Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Synagogue

An institution of less antiquity and pretension than the Temple, but one which was destined to outlive it, and to play an important part not only in the history of the Jewish religion, but also in the formation of the Christian Church, was the Synagogue. Both in the Talmud and the New Testament it means a meeting-house for religious purposes, a description which explains with tolerable accuracy the object of the numerous places of worship which existed in every town and village of Palestine in the time of Christ. The two main elements which contributed towards the formation of the synagogue were the centralization of the whole Jewish sacrificial system at one place the Temple of Jerusalem—and the determination of the scribes to impress the Law in indelible characters on the heart and mind of every one who called himself a Jew. The effect of making the Temple the only sanctuary in which it was permissible to offer an acceptable sacrifice operated in two ways it elevated the character of the old popular religion at the expense of its vitality, and in the second place it destroyed the ancient seats of sacrifice, and deprived the people who lived at a distance from Jerusalem of the religious privileges which they had formerly enjoyed. In these circumstances it became imperative, while maintaining the exclusive prerogatives which the Temple had acquired, to devise some religious institution to supply the place of what had been lost. But to inaugurate such a change after the Exile might have proved an impossible task if the germs of the synagogue had not already sprung up among the captives during their enforced sojourn in Babylonia. In the dark days of the Exile it had become a custom with the deported Jews to meet together at stated times to console and comfort one another, and to fortify themselves in the faith of their fathers by the reading and expounding of the Law. This custom did not openly conflict with the pretensions set up on behalf of the Temple, it was accordingly continued after the Return, and so palpably met the requirements of Jewish religious life, that it ultimately developed into the synagogue, and became an established institution, with its roots firmly fixed in the affections of the people. For the diffusion of the Law among the whole community the synagogue was admirably adapted, and it is questionable if the Law would have survived the rude shocks which were awaiting it, had the synagogue not existed and held its precepts before the popular mind. No wonder that the scribes, the men whose whole lives were absorbed in the teaching of the Law, did their utmost to exalt the synagogue. It was an unsurpassed instrument for the propagation of their ideas; they accordingly invested it with Divine sanctions, and ascribed its origin to Moses himself.

As far as it is possible to judge from the ruins of old synagogues which still exist in the northern parts of Galilee, these places of worship were of very simple construction, and like Jewish buildings in general, they could lay no claim to architectural distinction. The site for a synagogue was, as a rule, selected because of its proximity to the seashore or to a running stream; and this choice was made for the purpose of enabling the worshippers the more easily to perform the ablutions prescribed for those about to enter a house of prayer. The synagogue was generally rectangular in form, with a portal constructed in accordance with the Greek style of the period, and an exuberance of spiral ornamentation essentially Jewish in character. The interior of the sacred building was of equal simplicity with the exterior. The chest in which the rolls of the Law and the other holy writings were kept was the most notable piece of furniture. It is probable that in the time of Christ there was a reading-desk for the use of the person who was chosen to read the Scriptures, and it is also likely that the reading-desk stood upon a raised platform to allow the reader for the day to be more easily seen and heard by the assembly. Around the reading-desk seats were arranged for the people, the women and the men, as is generally believed, sitting apart in two different portions of the building. The front benches appear to have been intended for the old men, and the places further back for the younger ones.

In New Testament times the doctors of the Law and the wealthier members of the community loved the privilege of sitting in the foremost seats. In imitation of the Temple, a lamp was kept burning in the synagogue; and trumpets to announce the days of fasting and the advent of the new year also formed an indispensable part of its equipment.

In all those districts of Palestine where a purely Jewish population preponderated, and where the people in consequence were presumably under the sway of Jewish law, the local Senate or Council of Elders possessed both civil and ecclesiastical authority, and played an important part in managing the affairs of the synagogue. The exercise of ecclesiastical discipline was in the hands of the elders; and it lay with them to decide who should be admitted to the services of the synagogue, or who should be expelled and excommunicated. In the time of Jesus this power was in full operation, and decrees of expulsion were unquestionably put into force against His followers. Expulsion from the synagogue does not appear to have been at this period accompanied by the infliction of civil penalties, although the rabbis regarded everyone who was banned as richly deserving them.

It is also probable that the elders enjoyed the right of appointing the permanent officials of the synagogue. The most important of these was the Archisynagogus, or, as he is called in the English version of the New Testament, the Ruler of the Synagogue. He is not to be confounded with the Archon or head of the civil community, although the same person sometimes held both offices at once. In general, the Ruler of the Synagogue was chosen from among the elders; it is probable that he was frequently a scribe, and his duties consisted in looking after the structural requirements of the sacred edifice, and in superintending the conduct of the appointed services. It devolved upon him to see that order was preserved in the synagogue, and to take care that nothing occurred which seemed to him inconsistent with traditional ideas of reverence and the obligations of the Law. It did not specially appertain to him to take any active part in the performance of the service: it is possible that he may occasionally have done so, but his functions in this matter were, strictly speaking, confined to procuring suitable persons from week to week to offer the accustomed prayers, to read the appointed portion of Scripture, and to preach before the people on the Sabbath day Besides the Ruler of the Synagogue there was also a servant or attendant, who acted as a kind of verger. His duties, as far as can be ascertained, consisted in cleansing the synagogue, in keeping the lamps alight, in opening and shutting the doors before and after service, and in handing the Scripture roll to the reader for the day. It is also supposed that the teaching of the children fell upon him. As those who were condemned to be whipped received this form of punishment in the synagogue, it is very probable that the synagogue attendant was entrusted with the execution of the sentence. Alms were also collected in the synagogue, but it is questionable if any particular official was delegated to perform this duty in the time of Jesus.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


Every synagogue was open for Divine service at least three times a week on Mondays and Thursdays as well as on the Sabbath, and it is probable that the larger synagogues were opened daily at the three accustomed hours of prayer. On the first day of the month, and on the recurrence of the religious festivals and holy days, there were always services in the synagogue. The services on week-days and on Sabbath afternoons were of a comparatively simple character, and principally consisted in the repetition of certain prayers and the reading of passages from the Book of the Law. Sabbath morning was the time when the most important service took place. It was opened with prayers, and while these were being repeated by the person who for the day had been entrusted with this duty, the whole congregation stood up and turned their faces towards the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem. This was the attitude in which all prayers were said. A fixed portion of Scripture, taken from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers, and which constituted a kind of Creed, was then recited by the reader, after which he repeated a few more prayers, and this part of the service, which was called the Schema, came to an end. The reading of what may be called the Lesson for the day was then commenced. It consisted of a certain number of verses from the Pentateuch, which had been divided into a hundred and fifty-four portions for the purposes of the synagogue, and these divisions were supposed to be read from beginning to end every three years. The reading of the lesson was a very elaborate proceeding, for which no less than seven men were appointed by the Ruler of the Synagogue. Each of these men read at least three verses of the lesson, and these were immediately translated verse by verse from the Hebrew of the original by an interpreter into Aramaic, the language in common use among the population of Palestine in the time of Christ. It is still a matter of doubt whether the office of interpreter was a voluntary duty, undertaken by someone acquainted with both languages, or whether it was placed in the hands of a special and permanent official. This part of the service was both begun and ended with an expression of thanks to the God of Israel.

As the prophetical books were not invested with quite the same attributes of sanctity as the Law, they were not read till the lesson from the Law was finished. No fixed order of lessons for these books was in existence in the days of Christ, and the reader was apparently allowed a certain liberty of choice as to the passages he should select for the edification of the people. The aid of the interpreter was also required at this part of the service, but the same care was not exercised in translating the original text, and after three verses or even more had been read, the translator generally contented himself by giving a kind of paraphrase of their contents. The passages read from Scripture formed the basis or text for a practical discourse to the congregation, and there can be no doubt that the Christian sermon had its origin in the teaching and exhortations which prevailed in the synagogue. Most of these discourses opened with an explanation of the text, which often received a highly strained or allegorical interpretation, and was made to give a sacred sanction to some doctrine or practice which commended itself to the scribes, and which they wished to popularize. For it was the scribes who generally taught in the synagogues; they were the men who had made the Law the study of their lives, and the hold which they in consequence obtained over the masses invested them with an authority which compelled attention and respect. To teach in the synagogues was not, however, an exclusive privilege of the scribes. It was an office which might be undertaken by anyone who felt himself competent to perform it, and this is the reason why Jesus was able, according to St. Luke, to begin His ministry in the synagogues, and to make them of such utility in spreading the doctrines of the kingdom of God. It was customary for the people to listen in silence to the exhortations of the preacher, but when he said anything to displease them, murmurs of discontent ran through the assembly; questions were put to him, and in certain cases he was requested to hold his peace. The service ended with a benediction, and if a priest were present it was his privilege to pronounce it.

It was mainly owing to the admirable provision which the synagogue had made for the religious needs of the people, that Judaism was enabled to survive the overthrow of its central sanctuary, and to exist independently of a hereditary priesthood and a sacrificial system. These institutions had existed for centuries, and were associated in the mind of every Jew with the essentials of his faith, but when he was irremediably deprived of them, the synagogue was fully competent to supply the want, and to offer him the means of maintaining his religious individuality unimpaired. It was a more flexible institution than the Temple; it was better adapted to encounter the vicissitudes to which the Jewish race was constantly exposed; it was not rooted to the soil of Palestine, but was capable of being transplanted without injury to any quarter of the globe.

The Jewish colonists, who helped to people the great cities of antiquity, were not obliged to leave their religious observances behind, when they sought a home beyond the confines of their native land. Wherever a few of them could meet together to read the Law and the prophets, and to hear the wonderful record of Jehovah's dealings with their fathers, there a synagogue at once came into existence, to nourish their religious aspirations, and to strengthen their devotion to the faith. According to Philo and Josephus the purpose of the synagogue was to promote the moral and religious edification of the community, and the teaching to which the congregation listened every Sabbath day was in the main directed towards this great end. It sometimes happened that the exhortations in the synagogue descended into minute and petty details, respecting ceremonial and other external observances to the neglect of the weightier matters of the Law; but this was a blemish which only affected one portion of the service, and did not always occur. It was impossible to frequent the synagogue without becoming thoroughly familiar with the lofty moral elements contained in the Law; and the great ideals of righteousness, mercy, and humility enunciated in the impassioned language of the prophets must have stirred the popular imagination, and sunk deep into the national character and life. It was the synagogue which achieved this immense result, and tended to make some of the highest standards of human excellence the common property of the Jewish race.