The synagogue's primary importance throughout antiquity lay in its role as a community center. By the first century C.E., the synagogue had become the dominant institution on the local Jewish scene throughout the Diaspora and Judea, with the sole exception of pre-70 Jerusalem. No other communal institution that might conceivably have competed with the synagogue for communal prominence is ever mentioned in our sources. Within the confines of the synagogue the Jewish community seems to have not only worshipped regularly, but also studied, held court, administered punishment, organized sacred meals, collected charitable donations, housed the communal archives and library, and assembled for political and social purposes.
As a communal institution, the synagogue was fundamentally controlled and operated by the local community. Running such an institution may have been the concern of the community as a whole, as was most likely the case in villages and towns, or of the local urban aristocracy, which often assumed responsibility for the building and maintenance of such structures. In contrast to pagan temples and Christian churches, for which models used throughout the Roman and Byzantine Empires were the norm, local synagogues were generally autonomous. As a result, we can see a broad range of styles and practices associated with this institution throughout antiquity. All these features--from architectural patterns, artistic expression, and inscriptions to prayer, Torah-reading, sermons, targum (translation and interpretation of Scriptures), and piyyut (synagogue poetry)--characterized the synagogue of antiquity, constructing what Peter Brown has called in another context an "exuberant diversity."The extent of this diversity has become abundantly clear over the past generation or two with the dramatic increase in archaeological material and greater sophistication in the analysis and evaluation of our literary sources. As a result, we are aware of striking regional differences even within tiny Palestine, not to speak of the far-flung Diaspora. In several cases we have become aware of very different types of synagogues even within a given city.
Despite this diversity, the institution exhibited a remarkable unity. Its basic role as a community center and the range of activities and types of religious functions conducted therein, as well as orientation, ornamentation, symbolism, and sanctity, were in varying degrees common to synagogues throughout antiquity. These shared characteristics invariably appear in both archaeological and literary sources.
The synagogue evolved significantly during late antiquity. For all its continuity as a communal institute between the first and seventh centuries C.E., it was the religious component of the institution that changed dramatically in scope and prominence. The synagogue evolved from a community center with a religious component to a house of worship that included an array of communal activities. This transformation is most strikingly attested to by the synagogues in Palestine, although, despite the relative paucity of evidence, such developments may be detected in the Diaspora as well. They synagogue had become--according to R. Isaac, borrowing a phrase from the prophet Ezekiel (11:16)--a miqdash me'at, a "lesser" or "diminished" sanctuary.