As literary, epigraphical, and archaeological sources demonstrate, by the centuries immediately preceding the time of Jesus and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, the synagogue as a building and an institution had emerged among Jews, both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora. While its precise origins remain obscure, by the 1st cent. BCE, the synagogue was the primary Jewish institution in all known communities, serving multiple public functions, religious and civil (Levine 2005, ch. 2). However, rabbinic Judaism gradually transformed this inherited institution, deeply reshaping its functions (Levine 2005, chs. 6-7; Langer 2020).
Various names appear in the sources for this institution. “Synagogue” comes from a Greek term that simply denotes an assemblage of people (Leonhardt-Balzer 2020, 216). It is roughly cognate to the most common Hebrew designation, beit knesset, meaning house of gathering, as well as to the Greek word that came to designate the church, ecclesia. None of these names signifies a specifically religious function. While in early centuries, “synagogue” could designate both the assembly and the structure, rabbinic texts consistently apply the term only to the space (Levine 2005, 1). While Christians continue to speak of Jews collectively as the “synagogue” (in parallel to themselves as ecclesia), Jews apply the term exclusively to the institution. This is also true for another name documented widely in the Greek-speaking diaspora, proseuche (prayer house), raising the likelihood that some religious functions occurred there (Leonhardt-Balzer 2020, 217). Other documented Greek names also suggest this institution’s being a locus of holiness and of religious activities. However, Levine (2005, 128) suggests that while these names suggest a difference in emphasis, perhaps reflecting the expectations of their cultural contexts, the actual institutions were remarkably similar in function. Krause points to the interchangeability of these terms, depending on rhetorical context (193-195).
What was the pre-rabbinic synagogue’s function? Here there has been much debate, especially in the aftermath of Shmuel Safrai’s then radical assertion (1989) that the Second-Temple era synagogue was a place of study and not of prayer. This is indeed the synagogue’s primary purpose as portrayed in 1st-cent. sources like Philo, Josephus, and the New Testament (Krause 2017, 195). However, intriguing studies suggest that early synagogue activities included many characteristic of the Greco-Roman association, including serving communal meals (Harland 2003; Krause 2017, 192-193.196; Eckhardt 2020; Ottenheijm/Pater 2021). In addition to Scripture study, Philo does describe some religious activities in the proseuche, mostly of euergetistic nature in praying for the community’s benefactors (ex., Flacc. 48), but he also indicates that “prayers and singing” (Flacc. 120-123) were normal behaviors there (Leonhardt-Balzer 2020, 222-223). Josephus records that Jews of Sardis were permitted to meet to perform their “ancient prayers and sacrifices” (A.J. 14.260-261, cf. 227; Leonhardt-Balser 2020, 228). However, both Philo and Josephus wrote in terms shaped by their Greco-Roman context and provide little or no evidence for the specific contents of this worship (Krause 2017, 195-196). In contrast, liturgical texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate the existence of a communal prayer context among that sectarian community, but nothing in the scrolls locates them in a specific institutional context analogous to the synagogue of other Jews; Daniel Falk posits that Temple prayers form the model for both (Falk, 1998, 2003) but many disagree (Chazon 2011).
A dedicatory inscription, found out of situ in Jerusalem, describes the functions of a pre-destruction synagogue owned by a priestly family. It tells us that a priest and archisynagogos (synagogue leader) built the synagogue for the purposes of proclamation of Scripture, teaching the commandments, and to serve as a guesthouse, presumably for pilgrims to the Temple. Notably absent is any mention of prayer or worship. Of course, in Jerusalem the synagogue necessarily complemented the functions of the Temple.
New Testament accounts of the ministries of Jesus and Paul provide a key literary source for the role of the 1st-cent. synagogue, both in the Galilee and the Greco-Roman Judean diaspora. The broad agreement across all four gospels suggests the possibility of a genuine historical memory (Ryan 2020, 189-192). The Gospels and Acts recount that both figures regularly frequented synagogues, particularly on the Sabbath. However, there is no account of their participating in communal prayers in these synagogues; rather, the community gathered for the reading of Scriptures and to learn about it, including through the preaching of these itinerant teachers who used these occasions to teach their message (ex. Mk 1:39, Mt 4:23, Lk 4:14-15, Jn 18:20, Acts 17:2). Indeed, the Gospels do not locate Jesus’ most famous teaching about prayer, his model “Lord’s Prayer,” in the synagogue context. It is hypocrites, Matthew reports him saying, who pray publicly in synagogues or on street corners instead of in private (Mt 6:5-6).
Archaeologists have discovered about a dozen identifiable Second-Temple era synagogues, a few associated with places named in the New Testament, like at Magdala/Migdol or perhaps the structure beneath the grand synagogue at Capernaum (today dated to the 6th cent. [Tarkhanova 2021]). Purpose-built synagogues of this era were often modelled on Roman public structures, with their main space taking the form of small basilicas with seating around the sides. In general, though, there was no necessary pattern for synagogue architecture. Decisions regarding synagogue structures were – and are – influenced by a negotiation between the aesthetics of the communities among whom Jews lived, the specific ritual needs of the synagogue, and the restrictions frequently placed on Jewish public architecture by majority Christian and Muslim rulers.
Some functions of these early synagogues translated directly into Christian liturgical practices, like the reading of Scripture, preaching, and shared communal meals. But just as Jewish and Christian liturgies diverged, so too did their ritual spaces and the meanings associated with them. While the locus of holiness in the church became its altar, the place of the eucharistic sacrifice, often for priestly access only, the locus of holiness of the synagogue was the Torah scroll(s) it housed. However, as Steven Fine has argued, this holiness was not inherent in the building itself initially, but emerged over centuries, marked by Jews’ housing the scrolls in an ark, a fixed architectural feature built on the Jerusalem-facing wall, rather than a movable chest (Fine 1997, 159-162 and passim). Where the church adopted a version of the Temple’s holy space as its place of offering, synagogues related to the Temple differently. The orientation of prayer to Jerusalem’s lost sanctum dictated the synagogue’s physical orientation (tBer 3:16). Temple ritual objects were often remembered through common decorative motifs, like the menorah (candelabrum), shofar, lulav and etrog (bouquet of palm, citron, etc.), and incense shovel, all of which played some role in synagogue life too. With the increasing dominance of Christianity in the Land of Israel in the Byzantine Period, adapted models of Christian art appear in synagogues, whether in motifs in floor mosaics like the zodiac, or in the chancel screens setting off the sancta. Scholars theorize that the competition between church and synagogue was a significant factor in giving the synagogue its institutional and architectural form in this period (Runesson and Cirafesi 2021, 49; Magness 2005, 14).
With the emergence of rabbinic liturgy and its introduction into the synagogue structure, the synagogue’s architecture and ritual shifted to accommodate rabbinic practices, especially their sense of holiness and expectation of daily verbal worship of God. It is likely that this was a gradual process, with rabbinic prayer practices gradually co-opting local synagogue spaces. Rabbinic texts on their surface suggest that rabbinic leadership was unchallenged after the destruction of the Second Temple. A more critical read, combined with other evidence, suggests that this process was geographically uneven and was still in process in the 3rd and 4th cent. CE in both rabbinic centers, the Land of Israel and Babylonia. Meal rituals became more fundamentally associated with the home. Although rabbinic tradition officially frowned on eating or other secular activities in the synagogue (tMeg 2:18), there is significant evidence that at least other rooms in the synagogue complex were then, as now, used as places for gatherings around food, both for occasions demanding festive meals and more casually (Ottenheijm and Pater 2021, 251-254).
Evidence for alternative practices, including in the diaspora, is sparse and dwindles over the course of the first millennium – but this is largely an argument from silence. One intriguing exception are the fulminations of John Chrysostom in 386 in Antioch, against his judaizing congregants. Over the course of these eight sermons, he provides glimpses into the synagogue rituals that were attracting non-Jewish attention. There is nothing to suggest that Antioch Jews of his time worshiped with the standard elements of rabbinic liturgy (Wilken 1983, ch. 3). Instructions on liturgical basics to Jews in far-flung corners of the diaspora, especially Spain, remain part of the known concerns of the Babylonian rabbinic leadership in the late-9th cent. But that Jews were not implementing rabbinic liturgy must be separated from the question of whether they had synagogues. Reports of Christians pillaging synagogues and decrees seeking to protect Jews issued by Christian rulers suggest that these loci of Jewish assembly existed throughout (e.g., see Wilken 1983, 53-54).
Much less has been written about the medieval through pre-contemporary synagogue as a place of Jewish-Christian encounter. In general, Jews and Christians forbade their own adherents from entering the other’s place of worship out of concern for apostasy. Where church and crown forced Jews to attend conversionary sermons, these often involved Christian preachers addressing mandatory gatherings in synagogues (Cohen 1982, 82-84, 121-127, 214-216). Nevertheless, Jews were conscious of the sights, smells, and sounds of churches, and we see the results both in imitation and in differentiation. Aesthetics tended to reflect those of the majority culture. A clear example is the Altneu Synagogue in Prague, completed in 1270, with a Gothic-style vaulted ceiling.
It is in this period that the motif of Ecclesia triumphant and Synagoga defeated begins to appear, not only on statuary placed prominently on the exterior of major European cathedrals, but in all sorts of religious art. In contrast to Ecclesia, Synagoga is blindfolded, her crown is by her feet, her staff is broken, and she is on the verge of dropping her beloved tablets of the law. While Ecclesia turns to Christ, Synagoga turns her back on him, rejecting him as Messiah. It is only in recent years that correctives have begun to emerge. Explanatory placards now accompany some public art, as with the c. 1910 statuary on a small door into the St. Lamberti Cathedral in Muenster, also directing the visitor to a longer, nuanced, discussion on their website (St. Lamberti). An alternative is the commissioning of new images with a revised message. The best known statue, by Joshua Koffman, stands opposite the chapel of the Jesuit Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Here, two equal queenly sisters learn from each other’s Scriptures.
As Jews were better accepted into western society in modernity, many synagogues in Christian lands were transformed. Where most synagogues previously had modest exteriors, without a presence on the main streets or skylines of cities, many cities now permitted Jews to build grand, public structures. One of the earliest that also survived Nazi destruction is Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue, built in the 1850s. Notable, though, and not unique, is that although both the interior and exterior are recognizably religious architecture, the aesthetic model was not contemporary Austro-Hungarian churches, but rather the so-called “Moorish” model from Arab lands, echoing back deliberately to the romanticized “Golden Age” of convivencia in Muslim Spain when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in harmony. Instead of steeples, this synagogue’s towers echo minarets to match its Mamluk-style stonework. The interior of this synagogue deliberately imitates churches too. Its pews uniformly face forward, and the service takes place on a raised bima (platform) that mimics the altar in its apse in a church. Above this bima is a full pipe organ, even though, as in other “neologue” synagogues, it was never played during Sabbath and festival services, just before those days began and for weddings (Ellenson 1995).
Some other synagogues of this era take the imitation a step further, building in an almost cruciform shape, including transepts. Reform Judaism, as it emerged in the 19th cent., made many of these features standard, adding vernacular prayers and hymns, many of the latter adapted from Protestant hymnals, an expectation of decorum, and other features learned from their neighbor’s churches (Petuchowski 1968, ch. 6). The cultural shifts of the 20th cent. affected churches and synagogues similarly, especially in changing musical aesthetics, greater roles for non-clergy and especially for women, and expectations that the architecture enhances the role of the community and its spirituality instead of seeking to inspire awe and reinforce hierarchy.
Mixed seating and free seating preceded these other modern changes, beginning first in the United States and expanding, especially in liberal contexts, to Europe and Israel (Sarna 1987). However, it is important to note that mixed seating began when a leading 19th-cent. Reform rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, acquired a church with family box pews for his congregation and made a virtue out of a necessity. Family seating was less common in Europe. Indeed, in some German synagogues, children even sat carefully supervised separately from their parents.
Thus, the synagogue over the past two millennia has been both a locus for Jewish and Christian differentiation and polemic and a site for cultural syncretism. There is no “pure” form of the synagogue that exists in a cultural vacuum and can be found unchanging over time and space. Instead, decisions about synagogue esthetics and purposes have been continually negotiated in light of the norms and values of the larger cultures in which Jews have lived. The same can be said for the churches of Christians living embedded in the Hebrew-speaking Jewish culture of the contemporary State of Israel.
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