We like to picture Jesus preaching and teaching multitudes on mountainsides—and of course he did that. But the bulk of his speaking ministry happened indoors, in smallish venues, in local synagogues all over Galilee (see Matthew 9:35). So what would that have been like? Here’s what we know:

  • Synagogues began in the homes of Jewish captives living in exile in Babylon. Since the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed, these synagogues were vital in keeping alive the Jewish faith and some forms of worship.
  • By the time of Jesus, “house synagogues” were common anywhere a significant population of Jews lived, even in places as far-flung as Rome, Parthia, North Africa, and Asia Minor. In larger cities, particularly in Israel, the synagogue had also evolved into a formal assembly held in a public building—generally the tallest structure in the community.
  • Jesus likely taught in both “house synagogues” and community synagogue buildings.
  • There had to be at least 10 men present in a synagogue before public prayers could commence. “God-fearers,” or gentile men who aligned themselves with the Jewish faith, might also be in the synagogue audience.
  • The primary function of a synagogue was to provide lifelong education in the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament), or “instruction, public worship, and prayer.” To that end, men read aloud and discussed Scripture, rabbis delivered oral commentary and sermons, and everyone participated in traditional expressions of worship such as prayer, singing, and almsgiving.
  • An additional function of the synagogue was as a community center of sorts. As the central gathering place of Jewish society, people would congregate here to discuss local affairs, make announcements, collect and distribute funds for charity, and occasionally share meals. Legal proceedings could also take place here, with the synagogue elders serving as judges.
  • During a synagogue meeting, women weren’t typically allowed to speak, though they could sit in and listen. Any man over the age of 13 could lead in prayer, or request permission to speak, or be invited to speak. When Jesus appeared at a synagogue, it was likely he was often invited to speak in this way, simply because he was so famous.
  • Typically, a synagogue meeting ended with the recitation of Numbers 6:24-27 as a benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

 

Works Cited:

[NUB, 358; JHT, 156-159]

 

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