Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. (Acts 17:1)
It was Paul’s habit as he traveled to locate the local synagogue, attend and teach. We read multiple Gospel accounts of Jesus doing the same. Let’s take a look today at the origin and operation of the synagogue.
The word synagogue itself has Greek roots in the word synagoge, meaning assembly. In Hebrew it is knessett or usually bet knessett , house of assembly. No definite point of origin for the synagogue is known, but most scholars date synagogue beginnings to the time of the Babylonian exile when the majority of the Jewish population had been captured and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Meetings were likely first held at homes with large rooms, and eventually as the need for instruction in scripture, prayer and worship was addressed, buildings were erected for the purpose. No sacrifice was offered at the synagogue because no qualified priest was present.
By Jesus’ time, the synagogue system was fully in place. Towns with a population of at least ten Jewish men were encouraged to establish a synagogue. Synagogue design was simple. The synagogue was to be located on the highest ground and was to be taller than any other building. If possible, the main door faced eastward. As you entered, directly across the room would be an “ark” containing the scrolls of the Law of Moses (Torah) and another scroll of the prophets. Elders of ten men formed a ruling body called the Sanhedrin. The elders sat with their backs facing the ark wall, and the people sat in rows facing them. There was a raised platform where those leading prayer, reading scripture, or speaking stood. (Any of this starting to sound familiar?) There was no rigid liturgy, but a typical session might include, opening prayer, then the reading of the Law. Often one man would read the law, and then another would respond by finding a passage in the prophets that illuminated the scripture from the law. Finally, any man present could stand and bring a message that would show proper application.
Over time, a few grand synagogues existed, but they were used primarily for special functions on feast days. The system evolved so that worshippers would gather locally in relatively small groups. At the time of the destruction of Herod’s Temple in AD 70, it is recorded that there were over 400 synagogues in the city Jerusalem alone.
Christianity began as a sect of the Judaism, so it isn’t surprising that we find even today in our Christian churches many features drawn from the synagogues. If you approach most small towns from a distance, you’ll see the highest buildings are churches with the steeples specifically designed to exceed the height of any other roof. When you enter our church, the scriptures are typically located on the wall opposite you, the preacher stands on a platform, often accompanied by other church leaders facing the people gathered in rows. We open with prayer, read from the scriptures, and then have explanation and exhortation offered. The most notable difference is that no priest was employed at the synagogue and all men were required to perform as leaders, while we delegate most of these duties to our pastors.
Christianity began in small assemblies, and then progressed to a formal gathering with priests at the helm. For hundreds of years ordinary believers had little input. Luther’s Reformation reduced the role of the priests but transferred it to pastors. Until recent times, little emphasis was placed on less formal gatherings. Most thriving churches today rely heavily on small groups led by laypersons. In fact, the fastest growing style of church in America today is house churches. If Jesus walked into a contemporary American town, I wonder where he’d go to teach and preach.