Last week in Sunday school someone commented that "Jesus never taught in the synagogues. He went out to the people."
I held my peace.
Laying aside the fact that the gospels do state that Jesus taught in synagogues, I want to address the assumption that synagogues were some sort of stronghold of a distant, detached religious elite. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In Hebrew a synagogue is beit-kneset, or the place of the assembly, or congregation. Knesset Israel is one of the epithets frequently applied to the entire Jewish community. Another term for synagogue was beit ha-am, or place of the people.
The synagogue was a building for the community, built and maintained by the community.
Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and
an archisynagogos (head of the synagogue), son of an archisynagogosgrandson of an archisynagogos, built
the synagogue for the reading of
Torah and for teaching the commandments;
furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water
installation for lodging
needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid
by his ancestors, the
elders, and Simonides
-The Theodotus Inscription.
This inscription shows the dual role of the synagogue both as a religious building and as a secular one. The scriptures were read and expounded in it, but it also contained guest rooms for lodging strangers. Lee I. Levine describes the synagogue as "the Jewish public building par excellence," and states that it functioned "first and foremost as the central communal institution in each community."
The synagogue was where the community gathered, where meetings of all kinds were held, where children were given an education, where the community dealt with internal discipline and legal squabbles, where communal feasts were given, and where visitors could be lodged. On sabbaths and holidays people would gather to the synagogue to offer prayer and to read and expound portions of the Pentateuch and other biblical writings. This was particularly important for members of the community in an age where literacy rates were lower than today, and where scrolls were rare and costly.
The synagogue readings were their most frequent exposure to the scriptures.
Rabbis, as we understand them, did not exist during Christ's day. They grew out of a Pharisaic movement led by Yohanan ben Zakkai in Jamnieh after the temple was destroyed. Even during the 3rd century the rabbis did not control the synagogue.
Rabbi Simeon would translate (and expound in the process) the Bible verses read in the synagogue of Tarbanat. The congregation requested that he only translate half a verse at a time, so they could explain it to their children. When R. Simeon refused, the congregation had him dismissed from his role as preacher.
This would have been unimaginable if the people did not control the synagogue.
There is much more that could be written about ancient synagogues, but this introduction should be enough to dispell some common misconceptions encountered by the reader of the New Testament.
A final word on the picture at the beginning of my post. This is part of the synagogue discovered at Capernaum. It is several centuries later than Jesus, but is probably built over the one he frequented.
Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity, pg. 139.
Lee I. Levine, From Community Center to 'Lesser Sanctuary': The Furnishings and Interior of the Ancient Synagogue, Cathedra 60.
Lee I. Levine, The Galilee in Late Antiquity, pg. 212.