Judaism in the Second Temple Period: Synagogues

A third factor in the “background” of the Gospels is Judaism, but specifically the form (s) of Judaism representing in the so-called Second Temple Period.  This period technically runs from 538 BC through AD 70, but the focus of attention is usually on the later part of that period because of the documentary evidence. We simply have a wealth of writings from the Maccabean period (after 165 BC) through the end of the first century, including the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus and Philo.  There are many more documents which date to this period as well.  In addition to the texts, the archaeology of the later part of the Second Temple period is far more detailed than the pre-Maccabean period.  Over the next couple of posts I want to unpack a few important elements of Second Temple Judaism as background for reading Jesus.  This is not a complete treatment of the topic – there is far more to be said (books to be written lectures to be given, etc).

One feature of Jesus’ ministry which in the Gospels is his teaching in the Synagogue.  Since many Jews could not regularly travel to the Temple to worship, the synagogue was the center of spiritual life. Prayers and the study of Scripture was of importance to the spiritual life of the Jews. In fact, Philo indicates the primary purpose for going to the synagogue was to study scripture (On the Creation of the World, 128).

How often the average Jew studied the scripture is unclear. This may refer to simply going to the synagogue and heard the scripture read (especially for the non-educated who would not be able to read.) Scrolls were expensive, only the wealthy would be able to own a scroll to study.  Communities bought scrolls for use in the synagogue.

Synagogue at Gamla

While we do not know when the synagogue was first used, we do know of synagogues dating to the first century (in the town of Gamla and one in Masada and the Herodian, likely built by Zealots long after Herod’s time). Often synagogues were built over the site of an older building, accounting for the lack of first century archaeological remains. The synagogue at Tiberias was large enough to hold a crowd gathered to discuss the impending war (Life, 277, 280, 290-303). We know from the Bible that both Jesus and Paul taught in synagogues regularly.

Philo describes the synagogue meeting which took place on Sabbath: a priest or elder would read from the scripture and comment on the text while people listened, then anyone who was moved to comment would do so. Usually they simply sat in silence and listened. Essenes were taught in the law everyday, but more so on the Sabbath.

The synagogue as designed with benches around the perimeter to encourage participation by all in attendance (Mark 1:14-15, 6:1-5). This facilitated discussion of scripture after it was read. While there may be an attendant, it is wrong to think of him as a “pastor” since his role has making the building ready for those who came to study.

It is not surprising to read in the Gospels that Jesus frequently visits synagogues to teach. A traveling rabbi might be asked to read scripture and perhaps give a brief comment or homily on a text. This might be a small group of men gathered to study or a larger Sabbath service.  Synagogues were small in the first century, so Jesus’ teaching there would have been intimate and likely with a great deal of discussion and questions.  These opportunities gave Jesus a chance to interact with Jews who were interested in studying scripture, giving him the opportunity to present the coming “Kingdom of God” to people who were likely looking forward to it the most. Often Jesus encounters resistence in the synagogue from other teachers (scribes or Pharisees), but this is nothing unusual since the method of teaching frequently used at the time was “scribal debate.”

Masada Synagogue

It is important to understand Jesus in the context of first century Galilee, and this includes his visits to small synagogues to talk about the Scripture with a few people at a time.  It is not helpful to think that these synagogues were large forums where Jesus was able to speak to hundreds at a time in a Christian-style pulpit.  These were small gatherings where Jesus could expect to find people who were interested in what the Hebrew Bible said and how in applied to their lives at that particular time in history.

Jesus went to where people were and engaged in the type of discussion they might have expected in that place.  Some people think Jesus established a church (rented a local gym, started Saturday night services, worked up a rocking praise band, etc.) He was not creating “church” but working within Judaism to understand the Scripture. Perhaps there is something of a model for ministry here!

12 thoughts on “Judaism in the Second Temple Period: Synagogues

  1. I’m very taken by your description of the synagogue meetings as rather intimate gatherings, furnished to facilitate participation and characterized by questioning, even apparently adversarial questioning at times, a la “scribal debate.” There’s a model I’d like to see taken up by Christian bible study!

    But it also indicates another way in which Jesus made himself vulnerable. We think of his vulnerability on the cross, of course; but deliberately going and presenting your interpretation of the scriptures in a forum that is designed for people to challenge you is certainly an act of intellectual vulnerability.

    The more I think about this, the more I really like the idea that Jesus wanted people to question his ideas. Well, if he wanted that when he walked this earth, is it reasonable to suppose that he wants it now?

    • I like that, Jesus made himself vulnerable. He certainly taught in the place that likely would result in a positive response, but it was equally possible they would run him out in anger. (Paul follows the same model in Acts, leading to more than one riot!) I think that questioning ideas is part of what makes Jewish (biblical) faith vibrant, all the “great men of the Bible” question God to some extent, but always return to their faith in God’s sovereignty.

  2. For some reason I have always had a negative perception of synagogues. I think it is because it is in the synagogues where we see so many teachings and conversions that we assume the synagogues are filled with very sinful people that need to be straightened out. But that isn’t necessarily what synagogues were. “Synagogues were Jewish meeting places for worship, education, and community gathering” (Four Potraits 129). Synagogues were a place for the community to gather and read the Law, teach, and discuss.
    Acts 13:14-48 is a great example of this. Paul entered the synagogue, and after they read from the Law, stood up to speak a message to the people there. At the end, the people there were curious about the message he spoke and invited him to teach them more. Even though some responded with anger, some did listen and believed. Verse 48 says, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the Word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” I think that synagogues were seen as great opportunities. The open discussion and interest in religious things set up a great opportunity for someone to preach the gospel. So where are the ‘great opportunities’ in the modern world? I think with a culture focused on relationships those opportunities are definitely out there. I think the church can use this idea of discussion and relationships to draw people in to hear the gospel.

  3. “we assume the synagogues are filled with very sinful people that need to be straightened out.” Wow…that is just about the opposite of the case, they would be the least sinful (although still in need of a fair amount of straitening!)

    I am not sure that there can be a “synagogue = church” equation since synagogues were more like community centers or educational sites as well. What is a modern equivalent? A coffee shop? The YMCA? A student commons at a local Bible college?

  4. I used to have the same view as Josh on synagogues but after reading the verses he listed, I see that the synagogue with a place where in fact, the Word of God was preached. Reading in Acts made me see that when Paul preached there, it was not for people to argue, but for people, whether or not they agreed, wanted to hear the Word of the Lord. The verse that he posted states just that, “They heard and were glad and honored the Word of the Lord.” They understood the importance of it and that it was not merely man’s teaching, but God’s Word. They did not go there to hear a sermon, a teaching, or someone shove the Word down there throat, but to in fact, hear the Word of God preached.

    I like how P. Long pointed out the modern day synagogues. The synagogue was just a place to gather and read and discuss the Word.

  5. Until this point, I never realized how important synagogues were to Jesus’ ministry. I always thought that the Jesus would be at the temple more often to teach rather than at the synagogues. However, the synagogues were a place where people who were interested in learning more about the Hebrew Bible could come. Strauss mentions in Four Portraits, One Jesus that in synagogues there were readings from the laws, confessions of faith (Shema), and sermons. I think an interesting point was made earlier when someone mentioned that Jesus went to where people were and engaged in their conversations. Jesus gives the news that the Kingdom of Heaven is near to common people. Does this imply that the leaders in the Temple were in some sense blind to Jesus purpose on earth? That they were not interested to learn more about Jesus’ teachings or did they believe that Jesus was a false prophet?

  6. I have a side question, off the main topic of this post. When Jesus visited the synagogues and spreached (spoke and preached) did he know Hebrew? I was under the impression that Jesus was a carpenter’s son, so he did not have the education of that of one studying under a Rabbi. Or am I wrong and all young boys were taught Hebrew no matter what their fathers did? In Mark 6:1-5 it said that Jesus spoke and the people were amazed, so would that mean that Jesus just knew Hebrew because he was God? I would like to think that that is the case, but I am unclear on the actual answer so I would like to know what you think on that.
    More on topic, Josh mentioned in his post about “great opportunities to preach the Gospel” but I view the synagogue as more of a Big Church “service” setting… P-Long you mention that it is more of a “local bible school commons” type of situation, yet I think that is contradictory to how the Synagogue is portrayed in the book Four Portraits and in the bible. I think it takes on more of a formal look than that of an informal class like discussion area. Is that a correct assumption/assessment?

  7. I find it interesting that Jesus did not come and establish “churches” or preach from pulpits. His ministry in the Synagogues during his life time was in intimate settings with the “common” people, instead of the high up people where questions and talking was encouraged. In his life he, in some aspects, rebelled against the set “standards” by the Pharisees and Sadducees. In other aspects He fit into the Jewish life style and daily routine enough to where the people could relate to him and learn about the “Coming Kingdom.” I agree that it was more ministry than building churches, and I think that our churches today can learn something from that. A lot of churches today become focused on that particular group of people, they get in a rut, and they stay within themselves, they get comfortable. They need to do more of what Jesus did, go out and minister to the lost, teach them so that they can become the teachers. Yes, it is good to have fellowship in the church for encouragement, as it says in Hebrews 10, but it shouldn’t just stop there. The encouragement should encourage us to keep going, to keep reaching out to others.

  8. The difference between the Temple and the synagogue is quite intriguing. While the Temple “was the center for Israel’s religious life” (Strauss 160), it is interesting that the synagogue was in fact the center of actual learning for most of those living in Israel. It was much more accessible and recalls almost a hybrid of a church and community center. I found it very interesting to read that a synagogue could be formed wherever only 10 Jewish men were present and that any qualified person was welcome to read or teach (Strauss 165). This knowledge of what a synagogue was at that time truly does bring a better understanding of the background to Jesus’ ministry. It makes sense how Jesus would have used such an intimate setting to teach. Could it be because the leaders of the Temple were known to be unapproachable? Or the fact that open discussion was welcome in the synagogue? Jesus was bringing a message of hope and salvation, and the way a message is delivered is just as important as the actual message. To have a place where people could not only hear his teachings but interact with Him would bring a personal tone to this message of salvation. I agree that this model is something that we can use in today’s church. Even the description you give in the blog of how the benches were set up in such a way to facilitate discussion is something that rings true today. Using small group settings can bring a different level to studying God’s word than a Sunday morning sermon. While both are important and beneficial, the additional openness of discussion in a smaller setting can be so beneficial in learning. I also find your comment about Jesus working “within Judaism to understand the Scripture” (Long) to be a reminder of how important it is to be mindful of meeting people where they are.

  9. I did not realize how much of a challenge it was to get a hold of scripture back in the day. For us it seems so common and normal to have access to the word. If one cannot afford it or does not go to the synagogue to hear it, it is unknown to them. They can’t just download it on their phones or have it on hand like we do. “The synagogue was the primary institution through which Jewish religious instruction was passed on from one generation to the next. It was here that Jews would gather for prayer, fellowship and to hear regular readings and expositions of the Scriptures” (Tomasino, 233). It shows how valuable Scripture was to them compared to how believers see it now. We have had it too easy to realize how important of a gift it is to have the kind of access we do to Scripture at any time and any place. It is also so interesting the structure of the synagogue and how they made it a point to make it a space that allows discussion and participation. I think that I always thought that synagogue was just like church in modern day in the basic sense that we go there to learn something new and fellowship, but it was so much more to them because of their lack of access to knowledge of the Scripture.

  10. I found this a very helpful clarification of the difference between the synagogues and the temple. I knew they were different places, but I did not understand the significance of each and the different functions of them. The origin of synagogues is somewhat unclear but, “most historians argue that the synagogue system originated among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, in the sixth century B.C. It’s widely believed that the Jews in that foreign land began meeting regularly to preserve their religious traditions in the absence of the temple and sacrificial cult” (Tomasino 233). The synagogues were where the Jews studied the scriptures, received spiritual guidance, and learned. I also think it is very interesting that their learning in the synagogues was conversation-based. I had always thought of it more like our church services where we sit and listen to a preacher, but in the synagogues, there was scripture reading and then those who were moved to speak were encouraged to do so. Even the structure and layout of the synagogue were designed so that those in attendance could converse and discuss the scripture. This makes a lot more sense in the context of Jesus visiting synagogues and debating with the Rabis. I never really understood how this worked, but reading the explanation of synagogues and their function helps it make a lot more sense. The only thing I wonder is how common were synagogues? How many of them were there and how popular were they? Was there one in every town?

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