He Went To Synagogue

He Went To The Synagogue

The New Testament records more than 10 occasions on which the ministry of Jesus took place in the synagogue. The Gospels record that "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues." Yet the Christian reader rarely ponders the significance of such an apparently common structure so central in Jesus' ministry.The synagogue provided a ready platform for the teaching of Jesus and later the apostle Paul. In that way, it proved to be a significant part of God's preparing exactly the right cultural practices for his Son's ministry. But more than that, Jesus, his disciples, and Paul (as well as most early Jewish followers of Jesus) went to the synagogue to worship. The synagogue was not simply a place to share God's Word, but also an important part of the Jewish people's relationship to God. It might surprise modern Christians to discover that many church practices are based on synagogue customs that Jesus followed. Understanding the synagogue and its place in Jesus' life and teaching is an important step in hearing his message in the cultural context in which God placed it.


There are many theories of the origin of a gathering place called synagogue. The Greek word means "assembly" and is used in place of the Hebrew word meaning "congregation" or "community of Israel." Originally, it probably referred to the gathered people and over time came to refer to the place of assembly as well. It is never used to refer to the Temple, which was God's dwelling place and not primarily a place of assembly for the community. No one but Levites and priests could enter the Temple. All members of a Jewish community could participate in the community life of the synagogue.

Some Jewish traditions hold that there were places of assembly for the study of Torah during the time of the Temple of Solomon. At the most, the Old Testament indicates that the practice of prayer, with or without sacrifice, which was to be so central to the synagogue, had already begun (Ps. 116:17; Isa. 1:11,15; 1 Sam. 1:10ff).

The beginning of the assembly of people for the purpose of study and prayer (the Jewish way of describing worship) appears to be the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the first Temple. Jewish scholars believe Ezekiel's reassuring promise that God would provide a "sanctuary" (11:16) for his people is a reference to the small groups that gathered in their homes during the exile to recall God's covenant, his law, and especially the redemptive promises of the prophets. It is likely that these godly people, having learned a hard lesson about the importance of obedience to God, assembled regularly to study his Torah to prevent the sins of their ancestors from being repeated. A group of experts in the law and its interpretation taught and studied in small associations at humble locations called "houses of study." These places of study, and the reflection on the need to be obedient, are the roots of the synagogue, a sanctuary to inspire obedience to God.

In spite of the later emphasis on prayer and study in the place of assembly, it is likely the main focus of the early gatherings of Jewish people was simply the need to maintain their identity as a people living in a foreign and pagan country. That the synagogue began as the center of the Jewish social life is confirmed by the fact that it was the community center in the first century as well. The synagogue was school, meeting place, courtroom, and place of prayer. In some towns, the synagogue may even have provided lodging for travelers. It was the place where small groups of Jewish students assembled for Scripture reading and discussion of the Torah and oral tradition. This meant that worship and study, friendship and community celebration, and even the governing of the community were all done by the same people in the same place.

It appears that the early church patterned itself after the synagogue and continued the same practice of living and worshiping together as a community, often in private homes (Acts 2:42?47). The modern "assembly" of Jesus' followers would do well to remember that the roots of the church are in a community living and worshiping together. Worship (prayer) was a natural extension of the life of the community.


By the first century, a synagogue was found in most of the towns and villages of Galilee. The Gospels specifically mention those of Nazareth (Matt.13:54) and Capernaum (Mark 1:21). Archaeological evidence is scant for those early synagogues, though later ones left much more substantial remains. Typically, they were built on the highest point in town or on a raised platform. As long as the Temple stood in Jerusalem, synagogues apparently did not face Jerusalem.

In some cases, the front facade had three doors. Inside there were benches on three sides of the room. There was a small platform where the speakers or readers would stand, and it is possible that a small menorah (a seven-branched candlestick), like the one in the Temple, stood on that platform. The floor was usually dirt or flagstones, and common people probably sat on mats on the floor, while the important people sat on the stone benches (Matt. 23:6). In later synagogues, elaborate mosaics with a variety of designs covered the floor (none exist from Jesus' time).

There was a seat for the reader of the Torah called the Moses Seat (or the Seat of Honor), because the Torah recorded the words of Moses so the reader was taking Moses place (Matt. 23:2). The Torah scrolls and the writings of the prophets were either kept in a portable chest and brought to the synagogue for worship or were kept in the Synagogue itself in a permanent Torah cabinet (called the holy ark). Outside was a Mikveh (ritual bath) for the symbolic cleansing required for entrance into the synagogue.

Local elders governed the synagogue, a kind of democracy. While all adult members of the community could belong to the synagogue, only adult males age 13 or older could be elders. A local caretaker (unfortunately sometimes called "ruler" in the English Bible), called the hazzan, was responsible for maintaining the building and organizing the prayer services (Mark 5:22, 35?36, 38; Luke 8:41-49, 13:14). The hazzan was sometimes the teacher of the synagogue school, especially in smaller villages. He would announce the coming Sabbath with blasts on the shofar (ram's horn). Although the hazzan was in charge of worship services, the prayer leader, readers, and even the one who delivered the short sermon could be any adult member of the community. All were recognized as being able to share the meaning of God's Word as God had taught them in their daily walk with him. In this way, the community encouraged even its youngest members to be active participants in its religious life. (Jesus' encounter with the wise teachers in the Temple courts was unusual not so much because of his age, but because of the wise questions he asked, see Luke 2:41-47.) The hazzan also cared for the Torah scrolls and other sacred writings and brought them out at the appropriate times (Luke 4:1-20). Priests and Levites were welcome to participate in synagogue life, including worship, but they had no special role except that only priests could offer the blessing of Aaron from the Torah (Num. 6:24?27) at the end of the service.


While the synagogue building functioned as a community center, school, court, and place of study during the week, on the Sabbath it served as the place where the assembly met for prayer (1). When the first three stars could be seen on Friday evening, the hazzan blew the shofar to announce that the Sabbath had begun. The people gathered at twilight to eat the Sabbath meal in their homes. All the food was already prepared because no work was permitted during this time in most traditions.

The following morning, the community gathered in the synagogue building. The service began with several blessings offered to God. The congregation recited the Shema: "Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one"(Deut. 6:4). The Torah scrolls would be brought out by the hazzan and would be read in several portions, sometimes as many as seven. Different people were scheduled to read a portion each week. The readings were determined according to a set schedule, so the reader would have no choice of the passage read.

Following the Torah portion, a section from the prophets (called the Haphtarah) would be read by the same or another reader. After all readings, a short sermon would be offered, often by the reader of the Torah or Haftarah. Any adult member of the community was eligible to speak the sermon called the derashah. The sermon was frequently quite short (Jesus spoke only a few words, Luke 4:21). The service ended with a benediction using the Aaronic blessing found in the Torah (Num. 6:24-26), if a priest was present to offer it.

Jesus spent much time in synagogues (Matt. 4:23). He taught in them (Matt. 13:54), healed in them (Luke 4:33-35; Mark 3:1-5), and debated the interpretation of Torah in them (John 6:28-59). Clearly, he belonged to the community of the synagogue, because when he visited Nazareth, he was scheduled to read the Haphtarah (Luke 4:16-30) and may have read the Torah as well as he concludes with a provocative derashah. This is a remarkable example of God's preparation, as the passage Jesus read was exactly the passage that he used to explain his ministry.

The early Christians continued to attend synagogues, though with a new interpretation of the Torah, now that Jesus had been revealed as Messiah (Acts 13:14).

The new community of Jesus was born out of the synagogue. Believers were to become assemblies, not single individuals seeking God alone. We address God as "our Father" because we are his assembly. We are one body because we are made that way through Jesus (1 Cor. 12:12-13). In our fractured, broken world, with all its self-preoccupation, the model of the synagogue, the picture of the community of God, presents an alluring message. We would do well to understand the synagogue of Galilee.


Boys and girls went to school in Galilee though boys continued till they were 15 if they displayed unusual ability while the girls were married by that time. Students probably attended school in the synagogue and were taught by the hazzan or a local Torah Teacher. Study began at age five or six in elementary school, called bet sefer. The subject was the Torah and the method was memorization. Since the learning of the community was passed orally, memorization of tradition and God's Word were essential.

At first students studied only the Torah. Later they began to study the more complicated oral interpretations of the Torah. Question-and-answer sessions between teacher and student were added to the memorization drills. The more gifted students might continue after age 12 or 13 in beth midrash (meaning "house of study," or secondary school). Here began the more intense process of understanding and applying the Torah and oral tradition to specific situations. The truly gifted would leave home to study with a famous rabbi to "become like him" as a talmid (disciple). Although their discussion and study might be held in the synagogue, these disciples would travel with their rabbi, learning the wisdom of Torah and oral tradition applied to the daily situations they faced.

By the time a person was an adult, he knew most of the Scriptures by heart. If someone recited a passage, the audience would know whether it was quoted accurately or not. Jesus, in keeping with his culture, would simply begin with "It is written ..." knowing his audience would recognize an accurate quote.

The Mishnah (the written record of the oral traditions of Jesus' time and after) recorded that the gifted student began study of the written Torah at age five, studied oral traditions at age 12, became a religious adult at 13, studied the application of Torah and tradition at 15, learned a trade at 20, and entered his full ability at 30. Although this was written after Jesus, it represents the practice of his time. It is significant that he came to Jerusalem at age 12, already wise; then he learned a trade from His father until his ministry began at age 30. His life seemed to follow the education practices of his people quite closely. He surely attended the local school of Nazareth and learned from great rabbis as well. Being addressed as "Rabbi" certainly indicated someone who had learned from a rabbi. He certainly selected a group of students who followed him, learning as they went. And everywhere his audience had the knowledge of the Bible on which Jesus so often based his teaching.


(1) Christians describe the church activity of formal interaction with God as "worship." Jews describe the same activity in synagogues (or, in Bible times, in the Temple) as "prayer." In Jesus' parable, the tax collector and Pharisee go to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). Their activity certainly included prayer, for going to the Temple to pray meant going at the time of worship and sacrifice. The Temple is called the House of Prayer (Isa. 56:7; Luke 19:46), meaning "the place of worship."