What were synagogue services like during Jesus’ time?

“What were synagogue services like during Jesus’ time?” Ensign, Sept. 1974, 16–17

Jesus spoke in many synagogues. Who supervised these synagogues and what were their services like during that time?

Victor L. Ludlow, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: The synagogue was a Jewish religious institution long before Jesus preached in the synagogues of Capernaum and Nazareth. The synagogue and its worship services were firmly established among the Jews before they returned from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century before Christ. The earliest synagogues were known as houses of study, prayer, and assembly.

Before any group of Jews could establish a new congregation and build or use a synagogue, they had to have at least ten active male members, age 13 or older, who could constitute a minyan (or quorum) of worshipers for the services that were to be held three times daily. These members would elect a board of elders who would supervise the religious practices and communal needs of the congregation. The elders would also appoint the teachers (or rabbis as they were later called) and direct the financial affairs of the synagogue. Thus the synagogue was a democratic, voluntary, and independent institution, and each synagogue determined its own needs and practices. This fact partially explains why there were hundreds of synagogues in Jerusalem during Christ’s lifetime. They were also established every place where ten male Jews could gather together. Paul, in his missionary journeys, visited synagogues throughout the Mediterranean area, many of which were established centuries before the birth of Jesus.

The synagogue services were patterned after some aspects of temple worship: (1) Services were held three times a day when the congregations gathered in their prayer houses or synagogues while the priests were offering their sacrifices at the temple. (2) The men and women sat in different sections, with the women usually in the rear or in a special balcony section. This practice was patterned after the custom of separating the women from the men in the Court of the Women of the temple. (3) The main entrance to the synagogue was on the east side, as with the temple. (4) The Holy Ark, which contained the Torah and other scriptures, was placed on the wall facing Jerusalem and the temple. (5) A vestibule separated the main synagogue sanctuary from the street so that the thoughts and cares of the outer world would be shed before entering the holiness of the inner sanctuary. (6) Many psalms (songs) and prayers of the synagogue services were patterned after those of the temple.

The synagogue became the center of social and religious life for many Jews as the popularity of animal sacrifice in the second temple in Jerusalem began to decline and as the people felt themselves alienated from the priests and Levites.

During Jesus’ life, the temple was controlled by the Sadducees and their priestly hierarchy, who remained somewhat aloof from the common people. Pious Jews felt obligated to attend the temple only on the three “pilgrim festivals” of each year—Passover (held in the spring—April), Shabuot (summer—June), and Succot (fall—October). For the rest of the year, the synagogue was their religious center. Even in Jerusalem itself there were 394 synagogues functioning while the second temple was still standing. (Talmud, Ket. 105a.) There was even a synagogue on the temple mount itself, and full details are given in the Mishnah of how the Israelites celebrated some religious festivals by alternating their attendance at the sacrifices in the temple with prayer in the synagogue. (Sot. 7:7.)

The synagogue attracted many Jews, since it was an independent and democratic institution where no priest was needed to conduct the services. Anyone with superior learning and character could qualify for the post of rabbi or teacher. The elders of each congregation would establish their own religious services, and they usually defined their worship in terms of learning and philanthropy as much as in prayer and meditation.

Basically, the Jews of Christ’s time felt more comfortable in the synagogue with its many independent and pharisaic philosophies than in the temple with its formalized worship rituals under control of the Sadducees.