(Gr. sunagoge, i.e., "an assembly"), found only once in the Authorized Version of Ps. 74:8, where the margin of Revised Version has "places of assembly," which is probably correct; for while the origin of synagogues is unknown, it may well be supposed that buildings or tents for the accommodation of worshippers may have existed in the land from an early time, and thus the system of synagogues would be gradually developed. Some, however, are of opinion that it was specially during the Babylonian captivity that the system of synagogue worship, if not actually introduced, was at least reorganized on a systematic plan (Ezek. 8:1; 14:1). The exiles gathered together for the reading of the law and the prophets as they had opportunity, and after their return synagogues were established all over the land (Ezra 8:15; Neh. 8:2). In after years, when the Jews were dispersed abroad, wherever they went they erected synagogues and kept up the stated services of worship (Acts 9:20; 13:5; 17:1; 17:17; 18:4). The form and internal arrangements of the synagogue would greatly depend on the wealth of the Jews who erected it, and on the place where it was built. "Yet there are certain traditional pecularities which have doubtless united together by a common resemblance the Jewish synagogues of all ages and countries. The arrangements for the women's place in a separate gallery or behind a partition of lattice-work; the desk in the centre, where the reader, like Ezra in ancient days, from his 'pulpit of wood,' may 'open the book in the sight of all of people and read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and give the sense, and cause them to understand the reading' (Neh. 8:4, 8); the carefully closed ark on the side of the building nearest to Jerusalem, for the preservation of the rolls or manuscripts of the law; the seats all round the building, whence 'the eyes of all them that are in the synagogue' may 'be fastened' on him who speaks (Luke 4:20); the 'chief seats' (Matt. 23:6) which were appropriated to the 'ruler' or 'rulers' of the synagogue, according as its organization may have been more or less complete;", these were features common to all the synagogues. Where perfected into a system, the services of the synagogue, which were at the same hours as those of the temple, consisted, (1) of prayer, which formed a kind of liturgy, there were in all eighteen prayers; (2) the reading of the Scriptures in certain definite portions; and (3) the exposition of the portions read. (See Luke 4:15, 22; Acts 13:14.) The synagogue was also sometimes used as a court of judicature, in which the rulers presided (Matt. 10:17; Mark 5:22; Luke 12:11; 21:12; Acts 13:15; 22:19); also as public schools. The establishment of synagogues wherever the Jews were found in sufficient numbers helped greatly to keep alive Israel's hope of the coming of the Messiah, and to prepare the way for the spread of the gospel in other lands. The worship of the Christian Church was afterwards modelled after that of the synagogue. Christ and his disciples frequently taught in the synagogues (Matt. 13:54; Mark 6:2; John 18:20; Acts 13:5, 15, 44; 14:1; 17:2-4, 10, 17; 18:4, 26; 19:8). To be "put out of the synagogue," a phrase used by John (9:22; 12:42; 16:2), means to be excommunicated.
→ History .-The word synagogue (sunagoge), which means a "congregation," is used in the New Testament to signify a recognized place of worship. A knowledge of the history and worship of the synagogues is of great importance, since they are the characteristic institution of the later phase of Judaism. They appear to have arisen during the exile, in the abeyance of the temple-worship, and to have received their full development on the return of the Jews from captivity. The whole history of Ezra presupposes the habit of solemn, probably of periodic, meetings. (Ezra 8:15; Nehemiah 8:2; 9:1; Zechariah 7:5) After the Maccabaean struggle for independence, we find almost every town or village had its one or more synagogues. Where the Jews were not in sufficient numbers to be able to erect and fill a building, there was the proseucha (proseuche), or place of prayer, sometimes open, sometimes covered in, commonly by a running stream or on the seashore, in which devout Jews and proselytes met to worship, and perhaps to read. (Acts 16:13) Juven. Sat. iii. 296. It is hardly possible to overestimate the influence of the system thus developed. To it we may ascribe the tenacity with which, after the Maccabaean struggle, the Jews adhered to the religion of their fathers, and never again relapsed into idolatry.
→ Structure .-The size of a synagogue varied with the population. Its position was, however, determinate. If stood, if possible, on the highest ground, in or near the city to which it belonged. And its direction too was fixed. Jerusalem was the Kibleh of Jewish devotion. The synagogue was so constructed that the worshippers, as they entered and as they prayed, looked toward it. The building was commonly erected at the cost of the district. Sometimes it was built by a rich Jew, or even, as in (Luke 7:5) by a friend or proselyte. In the internal arrangement of the synagogue we trace an obvious analogy to the type of the tabernacle. At the upper or Jerusalem end stood the ark, the chest which, like the older and more sacred ark contained the Book of the Law. It gave to that end the name and character of a sanctuary. This part of the synagogue was naturally the place of honor. Here were the "chief seats," for which Pharisees and scribes strove so eagerly, (Matthew 23:6) and to which the wealthy and honored worshipper was invited. (James 2:2,3) Here too, in front of the ark, still reproducing the type of the tabernacle, was the eight-branched lamp, lighted only on the greater festivals. Besides this there was one lamp kept burning perpetually. More toward the middle of the building was a raised platform, on which several persons could stand at once, and in the middle of this rose a pulpit, in which the reader stood to read the lesson or sat down to teach. The congregation were divided, men on one side, women on the other a low partition, five or six feet high, running between them. The arrangements of modern synagogues, for many centuries, have made the separation more complete by placing the women in low side-galleries, screened off a lattice-work.
→ Officers.-In smaller towns there was often but one rabbi. Where a fuller organization was possible, there was a college of elders, (Luke 7:3) presided over by one who was "the chief of the synagogue." (Luke 8:41,49; 13:14; Acts 18:8,17) The most prominent functionary in a large synagogue was known as the sheliach (= legatus), the officiating minister who acted as the delegate of the congregation and was therefore the chief reader of prayers, etc.., in their name. The chazzan or "minister" of the synagogue, (Luke 4:20) had duties of a lower kind, resembling those of the Christian deacon or sub-deacon. He was to open the doors and to prepare the building for service. Besides these there were ten men attached to every synagogue, known as the ballanim, (-otiosi). They were supposed to be men of leisure not obliged to labor for their livelihood able therefore to attend the week-day as well as the Sabbath services. The legatus of the synagogues appears in the angel, (Revelation 1:20; 2:1) perhaps also in the apostle of the Christian Church.
→ Worship .-It will be enough, in this place, to notice in what way the ritual, no less than the organization, was connected with the facts of the New Testament history, and with the life and order of the Christian Church. From the synagogue came the use of fixed forms of prayer. To that the first disciples had been accustomed from their youth. They had asked their Master to give them a distinctive one, and he had complied with their request, (Luke 11:1) as the Baptist had done before for his disciples, as every rabbi did for his. "Moses" was "read in the synagogues every Sabbath day," (Acts 15:21) the whole law being read consecutively, so as to be completed, according to one cycle, in three years. The writings of the prophets were read as second lessons in a corresponding order. They were followed by the derash (Acts 13:15) the exposition, the sermon of the synagogue. The conformity extends also to the times of prayer. In the hours of service this was obviously the case. The third, sixth and ninth hours were in the times of the New Testament, (Acts 3:1; 10:3,9) and had been probably for some time before, (Psalms 55:17; Daniel 6:10) the fixed times of devotion. The same hours, it is well known, were recognized in the Church of the second century, probably in that of the first also. The solemn days of the synagogue were the second, the fifth and the seventh, the last or Sabbath being the conclusion of the whole. The transfer of the sanctity of the Sabbath to the Lord's day involved a corresponding change in the order of the week, and the first, the fourth the sixth became to the Christian society what the other days had been to the Jewish. From the synagogue, lastly, come many less conspicuous practices, which meet us in the liturgical life of the first three centuries: Ablution, entire or partial, before entering the place of meeting, (John 13:1-15; Hebrews 10:22) standing, and not kneeling, as the attitude of prayer, (Luke 18:11) the arms stretched out; the face turned toward the Kibleh of the east; the responsive amen of the congregation to the prayers and benedictions of the elders. (1 Corinthians 14:16)
→ Judicial functions .-The language of the New Testament shows that the officers of the synagogue exercised in certain cases a judicial power. If is not quite so easy, however to define the nature of the tribunal and the precise limits of its jurisdiction. In two of the passages referred to- (Matthew 10:17; Mark 13:9)-they are carefully distinguished from the councils. It seems probable that the council was the larger tribunal of twenty-three, which sat in every city, and that under the term synagogue we are to understand a smaller court, probably that of the ten judges mentioned in the Talmud. Here also we trace the outline of a Christian institution. The Church, either by itself or by appointed delegates, was to act as a court of arbitration in all disputes its members. The elders of the church were not however to descend to the trivial disputes of daily life. For the elders, as for those of the synagogue, were reserved the graver offences against religion and morals.
Smith's Bible Dictionary (1884) , by William Smith.