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Exploring the Practices and Customs of the First Century Synagogue

Did you know the purpose of the synagogue changed a few decades after Christ's crucifixion?

Marc Turnage, the executive director of the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies, provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, he provides insights to the purpose of the first century synagogues compared to later centuries and how archaeology sheds light on the biblical text, which in turn is shown to be accurate in its descriptions.

Modern readers of the New Testament are often confronted with a frustrating reality that the New Testament authors wrote without explaining important details. They did this because their original audience understood them. One can see this especially with regard to religious practices and institutions, and spiritual expressions. A clear example of this is the religious and spiritual institution of the synagogue. Throughout the Gospels and Acts, Jesus and his disciples frequent the synagogue, yet the New Testament writers provide little explanation as to the practices and customs of the synagogue. Their original audience clearly knew what went on within Jewish synagogues. Modern readers are left on the outside.

The issue of first century synagogues is further complicated because the synagogue itself underwent a transformation after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. So, the synagogue of the first century is not the synagogue of the fifth century, tenth century, or the modern synagogue. Archaeology and ancient Jewish literary sources enable us to better understand this key religious institution that was so important to Jesus, His followers, and His movement after His death. When we read the New Testament in light of archaeological and literary data, we find that the New Testament provides one of the most ancient witnesses to the life and practice of the Jewish synagogue in the land of Israel in the first century.   

Archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible. It provides windows into the material culture of ancient peoples, which informs our reading of the Bible. Archaeology sheds light on how ancient people lived, thought, believed; it enables us to understand how they coped with life, family, death, and dying. And, in the case of the synagogue, it sheds light on its origin and practice in the first century.

The Greek term synagogue could refer to “a group of people, a community” or “a building, an institution” in the first century AD. The earliest archaeological evidence for a synagogue comes from Egypt dating to the second half of the third century BC, where the synagogue was called a “place of prayer” (see Acts 16:13, 16). The synagogue apparently functioned as a place of prayer for the Jewish community that lived outside of the land of Israel in the first century.

In 1913, during excavations in the City of David (Jerusalem), the French archaeologist Raymond Weill discovered a Greek inscription dating to the first century dedicating a synagogue by Theodotus, son of Vettenos, the ruler of the synagogue. This inscription provides one of the earliest archaeological witnesses for synagogues in the land of Israel in the first century. It also describes the role of the synagogue within the land of Israel prior to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70:

Theodotos, son of Vettenus, priest and ruler of the synagogue, son of a ruler of the synagogue, grandson of a ruler of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments, and also the guest chamber and the upper rooms and the ritual pools of water for lodging for those needing them from abroad, which his fathers, the elders and Simonides founded.

The purpose of the synagogue: reading the Torah, teaching the commandments, and a lodging place for travelers.

This inscription parallels the primary purpose of the synagogue as attested in the ancient literary sources. The reading and studying of the Torah were the primary religious practices within synagogues in the land of Israel in the first century, prior to the destruction of the Temple (see Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16-27; Josephus, Against Apion 2.17; Philo, Embassy to Gaius 23; Dreams 2.18; t. Megillah 3; t. Sukkah 4.6).

Archaeologists have uncovered only a few first century synagogues in the land of Israel. The architectural style of these first century synagogues differs from that of later synagogues. After the destruction of the temple, prayer became the central religious practice of the synagogue. Jews pray facing toward Jerusalem, so often the design of these later synagogues faces toward Jerusalem. This directional design does not appear within the first century synagogues discovered in the land of Israel indicating that prayer was not the primary function of the synagogue. The architecture of these early synagogues, in fact, corroborates the primary role of the synagogue as a place of Torah reading and teaching as expressed in the Theodotos inscription and the literary sources. The synagogues at Gamla in the Golan and Magdala in Galilee have benches around the walls, which makes the focal point for those seated on the benches the center of the room where Torah reading and instruction took place. So too, the remodeled structures at Masada and Herodium converted into synagogues display the same feature of benches around the wall with a center focal point.

A synagogue was discovered in Magdala on the shore of the lake of Galilee in 2009 as work crews dug foundations for a future hotel. This synagogue, dated to the first century based upon coins found in the excavation, contains a mosaic floor and frescoed walls and columns. Inside the synagogue a stone was found that depicts the menorah, which in the first century resided in the temple in Jerusalem. The iconography of this stone derives from the temple and its worship. Archaeologists have suggested that this stone served as the base of a Torah reading stand, where, on the Sabbath, the Torah reader would read from the Torah scroll and read from the Prophets (see Luke 4:17; Acts 12:15). Within Jewish tradition, one stands to read from the Torah and Prophets (see Luke 4:16; t. Sukkah 2.10), so this stone likely served as the base of the stand.

A rereading of the Gospels’ mention of synagogues shows that the Gospels attest to what we see in archaeology and other ancient sources that synagogues in the land of Israel served primarily as a place of Torah reading and instruction (see Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 4:15-27; 6:6; 13:10; John 6:59). Luke’s account of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth contains many cultural details that modern readers gloss over. For example, “he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16; see t. Sukkah 2.10), most likely standing before a Torah reading stand like rested upon the stone base discovered at Magdala. Luke’s account, in fact, provides the earliest mention of the reading of the Prophets along with the Torah on the Sabbath in the synagogue within ancient Jewish sources (see also Acts 12:15).

Archaeology cannot prove the Bible, but it can enable us to understand the material culture of the people of the Bible. By engaging archaeology and other ancient, non-biblical literary sources, we can better understand the details the New Testament authors assumed their readers knew, and by doing so, we can better understand their writings. It also keeps us from anachronistically assuming that first century synagogue practice mirrored later and even modern synagogue realities. And once again we see that not only does the New Testament reflect the world of ancient Judaism, but it is a faithful witness to it.