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This word occurs but once in the AV of the Old Testament (Psalm 74:88They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. (Psalm 74:8)), but the same Hebrew word (med) is many times translated “congregation.” Mr. Darby and the RV margin translate in Psalm 74:88They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. (Psalm 74:8) “places of assembly.” The word συναγωγή occurs very often in the LXX, but as a translation of some twenty different Hebrew words: “congregation” or “gathering” is the main thought. As far as is known there were no buildings called synagogues in Old Testament times. It has been judged that they arose after the captivity, and may perhaps have been occasioned by a desire to perpetuate the work begun by the people calling upon Ezra to read to them the book of the law, when those who heard were deeply affected (Neh. 8-9).
In the exploration of Palestine remains of buildings have been discovered, which are judged to have been synagogues. They are uniform in plan, and differ from the ruins of churches, temples, and mosques. In two of them an inscription in Hebrew was over the main entrance, one in connection with a seven-branched candlestick, and the other with figures of the paschal lamb. A plain rectangular building answered the purpose. They were often erected by general contributions, though at times by a rich Jew, or in some instances by a Gentile, as the one built by the centurion at Capernaum (Luke 7:55For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. (Luke 7:5)).
An ark was placed at one end, in which were deposited the sacred books. Near this was the place of honor, or the “chief seats,” which some sought after (Matt. 23:66And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, (Matthew 23:6), James 2:2-32For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: (James 2:2‑3)—where the word translated “assembly” is “synagogue”). Nearer the center of the building was a raised platform with a kind of desk or pulpit, where the reader stood. A screen separated the women from the men.
It is known that a portion of the law and of the prophets was read every Sabbath, and it is clear from Acts 13:1515And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. (Acts 13:15) that if anyone was present who had a “word of exhortation for the people,” the opportunity was given for its delivery. Prayers also were doubtless offered, but how far these resembled the modern Jewish ritual is not known. The Lord spoke of the hypocrites who loved to pray standing in the synagogues, where they also ostentatiously offered their alms (Matt. 6:2,52Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (Matthew 6:2)
5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (Matthew 6:5)
It was the custom of the Lord to visit the synagogues, and in them He wrought some of His miracles and taught the people (Matt. 4:2323And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. (Matthew 4:23)). In Luke 4 the Lord, in the synagogue at Nazareth, stood up to read, and there was handed to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. After reading a portion which set forth His own attitude among them (stopping in the middle of a sentence), He sat down and spake “gracious words” to them. His exposition of the passage is not given except “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” It is recorded that the people were in the habit of freely expressing their opinions respecting what was taught, and here they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In Acts 13:4545But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. (Acts 13:45) the Jews “spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.”
It is important to see that everywhere in their own buildings a clear testimony was borne by the Lord Himself as to the significance of His appearance among them; and afterward by Paul and others to the work He had accomplished by His death and resurrection for them—reference being constantly made to the scriptures which they professed to reverence and to follow. The reality of the testimony was happily proved by the salvation of many, and which left those who refused it without excuse.
To be “put out of the synagogue” was the Jewish excommunication. The Lord told His disciples that this would be enforced towards them (John 9:2222These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. (John 9:22); John 16:22They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. (John 16:2)). The only case recorded is that of the man born blind, when he bore testimony to Christ. It was a happy exchange for him, for the Lord thereupon revealed Himself to him as the Son of God (John 9:34-3834They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out. 35Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? 36He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? 37And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. 38And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. (John 9:34‑38)). Of others we read that many of the chief rulers believed on the Lord, but feared to confess Him lest they should be cast out, “for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42-4342Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: 43For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. (John 12:42‑43)).
It is evident from what Pilate said to the Jews in reference to the Lord—”Take ye him, and judge him according to your law”—that they were allowed to judge certain matters and to inflict limited punishments (John 18:3131Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: (John 18:31)). This appears to have been carried out wherever there was a synagogue, though it is not clear who were the judges, probably the “elders” mentioned in Luke 7:33And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. (Luke 7:3). The Lord told His disciples that they would be scourged in the synagogues (Matt. 10:1717But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; (Matthew 10:17)); and Paul confessed that when persecuting the church he had imprisoned and beaten in every synagogue those that believed on the Lord (Acts 22:1919And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: (Acts 22:19)). Paul himself doubtless suffered the like punishment in the same buildings (2 Cor. 11:2424Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. (2 Corinthians 11:24)). Thus a very undignified use was made of their places of worship.
The officials connected with the synagogues were—
1. The zaqenim, πρεσβύτεροι, the elders (Luke 7). These were presided over by
2. An ἀρχισυνάγωγος, ruler of the synagogue (Mark 5:22,35-36,3822And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him, he fell at his feet, (Mark 5:22)
35While he yet spake, there came from the ruler of the synagogue's house certain which said, Thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Master any further? 36As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, Be not afraid, only believe. (Mark 5:35‑36)
38And he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and seeth the tumult, and them that wept and wailed greatly. (Mark 5:38)
; Luke 8:4949While he yet spake, there cometh one from the ruler of the synagogue's house, saying to him, Thy daughter is dead; trouble not the Master. (Luke 8:49); Luke 13:1414And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. (Luke 13:14); Acts 13:1515And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. (Acts 13:15); Acts 18:8,178And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)
17Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. And Gallio cared for none of those things. (Acts 18:17)
). In the last two passages the AV has “chief ruler,” but the Greek is the same.
3. The sheliach, a delegate of the congregation, who acted as chief reader: he is not mentioned in the New Testament.
4. The chazzan, ὑπηρέτης, translated in the AV “servant, minister, officer,” only once mentioned in connection with the synagogue as the “attendant” to whom the Lord gave the book when He had done reading (Luke 4:2020And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. (Luke 4:20)).
5. The batlanim, described as “leisure men,” who attended meetings regularly. There were at least ten of these attached to each synagogue, so as to form a quorum, ten being the lowest number to form a congregation.
SYNAGOGUE OF SATAN. Some who professed, like Jews, to have a claim to be considered the people of God on the ground of hereditary right. These are declared to be liars, for they really form a congregation of Satan, doing his work in seducing the saints from their heavenly character (Rev. 2:99I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9); Rev. 3:99Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. (Revelation 3:9)). In both cases they may be Jews actually, though disowned of God.