the weblog of Alan Knox

Role of the synagogue in the first century C.E.

Posted by on Mar 25, 2010 in books, community, gathering | 9 comments

However, the synagogue’s primary importance throughout antiquity [pre-70 C.E.] lay in its role as a community center… 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. (Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, page 3)

Thus, it is not at all strange that the synagogue buildings [in pre-70 Palestine] identified to date have adopted, each in its own way, an architectural style befitting a community-oriented framework. Gamla, Masada, Herodium, and Qiryat Sefer each have a square or rectangular area surrounded by columns and benches, an arrangement facilitating communal participation, be it for political, religious, or social purposes. The model chosen for these settings consciously or unconsciously approximated Hellenistic bouleuteria or ecclesiasteria, which likewise catered to an assembly of people empowered to make decisions. (Ibid., page 69)


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  1. 3-24-2010


    There was complete enfranchisement, unlike those whose decisions were made by “the rulers of the gentiles”. What’s more, I believe it’s fair to say that tribal/community mentality goes back to Moses & the Torah. Thus, to whatever extent the Synagogue was beginning to grow more hierarchical (if it even was doing so at that point), there was an older tradition of Jewish community leadership that was more in the round and more ‘egalitarian’ (relatively) than anything the contemporary Greeks or Romans had ever known.

    Levine rocks.

  2. 3-24-2010

    forgot the check box

  3. 3-25-2010

    hmmm… this post was supposed to publish today. I guess I had the date wrong.


    Levine suggests that the synagogue developed from the “city gates”, not from the Temple. This would explain the synagogue’s more social/community focus instead of a “religious” focus. Although, at that time, it would be difficult to separate the social/community/political/religious aspects of life.

    However, after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue’s role began to change.


  4. 3-25-2010

    what do you think of claims there’s little to no significant archeological evidence of synagogues prior to about the 2nd cent?

  5. 3-25-2010


    There is very little evidence of early synagogues, but there is some evidence, both archaeological and inscriptions. The buildings at the Palestinian sites mentioned above (i.e. Gamla, Masada, Herodium, and Qiryat Sefer) have all been identified as being constructed before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. There are other sites outside of Palestine.


  6. 3-25-2010

    This is most insightful and useful insight and really important, I think, to our understanding the origins or early church meetings and how they developed from the seed we see in the New Testament. Keep pursuing this since it is so useful to your readers.

  7. 3-26-2010


    Thanks. This is only a small part of my dissertation, but it has been a very enlightening study.


  8. 10-12-2013

    When Jesus establised the Bread and Wine as emblems blessed them and ask the disciples to partake of the emblems in memory of Him,this was in the upperroom of a home.Correct?

  9. 10-16-2013


    Yes, according to the four Gospels, Jesus and some of his followers celebrated the Passover in the upper room of a home. If I remember correctly, the OT Scriptures instruct Jews to celebrate the Passover in homes with their families.