During the Second Temple period, the synagogue was an established institution in the Jewish community in both the land of Israel and in the diaspora. It was where the people assembled to study the Torah and to pray. The synagogue also served as the center for all the community’s cultural and religious activities. During the First Temple period, the Levitical priesthood and the Temple were the exclusive centers of religious activity. As Jews returned from the Babylonian and Persian exiles, however, they brought a new approach to the religion of their ancient forefathers. The diaspora was instrumental in developing a religion that centered on the community experience.
After the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent diaspora, the Word of God—the text of the Torah—became the most significant instrument for discerning the will of the Almighty. The priesthood and the urim and tumim were replaced by the text of the Torah and the Prophets, which became the means by which a person could know what God required of him or her. We can see the signs of these changes in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8. In this book, Ezra and the priests read the Torah with the intent of obeying upon their return from the Babylonian exile. This knowledge and understanding of the Word of God became central to the Jewish community experience during the Second Temple period. We see here the birth of the synagogue as the place of gathering for public reading and hearing of the Word of God.
We must note that in the Tanakh there is no mention or hint of such an institution as the synagogue. The synagogue is strictly a Second Temple period institution. By the time of Yeshua, however, it was already fully grown and developed. It is interesting to note that the Apostles recommend that even gentiles who believe in Yeshua attend the synagogue on the Sabbath day in order to hear “Moses” being read publicly (Acts 15:19–21).
We should also note that there is a basic difference between the worship in the Temple and in the synagogue. The Temple is an innately holy institution, which receives its holiness because God dwells therein and it houses the holy implements of God. The synagogue has no such holiness attributed to it. It is a place to conduct “public business.” The significance of the synagogue was that it was regarded as the assembly of the local Jewish community, giving expression to the civic and communal spirit of the people of that community. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for synagogue mean “a gathering place.” It served as the rallying-point of the community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora.
By the beginning of the first century ce, synagogues existed in most of the cities and villages of the land of Israel. The Gospels witness that there were synagogues in Nazareth, Capernaum, elsewhere in the Galilee, and in Jerusalem. Josephus mentions synagogues in Tiberias, Dor, and Caesarea Maritima, while Philo of Alexandria says that there were many synagogues in Alexandria and in Rome. The book of Acts speaks of synagogues in Damascus, Antioch, Salamis in Cyprus, Iconium, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth. Archaeologists have found synagogue inscriptions in Greek from Mount Ophel in Jerusalem, Corinth, Korazin, and Capernaum. The Jerusalem Talmud speaks of a multitude of synagogues in Jerusalem (Meg. 3, 1, 73d).
The origin of the synagogue is sometimes attributed to the Babylonian exile, and texts are brought from Ezekiel and Jeremiah to substantiate this position. According to Safrai, these texts do not have any connection with the institution of the synagogue. The synagogue was rather instituted during the third century bce for the main purpose of reading the Torah and teaching it to the people. It was as much an institution in the land of Israel as it was in the diaspora. The New Testament and the Talmud both provide evidence that synagogues existed in Jerusalem side by side with the Temple and did not replace the Temple until after its destruction. Thus we read in Acts 15:21 that “Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Josephus and Philo further support the evidence from archaeology and tannaitic sources that the main purpose for which people gathered in the synagogue was to read and study the Torah. We see in Luke 4 that Yeshua read from the Prophets in the synagogue in Nazareth and then sat down to expound on the text and explain its meaning. This New Testament passage is consistent with the evidence that other Jewish sources present as to the activities that took place in the synagogues of the first century.
In the Theodotus inscription, for example, we read: “Theodotus the son of Vettenus, priest and archisynagogus, son of the archisynagogus and grandson of the archisynagogus, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the study of the commandments.” This inscription stands as unprejudiced evidence of the “reading of the Torah and the study of the commandments.”
When one seeks to see what Yeshua and the Apostles did in the synagogues the overwhelming evidence is that they read from the Torah and taught and expounded its meaning to the crowd:
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. (Matt 4:23)
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. (Matt 9:35)
Now when He departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him. (Matt 12:9–10)
And when He had come to his own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” (Matt ١٣:٥٤–55)
Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God! (Mark 1:21–24)
And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. (Mark 3:1)
And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands!” (Mark 6:2)
The New Testament is full of texts that speak of the synagogue as the community meeting place. The letter to the Hebrews gives a warning to the readers “not to neglect to meet together.” The Greek word used here is ἐπισυναγωγὴν (episynagogen). In contrast, the word “church” or ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) is not used in the New Testament as a place, but to denote a people or community. It is my opinion that looking into the New Testament more closely will reveal the distinction between the “church” and the “synagogue.” It is also my opinion that this difference is the key to understanding the relationship between the ekklesia/church and the synagogue. These two institutions were not mutually exclusive; they possessed a symbiotic relationship because ekklesia/church was “people” and in most common usage the synagogue was the place of worship. The ekklesia could worship anywhere, and there were times when it worshiped in the synagogue together with members of the Jewish community, who were not followers of Yeshua. To demonstrate this point let us look at the letter to Jacob (James) 2:1–8:
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well.
An analysis of this text from James reveals some interesting facts. The people who are addressed are followers of the Lord Yeshua. They have an “assembly”—the Greek phrase is συναγωγων ὑμῶν (synagogon humon), “your synagogue.” The word synagogue is used here in its first-century Jewish context. In the same gathering/synagogue there are Yeshua-believers and also those who don’t believe in Yeshua. “Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” (Jas 2:6b–7). When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wants to encourage the readers not to forsake their assembly, he uses the word επισυναγωγην (episynagogen; Heb 10:25).
In the New Testament, the word “church” never means a “building,” or an “institution,” or an “organization”—it always means a “people.” Note that there is no such a terminology as “going to church” or “worshiping in church” in the New Testament. Various texts in the New Testament describe what Yeshua-believers did when they gathered or assembled together:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:43–46)
So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying. And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. (Acts 12:12–13)
Now when they had come and gathered the ekklesia together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. (Acts 14:27)
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, “Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.” Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. (Acts 20:7–11)
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (١ Cor 14:26)
Let us examine what the believers of the first century did when they gathered together: They prayed; they broke bread together; they reported the miracles that God had done for them; they sang songs and psalms; they gathered money for the poor saints of Judaea.
We know that the Jewish Yeshua-believers in Jerusalem also went to the Temple to pray. Paul was purified in the Temple from a vow he had taken, and he also offered sacrifices. The New Testament picture of what the Yeshua-believers did when they gathered together and how they worshiped is not so different from what Jews who did not believe in Yeshua did.
In the Second Temple period there were two main models for worship and service to God. The standard model in the Torah was the “temple” and “priestly” model. According to this model, the individual worshiper is dependent on the temple and the priest who links the worshiper to God. Under this model there is a holy precinct which has innate holiness attributed to it. In order to have a temple you must have something that gives it physical holiness. The buildings are holy, as are the tools and instruments of worship, as well as the priests who serve. The worshiper who goes to the temple has very little to do him/herself. The priest does the major part of the work or service.
The synagogue, on the other hand, is the “assembly of the people.” Each person in this assembly can worship God. Each person can know the will of God by studying the Torah. Each person is equal to the person standing or sitting next to him. Each person can be a leader of the congregation and serve before the Lord. The centerpiece of holiness is the Torah itself and there is no need for a relic or a mystical presence to provide a cover of holiness. The occasion and the people are holy in the synagogue and not the buildings or the precinct. The people who gather there and make up the community are the “people of God!” In the synagogue the community is the main thing and the structure of the community is designed to function in every aspect of life, not only in worshiping God. Because Jewish practice embraces both the common/mundane and the “spiritual,” everything from the education of the children to the burial of the dead becomes a part of the community concern, that is, the synagogue.
Eight pillars have kept the Jewish community alive even during the darkest of dark periods of Jewish history: mikveh (for family purity laws); Torah schooling for children (heder); soup kitchen (beit tamchui); burial society (hevra kadisha); almsgiving to the poor (tzedaka); slaughter house (for slaughtering kosher meat); and Beit Din (a rabbinic court for settling grievances in the community).
When we talk about New Testament ecclesiology, we should look at the community of Yeshua’s followers in light of the synagogue. They studied: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” They ate together and worshiped God: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” They took care of their poor by sharing their wealth: “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common.” They gave of their money for the poor.
The function of the early ekklesia was nothing less than a synagogue. But it was also much more than a synagogue because it had additional dimensions provided by the Holy Spirit. These were related to the differences provided by faith in Yeshua and by the inclusion of the gentiles into the family of God’s children. These two areas of difference make the early ekklesia much more than a manmade institution like the synagogue. We should not forget that the synagogue is not from the Torah. The Torah knows of no such institution as a synagogue; the synagogue was established by the Jewish community without a direct command from God. If the synagogue has any divine sanction it was received a posteriori. When God poured out on the early ekklesia his Holy Spirit and opened his gates to the nations, the community of followers of Yeshua changed. Outwardly, the public gatherings and the functioning of the early ekklesia were no different than the synagogue, but inwardly these two differences brought about a great difference.
We know that the Yeshua-believers—Jews and Gentiles—attended the synagogue of their choice even after they were cast out of a few such places of worship. It was the custom of the apostle to the gentiles, Saul of Tarsus, to attend the synagogue every Sabbath. The Book of Acts gives us ample evidence that this is what he did, even when he was away from home, and when he came into a new city (e.g. Acts 17:1–2). I often wonder how those Jews would have allowed Paul to enter their synagogue, particularly if he had been dressed in a brown habit with a hood hanging on his back and a large olive wood cross on his chest, looking like a real Christian. Can you imagine such a thing?
The Jews invited Paul to read from the Torah and he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead” (Acts 17:2–3). The only way I can imagine this happening is if the Apostle Paul looked like a Jew, acted like a Jew, and spoke Hebrew like a Jew. The “early church” was, in its meetings and fellowships, a synagogue. In fact, there is evidence both in the New Testament and in the Talmudic sources that Jewish believers and Jews who did not believe in Yeshua continued to worship together until well into the second century ce. Many scholars argue that what is called birkat ha-minim in the Amida prayer was composed after the Bar Kochba rebellion precisely for this reason. This prayer was composed to separate and expose those who believed in Yeshua as the Messiah and the Son of God from the crowd in the synagogue. There would be no need to compose such a prayer if the Jewish followers of Yeshua did not attend the synagogue with their “unfaithful” Jewish brothers. The relationship between the Messianic community and the synagogue became complicated mainly because the synagogue rejected the Jewish followers of Yeshua, not because these Jewish believers wanted to leave. Most of the contacts, and in fact converts, of the Apostle Paul were made through the synagogues, where these believers were invited to preach and reason with the Jews about the Scriptures and what they teach about the Messiah. This was the case in Pisidian Antioch, as well as in Ephesus, Corinth, Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, Berea, Thessalonica, and more (Acts 13:5, 14–15; 14:1; 17:1; 18:7–8).
If we compare the early ekklesia with the early synagogue from the perspective of sociology and theology, we should see that on both of these grounds a great similarity and also a great difference exists. The similarity of the early ekklesia and synagogue is in form and style. The difference between the two is in theology and gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have enabled the ekklesia to communicate with God and to serve the community with God’s power.
Joseph Shulam was born in Bulgaria and immigrated to Israel with his family just before the establishment of the state in 1948. While in high school he was introduced to the New Testament and immediately identified with the person of Yeshua, which eventually brought him to faith in God and the Messiah. After studying in the United States, where he met and married Marcia Saunders, Joseph returned to Jerusalem, where he studied in a traditional yeshiva as well as at Hebrew University. He also founded a Messianic Jewish congregation and Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, and has lectured extensively around the world. Joseph and Marcia continue to live in Jerusalem and have two children and two grandchildren.
1 Ezekiel 11:16: “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.”
2 Jeremiah 39:8: “The house of the people.”
3 S. Safrai. The Jewish People in the First Century (Assen/Philadelphia: Van Gorcum/Fortress, 1987), 909–11.
4 Josephus, Contra Apion 2.175; Philo, Vi.Mos. 2.215–6; Op.Mun. 128; JMeg. 4, 75a; Meg. 29a.
5 R. Weill, La Cite’ de David I (1920), 1ff; T. Reinach, “L’inscription de Theodotos,” REJ 71 (1920), 46–56; CII no. 1404.
6 All biblical citations are NKJV.
7 The word “synagogue” appears several times in this chapter (verses 21, 23, 29, 39).
8 We see the same context also in Luke 4:15 as well as in other texts which reflect the fact that Yeshua visited the synagogues in the Galilee to teach from the Word of God.
9 The word “synagogue” appears 61 times in the Nestle Aland edition of the Greek New Testament.
10 J.P. Louw and E.A. Nida (eds.), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: “Synagogue.”
11 See Acts 2:44, 4:32–37, 5:1–11; Romans 15:27; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9.
12 See the discussion in Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim (Oxford University Press, 2011).