The synagogue was the place where Jews gathered for instruction and worship in the New Testament period. The Greek word synagoge [sunagwghv] means “assembly” and can refer simply to the gathering of people itself ( James 2:2 ) or to the building in which they gather ( Luke 7:5 ). The origins of the synagogue are obscure, but they probably extend back at least to the period of Ezra. At the time of the New Testament, synagogues were found throughout the Roman Empire as local centres for the study of the law and for worship. As such, they served a different role in the life of the Jewish people than did the Jerusalem temple, with its focus on the sacrificial cult.
Synagogue services included prayers, the reading of Scripture, and, usually, a sermon explaining the Scripture. The chief administrative officer was the synagogue ruler ( Mark 5:22 ; Luke 13:14 ;Acts 13:15 ; Acts 18:8 Acts 18:17 ), who was assisted by an executive officer who handled the details of the synagogue service ( Luke 4:20 ). Laypeople were allowed to participate in the services, especially in the reading of the prayers and the Scripture ( Luke 4:16-20 ). Visiting sages could be invited to provide the sermon ( Luke 4:21 ; Acts 13:15 ). Synagogues were attended by both men and women, as well as by God-fearing Gentiles who were committed to learning more about the God of the Jews ( Acts 17:4 Acts 17:12 ).
In the New Testament synagogues are occasionally mentioned merely in their role as Jewish institutions. The people at Capernaum, for example, commend to Jesus a certain centurion as one who “loves our nation and has built our synagogue” ( Luke 7:5 ). At the Jerusalem council James notes that “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” ( Acts 15:21 ). Paul, at his trial before Felix, observes that his accusers “did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else” in Jerusalem ( Acts 24:12 ). Indeed, in an early letter to Jewish Christians James even refers to their gatherings as “synagogues” ( 2:2 ).
Yet for the most part synagogues take on a larger meaning in the New Testament. In particular, synagogues frequently serve as places of God’s revelatory activity. At several points the Gospel writers’ summaries of Jesus’ ministry include preaching or teaching “in their synagogues” ( Matthew 4:23 ; 9:35 ; Mark 1:39 ; Luke 4:15 ; cf. Luke 4:44 ). Specifically, Jesus teaches in the synagogues at Nazareth ( Matthew 13:53-58 ; Mark 6:1-6 ; Luke 4:16-30 ) and Capernaum ( Mark 1:21-22 ; John 6:59 ), casts out an evil spirit from a man in the synagogue at Capernaum ( Mark 1:23-27 ), heals a man with a withered hand in an unspecified Galilean synagogue ( Matthew 12:9-14 ; Mark 3:1-6 ;Luke 6:6-11 ), and heals a woman crippled for eighteen years in another ( Luke 13:10-17 ). Indeed, Luke’s account of the Nazareth incident includes a programmatic self-revelation by Jesus of the very nature of his ministry ( 4:16-21 ).
A similar situation holds in the Book of Acts. Stephen argues powerfully in the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Jerusalem ( 6:9-10 ); Paul preaches in the synagogues of Damascus shortly after his conversion ( 9:20-22 ); and Apollos preaches boldly in the synagogue of Ephesus ( 18:26 ). Indeed, once he begins his missionary journeys Paul consistently uses the synagogue as his initial platform for preaching the gospel as he moves from one city to the next. As was the case with Jesus’ synagogue appearance in Luke 4, so also Luke’s account of Paul’s teaching in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch not only contains a prototypical sermon ( 13:16-46 ) but also a self-revelatory statement concerning Paul’s role as missionary to the Gentiles ( 13:46-47 ). Clearly, synagogues are places where both Jews and Gentiles hear the Word of God proclaimed by God’s chosen agents.
Yet despite this display of divine power and teaching in the synagogues, the response of those who encounter Jesus and the apostles in them is mixed. To be sure, those in the Capernaum synagogue are amazed at Jesus’ actions, recognise his unique authority, and spread the news about him ( Mark 1:22 Mark 1:27-28 ). But in the Nazareth synagogue an initial amazement turns to offence and Jesus’ own amazement at the people’s lack of faith ( Matthew 13:54-58 ; Mark 6:2-6 ;Luke 4:22-23 ). In Luke’s account the people become so furious with Jesus that they try to throw him down the cliff ( 4:28-29 ). John’s account of Jesus’ bread of life discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum ends with a similar turning against Jesus, though not with violence ( Luke 6:41-42 Luke 6:52 Luke 6:60-61 Luke 6:66 ). The two synagogue healings occur on the Sabbath and thus raise the question of Jesus’ understanding of the Sabbath commandment; after the one healing the synagogue ruler is indignant with Jesus ( Luke 13:14 ), and as a result of the other the Pharisees begin to plot to kill Jesus ( Matthew 12:14 ; Mark 3:6 ).
Again the situation in Acts is similar. Paul’s synagogue preaching frequently results in Jews and Gentiles coming to faith ( Acts 13:42-44 Acts 13:48 [Pisidian Antioch]; 14:1 [Iconium]; 17:1-4[Thessalonica], 10-12 [Berea]; cf. 18:4-8 [Corinth], 20 [Ephesus]). Yet members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen oppose Stephen and bring about his martyrdom ( 6:9-14 ); an initial astonishment on the part of the Jews in Damascus turns into a conspiracy to kill Paul ( 9:21-24 ); and Jews oppose Paul’s synagogue preaching in Pisidian Antioch ( 13:45 ), Corinth ( 18:6 ), and Ephesus ( 19:9 ). Jewish opposition is such that in Corinth and Ephesus Paul is forced to move his teaching outside the synagogue ( 18:7 ; 19:9 ), and in Pisidian Antioch he is even expelled from the region ( 13:50 ). In addition, in both Pisidian Antioch and Corinth Paul responds to the opposition by resolving to turn his attention to the Gentiles ( 13:46 ; 18:6 ). Thus, synagogues serve as places where both Jews and Gentiles respond positively to the Word of God, yet also where other Jews oppose it. They therefore serve a certain transition role as the proclamation of the gospel moves from a focus on Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (within the synagogue) to one directed primarily to Gentiles (outside the synagogue).
The opposition that Paul encounters in certain synagogues is consistent with Jesus’ warnings that synagogues will be places of persecution. Jesus tells his disciples that they will be delivered to synagogue authorities ( Luke 12:11 ; 21:12 ), flogged in synagogues ( Matthew 10:17 ; 23:34 ; Mark 13:9 ), and even put out of synagogues ( John 16:2 ). The pre-Christian Paul himself travels from synagogue to synagogue in his relentless zeal to imprison, beat, and otherwise punish Christians (Acts 9:2 ; 22:19 ; 26:11 ).
Despite such warnings and instances of persecution, certain synagogue rulers fare well in the New Testament. Jesus responds to Jarius’ plea by raising his twelve-year-old daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-19 Matthew 9:23-25 ; Mark 5:21-24 Mark 5:35-43 ; Luke 8:40-42 Luke 8:49-56 ); the synagogue rulers at Pisidian Antioch invite Paul and Barnabas to preach ( Acts 13:15 ); and Crispus and his household are among the small number of Jews at Corinth who believe in the Lord ( Acts 18:8 ). Yet one synagogue ruler is indignant when Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath ( Luke 13:14 ), and another, Sosthenes (who may have become a Christian later cf. 1 Cor 1:1 ), is beaten by his fellow Jews at Corinth when their legal manoeuvres against Paul fail (Acts 18:17 ).
Some associated with synagogues do not fare as well as the synagogue rulers. Jesus criticizes those who flaunt their religiosity by seeking recognition in the synagogues for their alms giving and prayer ( Matthew 6:2 Matthew 6:5 ) and loving the most important seats in the synagogue ( Matthew 23:6 ; Mark 12:39 ; Luke 11:43 ; 20:46 ). These people are variously identified as teachers of the law ( Mark 12:39 ; Luke 20:46 ), Pharisees ( Luke 11:43 ), teachers of the law and Pharisees (Matthew 23:6 ), and hypocrites ( Revelation 6:2 Revelation 6:5 ). Such criticism indicts neither synagogues nor the majority of the Jews who attend them, but it does show how synagogues could be misused by those concerned with self-promotion.
The harshest words concerning synagogues are found in the Book of Revelation. In the letters to the seven churches Jesus twice speaks of the synagogue of Satan ( 2:9 ; 3:9 ). He notes that these people claim to be Jews, but are not; rather, they are liars and are guilty of slander. Such individuals will be responsible for the coming persecution of the church at Smyrna ( 2:10 ) and will be brought to fall down before the church at Philadelphia and acknowledge that Jesus has loved it ( 3:9 ). Such language seems to be indicative of the widening gulf between Judaism and Christianity by the end of the first century and of the tendency to view the church increasingly in terms formerly associated with the Jews ( 1:5-6 ; 7:3-17 ; 14:1-5 ; 21:9-22:5 ).
Joseph L. Trafton
Bibliography. J. Gutman, ed., The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology, and Architecture; L. I. Levine, ed., Ancient Synagogues Revealed; idem, The Synagogue in Late Antiquity; E. M. Meyers and R. Hachili, ABD, 6:251-63; S. Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century, 2:908-44.
Elwell, Walter A. “Entry for ‘Synagogue'”. “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”. . 1997.