues become plentiful both in Palestine and the Diaspora during the third century a.d. This is consistent with the development of rabbinic Judaism, which gradually asserted control over Judaism after the Temple was destroyed in a.d. 70 and which stressed synagogue- and school-centered prayer and study. Synagogue buildings were often decorated with mosaics and reliefs and were built in three styles, the basilica, the broadhouse, and the apsidal. The basilica was borrowed from Greco-Roman architecture and often had the entrance facing Jerusalem. The inside was rectangular and divided lengthwise by two rows of columns into nave and two side aisles. When the congregation faced Jerusalem to pray, they had to face the entrance; consequently a permanent Torah shrine, where the scrolls of Scripture were kept, and a bema (Gk., ‘platform’; a raised platform where the leaders of the congregation stood or sat) were difficult to establish. Contemporaneously the broadhouse design developed, in which one of the long walls of the rectangle faced Jerusalem and so a permanent Torah shrine and bema were possible. Later the apsidal synagogue developed, in which the entrance was on the side away from Jerusalem and the side facing Jerusalem had an apse (a large semicircular niche) for the Torah shrine and bema. Synagogues in the Diaspora followed similar designs, though sometimes Jews took over buildings built earlier and adapted them to their purposes. In all cases, the floor plan, orientation, and architecture varied considerably. Some Diaspora synagogues are notable for their size or beauty, e.g., the ones in Sardis in Turkey, Dura in Syria, Stobi in Macedonia, and Ostia in Italy.

Function: The function of the synagogue, how the congregation was organized, and what went on in the synagogue can only be surmised. In Palestine before the destruction of the Temple the synagogue would have been one of many indigenous organizations in Jewish villages and cities. People may have met to read Scripture and pray either in a house or outside, without any elaborate organization. In the Diaspora where Jews were a minority in the cities they inhabited, the synagogue probably functioned as the center of the community and its leaders may have been community leaders recognized by the civil authorities. Synagogues were used to teach the young, to house visitors, and for communal meals.

Liturgy: The versions of Jewish prayers that have been transmitted in the tradition show that the synagogue liturgy did not have a fixed text but varied both in content and wording over time and from place to place. It is certain that Scripture was read, though probably not according to the later three-year and one-year fixed cycles of readings. Primacy was given to the Pentateuch, but readings from the Prophets were also included. The existence of many Targums (translation of the Hebrew Bible into the vernacular, Aramaic) and versions of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) testifies to the importance of understanding the ancient text. Philo, Josephus, and the nt show that the Bible was interpreted to the people in the synagogues. It is also likely that the two most important prayers in Judaism were in use, though not according to a fixed text. The first is the Shema, consisting of three biblical passages (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41) with attendant blessings. The second is the ‘Prayer,’ also called the Amidah or Eighteen Benedictions. This series of blessings has varied in text and number over time, but it is treated as very old in rabbinic tradition.

Bibliography Levine, Lee I., ed. Ancient Synagogues Revealed. Detroit, MI, and Jerusalem: Wayne State University, Israel Exploration Society, 1982.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page