Ancient Israelite Synagogues

Ancient Israelite Synagogues

 John A. Tvedtnes

Lehi Prophesy Jerusalem MormonIt was long thought by historians that no synagogues existed prior to the final destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. This would mean that references to synagogues in the New Testament (65 times) would be anachronistic and mention of synagogues in the Book of Mormon (26 times) would be even more so, since Lehi left Jerusalem about 600 BC. Only one passage in the King James version (KJV) of the Old Testament (Psalm 74:8) employs the word “synagogues.” Though it denotes meeting places in this passage, the Hebrew word appears in many other passages and is more often translated “set time” in KJV.

It is clear from various Old Testament passages that the Israelite elders used to meet at the city gates to judge matters of law (e.g. Ruth 4:1-11; 2 Samuel 15:2-6; 1 Kings 22:10). Indeed, archaeological excavation has disclosed that there were low benches built around the rooms comprising the gates of ancient Israelite city gates. When I noted this to a friend, William J. Adams Jr., he added that these rooms also had niches into which one could place the scrolls of the law, as in later synagogues. We view these gate assembly-places to be the earliest synagogues in ancient Israel.

Jewish tradition holds that the Israelites began building synagogues in the lands of Syria and Babylonia at the time they were deported there, beginning a few years before Lehi left Jerusalem. Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, in 1163, visited synagogues that he said had been built by Ezra (5th century BC) in the towns of Racca and Haran, in northern Syria, and another synagogue of Ezra at the foot of Mt. Ararat.[1] Writing of Babylon, he says, “Twenty thousand Jews live within about twenty miles from this place, and perform their worship in the synagogue of Daniel, who rests in peace. This synagogue is of remote antiquity, having been built by Daniel himself; it is constructed of solid stones and bricks.”[2] Daniel lived in the time of the Book of Mormon prophets Lehi and Nephi.

Writing of Napacha, Rabbi Benjamin wrote, “Three parsangs hence, on the banks of the Euphrates, stands the synagogue of the prophet Ezekiel, who rests in peace. The place of the synagogue is fronted by sixty towers, the space between every two of which is also occupied by a synagogue; in the court of the largest stands the ark, and behind it is the sepulcher of Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, the priest. This monument is covered with a large cupola, and the building is very handsome; it was erected by Jechoniah, king of Judah, and the thirty five thousand Jews who went with him, when Evil-Merodach released him from the prison, which was situated between the river Chaboras and another river. The names of Jechoniah and of all those who came with him are inscribed on the wall, the king’s name first, that of Ezekiel last.”[3] Ezekiel was another contemporary of Lehi and Nephi.

After mentioning Sura, Benjamin wrote, “Two days from thence is Shafjathib, where there is a synagogue, which the Israelites erected with earth and stones brought from Jerusalem, and which they called ‘the transplanted of Nechardea.’”[4]

The late first-century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who had seen (and, as a priest, probably served in) the Jerusalem temple (which he describes in his writings) before its destruction by the Romans in AD 70 is another witness to the existence of synagogues in early times. He quoted a decree of Lucius Antonius, vice-quaester and vice-praetor, to the leaders and people of Sardis, in the time shortly after the death of Julius Caesar, noting that the Jews “had an assembly of their own . . . as also a place of their own, wherein they determined their suits and controversies with one another” (Antiquities of the Jews 14.10.17). Similarly, he mentioned a decree of the city council of Sardis, perhaps from the second century BC (others he cites nearby are from that era), calling for the construction of a place where the Jews might assemble to offer prayer and perform religious rites to their God (Antiquities of the Jews 14.10.24).

Josephus also quoted Agatharchides of Cnidus, a second-century BC Greek Historian, who, describing events of the 4th century BC, noting that the Jews of Jerusalem they “spread out their hands in their holy places [hiera], and pray till the evening” (Against Apion 1.22). The hiera are evidently synagogues, which must have existed in the 2nd century BC and perhaps as early as the 4th century BC.

Josephus also seems to describe a synagogue in use in his own day in the city of Tiberias. During the war against the Romans, a Pharisee named Ananias “proposed that a general religious fast should be appointed the next day for all the people, and gave order that at the same hour they should come to the same place.” Josephus calls the appointed place a proseucha, which denotes a place of assembly for prayer. Though usually an outdoor gathering-place, this one seems to be indoors, for Josephus notes that one of the men who disagreed with him “commanded that they should exclude all that came with me, for he kept the door himself, and suffered none but his friends to go in.” He allowed only two of Josephus’s officers to enter and there the group prayed according to the “customary service.”[5] Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived a few decades before Josephus, noted in one of his books that the Jews had “usual places” for prayer (In Flaccum 122).

A first-century AD text entitled Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (LAB or Biblical Antiquities), falsely attributed to Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (and hence often called Pseudo-Philo), citing the ten commandments, expands them using portions of scripture. The fourth commandment adds a passage from Psalm 107:32 and reads, “Take care to sanctify the Sabbath day. Work for six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord. You shall not do any work on it, you and all your help, except to praise the Lord in the assembly of the elders and to glorify the Mighty One in the council of the older men.”[6]

For further information on this subject, see See William J. Adams, Jr., “Synagogues in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000).

[1] Thomas Wright, Early Travels in Palestine (reprint, New York: Ktav, 1968; orig. 1848), 93-4.

[2] Ibid., p. 100.

[3] Ibid., p. 101.

[4] Ibid., p. 103.

[5] Life of Flavius Josephus 56-57.

[6] LAB (Pseudo-Philo) 11:8, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 2:318.