According to the New Testament Gospels, Jesus often taught in synagogues, one of which was in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), in northern Israel. The book of Acts suggests that the apostle Paul also taught in synagogues (Acts 17:1-2). But what exactly were synagogues in the first century C.E.? Were they different from modern synagogues? The answers to these questions not only illuminate stories in the New Testament, they also shed light on the early years of an important Jewish institution.
“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 (Matt 6:2), and for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289). Worship also took place in first-century synagogues, although this would not develop into something like modern Jewish synagogue worship until much later. Nonetheless, reading and interpreting the Torah and Prophets is well attested in first-century synagogues (Acts 15:21), and although scholars disagree about the extent of communal prayers, literary sources suggest that Jews prayed in at least some synagogues at this time (Matt 6:5, Josephus, Life 280-295).
Since first-century synagogues were local communal institutions, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for a centralized group that determined what took place inside of them. Although scholars used to assume that the Pharisees (the likely precursors to the rabbis) were in charge of synagogues, most first-century sources identify elders, priests, and archisynagogoi (Greek for “heads of synagogues”) as the leaders of synagogues (Philo, Hypothetica 7.12-3, Theodotus Inscription, Mark 5:22-23). Rabbinic leadership of synagogues (which is what we are familiar with today) was limited in the first few centuries C.E. and didn’t crystallize until the medieval period.
Though literary sources prove that first-century synagogues existed, there are few archaeological remains. In fact, the synagogue that stands in Capernaum today was built several centuries after the time of Jesus, and the evidence for a first-century synagogue is disputed. Nonetheless, there are remains of a few first-century synagogues in Israel and Palestine, including buildings in Gamla, Masada, and Herodium. Unlike synagogues from later centuries, which are identified by furnishings used for worship and Jewish inscriptions and art, first-century synagogues didn’t have “Jewish” features and were simply public buildings with benches along the walls. In other words, the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centers, with worship as a secondary use of the space.
Until the year 70 C.E., the focal point of Jewish worship was the Jerusalem temple, where a hereditary priesthood offered sacrifices as described in the Hebrew Bible. Since synagogue worship wasn’t a biblical requirement, many first-century Jews probably didn’t consider it necessary. Therefore, though synagogues were found in some first-century communities, their status as places of worship was limited until after the temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Without the temple, synagogues provided already-established communal institutions that would ultimately develop into the new centers of Jewish worship.