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Introducing the Synagogue

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Last week in Sunday school someone commented that "Jesus never taught in the synagogues. He went out to the people."

I held my peace.

Laying aside the fact that the gospels do state that Jesus taught in synagogues, I want to address the assumption that synagogues were some sort of stronghold of a distant, detached religious elite. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Hebrew a synagogue is beit-kneset, the place of the assembly, or congregation. Knesset Israel is one of the epithets frequently applied to the entire Jewish community. Another term for synagogue was beit ha-am, or place of the people.

The synagogue was a building for the community, built and maintained by the community.

Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and

an archisynagogos (head of the synagogue), son of an archisynagogos

grandson of an archisynagogos, built

the synagogue for the reading of

Torah and for teaching the commandments;

furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water

installation for lodging

needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid

by his ancestors, the

elders, and Simonides

-The Theodotus Inscription

.

This inscription shows the dual role of the synagogue both as a religious building and as a secular one. The scriptures were read and expounded in it, but it also contained guest rooms for lodging strangers. Lee I. Levine describes the synagogue as "the Jewish public building par excellence," and states that it functioned "first and foremost as the central communal institution in each community."[1]

The synagogue was where the community gathered, where meetings of all kinds were held, where children were given an education, where the community dealt with internal discipline and legal squabbles, where communal feasts were given, and where visitors could be lodged. On sabbaths and holidays people would gather to the synagogue to offer prayer and to read and expound portions of the Pentateuch and other biblical writings.[2] This was particularly important for members of the community in an age where literacy rates were lower than today, and where scrolls were rare and costly.

The synagogue readings were their most frequent exposure to the scriptures.

Rabbis, as we understand them, did not exist during Christ's day. They grew out of a Pharisaic movement led by Yohanan ben Zakkai in Jamnieh after the temple was destroyed. Even during the 3rd century the rabbis did not control the synagogue.

Rabbi Simeon would translate (and expound in the process) the Bible verses read in the synagogue of Tarbanat. The congregation requested that he only translate half a verse at a time, so they could explain it to their children. When R. Simeon refused, the congregation had him dismissed from his role as preacher.[3]

This would have been unimaginable if the people did not control the synagogue.

There is much more that could be written about ancient synagogues, but this introduction should be enough to dispell some common misconceptions encountered by readers of the New Testament.

A final word on the picture at the beginning of my post. This is part of the synagogue discovered at Capernaum. It is several centuries later than Jesus, but is probably built over the one he frequented.

[1]Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity, pg. 139.

[2]Lee I. Levine, From Community Center to 'Lesser Sanctuary': The Furnishings and Interior of the Ancient Synagogue, Cathedra 60.

[3]Lee I. Levine, The Galilee in Late Antiquity, pg. 212.

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Absolutely FASCINATING! That explains a whole lot about how Christ could move so freely in and out of the synagogues. I was taught that it may be because he was considered a Rabbi (for some reason I always had a problem with this explanation). This puts it all into a much more reasonable context.

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Well, Jesus WAS a Rabbi. It means Master or Teacher (IIRC). It was not a professional calling/duty as it is now. And he was a master teacher. In his time, the requirement to teach in the synagogue was that the man had to be 30 years of age or older. This is perhaps the main reason Jesus did not begin his mission earlier - no one would have listened to him, because any younger and they would not consider him experienced enough to be a teacher.

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http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_3k9vmXe8pgU/TS98iBhxW7I/AAAAAAAAAB0/h-4NFSDlPZA/s1600/caprnm.bmp

Last week in Sunday school someone commented that "Jesus never taught in the synagogues. He went out to the people."

I held my peace.

Laying aside the fact that the gospels do state that Jesus taught in synagogues, I want to address the assumption that synagogues were some sort of stronghold of a distant, detached religious elite. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Hebrew a synagogue is beit-kneset, the place of the assembly, or congregation. Knesset Israel is one of the epithets frequently applied to the entire Jewish community. Another term for synagogue was beit ha-am, or place of the people.

The synagogue was a building for the community, built and maintained by the community.

.

This inscription shows the dual role of the synagogue both as a religious building and as a secular one. The scriptures were read and expounded in it, but it also contained guest rooms for lodging strangers. Lee I. Levine describes the synagogue as "the Jewish public building par excellence," and states that it functioned "first and foremost as the central communal institution in each community."[1]

The synagogue was where the community gathered, where meetings of all kinds were held, where children were given an education, where the community dealt with internal discipline and legal squabbles, where communal feasts were given, and where visitors could be lodged. On sabbaths and holidays people would gather to the synagogue to offer prayer and to read and expound portions of the Pentateuch and other biblical writings.[2] This was particularly important for members of the community in an age where literacy rates were lower than today, and where scrolls were rare and costly.

The synagogue readings were their most frequent exposure to the scriptures.

Rabbis, as we understand them, did not exist during Christ's day. They grew out of a Pharisaic movement led by Yohanan ben Zakkai in Jamnieh after the temple was destroyed. Even during the 3rd century the rabbis did not control the synagogue.

Rabbi Simeon would translate (and expound in the process) the Bible verses read in the synagogue of Tarbanat. The congregation requested that he only translate half a verse at a time, so they could explain it to their children. When R. Simeon refused, the congregation had him dismissed from his role as preacher.[3]

This would have been unimaginable if the people did not control the synagogue.

There is much more that could be written about ancient synagogues, but this introduction should be enough to dispell some common misconceptions encountered by readers of the New Testament.

A final word on the picture at the beginning of my post. This is part of the synagogue discovered at Capernaum. It is several centuries later than Jesus, but is probably built over the one he frequented.

[1]Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity, pg. 139.

[2]Lee I. Levine, From Community Center to 'Lesser Sanctuary': The Furnishings and Interior of the Ancient Synagogue, Cathedra 60.

[3]Lee I. Levine, The Galilee in Late Antiquity, pg. 212.

I've always thought the Synogogue to be the ancient jews nearest thing to our sunday school... i'd imagine that if we didn't have printing and public educatoin and etc that our sunday school and ceremonies would probably be even more closer to how they were like.

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Well, Jesus WAS a Rabbi. It means Master or Teacher (IIRC). It was not a professional calling/duty as it is now. And he was a master teacher. In his time, the requirement to teach in the synagogue was that the man had to be 30 years of age or older. This is perhaps the main reason Jesus did not begin his mission earlier - no one would have listened to him, because any younger and they would not consider him experienced enough to be a teacher.

Well, yes and no. During Christ's day, and even a generation or so after the temple was destroyed, the word rabbi was not used to describe a teacher or expounder of the law. It was an honorific like sir and could be applied to anyone. The closest thing we have to a rabbi word-wise would be either moreh (teacher) or hacham (sage).

As for age requirements, I know that the age of 30 is popularly repeated, but I am unable to find that requirement anywhere. It seems that each community had its own rules and traditions. Ben Zoma was fairly young, and unmarried, yet served as a teacher and preacher, because he was good at it. Of course, most communities were probably conservative, so the older and more established in the community, the better.

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