the weblog of Alan Knox

Why should we study the first century synagogue?

Posted by on Mar 30, 2010 in church history, community, gathering | 16 comments

For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying the development of the synagogue through the first century. This study will be included in my dissertation. Why? If my dissertation is about the church, why study the synagogue?

In the books that I’ve read, several authors have mentioned the importance of the synagogue in understanding the early church. In fact, one author stated that the synagogue was the most important aspect of Judaism that affected the early church. While I think that “most important” may be overstating it a bit, I do think it is important for us to understand the synagogue in order to understand the church as described in the New Testament.

First, remember that the first Christians were Jews. They were familiar with the synagogues around Jerusalem, in the Galilee, in other areas of Palestine, and in the Diaspora (Jews scattered around the Roman empire).  In the Gospels, we even learn that it was Jesus’ habit to attend synagogue meetings.

Second, remember that the early disciples were often found in the synagogues. We see this especially in Acts when Paul begins by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogues. When these disciples were forced to leave the synagogue in order to meet together, we see similarities (and differences) in their meetings.

So, how did the synagogue begin, and why is this important for our study of the early church?

There is no direct evidence that tells us where, when, or how the synagogues first began. We have evidence from inscriptions in Egypt that synagogues met there in the third century B.C. We also have some archaeological evidence from about 100 years later. However, none of this evidence tells us exactly why Jews began meeting together in synagogues.

Despite the lack of evidence, scholars have suggested two possible hypotheses for the beginning of the synagogue. The first hypothesis posits that the synagogues began while many Jews were taken away from Israel into exile in Babylon. In this case, the synagogues replaced the temple. Since the Temple had been destroyed, and since the Jews were so far from Jerusalem, they needed another location for their worship.

Another hypothesis suggests that the synagogue developed from the O.T. practice of meeting together at the city gates. In many passages in the Old Testament, people met together at the city gates for political, social, and even religious reasons. However, as the culture shifted toward Hellenism, the Greco-Roman practice of meeting in the city center – or forum – replaced the city gates. In Greek or Roman cities, these Jewish meetings came to be known as synagogues.

So, which hypothesis, if either, is correct? Well, it’s impossible to know with certainty. But, we should remember that after the rebuilding of the temple (the Second Temple), synagogues continued to exist, even in Jerusalem. Thus, it does not appear that the purpose of the synagogue was the same as the purpose of the temple. Instead, it seems the two played complementary roles.

Also, archaeological evidence shows that the synagogues of the first century (and earlier) did not contain the same worship and liturgical symbolism found in synagogues after the destruction of the Second Temple. So, the synagogue did eventually take on some of the roles of the temple, but that did not occur until after 70 A.D.

Instead, archaeological and textual evidence shows that the synagogue play a more social (less religious) role. Now, it’s impossible to completely separate the social and religious roles (from anything) in the first century. But, the early synagogues were used for such things as political meetings, community gatherings, legal activities, trade, and meals, as well as for gatherings to discuss Scripture.

Thus, it seems that the first century synagogue were more like the gatherings at the city gates of the OT than the temple, having more of a social purpose than a religious or worship purpose.

What does this mean for the early church? If Jews were accustomed to gathering together for social purposes, then there is no reason to think that this changed. When they gathered together with brothers and sisters in Christ, they continued to gather for social purposes. Yes, as with their synagogues meetings, they would discuss Scripture, but there were other reasons for gathering together as well. And, these reasons for gathering together were just as  important (and just as necessary) as gathering to discuss or teach Scripture.

As we gather together with other believers today, maybe we should also consider how our assemblies can demonstrate a broader purpose, perhaps recognizing the important social role that has been lost to alot of churches.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-30-2010

    Very interesting. So now I guess the next question is, what influence, if any did they synagogue meetings have in developing the liturgy of the early church?

  2. 3-30-2010

    This reminds me of the Italian Clubs of my youth. The old folks and the young folks got together via this vehicle, and it became a way to connect with a distinct culture and heritage, to preserve simple things like wine and food and dancing that made us “Italian.” Marriage suppers were held here, and political candidates met here, the Italian festivals were planned here, etc. Seems a bit of a parallel, I’m sure other cultural groups have done the same when in diaspora mode…

  3. 3-30-2010


    It’s difficult to determine if there was a liturgy in the first century synagogue (and before). A liturgy did develop later after the destruction of the temple when the synagogue began to take on some of the temple’s roles. But, that would have been after the synagogue had influenced the Jews that became the early church.


    Exactly. And, today, the church preserves a culture (the kingdom culture) while it is in exile.


  4. 9-21-2011

    Great article, Alan. I think the Jewish synagogue connection is a huge missing piece to understanding how the early church met and what their meetings looked like and how they functioned as a community.

    Have you ever read any books on this subject?

  5. 9-21-2011


    From Synagogue to Church by James Tunstead Burtchaell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

    Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism by Heather A. McKay (Leiden: Brill, 1994)

    Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue: A Critical Analysis of Current Research by Stephen Catto (New York: T&T Clark, 2007)

    And anything by Lee I. Levine who has written extensively on the subject.


  6. 9-21-2011


  7. 12-7-2011

    First Fruits of Zion puts out a series called Torah Club which is a Torah commentary from the Christian/Messianic Jewish perspective. It discusses the early church quite a bit. Just another good resource.

  8. 5-19-2012

    As an outsider to the church scene, I might have some misinformed ideas or even some wrong ones, about how things got so far off track from the patterns laid out in the OT for the temple and the NT for the church.
    Ive always thought that synagogues were somehow like psuedo temples.
    They were not sanctioned in scripture and yet ended up as parallels to the temple. Although not very good ones because gentiles were allowed to go to them.
    Ive also always thought that churches were like synagogues, in that once Gods people lost the unity of a corporate revelation of Christ among us, they naturally replaced the temple of the heart with bricks and mortar temples, called churches.
    Not sure if that’s mixing partial fact with fanciful over spiritualizing or not but nevertheless, synagogues have always intrigued me.

  9. 5-21-2012


    Interestingly, from the research that I’ve read, there was a drastic change in synagogues after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD. Before that, there was very little connection between the temple and the synagogue. Afterward, most “temple” functions and imagery was shifted to the synagogue. Before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue served much more as a social / community gathering.


  10. 2-21-2013

    Interesting study. I am thinking about what kind of church Jesus would plant in our context if we were privileged to have his immediate personal and physical presence. I suspect that it would be in essence very similar to his approach as we read of it in the Gospels: Apprenticing a group in a relational community from call to commission. I like the idea of the social and spiritual merging together at the hub of the meeting place for extended family/community ‘oikos’ developing to synagogue style environments. Of necessity it would be small enough for relationships to be meaningful. An apprenticing culture for 24/7 disciples in all walks of life that is modeled at the centre of ways of being is appealing. The question for me is what direction would Jesus give to a group like this as it grows – especially keeping in mind the options of cell growth in comparison to something more structured that might become institutional or denominational. Got me thinking!

  11. 2-21-2013


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. You definitely raise some good questions!


  12. 5-10-2013


    I imagine that “back then” the synagogue was always “right around the corner” or in walking distance to everything, everybody. So it was very easy & beneficial to really use it for social purposes, daily – and for so many things.

    My Jewish friends now a days have to drive a long way to get to their synagogue. So the ‘social gatherings’ are usually no more than once or twice a week for a few hours.

    Which leads me to 2 thoughts:
    1) I am thankful that our temple is always in walking distance and that it actually is wherever we go. That really made things so much more simple

    2) our social gathering places for our Church today, if we are really trying to follow the direction of the early church – should then also be located in walking distance or close proximity to be able to have that daily access to each other.

    Which gives me greater appreciation for my brother Chris’s Church House and his vision for it…(…. and for places like Rutba House in Durham…. and for the house God has gifted us with that can fit our small Church family. 🙂

  13. 5-11-2013


    Interestingly, the first century synagogue was quite different from the synagogue of today. (By the way, “synagogue” simply means “gathering.”) As with the church, the synagogue changed from a gathering of Jews of community and cultural purposes to a more organized institution with various rules requirements.


  14. 5-11-2013

    That is very apparent. But I never thought about it. These groups are so similiar to each other, huh??? Did the 2 journeys parallel each other? both progressing into institutions the same time periods/way?? Or which went first and the other followed?

  15. 5-11-2013


    Interestingly, most people who have studied this topic (at least, the ones who I have read), say that the first century synagogue influenced the first century church. Then, after the church became more institutionalized, the institutional church influenced the synagogue at that time. However, many things about the synagogue – especially it’s purpose – changed after the destruction of the temple. “Worship” was never mentioned in conjunction with the synagogue by any Jewish author until after the temple was destroyed.


  16. 5-11-2013

    That is very interesting.

    Thnx so much for sharing!