Cover image by Scot Facer Proctor.
In all four of the New Testament gospels, Jesus is represented as teaching in synagogues. “He preached in their synagogues,” reports Mark 1:39, “throughout all Galilee.” “I spake openly to the world,” Jesus says to Caiaphas according to John 18:20, “I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.”
His mortal ministry—unlike his post-resurrection ministry (Acts 1:3; see “The mysterious 40-day ministry of Jesus after Easter”)—was public. One of the best-known instances of his synagogue teaching, and one of the most instructive, is recounted in the gospel of Luke:
“And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” (Luke 4:14-21)
Later, following in the footsteps of his now-resurrected master, the apostle Paul also preached in synagogues when he could (see Acts 13:42, 14:1, 17:1, 19:8), and it’s likely that the other apostles did so as well. Why? It is said that the bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. “I rob banks,” he replied, “because that’s where the money is.” Early Christian missionaries taught in synagogues because that’s where the people were.
But Jesus didn’t only use synagogues to teach. He also cast out unclean spirits in them, healed people (sometimes, notably, on the Sabbath), and verbally jousted with Jewish religious authorities over their interpretation of the law of Moses (Mark 1:21-28; 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; John 6:30-59, the famous “bread of life sermon”).
So, understanding synagogues at roughly the time of Jesus will, to at least a small degree, help us to understand and picture something of his ministry. What do we know about them? In recent years, archaeology has greatly expanded our understanding of synagogues from the early Roman period (63 BC to 135 AD), and sixteen of them have now been identified in Palestine.
The so-called “Synagogue Church,” a popular tourist spot in Nazareth, is not among them. (Unconfirmed tradition maintains, though, that it occupies the site where Jesus’s boyhood synagogue once stood —the place where, later, having read from Isaiah, he effectively proclaimed himself the Messiah.) An authentic example, by contrast, is the long-buried synagogue that was discovered at Magdala in 2009. It is a favorite site for me when I lead tours to Israel. And a second such find in Magdala was announced in December 2021.
First and foremost, synagogues of the early Roman period typically featured a rectangular main assembly hall. Around the four walls of that hall were benches, arranged so that those in attendance would be facing the center of the room and, even more importantly, facing each other. But columns in the assembly room, intended to support the central synagogue roof—a clerestory ceiling that admitted light deep into the building’s interior—would have interfered with the ability of many in the congregation to see. These columns were probably structurally necessary, of course. But they may also suggest that the principal concern of the designers was not so much for the people in attendance to see each other as it was for them to be able to hear each other. Plainly, such a seating arrangement encouraged discussion, which was one of the prominent functions of the ancient synagogue.
This seems to cohere nicely with rabbinic Judaism’s commitment to discussion and debate as well as to listening. (To a great degree, the Talmud—which is at the very core of Judaism as it has existed for many centuries—is a record of the debates between Jewish “sages.”) And the idea of synagogues as places designed for discussion certainly makes the accounts of Jesus reading, interpreting, and discussing Torah in the synagogue—as at Mark 6:2, Luke 4:22-30, and Acts 6:8-12— ring true. On the other hand, such a function is notably distinct from the focus of most Christian buildings. In Roman Catholic churches, for example, the architecture commonly concentrates attention on the altar of the mass. These buildings are liturgically focused, rather like ancient and modern temples. On the other hand, in Lutheran and many other Protestant churches the focus is on the pulpit from which sermons are delivered. Such buildings—not unlike modern Latter-day Saint chapels—emphasize the “ministry of the Word,” as Martin Luther and other Reformers framed it.
Who could attend these early synagogues? Were attendees in them sorted by social and economic class? Not, it seems, as a rule. Was attendance limited to men? There is no definite evidence that it was—although there was clear gender segregation in the temple at Jerusalem, certainly in the Second Temple period (the time of Herod, Jesus, and the apostles) and probably even earlier, in the First Temple (of Solomon) and the Tabernacle at Shiloh. (Israelite women could go beyond the “court of the gentiles” and enter into the so-called “middle court,” also called the “court of the women.” But they could not continue on into the “court of Israel,” which was restricted to Israelite males.) According to Luke 13:10-17, Jesus met and healed a gravely disabled woman in “one of the synagogues on the sabbath,” much to the indignation of “the ruler of the synagogue.” The important point here is that he and the woman were both in a synagogue, together.
Even quite small villages could have a synagogue, and these buildings were apparently often located in the very center of the village. This suggests that they probably functioned as community centers—perhaps somewhat in the manner of Islamic mosques and, more familiarly, of Latter-day Saint chapels (which commonly feature kitchens and basketball courts as well as explicitly ecclesiastical elements and which frequently host receptions, luncheons, dinners, blood drives, and other relatively secular activities). Of course, many of these synagogues were themselves small and simple, befitting their location. But others were large and ornate. The first of the two Magdala synagogues discovered to this point, for instance, suggests that they could even be colorful, with wall frescos, painted columns, and mosaic floors.
The most common Hebrew term for what we call a “synagogue” is “bayt knesset,” meaning “house of assembly.” And yes, you’re right to think immediately of the national legislature of Israel, which is the “Knesset”—and even of the building in Jerusalem where the Knesset meets. Our word “synagogue,” by contrast, comes to us from the Greek preposition “syn-,” meaning “together,” and the infinitive verb “agein,” meaning “to move” or “to put in motion.” Thus, the verb “synagein” means “to bring together,” “to assemble,” and the noun “synagogue” means “meeting,” assembly,” and “place of assembly.”
As community centers, these ancient synagogues were places where local residents could gather to discuss secular political and community issues as well as religious matters. (It’s unlikely that many other “public” buildings existed, and certainly not in small villages.) They functioned much like a town hall or like the classical Greek “agora” or “market,” which was the center of a city’s business, social, and political life. (The philosopher Socrates seems to have spent much of his public life conversing—and debating—in the “agora,” not unlike Jesus in the synagogue.) Synagogues in Jesus’s day could also serve as courtrooms, and even as places where punishment was inflicted (e.g., at Matthew 23:34, Mark 13:9, Luke 12:11-12, Acts 22:19, as well as various passages in the Jewish Mishnah and in the apocryphal books of Susanna and Sirach). In fact, in this regard, the very origin of the idea of a “synagogue” seems to be instructive:
The great medieval rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides reflected already venerable Jewish tradition when he wrote of “the men of the Great Assembly” or “the men of the Great Synagogue” (that is, of the “Knesset ha-Gedolah”) as a 120-member rabbinic court. He reported that it had been founded by Ezra the Scribe immediately after the return of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Whether such an assembly ever really existed is unclear, though such historical prophets as Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Daniel, and Nehemiah have been named among its members. In any event, the tradition corroborates an early judicial role for the “synagogue,” and it shows that the word “knesset” could refer at least as much to an assembly itself as to any building in which that assembly happened to convene.
But, again, we’re talking primarily of physical buildings from the time of Jesus and the apostles. Some of these structures, in fact, seem to have actually belonged to the municipality in which they were located. In Capernaum, according to Luke 7:5, the synagogue of Jesus’s day had been given to the community by a friendly Roman centurion. Interestingly, a portion of that first-century synagogue in the town that served as Jesus’s Galilean headquarters may still be visible today. A ruined but still beautiful white limestone synagogue from the fourth or fifth century stands atop a clearly visible black basalt foundation located just a few steps from the probable ruins of the apostle Peter’s house. That basalt foundation is very possibly a remnant of the first-century synagogue that Jesus and the apostles knew.
Many if not all communities of any size at all may, like Magdala, have had more than one synagogue. However, some of them may not have been “public synagogues.” In addition to those, there were also what are sometimes called “association synagogues.” These would not have served as town halls, but would, instead, have been meeting places for members of the club or group that owned them. One example of such private structures would be the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” in Jerusalem—the King James translation “synagogue of the Libertines” is rather misleading for speakers of English in the twenty-first century!—that is mentioned in Acts 6:9. Another example of an “association synagogue” is supplied by the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria in his treatise “Every Good Man is Free”: He discusses a synagogue that belonged specifically to the so-called Essenes, the ancient Jewish sect that appears to have been associated with the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
It must, however, have been to public synagogues that Jesus was referring in John 18:20 when he declared that “I spake openly to the world. I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.” And it seems very possible that it was rejection by assemblies in such public synagogues that called forth his condemnations of the lakeside Galilean villages of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15).
“By participating in synagogues,” writes Jordan Ryan of Wheaton College, in Illinois, “Jesus was involved in normal, public Jewish life. The public reading of the Torah and other Jewish scripture in synagogues is widely attested by the Jewish historian Josephus, Philo, the New Testament, and early rabbinic literature.”
This fact is significant beyond merely helping us to appreciate and visualize elements of the life of Christ, important as that is: The New Testament’s descriptions of the ministry of Jesus fit their claimed environment. That should strengthen our confidence that the events that they describe really happened.
This column draws heavily upon Jordan J. Ryan, “Jesus in the Synagogue,” “Biblical Archaeology Review” 49/1 (Spring 2023): 34-41.