Were there synagogues during the time of Jesus? (Pictured: so-called first century synagogue at Gamla)
It seems a silly question. The New Testament (NT) refers to synagogues 56 times. The ruins of first century synagogues have been excavated and identified by archaeologists.
Nevertheless, some scholars today answer the silly question with a resounding No. Their arguments are two.
1) An argument from archaeology: there is nothing about the orientation, design, or ornamentation of these nine first century halls that merits identification specifically as synagogues.
2) An argument from biblical exegesis: Some scholars also refute that synagogue halls are referenced in Bible. Noting rightly that the word synagogue (sunagwgh,) means “assembly,” they argue that the NT term referred to a local gathering of the faithful, not a building. that in every case the word synagogue is referring to an assembly of congregants only, and never to a physical assembly hall.
Putting it together, if no first century hall can be proved to have been a synagogue, and if the NT word synagogue(s) refers in every case to an assembly of believers rather than to a building, then there is zero evidence for the existence of synagogue halls in the first century. Is this possible?
1. Acts 18:7 Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue.
h` oivki,a h=n sunomorou/sa th/| sunagwgh/| - his house was next door to the synagogue
Note that Luke did not write that the synagogue met next door. He wrote that the synagogue was next door. If the synagogue here in Acts 18:7 refers to an assembly, crowd, congregation, or gathering only, and not to a building, then even if the assembly regularly gathered in a vacant lot next door to Titius Justus’ house, when they disbanded and went home, the synagogue became then no longer next door to Justus’ house.
It makes more sense that Luke is describing two adjacent locations visited by Paul. The sentence makes clear sense only when the parallels are sensical, equivalent, and balanced. He writes that Paul is at one place and, leaving that place, he goes to another place. That is a balanced parallel. Adding additional information, Luke says that these two places are next door to each other. So both are physical places, and the places are adjacent to each other physically.
Also it should be noted that Luke is keen to document Paul’s itinerary in the Book of Acts, and this scene is no different. Paul was here, then Paul went there, and the locations were right next door to each other. Paul left “the assembly house” and went to “the residential house” next door—a simple, clear itinerary.
Only if there existed a physical synagogue building would Luke have written that the Titius Justus’ house was next door to it. Is that not the simplest and clearest meaning?
2. Luke 7:5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us."
th.n sunagwgh.n auvto.j wv|kodo,mhsen h`mi/nÅ
“Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.”
3. Acts 24:12 They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city.
In the temple, in the synagogues, throughout the city: For the prepositional parallels to work, i.e. make sense, they must be referring to a place, a place, and then a place---all of them places that people can enter, all of them places where crowds might assemble.
Furthermore, Paul spoke of “stirring up a crowd in a synagogue.” If synagogue means only an assembly of people and not a building, then Paul is speaking of “stirring up an assembly within an assembly, a crowd within a crowd.” That is nonsensical.
If, however, a crowd can be stirred up in a city or in a temple, then Paul must also mean that a crowd can be stirred up in a synagogue. He is clearly talking about three places: 1) in the temple, 2) in the assembly halls, 3) in the city. All three are examples of places where Paul might have allegedly disputed with or stirred up those assembled there.
4. Acts 17:17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
evn th/| sunagwgh/| - in the synagogue
kai. - and
evn th/| avgora/| - in the agora (marketplace)
If marketing takes place in a marketplace, then, for the parallel to work, assembling must take place in an assembly hall.
If synagogues are not buildings, why did not Luke simply write that “Paul argued with the synagogue (the assembly)”? Instead, Luke wrote that Paul argued in the synagogue (the assembly hall) with Judeans and devout persons (persons comprising the assembly).
If synagogues are not buildings, then Luke wrote, “Paul argued in the assembly with the assembly,” a meaning that no one would vote for. But it makes perfect sense to write, “Paul argued with the assembly (Judeans and devout persons) in (inside of) the synagogue (assembly hall).”
If a synagogue cannot be an assembly hall, then perhaps an agora (marketplace) cannot be a physical marketplace, but merely a term referring to the assemblage of buyers and sellers wherever they may be found. But this is self-evidently not so, as agorae (marketplaces) exist.
5. John 18:20 Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Judeans come together.”
It would be both redundant and strange to say, “I have always taught in assemblies where people assemble.” Both the synagogues and the temple are paralleled here as places one enters and as places where people assemble. For Jesus’ statement to be true, both must be places where worshipping Judeans assemble. If people assemble in the temple, then people must also assemble in the synagogues
6. Luke 21:12 "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
· Arrest and persecute: Both are activities done by authorities to “lawbreakers.”
· Kings and governors: Both are persons with power over “lawbreakers.”
· Prisons and synagogues: Both are places where “lawbreakers” are dealt with.
These parallels do not work unless both prisons and synagogues are physical buildings.
7. Luke 11:43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.
Luke 20:46 "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.
If marketing takes place in a marketplace, and if banqueting takes place in a banquet hall, then for all three of Jesus’ case-study examples to work, to be equivalent comparisons, and to be balanced examples, must not assembling take place in an assembly hall (synagogue), too?
Jesus contends that a market is a popular location where people gather to shop and be recognized. Likewise, a banquet takes place in a dining hall, a popular location where people gather looking for the more honored seats at the table. It follows then that a synagogue also must be a popular place where people assemble looking for a better seat than others for prayer. For Jesus’ one-two-three critique to work, all three must be physical locales where people gather to seek public prestige. People can only jockey for prestige in places of public assembly, and the three places named by Jesus were apparently among the most common and popular in his environs: the marketplace, the banquet hall, and the assembly hall (synagogue).
8. Matthew 13:54 He came to his hometown and began to teach them in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?
auvtou/ evdi,dasken auvtou.j- - he began to teach them (the assembly)
evn th/| sunagwgh/| - in their synagogue (their assembly hall)
Could Matthew have mean that “Jesus began to teach his hometown assembly in the assembly”? This is what we are stuck with if there are no actual Hebrew halls of assembly for scripture and prayer in the 1st century
The clearest and simplest meaning, however, is that on the Sabbath Jesus began to teach them (teach the assembly) in their synagogue (in their assembly hall)
· “them” – refers to Jesus’ hometown assembly for Sabbath scripture and prayer.
· “synagogue” – refers to the facility where those hometown assemblers met for Sabbath scripture and prayer.
My conclusion: Those who deny the existence of synagogue structures in the NT period based on exegesis are incorrect. Eight of the 56 instances of the word synagogue in the NT are almost certainly references to assembly halls that they called synagogues.