Synagogues of Jesus' Time

Synagogues continued to be a focal point for Jewish life during the first century. By the time Jesus' ministry began, a synagogue was found in most towns of Galilee. The Gospels specifically mention those of Nazareth (Matt. 13:54) and Capernaum (Mark 1:21). Archaeologists have found scant evidence of these early synagogues, although later synagogues left substantial remains. Only one synagogue dating to Jesus' time has been uncovered, in the town of Gamla.

Typically, synagogues were placed in prominent places, on an elevated platform or high place, symbolizing the importance of living in God's presence. In some cases, the front facade had three doors. And outside each synagogue was a mikveh (ritual bath), where worshipers symbolically cleansed their hearts before entering the synagogue.

Inside the synagogue, important people sat on benches, called chief seats, which lined three sides of the room (Matt. 23:6). Common people sat on the floor, which was usually made of dirt or flagstones (or elaborate mosaics in later synagogues). Speakers and readers would stand on a small platform, the bema. And a small menorah, like the one in the Temple, probably stood there as well.

Torah readers sat in a special place called the Moses' Seat (or Seat of Honor), so named because they were reading Moses' words (Matt. 23:2). Torah scrolls and the writings of the prophets were either kept in a portable chest that was brought to the synagogue for worship or were stored in a permanent Torah cabinet (called the Torah closet or holy ark) inside the synagogue