From:  Bible Authority and the Role of Silence                               Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2018






Chapter Four:

Objections to “Silence Prohibits:” 

Jesus' Use of Synagogues




Why Did Jesus Use and Worship in

Scripturally Unauthorized Synagogues?



            First of all, a little historical and mainly non-Biblical background information on the subject of synagogues.  In Acts 13:14 the term is used of both the physical building where the Jews met and later of the Jewish community that met there:  “Now when the congregation had broken up. . . .”  (NKJV); “after the meeting of the synagogue” (ESV).  (It seems irresistible to mention that we have something of a parallel between the use of “church” to describe both meeting place and membership.)  

            Lee I. Levine cites this example and notes that one inscription from Berenice also uses the expression in both senses.  There seems a regional bias, however, as to what was the preferred word to describe the meeting place:  “In Egypt, Rome, and Judaea ‘synagogue’ referred to a building, but in a number of inscriptions from Bosphorus, the community was clearly intended (in these latter cases the Greek proseuche [. . . house of worship] refers to the building).”[1]     

            Although he only applies the term to one aspect of the change, one might well describe the synagogue institution as a kind of “universalization” of Jewish worship and envolvement—or at least something close to it—in several pivotal areas:[2]


Location.  The synagogue was universal in nature.  Not confined to any one place, as were the “official” Jewish sacrifices of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.

Leadership.  The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socioreligious group.  In principle, anyone could serve at its head.  Priests might play a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their competence and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily to their priestly lineage.  Synagogue leadership was—in theory at least—open and democratic.      

Participation.  The congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, whether scriptural readings or prayer service.  This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts might never witness the sacrificial proceedings unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice.

In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the outer Women’s Court without partaking in or viewing what transpired in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts.  Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (inscriptions giving due warning were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.

Worship.  The most distinct aspect of the synagogue, however, was that it provided a context in which a form of worship alternative to that of the Jerusalem Temple developed.  The synagogue eventually came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, prayers, hymns, sermons, and liturgical poetry.  In place of the silence and passivity of the Temple’s official sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation—communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.    


            Levine cautions, however, that it took hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. for these trends to become fully developed.  He argues that in its earlier stages, religious matters only played a role in the synagogue’s life rather than being the pivotal center.  It was a “communal institution” covering much more than just a religious purpose:[3]


No other communal institution that might conceivably have competed with the synagogue for communal prominence is ever mentioned in our sources.  Within the confines of the synagogue the Jewish community seems to have not only worshipped regularly, but also studied, held court, administered punishment, organized sacred meals, collected charitable donations, housed the communal archives and library, and assembed for political and social purposes.  


Chad Spigel provides a detailed summary of what is known about first century synagogues from surviving sources and how these point to them being multi-purpose communal centers utilized for a wide range of purposes:[4]

            "Synagogue" is a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people   but also refers to the place of assembly.  Although the origin of the synagogue as         a Jewish institution is unclear, by the first century C.E. they were found in both    Palestine and the Diaspora, where they were used for a variety of communal      needs: 

            *  As schools (Josephus, Antiquities 16.43),

            *  For communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216),

            *  As hostels,

            *  As courts (Acts 22:19),

            *  As a place to collect and distribute charity (Matthew 6:2),

            *  And for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289).

            And although scholars disagree about the extent of communal prayers,   literary sources suggest that Jews prayer in at least some synagogues at this time   (Matthew 6:5; Josephus, Life 280-295).   


If we wish to challenge the scriptural propriety of attending a synagogue as a religious facility, would we similarly challenge attending a multi-use community center at a time when religious services are being held?  For this is really a lot closer to an accurate description of what synagogues were like in Jesus' day. 


            It required centuries for the “center” of the institution to change toward a clear-cut religious dominance:  “Between the first and seventh centuries C.E. . . . [t]he synagogue evolved from a community center with a religious component into a house of worship that included an array of communal activities.”[5]   

To him, it was a repeat, so to speak, of how communal/city affairs were separated from the city gate to a separate location within the urban setting.[6]  As he sees it, this occurred because in the Hellenistic era city design dramatically changed:  “Hellenistic gates had no accompanying rooms and usually no adjacent open area or square.”[7] Hence a transition had to occur.  Similarly, a major and permanent shift was forced upon Judaism due to the destruction of the Temple.

He is candid enough to admit that “the evidence here is fragmentary, at best” for the change,[8] but we would argue that


Even if the permanent destruction of the Jewish Temple site mandated a massive shift in Jewish religiosity, non-Temple sites would seemingly have been required far sooner.  Do you seriously believe that the few obligatory gatherings for mass worship required in the Torah would have been enough to preserve Judaism even throughout Judaea and Galilee without some local means as well of regularly reinforcing the lessons from Moses and the prophets? 

Remember that this is a "pre-technology" era:  manuscripts would be expensive and few would have them.  Teaching skills, like today, would be modest for most.  How could their religion survive without a religious structure that routinely provided what most parents could only do partially?  The synagogue institution would have been even more essential in the Diaspora where the societal encouragements to Jewish faith would have been far more modest if not outright nonexistent. 

Unless of course the Jewish people somehow managed to preserve their joint faith without any spiritual gatherings at all.  If you believe that is an inherent impossibility, then the development of a synagogue--under whatever name they may have chosen to call it--seems inevitable . . . and early in Jewish national history as well. 

Indeed it seems unavoidable for this to have happened long before the final Temple was destroyed.  It acted to reinforce their best spiritual desires and discourage their worst self-serving ones.  Could it be that our eyes tend to "slide over" those textual suggestions that might textually vindicate their existent?  In the process of this chapter we will see the arguments both pro and con.


            Now with this historical “back drop” out of the way, let us turn attention to Jesus’ behavior and precedent.

If there is one thing we find Jesus doing repeatedly in the Gospels, it is going into the synagogues to worship, teach, and heal.  But by what scriptural command, example, or necessary inference did these exist?  And if there was none—and none is likely to immediately come to mind for the bulk of individuals reading these words—on what basis did He do so?  If He really believed that “Divine silence is Divine prohibition” how does one possibly explain the phenomena?

(Aside:  In the bulk of cases what this expression means is that something else is clearly or explicitly authorized and that something is being done instead of what is authorized.  The sin envolved concerns not only acting where God has not spoken, but minimizing or replacing what God has authorized.  Example:  We are told to sing and it is partially or fully replaced by organs; we are instructed to sing as congregations and it is partially or fully replaced with choirs.)

            We will stress once again, however, that the impressive amount of evidence that we have presented for the “silence is prohibition” positions remains in existence.  “Proving” that Jesus abandoned the principle when it came to synagogue worship does not remove any one of those texts or arguments.  It introduces an apparent inconsistency.  And individuals on both sides of the issue are intellectually obligated to provide an explanation—not just those on my side of the controversy.  So if we don’t arrive at a satisfactory answer, drive the same question home to those who argue the opposite.  They, too, have an obligation to provide an intellectually responsible explanation . . . don’t they?    

            Paul also freely utilized the synagogues.  In Acts 17:1-2 we read of how “when they had passed through Amphip′olis and Apollo′nia, they came to Thessaloni′ca, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.  And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures.”

            One could technically argue that he didn’t go there to worship but to preach, though one can’t help but suspect that, because of the setting, both factors came into play.  When it comes to Jesus, however, the evidence is even more emphatic.  We read of how “he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day.  And he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16). 

He not only clearly came to worship, He also participated in the worship by Scripture reading—choosing a text from Isaiah (Luke 4:17-19)--and afterwards preached on the text (4:21-22)  The words “began to say to them” (4:21) suggests a lesson.  His few recorded words “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21) sound far too few to have brought the response:  And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. . .” (4:22).  The wording implies at least a short lesson on his part.              

            But did Christ participate in scripturally unauthorized worship by doing so?

            While doing computer research on this theme I discovered that one of the arguments for the existence of private, non-church enterprises publishing “gospel magazines” and even lectureships was that they are parallel to the synagogue—advocating Biblical principles but in an independent form . . . just like the synagogues never replaced the Temple. 

The Temple was the God ordained place of worship and the synagogue was a humanly invented one—not in competition or a replacement for the Temple but a totally separate collectivity established for religious and humanitarian purposes in each community wherein it was located.  (I always considered the whole thing a matter for individual decisions and never felt a need to carry my thinking any further when this kind of controversy surfaced in the 1970s.  And I even more emphatically can state that I never imagined that the scripturality of the synagogue itself could be questioned.  Perhaps my disinterest in the topic being argued simply caused me to overlook this matter.)

            When Tim Haile wrote opposing the propriety of the non-church institutions, he felt the need to explain why Jesus participated in the synagogue if all “human religious inventions” were wrong.  He points out two ways to deal with the matter.  The first is to assume that they were—in some important sense—authorized . . . but only for that particular age:[9]


Jesus lived and died under the Law of Moses.  His life and teaching were in perfect harmony with that law (Matthew 5:17, 18).  Assuming that the synagogue concept was divinely authorized by general precepts of Mosaic Law, then Christ would have violated no Mosaic principle by “participating” in synagogue activities.  And assuming that it was thusly authorized, it would have been authorized during the reign of Mosaic Law and its authority would have ended with the death of Christ (Colossians 2:14, 15). . . .   Assuming that synagogues were authorized by the law of Moses, they ceased to be authorized upon the death of Christ.   


            His own preference seems clearly that Jesus used the synagogue facilities rather than was a participant in its activities:[10]


Scripture says that Jesus “entered” or “went into” their synagogues (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 6:6; 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20).  Jesus didn’t “enter” into some business arrangement with the synagogue.  He entered into the synagogue.  Once there, His teaching was not always pleasing to synagogue members and officials (Luke 4:16-29; 13:10-17).  Passages show Jesus using a synagogue as a forum for instructing people in the true meaning of Old Testament Scriptures, and to expose the hypocrisy of religious leaders. 

The word “synagogue” does not necessarily imply religious organism.  Consequently, Jesus’ use of the synagogue does not necessarily imply authorization of the synagogue concept.  Even if His participation did show approval for Jewish synagogues, we are not under that law today. . . .

A teacher’s use of a particular worship facility or arrangement does not necessarily imply agreement with that worship arrangement or with the things that are practiced at that facility.  I may preach the gospel in a church of Satan.  That doesn’t mean that I endorse their actions or worship arrangement!  It means that I am taking advantage of that facility and of an opportunity to teach that gathering of hearers.  I agree with the above, that Jesus and Paul did teach in Jewish synagogues (Luke 4:16-21), but this does not necessarily imply endorsement of everything that was done by those synagogues. 


            Yes, He freely rebuked the Jews for their sin.  But if the synagogues were unauthorized and He freely used them, He freely used them knowing they were unauthorized and being used for unauthorized purposes.  Yet none of His rebukes hint at any criticism of these “unauthorized” synagogues existing!  Is that credible, if He really found them offensive . . . violations of “God’s law of silence?”  I have a horribly difficult problem finding that in the least credible. 

Unlike the lecture hall of Tyrannus that Paul used (Acts 19:9), that did not exist for a religious purpose at all.  A core—if not the core—of the synagogue’s existence was its religious purpose.  The synagogues were pervasive.  How could Jesus make a pattern of never assailing the propriety of their existence?

            If Divine silence permits—rather than forbids—there would be a very different situation.  On the other hand one could start with the premise that since Jesus did routinely use the synagogues that He clearly found religious authority somewhere in the Torah and prophets even if we have difficulty.  In other words, it becomes a matter of our inadequacy rather than a lack of actual authorization. 

            Mr. Haile was clearly unimpressed by the probability that there was scriptural authority for the synagogue.  He does this in the context of opposing those who contend that it is right for private businesses to promote religious knowledge (publications, lectureships, etc.) and who ground this in the “parallel” example of the synagogue:  a scripturally unauthorized structure but proper because it was not in competition with that which was authorized—worship in the Temple.  It was independently run, organized, and financed. 

            His strongest point is that this was still a religious organization and not merely the “business organization” that they wish to find authority for.  Even conceding that, I personally see no problem.  Decades ago I felt that the “Herald of Truth” (anyone old enough to remember that controversy?) would have been quite fine . . . if it had limited itself to private donations rather than trying to graft itself into the treasuries (so to speak) of a multitude of congregations.

            Furthermore, the synagogues were reasonable and responsible means to carry out for oneself—and facilitate for others—individual spiritual duties such as hearing and reading God’s law, offering Him prayers and songs of praise.  It represented the local option to not only “rest” on every Sabbath but to worship as well.  As such was it not authorized by those individual responsibilities?  Not as in obligatory, perhaps, but as in proper and appropriate.  In that case, synagogues were scripturally authorized, weren’t they?       

            It is often assumed that synagogues served such additional functions as providing a rudimentary education for young people.  Would such a practice—at least in a society that claimed to be following Jehovah of Israel—have stopped at “letters” and “numbers?”  Indeed, so far as teaching them “letters” (how to read), could they possibly have avoided scripture texts?  Would these not have played a key role in practicing penmanship?  And reading out loud for that matter?

            If such was done to educate the children, can one possibly imagine the facility not being utilized for adult spiritual education . . . what we would call the synagogue worship service?  Indeed, would it have been responsible not to?


            One individual I came across traces the origin of the synagogue (as do so many others) to the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the Temple.  He argues that in that context, the adoption of synagogue worship must have been slowed because “God had commanded that the Jews not worship wherever they wanted, but only where God would put His Name (Deut. 12:1-14)” and that place was exclusively Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 7:15-16). 

            Not exactly.  The instruction in Deuteronomy 12 was to destroy all the sites the pagan gods were worshipped in and all their idols as well (verses 1-4).  But what they were do in that place God specified is explicitly limited:  


But you shall seek the place which the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there; thither you shall go, and thither you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock; and there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you [i.e., observe all the ordained feasts there].

10 But when you go over the Jordan, and live in the land which the Lord your God gives you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, thither you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, and all your votive offerings which you vow to the Lord.  12 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.  13 Take heed that you do not offer your burnt offerings at every place that you see; 14 but at the place which the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.


            God is clearly not limiting worship to Jerusalem.  He is only limiting the proper place for presenting the required offerings and tithes.  Would that not leave open the offering of non-Temple specific forms of worship to other places, if the people chose to do so?  (Or, at least, not exclude it.)


            Michael Cobb argues that the theory that the synagogue originated during the Babylonian exile is flat out wrong.  To begin with, the Jews of the first century were (rightly or wrongly) convinced that regular teaching occurred weekly from the time of Moses, which would argue that it was at least authorized at that point.  Josephus wrote of how Moses, “Permit[ed] the people to leave off their other employment, and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week” (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, II, 18).[11]   

            Although not mentioned by Cobb, the Egyptian Jew Philo spoke of how Moses himself arranged daily and weekly meetings to discuss what God had said:[12]


(215) For it was invariably the custom, as it was desirable on other days also, but especially on the seventh day, as I have already explained, to discuss matters of philosophy; the ruler of the people beginning the explanation, and teaching the multitude what they ought to do and to say, and the populace listening so as to improve in virtue, and being made better both in their moral character and in their conduct through life; (216) in accordance with which custom, even to this day, the Jews hold philosophical discussions on the seventh day, disputing about their national philosophy, and devoting that day to the knowledge and consideration of the subjects of natural philosophy; for as for their houses of prayer in the different cities, what are they, but schools of wisdom, and courage, and temperance, and justice, and piety, and holiness, and every virtue, by which human and divine things are appreciated, and placed upon a proper footing.  (Vita Moses II, 215-216, Yonge’s translation)      


            If this actually happened, for ease of discussion and interaction, one must suppose that the daily sessions rotated from place to place within the huge physical space covered by the many thousands in the Exodus multitude.  It certainly is not illogical for such meetings to be held since it would be a practical tool to try to hold the multitude together--especially those who were supposed to be the religious leadership. 

            However “ritualistic” the Old Testament system was, it also demanded a strict code of moral behavior and there seems no practical way to indoctrinate the people except by such a method.  The Sabbath being a day of rest it would be likely that various sites within their camps would host meetings for the convenience of those within a "sabbath day's journey."  (If weekly meetings were held, this factor would automatically require that they be held in a large number of locations sometime during the day.)

            From the way the Exodus texts are written  and the excesses of behavior that erupted multiple times, one is almost tempted to say that (virtually) the only ones likely to be extremely interested were the priests and Levites who were at the core of the new religious system.  To be blunt, they had an inherent “vested interest” in knowing what was to be expected of themselves and the people they served that far exceeded the multitude itself.  Not that there wouldn't have been others as well, but that these would be "disproportionately" interested.

            Would such meetings be continued after the arrival in the Promised Land and the scattering of the people about?  Perhaps a better question would be to ask:  Would there be any reason to stop them?  Separated over an even larger distance than during the Exodus wanderings themselves, the continued meetings would be just as useful.

            Some type of systematic local worship would seem required to assure at least a core continuum of spiritual similarity from place to place.  And if it consisted of little more than the reading of a text--or repetition of a memorized text--a short discussion by the one in charge, and the offering of prayer, even “ad hoc” gatherings of this type would seem inevitable.  One can also easily imagine individuals charged with carrying various parts of the Mosaical writings from one “synagogue” to another so that more of the full message could be exposed to the various groups.

            Indeed, in those periods when most drifted away, if there were still the proverbial “two or three gathered in My name” (to invoke the later New Testament language), one can easily imagine that small core of Jehovah worshippers continuing to meet together on as many Sabbaths as they could to encourage each other’s defiance of the paganization of their people and their land.  In such cases of severely limited numbers, one might almost speak of it as essential in order to hold on to their own limited numbers.  If not on a weekly basis surely on whatever frequency that was possible.   


            Michael Cobb’s New Testament proof text for Divine authority behind the synagogues comes from Acts 15:21 and is introduced as proving that the custom of weekly worship originated with Moses.  In a similar vein Benedict T. Vivinao argues that though scholars differ greatly on the subject the New Testament seems quite clear, “The origins of the synagogue are a subject of lively controversy and great uncertainty.  Acts 15:21 attributes its start to Moses.[13]  Dan Urman and Paul V. M. Flesher, two secular scholars on the subject, also go so far as to say that “the Acts of the Apostles implies that Moses founded the synagogue.”[14] 

            The text itself reads, “For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”  The KJV has the time duration as “for Moses of old time had in every city them that preach him’ by quoting the texts he wrote.  The NIV renders it “from the earliest times.”  Weymouth has “from the earliest times” as well.

            If these don’t require that the synagogue—or something that functioned as its equivalent—existed from Moses’ time, the words surely express at least the understanding that they existed from relatively near his times. 

            A majority of translations avoid leaving this impression, however, by using a vaguer reference to “from ancient generations” (ESV, NASB) or “for generations” (GW).  Using a different term, we read of “since ancient times” (Holman) and “from ancient times” (NET).  Both approaches leave the impression that the synagogue is a long existing institution--but not necessarily going that far back.  


The minimalist reading of Acts 15:21 (= ancient but not Mosaical) leaves us with a problem, however:  If the synagogue existed so far into antiquity, are we to still assume that an institution based upon the premise of encouraging obedience to the Mosaical Law actually existed without any authority from that Law?  If so, wouldn’t its very existence be a mockery of the Law itself?

It’s called sin.  It would be just as sinful as those of my generation called the sponsoring church and the missionary society.  On the other hand, if we take the translation approaches of the NIV and Weymouth, then there was a Mosaical era or near Mosaical era beginning of the institution.  In other words, there must have been authority for it whether we find it clear cut or not. 

Which raises another point that should not be forgotten:  If there were principles that authorized it, it does not have to follow that the synagogue was actually begun during Moses' life.  So long as there was authority, it could properly have been created at any point thereafter.           


            There are two texts from the Psalms that Cobb appeals to, which would argue for the pre-Babylonian existence of the synagogue if not the explicitly Mosaical/near-Mosaical origin.  The first is Psalms 22:22.  The argument can actually be made more powerful by adding the following verse so we will do so as we quote the RSV:  23 I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:  23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!  all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!”

            Traditionally identified as a psalm of David, it can’t refer to the Temple—assuming Davidic authorship—because the Temple wasn’t constructed yet!  That wasn’t done until his son Solomon took over the reins of power.  Hence there must have been some type of religious assembly before the Temple in which a large number of people gathered together to honor God in at least psalms of praise.  (And would that be the only thing such an assembly would limit itself to?  Let’s be realistic!) 

Furthermore the instruction is aimed at “all you sons of Israel” (verse 23).  Even in a Temple context, not “all” the Israelites were at Jerusalem at one time.  Although they were supposed to attend at least three times a year for the major feasts, you’d find few if any who would argue that this ideal was normally met.  Hence the injunction would make far more sense of something ongoing that was available where they lived.  In short, something that functioned as if a synagogue.  And this in the reign of David . . . long before the Babylonian captivity. 

We are talking here of “original intent,” of its historical setting.  That the language would do “double duty” as descriptive of the Redeemer Jesus as well is certain:  See the quoting of the chapter in Hebrews 2:11-12; also the words of Psalms 22:1 being used by Jesus on the cross; cf. verse 8 of the mockery of Jesus and vs. 12 of the dividing of Jesus' clothing at the crucifixion.

This does not affect the original setting in any way, however; things could be written of the immediate time and yet match accurately and reliably what would happen in the distant future as well.  Call it "double fulfillment" or some other term if you wish.

The only way this passage can seemingly be disposed of is if we jerk it entirely out of its historical context and insist that it was intended only to apply to what would happen in the distant future through Jesus Christ.  That would make the then contemporary application nothing more than pretense and pretend language, would it not?  Certainly the contemporaries who read or heard the words would surely not have regarded it as such!

Hence some type of on-going assembly to worship God seems required--at a time when the Temple was not yet in existence.  And David was clearly thrilled about praising God within it.  Would he have been thrilled if the place were purely a place of human invention?  Even more important, would he have been inspired to speak such embracing words if it existed without Divine approval?  


            The second Old Testament text Cobb appeals to is Psalms 107:31-32:  31 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!  32 Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.”

            It is common to argue that this Psalm is post-exilic and verses 2-3 are introduced to backup this possibility:  Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble  3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.”     

            One classic conservative Protestant commentator suspected that this chapter was written for the rededication of the Temple that occurred.  Even if true, the chapter seems clearly written for a far wider usage as well:  For one thing, it speaks of “extol[ling] Him in the congregation of the people.”  If a Temple setting is assumed wouldn’t the expected reading be “in the Temple” or "in the congregation of the "priests"? 

            For that matter, is there any text describing what happens in the Temple as happening “in the congregation of the people”?  When a Temple setting is envolved, we read—for example—of how Jesus went into the Temple (Mark 11:11; Luke 2:27; John 7:14) and not “into the congregation.”

            That word suggests a non-Temple setting as well as “praise him in the assembly of the elders” (Psalms 107:32).  We read of the religious leaders gathering around Jesus to challenge Him while in the Temple (Matthew 21:23), but we conspicuously never read of His encounters being caused by His entering their “assembly.”  Furthermore, a Temple setting would more naturally suggest language such as “praise him in the assembly of the priests.”  There is absolutely no good reason to take "elders" as synonymous with "priests;" a far wider variety of individuals is surely implied by the term.   

            Regardless of the original reason he believes the Psalm was composed, Barnes himself (as the bulk of readers surely would), sees it designed for a synagogue or synagogue like environment.  His exegesis runs this way:


Let them exalt him also - Let them lift up his name on high; let them make it conspicuous.  The word means "to lift up," and is applied to praise because we thus, as it were, "lift up" God, or make him conspicuous.

In the congregation of the people - Not merely in private, but in public.  As his doings are public and conspicuous - as they pertain to all - people should acknowledge him in their public capacity, or when assembled together.

And praise him in the assembly of the elders - The old men; the men eminent for experience and wisdom.  Perhaps this refers to those who occupied some official position in public worship, as appointed to preside over that worship, and to conduct it.  We know that the arrangement was early made to appoint a body of aged men to preside over the assemblies for worship, and to direct the devotions of the people.  In the presence of such venerable and venerated men, they are here exhorted to give due praise to God. 

The "reason" for this seems to be partly drawn from what had been referred to in the previous verses - the power of God as seen in stilling the tempests of the ocean; and partly from what is immediately referred to - the blessing of God on the labors of man in cultivating the earth.


            By the way, if Barnes is right in his argument from the context in which the wording appears--that is, as to the reasons the people were to act this way--that also argues for a synagogue context since these seem to have no real connection with the supposed reason the Psalm was written—the rededication of the Temple.   

            Hence our text seems clearly to accept the existence of the synagogue—whether it was yet explicitly called that or not.  The problem is that if the Psalm is post-exilic, that is still the time period traditionally associated with the rise of the institution.  Unlike Psalms 22, our text does not necessarily push its origin far further back:  Yes, it already exists--but for how long?  If that dating is true.

            Even recognizing that limitation, are we to regard the Psalm as Divinely inspired?  If it is, then we have further positive evidence that the synagogue existed with full approval of God--for praising Him within it is not only authorized but overtly commanded.


            Cobb also appeals to the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8.  But it is typically assumed that the synagogue came into existence during the Babylonian captivity that they had returned from.  Hence this provides at least evidence that by that date a religious gathering to hear the scriptures read was already taken as a proper and appropriate activity and custom.  It does not really help us determine how much earlier the custom existed.  However it is germane to the scripturality of public religious gatherings to hear the scriptures.  Or was it only right on this sole occasion?

            There is nothing explicit about this being done on an ongoing basis and the practicality of having everyone in this single get-together argues against it becoming a custom to be regularly repeated.  On smaller “congregational = synagogue” levels, of course, that would be far different.  But there is no hint of that being set up. 

            On the other hand (1) would not local groups of the devout have considered this Divinely approved precedent and (2) could local loyalty to the Mosaical system have been cultivated and seriously maintained without it or an equivalent institution?  


            A text that Cobb does not mention —but is certainly worth introducing--is found in Psalms 74:8:  They said to themselves, ‘We will utterly subdue them’; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.”  The first difficulty that some find is in the text itself:  Is it what the original Hebrew text actually said?  The issue is not what the  current Hebrew text provides, but the discrediting of its reading on the grounds that the LXX says something different--therefore, it is argued, we need to assume that the more ancient Hebrew did as well.

            The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on this passage challenges the possibility primarily on the ground that the LXX actually renders the wording the far different, “Come, let us cause the feasts of the Lord to cease out of the land.”  This argues for a far different Hebrew text at that time.  (In our judgment, the existence of two significant textual traditions on this point would not be outlandish either.) 

            The far more recent Orthodox Study Bible rendering of the Septuagint concurs with only slight difference, "Come, let us abolish all the feasts of God for the earth."  In contrast, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (2007) renders it:  "Come, and let us burn all the feasts of God from off the land."   

Apparently there is more than one strain of the LXX or that it can be rendered reasonably in two different ways.  In either situation it is hard to see how either makes sense.  In so far as "abolishing" the feasts, they could always try.  But would that stop the private and non-public aspects of any observance?

The term “burn” seems even more odd in the connection of abolishing feasts, although I suppose the idea could be “burn out the places” where the feasts are held.  Making this a de facto abolishing of the feasts.  That seems a bit of a reach, however.


            The more powerful argument for a post-Temple date would be that this was written at a time when the gift of prophecy had long vanished and no one knew when one would appear—which would argue for a post-Temple historical context:  We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long” (verse 9).  This could, of course, mean that it had been this way so long that it was considered a permanent “fact of life.”

Alternatively (and less likely) that the disappearance of prophets was relatively recent and people were concerned how much longer it would last.  This would make it roughly comparable to the far earlier time when such things had (temporarily) lapsed:  Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (1 Samuel 3:1).  

            Most clear cut is that the destruction of the Temple reference that precedes this:


Thy foes have roared in the midst of thy holy place; they set up their own signs for signs.  At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes.  And then all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers.
They set thy sanctuary on fire; to the ground they desecrated the dwelling place of thy name.


            I originally added at this point:  In other words Psalms 74 is post-Temple and the existence of the synagogues at this last a date is not in question.  Pre-Temple destruction is another matter.

            The problem with this argument is that the destruction of “they have burned up all the meeting places of God in the land” is in the very next verse—as if contemporaneous with the destruction of the temple.  There is an inherent logic that there would be some kind of non-Temple system of worship since the factors of distance and health would have discouraged all but infrequent trips to the Temple. 

A different story, of course, if one were within Jerusalem.  But even there . . .  not if one were only a few miles outside the city for that would require a violation of the 2,000 cubit travel restriction of “a Sabbath day journey” (itself a creative application of Joshua 3:4-5).  In Acts 1:12 the modest distance from Mt. Olivet to Jerusalem is described by the term. 

Whatever date one prefers to attribute Psalm 74 to, it seems inescapable that it refers to synagogue or synagogue equivalent places of worship existing simultaneously with the Temple itself.  Not only that, but bemoaned by the Psalmist at their destruction along with the Temple.  Does that seem likely—assuming that this Psalmist is inspired—if the institution existed without Divine authority?  I think not.

To somewhat repeat, note the “all the meeting places of God,” i.e., a multiple number existed and not just the one single Temple in Jerusalem.  Furthermore they were “in the land,” i.e., throughout it, and not just in Jerusalem either.     



            As the Babylonian exile began we read (Jeremiah 39): 


He put out the eyes of Zedeki′ah, and bound him in fetters to take him to Babylon.  The Chalde′ans burned the king’s house and the house of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.  Then Nebu′zarad′an, the captain of the guard, carried into exile to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained.  10 Nebu′zarad′an, the captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.


            “The house of the people” could easily refer to some meeting place the population used for one or more purposes.  If for religious purposes, it would be “the house of the people” as in a contrast with “the house of the priests” (i.e., the Temple).  “House of the people” is retained by the ESV, but other translations normally think in terms of “houses” or “homes"--in the plural--as being under discussion. 

            If religious meeting places are under consideration, then this would prove that they were already in existence before the Babylonian exile rather than only coming in to existence at some point during it.  It doesn’t push the date back any further, of course, but it does indicate that they were in existence for an unknown period of time prior to that--since there is no hint that its existence is in any way an innovation.

            The synagogue interpretation would perhaps be strongest if one renders this as the singularhouse of the people,” as the NKJV does.  Most prefer the plural “houses” or—on the adoption of slightly different language that lays out more directly that they were residences—as a reference to the “homes” of the people.  Here we are between a rock and a hard place.  Jerusalem was far from a tiny city even then. 

            The use of the singular "house" easily hints at it being a special place, different from others.  But if this is really a synagogue the language still has an oddity to it:   Would not Jerusalem be sufficiently large to require the presence of multiple synagogues and not merely one? 

            Hence if the reference is to the synagogue, then the singular must be a reference to how what happens to one happens to each and every one--it is representative of the fate of all.  On the other hand, if we render the text as "houses" doesn't that incline the mind automatically toward these just being "residences?"  There are yet further problems in finding any reference to synagogues in this passage. . . .


            In the LXX, Jeremiah 39:8 becomes part of Jeremiah 52.  In the Hebrew, 39:8 is, as seen above, "The Chalde′ans burned the king’s house and the house of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem."  Note the contrast with the Greek of chapter 52:

            New English Translation (2007):  "And he set on fire the house of the Lord and the house of the king and all the houses of the city and every great house he set on fire with fire."  (Verse 13)

            Orthodox Study Bible (2008):  "He burned the house of the Lord and the king's house, and all the houses of the city.  Every great house he turned with fire."  (Verse 11)

            We know that much stone was used in the construction of Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 5:17-18; 6:7), that did not change the fact that much wood was used as well--huge amounts of cypress and cedar from Lebanon that required 10,000 men a month to do all the work (1 Kings 5:8-18).  Hence there was abundant wood to make huge fires.

            As Josephus describes it in his Antiquities of the Jews, chapter VIII:[15] 


                        And now it was that the king of Babylon sent Nebuzaradan, the general of

            his army to Jerusalem, to pillage the temple; who had it also in command to burn

            it and the royal palace, and to lay the city even with the ground, and to transplant

            the people into Babylon.  Accordingly he came to Jerusalem, in the eleventh year

            of king Zedekiah, and pillaged the temple, and carried out the vessels of God,

            both gold and silver, and particularly that large laver which Solomon dedicated, as

            also the pillars of brass, and their chapters, with the golden tablets, and the

            candlesticks:  and when these he had carried off, he set fire to the temple in the

            fifth month, the first day of the month, in the eleventh year of the reign of

            Zedekiah, and in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar; he also burnt the palace,

            and overthrew the city.   


            The transition from "house of the people" (Hebrew) to "house of the Lord" (Greek) is quite logical for the Temple was uniquely the house of God's people to worship.  Furthermore the transition to temple is quite logical since otherwise no mention is made of the fate of the Temple and that surely was of far more spiritual and historical significance than whatever happened to any mere synagogue!

            Historical note from the medieval period:  Although one must take rabbinic interpretation--especially from this late a date!--with more than a grain of caution, it should be noted that rabbis of this period who lived in the Egyptian region worked from the traditional Hebrew wording and they took "house of the people" as a reference to the Temple:[16]


                        The very character of the synagogue was an object of controversy among

            the Jewish religious scholars.  On the one hand, it was "the House of God"

            (Psalms 55:15), the "little sanctuary" (Ezekiel 11:16), the Temple of Jerusalem in

            miniature, and strong words were used against those who called the synagogue

            "the House of the People" (an allusion to Jeremiah 39:8). 

                        On the other hand, the messianic spirit, always alive during the Jewish

            Middle Ages, objected to any attempt at replacing the lost Temple even

            temporarily, and the militant iconoclastic tendency of Jewish religion was uneasy

            with regard to the veneration of any material objects as symbols of the presence of

            God.  One Karaite scholar went so far as to decry the worship reverence shown to

            the holy ark and the Torah scrolls as outright idolatry. 


            (In all candor,   I must confess that the wording of this scholar in regard to Psalms 55:15 and Ezekiel 11:16 leaves me confused as to whether they were regarded as references to the Temple or to much earlier synagogues--or at least the conceptual equivalent.)


            About this same time period of Jeremiah 39 we read,Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God:  Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone” (Ezekiel 11:16).  Benedict T. Vivinao believes it is credible that this is a reference to early synagogues:  "Ezekiel and the exile have also been listed as agents [in the creation of the synagogue].  See the miqdash me'at of Ezekiel 11:16, variously translated as 'a little sanctuary,' a 'diminished sanctuary,' or as 'a sanctuary for a time.' "[17]   

            The emphasis, however, seems clearly on God’s protective power while they are in exile rather than on their having a place to worship Him while there.  The idea is that God will protect the community while they are living in exile.  The emphasis is on where God is and is acting, and not on where He is worshipped. 

Creating places of meeting and worship under those circumstances—for psychological and religious reassurance and as a manifestation of continued loyalty to Jehovah—makes full sense.  But that does not seem to be in any way in the author’s mind. 

Furthermore they were to dwell in this “sanctuary” until they returned to the land of Israel (Ezekiel 11:17).  If synagogues are—somehow—under discussion, would not verse 17 most naturally imply that they wouldn’t need the synagogues any longer when they were back in their homeland?  One could attempt to counter this with the observation that, back in their homeland, they would not only have their “sanctuary” but the Temple as well.  In other words, it is the Egyptian synagogues that will become outmoded and outdated and not the synagogue institution itself. 


            Certainly some rabbis cited this as proof of the existence of the synagogue at that time while others make it refer to simply a place of Biblical study--but that would easily have set the precedent for the other:  “R. Yitzchak said:  This refers to the synagogue and study houses.  Elazaar says:  This refers to the house of our teacher in Babylonia.”[18]   

Could the act of setting up places of advanced scriptural study possibly avoid encouraging similar places for a broader cross-section of the Jewish population who did not have the economic resources for full time study?  Whether designed for “John Q. Citizen” or simply for the advanced  scriptural student, could such a place avoid becoming a place of worship over a period of time once they had returned to their homeland.  Even while in exile? 

Would not collective textual study lead to collective prayer and singing as well?  In other words, did not the combination of loyalty to Yahweh plus study of the text, inevitably lead to the creation of the synagogue—under whatever name it may have initially been called?  Even if one insists it wouldn't, can't you see the reasonableness of arguing that it just as easily could have?    

            Immediately after the rabbis we’ve just quoted comes the following:[19]


Rava gave the following exposition:  What is the meaning of the verse, “Lord, You have been our dwelling place” (Psalms 90:1)?  This refers to synagogues and study houses.

Abaye said:  At first I used to study at home and pray in the synagogue, but when I heard the words of David, “O Lord, I love the dwelling place [me’on] of Your house” (Psalms 26:8), I began to study in the synagogue. 

It has been taught: R. Elazar HaKappar says:  The synagogues and study houses in Babylon will in time to come be planted in Eretz Israel, as it says, “For as Tabor among the mountains and as Carmel by the sea came” (Jeremiah 46:18-19).” 


            Note how that, though born in a foreign country, the synagogue was viewed in that last quotation as such an inherently appealing practice that it was regarded as quite natural to bring it back to the homeland.  And to try to find an “appropriate” scriptural text to prove just how proper it actually was.  


            Psalms 26--The final text we will examine is the one cited by Rabbi Abaye above, as well as a reference a little later in the same context: 


                        I will wash my hands in innocence; so I will go about Your altar,

            Lord, that I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all Your

            wondrous works.  Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house, and the

            place where Your glory dwells.  Do not gather my soul with sinners, nor my life

            with bloodthirsty men,  10 in whose hands is a sinister scheme, and whose right

            hand is full of bribes.  11 But as for me, I will walk in my integrity; redeem me and

            be merciful to me.  12 My foot stands in an even place; in the congregations I will

            bless the Lord.  (Psalms 26)


            Liberal scholars routinely dismiss the ancient textual addendum attributing the chapter to David.  Perhaps the strongest argument in behalf of this scenario is whether David's character--remember Beersheba and the evil death plot that came out of it?--is compatible with the self-description found in this chapter.  Then there is the reference to "Your house" on the assumption that it refers to the Temple rather than a synagogue and the legitimate argument that the Temple was only built after David's death.

            As to the character argument Wayne Jackson properly objects, “It may have been written before David’s horrible sin with Bathsheba.  The Lord himself referred to David as one of 'integrity of heart' (1 Kings 9:4).  But David was never perfect; the affirmation may be a general statement of his loyalty to God (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). ”[20] 

            But what of the "altar" (verse 6) and the "house" (verse 8)?  Does that require a Temple setting?  Jackson deals with these matters--again, in the context of Davidic authorship rather than whether the synagogue existed at the time--by invoking the words of two British scholars:  "The Oxford scholar [George Rawlinston] contended that a literal rendition of v. 8b is 'the place of the tabernacling of your glory' (cf. ASV footnote).  In the wilderness, the place of God’s 'glory' was in the tabernacle’s 'holy of holies' (Exodus 40:34; Numbers 14:10).  J. A. Alexander, the highly respected Princeton scholar, thought this passage possibly referred to the 'migratory movements' of the ark of the covenant (1853, 217). The temple was never designated as a 'tabernacle' (a movable tent)."[21]    

            Applied to the issue of whether the synagogues might be under discussion, Rawlinston's reasoning argues in behalf of the premise that it is neither temple nor synagogue but the wilderness tabernacle place of worship.  If the tabernacle is in mind then the reference to the use of "altar" in a very literal sense in verse 6 would make sense.

However the use of "altar" in a literal sense seems in serious tension with the wording of the text itself:


                        I will wash my hands in innocence; so I will go about Your altar,

            Lord, that I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all Your

            wondrous works.


            To me that sounds like worshipping God through praise of Him (i.e., singing) or, less likely, teaching about Him.  The real, literal altar, however, was used for literal sacrifice and not for either of these.  Hence it would appear that the term "altar" is likely used in a non-literal sense and, therefore, would refer to neither temple nor tabernacle but to whatever place where God was praised in worship.  Does that not cover any synagogue like facility whether utilizing that particular label or not?      


            Then that still leaves us with verse 12:  "My foot stands in an even place; in the congregations I will bless the Lord."  How in the world is the plural compatible with the Temple or even the Tabernacle?  Either would be in the singular.  But if used of the places of worship independent of either--the synagogues or its equivalent--the words in the plural would make perfect sense.

            Although Jackson does not deal with the question we are raising, he does mention a verse that could be used in answering it:  "In the assemblies of the righteous he will continue to bless Jehovah (v. 12)."  In other words in the varied assemblies--hence the plural--that would be held only at the tabernacle and the temple, there would indeed be worship of God in this broader sense in multiple assemblies.  An understandable argument but one that assumes that the tabernacle is under discussion and that it was the only such place that they could properly assemble to honor and worship their Creator.

            Translating it in the singular (i.e., "assembly") would work better for the objectors' case--making it potentially easier to make it refer to only one particular location to the exclusion of all others . . . though even the singular would still not be totally conclusive since that is the only number of places any of us can be in at one time.  In that case, the existence of multiple synagogue like facilities would be quite adequate to fit the meaning of the text as well.  Those adopting the singular translation are these:

            "in the great congregation" (Common English Bible, NIV)

            "in the great assembly" (ESV)

            "in the assembly of His people" (Good News Translation)

            "in the great meeting" (New Century Version)

            "in the great congregation" (Revised Standard Version)

            Translating it in the plural, may make it even easier to assume that multiple locations rather than multiple assembles in the same place are under consideration:

            "in the assemblies" (Christian Standard Bible, Holman, NKJV)

            "in the assemblies I bless Jehovah" (Young's Literal Translation)

            "in the congregations" (NASB, WEB)

            "among the worshipping congregations" (ISV)

            "with the congregations I will bless the Lord" (Modern English Version)

            "I will praise the Lord with the choirs in worship" (GW)

            Potentially pointing in either direction:

            "among the worshippers" (NET)


            I leave the reader to judge this particular point since I have nothing further to contribute, but I judge the evidence to be significantly stronger than any temple or tabernacle reference, that synagogues--under that or some other name--were already in use at this point




Establishing Scriptural Authority

For Synagogue Like Places/Institutions



            Although we find more than one evidence of a pre-exile synagogue institution in ancient Israel, if we were to limit ourselves to perhaps the two most impressive arguments in favor of them existing earlier than the Babylonian Captivity--and with Divine approval--they would likely be these:


*  Acts 15:21:   “For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”  [At the minimum, this argues that they were ancient and would any institution have been permitted to continue indefinitely in the manner of the synagogue if God disapproved of it?  Could the apostles have avoided blasting it as an unholy creation if it were otherwise?]

*  Psalms 22:22:  I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.”


            Even laying aside the sometimes not-so-easy to lay aside evidence from other passages that we have seen . . . If these two are not sufficient to establish that the Jews had revelatory authority for establishing synagogues (and I’m strongly inclined to think they did--And you?), what else might we consider to provide indirect evidence?   


            The authority for group singing.   In Exodus 15, the Red Sea has been successfully crossed and their dangerous pursuers have drowned in the waters.  At this time—centuries before the Temple was erected—we read that the people worshipped together.  Most relevant to our current discussion are the first two verses:  Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying:  ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.  The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”

            Was this not authority for group singing in praise of God even outside the Temple?    


            Psalms 59 speaks of how it is right and proper to sing God’s praise any time of the day we wish:

16 But I will sing of thy might; I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love in the morning.  For thou hast been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.  17 O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee, for thou, O God, art my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.

            Did this right suddenly disappear when they joined with others to do so, as in the synagogue?


            Psalms 95 takes it one step further and argues that such is everyone’s duty and obligation:  O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!  Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”  Even if this is exilic or post-exilic, it is not Temple specific in anything it says in this chapter.  Assuming that one accepts this Psalm as authoritative, then we surely have recognized the right to gather together in groups to offer thanksgiving and praise to God—whether in a Temple setting or not.   


            The authority for group prayer.  We also know that there was group prayer together before the Temple was constructed, though admittedly in Jerusalem and as part of Solomon’s second anointment as national king:  Then David said to all the assembly, ‘Bless the Lord your God.’ And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and did obeisance to the king” (1 Chronicles 29:20). 

            Although the offering of sacrifices that come next (verses 21-22) were limited by other texts to the Temple, there is certainly no indication that prayer was ever treated that way.  Hence this example provides authority by approved example of group prayer while also providing authority for animal sacrifices, but the latter being limited to that one site by other texts.  This was never done in regard to prayer.


            Certain of the Psalms would seem to point in the same direction.  For example, “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name” (Psalms 30:4).  Although certainly designed for Temple use in particular, the Psalm is not just designed for any official Temple singers.  It is designed for everyone who has gone through trials and tribulations and whom the Lord has brought successfully through it (read entire Psalm). 

            Hence the theme is not Temple orientated nor is there the least that would tie it to such a location alone.  How can we conclude anything else than that it was designed for God’s people under any circumstances of joy and jubilation, i.e., anywhere and any time?

            Furthermore, was the wording intended for just individual use or group use as well?  Circumstances that would fit any location and any gathering of His people . . . well would that not provide them with authority for a collective giving of praise?  What we would normally call worship?        


            The authority for gatherings to hear the scriptures read and presented. 

We noted earlier about the public reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8.  We observed that because of its post-captivity date, it provides no real evidence of when synagogues began.  On the other hand it seems to provide clear cut authority for such to be done.  To repeat ourselves from earlier:  Or was it only right on this sole occasion?

            Ezra summoned the returnees throughout all the land:


And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel.  And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women [i.e., both genders] and all who could hear with understanding [regardless of youth or age so long as they had reached the point of intellectually being able to understand what was being said], on the first day of the seventh month.

And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday [i.e., a lengthy service], in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand [both genders and a variety of ages, again]; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithi′ah, Shema, Anai′ah, Uri′ah, Hilki′ah, and Ma-asei′ah on his right hand; and Pedai′ah, Mish′a-el, Malchi′jah, Hashum, Hash-bad′danah, Zechari′ah, and Meshul′lam on his left hand.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood.

And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped [to at least honor to God and it is hard to imagine that prayer of some type must have been utilized as well] the Lord with their faces to the ground. 

Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebi′ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab′bethai, Hodi′ah, Ma-asei′ah, Keli′ta, Azari′ah, Jo′zabad, Hanan, Pelai′ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law [in effect, teacher’s aides!], while the people remained in their places [the use of multiple “explainers” surely argues for some kind of division of the crowd into smaller, teachable units].  And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading [their purpose in teaching was to assure understandability: this may well have envolved translation or paraphrase from Hebrew into Aramaic, but could this possibly have avoided at least some exegesis as well?]. 


            Public reading of the Law outside of a Temple setting was also engaged in by Joshua (Joshua 8:30-35).


            The authority for gatherings to hear God’s word taught and explained on the Sabbath.  In regard to the prophet Elisha we read of his being sought because of a dead child, but--from the stand point of what we are studying—even more important is that seeking out a prophet was considered a quite natural and germane festival day and  Sabbath day activity:


22 Then she called to her husband, and said, “Please send me one of the young men and one of the donkeys, that I may run to the man of God and come back.”  23 So he said, “Why are you going to him today? It is neither the New Moon nor the Sabbath.”  And she said, “It is well.”  (2 Kings 4).


            Can one read this without concluding that the custom was common to meet with a prophet on the Sabbath if one could?  And this in a part of the country where the political leadership had embraced Baal!  What are we talking about here other than an occasion for hearing his words of insight and revelation and for worship in general?

            Yes, this may well not yet be a synagogue but can one avoid the conclusion that a vital prerequisite for one was being established—the gathering of a group on the Sabbath to worship God whenever it was feasible for them to do so?             


            So we know that the Jews had precedent for public assemblies to read the scriptures and to hear them taught and preached.  They also had authority for group prayer and group singing outside the context of the Temple.  Don’t we have here the key building blocks of scriptural authority for their synagogues . . . regardless of what stage of their history they began to be adopted or became common?  In other words the synagogues were scripturally authorized for their pivotal components were authorized.  

            In no way did it take any authority away from the Temple or work as a competing system.  Indeed, it provided the opportunity for multitudes in widely varied spots to revere their God when the opportunity to worship God in the single Temple that was authorized was often impractical because of distance, age, or health--or its non-existence.





[1] Lee I. Levine.  The Ancient Synagogue:  The First Thousand Years (New Haven;  Yale University Press, 2000), page 1.


[2] Ibid., page 2.


[3] Ibid., page 3.


[4] Chad Spigel.  "First Century Synagogues."  At: /en/places/related-articles/first-century-synagogues.  (Accessed:  June 2016.)


[5] Lee I. Levine.  The Ancient Synagogue, page 4.


[6] For Biblical evidence of the gate area being used in such a manner see Lee I. Levine.  The Ancient Synagogue:  The First Thousand Years (New Haven;  Yale University Press, 2000), pages 26-30.


[7] Lee I. Levine, page 31.


[8] Ibid., page 31.


[9] Tim Haile.  “Non-Church Religious Collectivities:  An Examination of the ‘Synagogue’ Argument.”  At: synagog1.htm.  (Accessed:  May 2016.)


[10] Ibid.


[11] As quoted by The Harry Cobb.   “The Synagogue:  Its Origin, Operation, and Authority for Existence.”  Dated:  May 2005.  At: issues/har233.pdf.  (Accessed:  May 2016.)  Other sources give the Josephus reference as 2:17 [175]. 


[12] The book is part of the Early Jewish Writings website.  At:  http://www.earlyjewish  (Accessed:  August 2016.)


[13] Benedict T. Vivinao.  Matthew and His World:  The Gospel of the Open Jewish Christians.  (Fribourg:  Acadmic Press, 2007), page 134.


[14] Dan Urman and Paul V. M. Flesher, “Ancient Synagogues:  A Reader’s Guide.”  In Dan Urman and Paul V. M. Flesher, editors, Ancient Synagogues:  Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery, Volume One (Leiden, Germany:  E. J. Brill, 1995), page xxi.


[15] As quoted by Lambert Dolphin.  "The Destruction of the First Temple."  At:  (Accessed June 2017.)


[16] S. D. Goitein,  A Mediterranean Society:  The Jewish Communities of the World As Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza; volume II:  The Community (Berkeley, California:  University of California Press, 1971), pages 155-156.


[17] Benedict T. Vivinao.  Matthew and His World:  The Gospel of the Open Jewish Christians.  (Fribourg:  Acadmic Press, 2007), page 134.


[18] Text of Megillah 29—tenth tractate of the Mishnah in the Talmud--at:  http://www.  (Accessed:  August 2016.)


[19] Ibid.


[20] Wayne Jackson, "Examine Me Lord--A Study of Psalms 26."  Part of the Christian Courier website.  At:  (Accessed:  June 2017.)


[21] Ibid.