The Nature and Origins of the 1st-Century Synagogue

It is very likely that the institutions referred to as proseuchai in inscriptions dating from 3rd and 2nd century bce Egypt were, in fact, Jewish temples, and not synagogues as is commonly assumed.

By Anders Runesson
McMaster University
July 2004


The interest in the ancient synagogue has increased dramatically in the last 15 years or so and researchers from different fields are now involved in a renewed attempt to unveil the many mysteries that surround the origins of this institution. Even if the exploration of the early life of the synagogue has attracted scholars' attention since the dawn of modern history writing (Sigonius, 1583; Vitringa, 1696), with major contributions published in the early 20th century (Elbogen, 1913, new edition 1993[!]; Krauss, 1922), the recent publication of two wide-ranging collections of essays (Urman and Flesher, 1995 [2 vols.]; Olsson and Zetterholm, 2003) and six comprehensive monographs on the topic (Hachlili, 1998; Binder 1999; Levine, 2000; Runesson, 2001b; Claußen, 2002; Harland, 2003) is unparalleled in the history of scholarship.

Even if the exploration of the early life of the synagogue has attracted scholars' attention since the dawn of modern history writing (Sigonius, 1583; Vitringa, 1696), with major contributions published in the early 20th century (Elbogen, 1913, new edition 1993[!]; Krauss, 1922), the recent publication of two wide-ranging collections of essays (Urman and Flesher, 1995 [2 vols.]; Olsson and Zetterholm, 2003) and of five comprehensive monographs on the topic (Hachlili, 1998; Binder 1999; Levine, 2000; Runesson, 2001b; Claußen, 2002) is unparalleled in the history of scholarship.

The contemporary scholarly enthusiasm for and engagement in the study of the ancient synagogue is partly explained by the fact that the institution was a central part of Jewish life in antiquity and therefore important for the study of Jewish history generally. Even more significant, though, is that the synagogue provided the socio-political and religious setting without which the formative stages of Judaism and Christianity cannot be understood. Exploring the nature and origin of the ancient synagogue thus becomes crucial to scholars analyzing, e.g., the so-called "parting of the ways" between Judaism and Christianity, a field that is itself—and has been for some time—very popular among researchers. However, these concerns of many scholars are not enough to explain the virtual explosion of synagogue studies that has recently occurred.

In the last 10-20 years, many long-held ideas about the nature and origin of the synagogue, such as the claim that the synagogue originated in the Babylonian exile as a replacement for the lost temple cult, have been rejected by synagogue scholars, not least due to new archaeological discoveries and the reinterpretation of known sources using new methods and perspectives. We are now in the middle of a process of consensus formation in which a multitude of diverse theories compete to attract the approval of the majority of researchers. More scholars than ever before are taking part in this enterprise, which means that more approaches, perspectives, and ideas share the scene and have to be taken into account before historical judgments are made.

While this is very encouraging, it is extremely important in a situation like the present that the object of inquiry is carefully defined: too much ink has already been spilled over heated debates where scholars disagree without noticing that, defining the question differently, they are, in fact, talking past each other. One of the obvious, but often-ignored, questions that has to be addressed before beginning the search for the origins of the synagogue is simply: what was a "synagogue" by the time when we find the earliest mention of the institution in the source material? Even more important is to ask whether it is accurate to date the origins of the synagogue coterminously with the first occurrence of the name of the institution in the source material or if we should rather attempt to trace the activities of the synagogue beyond the point in time when they are associated with the name "synagogue." As it happens, the first century turns out to be of vital importance to these questions and to the origins quest generally

Definitions Matter

Many scholars, especially those who tend to date synagogue origins late, do not distinguish between the 1st or 4th century, or even modern, synagogue when approaching the problem. This is problematic since the synagogue went through significant development over the years and the features of the later synagogue, including such aspects as most parts of the liturgy and the architecture of the buildings, are not possible to trace as far back in time as we have evidence of institutions designated by synagogue terms.

This is so because the institution we call "synagogue" in English and which is designated by several different (Greek) terms in the ancient sources, sunagoge (which is usually translated either as "assembly" or "house of assembly") and proseuche (usually translated as "House of Prayer") being the most common,[1] was, at the turn of the era, in fact not one but two different types of institution. It is not until these two types of institution, both designated with the same terms in the sources, have been analyzed that we are able to determine which one the modern synagogue originated from. Indeed, the discovery that institutions designated by synagogue terms were of two types helps to explain some of the perceived contradictions in the source material that has led scholars to claim radically different origins for the synagogue. In terms of archaeological findings and the interpretation of buildings as synagogues, the distinction between institutional types may solve some of the problems discussed with regard to, e.g., the recently unearthed edifice in Jericho, claimed by the excavator to be a synagogue (see the contributions on this web site by Stacey and Netzer).

Furthermore, it is quite common that scholars isolate certain aspects of the synagogue and claim to have found the origins of the institution when the beginnings of that particular aspect have been explained. This problem is connected with the former. For example, if the search for synagogue origins is limited to the search for its liturgical origins, we are not only in danger of overlooking certain aspects that were central to the 1st-century institutions but also of erroneously dating the synagogue too late, since many features of modern synagogue liturgy did not evolve until the late rabbinic period.

The search for the origins of the synagogue should thus take into account several main aspects of the institution, which should be treated separately before being brought together for a conclusion. I have suggested four such research areas:[2]

  1. * The liturgy of the synagogue, such as the ritual reading of Torah
  2. * The non-liturgical, or social, aspects of the synagogue, such as local administration, court proceedings, etc.
  3. * The institutional aspect, which refers to questions relating to hierarchies, leadership, and other signs of developed institutional forms
  4. * The spatial aspect, i.e., the space where people gathered for meetings and assemblies

The question about synagogue origins can and should be asked in relation to each of these research areas before adding the pieces together for a synthesized answer regarding the institution as a whole.

With these distinctions and definitions in mind, a certain procedure for how to proceed reveals itself.

How to Proceed: A Suggestion

We are wise to begin out search with the period when our sources first mention synagogue terms. This happens to be the 1st century bce and ce. Second, analyzing the literary, inscriptional, and archaeological material, we must determine what type(s) of institution is referred to by these terms in the sources and what activities were associated with these institutions. Each type of institution should be investigated separately.

Third, since many of the activities connected with the 1st-century synagogue were common to similar non-Jewish institutions, the search for the origins of the unique Jewish institution as we find it in the 1st-century need to focus on the most characteristic feature of the synagogue: the feature that made it stand out among other institutions.

Fourth, the origins of the synagogue are exposed when this characteristic feature is traced to its beginnings in a setting in which we also find the other activities associated with the later, 1st synagogue. Fifth and finally, an attempt must be made to explain why, where, and how this all came to be at the specific point in time when we found the beginnings of the distinctive feature of the 1st-century synagogue.

Let us now turn to the first century and summarize what can be said about the synagogue at that time before addressing the question of the origins of the institution(s).

What Synagogue? The Institutions behind the Terms in the 1st Century

As noted above, the synagogue went under many names in the 1st century; sunagoge and proseuche were two of the more common. The institution(s) designated by these names could function as council halls (CJZC no. 70), archives (where, e.g., records of manumissions were kept: CIRB no. 70), treasuries (Josephus, AJ 16.164; cf. Mt 6:2), and hostels (CIJ 1404). Activities could also include judicial proceedings (e.g., Mk 13:9) and political meetings could be held in buildings designated by synagogue terms (Josephus Vit. 277ff). The liturgical activity emphasized most in the sources is without competition, the reading and teaching of Torah (e.g., Philo, Opif. 128; Contempl., 30-31; Prob. 80-83; Lk 4:16-30; Acts 9:20; CIJ 1404; Josephus BJ 2.289-92), even if there are a few occasions where prayer is mentioned briefly (e.g., Jospehus, Vit. 295). Finally, communal meals (Jospehus, AJ 14.216) and public fasts (Josephus, Vit. 290) took place in spatial settings designated by synagogue terms.

These activities are very well suited to the design of the excavated buildings that have been identified as synagogues. For example, the first-century Ostia synagogue (Italy) displays a triclinium (a dining hall) among its features and so does the Jericho edifice excavated by Netzer. Most important, however, is the layout of the main hall, which in all cases is equipped with benches lining three or four of the walls, having its architectural focus in the empty space in the center of the room. This design is adapted to readings, teaching, and discussion, exactly what the literary sources claim are the most characteristic features of the synagogue.

In terms of evidence of a developed institution, the existence of official titles indicates a well-established, hierarchical model of leadership in the institution by the 1st century. Literary texts as well as inscriptions and papyri mention several different titles, e.g., archon (Josephus, Vit. 278, 294), archisunagogos (Mk 5:22; CIJ no. 1404), prostates (JIGRE no. 24), presbuteros (Jdt 6:16; Lk 7:3-5), geron (Philoi>, Hypoth. 7:13), grammateus (Mk 1:22; CPJ no. 138), nakoros (CPJ no. 129), huperetes (Lk 4:20) or archiuperetes (CPJ no. 138).

From the above it is quite clear that, by the 1st century, the synagogue was a well-established institution both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. Some of the activities and functions also indicate that we are dealing with a public institution. But if we take a closer look at the literary texts, while the public nature of the institution is confirmed in many cases, in other cases we are undoubtedly dealing with non-, or semi-public institutions maintained by certain groups united by special interests or ideas.

For example, in the New Testament we have evidence of institutions called "synagogues" that were public village assemblies where local administration and judicial functions were carried out and the Torah was read and discussed on the Sabbath (general references to judicial activities, e.g., Mk 13:9; readings and teaching of Torah in Nazareth, Lk 4:16-30; in Capernaum, Mk 1:21-28. See also the above references to, e.g., Josephus for this type of public institution). However, we also have references to synagogues that were semi-public institutions belonging to certain groups, such as the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Acts 6:9.[3] This kind of synagogue is also evidenced in Philo, who describes the synagogue of the Essenes in his Prob. 81.

We are thus able to demonstrate the existence of two types of institution named "synagogue" in the first century: the public village/town assembly and the semi-public voluntary association. The term "synagogue" was not yet fixed to describe only one type of institution: this is a later development that should not be read back to the 1st century.

While the association synagogue would obviously not maintain many of the official functions of the public synagogue, both institutions emphasized the reading, teaching and discussion of Torah as the characteristic feature of the assemblies. This activity, the ritual reading of holy texts in settings such as those described, was also unique to the Jews in antiquity. In order to trace synagogue origins, we thus need to search for the origin of public readings of Torah. We begin with the village/town assembly and continue with the association synagogue.

Persian Imperial Politics and the Origins of the Synagogue

As several scholars have pointed out, most of the activities in the 1st-century synagogue were performed in the city gate prior to the existence of separate public buildings. As to the public reading of Torah, the activity unique to the first-century synagogue, political, social, and religious factors all indicate that this form of worship began in the Persian period when some of the exiled Jews returned to their homeland from Babylonia. The earliest evidence is preserved in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, where Ezra is said to have read the Law in the city gate (see especially Neh 8-9). The Persians are known to have codified laws of other conquered lands, e.g., Egypt, as part of their colonial strategy, but it is only in Yehud (Judah) that we find evidence of public ritual recitation of law.

This public reading and (re-)interpretation of codified law was motivated by a wish of the Persian imperial government and the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem to perform thoroughgoing social changes in Judah in the middle of the fifth century bce during the reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes I (465-423 bce). The reading and interpretation of law were meant to legitimize the social changes in the province, such as, e.g., the prohibition of mixed marriages. In order that these reforms be reinforced in the province as a whole, public readings of the law were introduced in the already existing public assemblies of towns and cities.

These public assemblies with torah readings were held in the city gates of any given city where such gates existed (i.e., in walled cities; non-walled cities and towns would have other open spaces that would be used for the same purposes). The city gate was the public place where local administration, judicial activities etc. took place (see, e.g., Ruth 4:1-12; Amos 5:10-15; Isa 29:21; Job 29:7-25, cf. Prov 24:7). Since this was a place where people generally would meet, this was also the place where people tended to hang out, gossiping or doing other idle things (e.g., Ps 69:13). Public assemblies would take place at specific times, though. There is some evidence that, in the early periods, ritual readings of Torah would also be done in conjunction with public fasts and festivals.

Though archaeological remains are wanting, at some point in the Hellenistic period, i.e., around the third century bce, when city gates were constructed differently and no longer functioned as places for assemblies, separate public buildings for the activities that previously took place in the city gate were beginning to be built (Levine, 2000). These buildings would have been of the same kind as the buildings we find later in the 1st century bce and ce (e.g., the public buildings at Gamla and Qiryat Sefer), buildings that were then called synagogues ("assembly houses").

Greek Forms and Jewish Contents: Association Synagogues in Palestine

The voluntary association synagogues, on the other hand, had different beginnings. The organizational form is Greek in origin and was introduced in the land of Israel during the Hellenistic period towards the end of the third century bce. One of the earliest sources indicating the existence of such associations is found in Ben Sira (51:23), where a "house of learning" (Greek: oikos paideia; Hebrew: Bet Midrash) is mentioned. This educational institution was run privately and would thus represent specific interests and a certain way of interpreting Torah.

In the early days, beginning in the Persian period, the reading and interpretation of the law were strictly controlled by the religio-political authorities in Jerusalem and directly linked to the political goals the rulers desired to achieve. However, after a period of stability and prosperity under the Ptolemaic rulers, the rulers' grip was loosened, and people were freer to assemble and read the Torah for themselves. This development coincided with the introduction in Palestine of the Greek way of organizing voluntary associations, and so a new kind of institution was born, an institution that would also go under the name synagogue.

Such associations would gather in any kind of building, including private houses, but would strive towards gathering in separate buildings, adapted to the activities of the group and indicating its status. These buildings would be similar to the buildings in which the public town or village assemblies gathered, designed for reading, teaching, and discussion.

This means that it is not possible to distinguish buildings utilized by one type of institution from buildings used by the other type using only archaeological data pertaining to the building itself. The immediate archaeological context would have to be taken into account, as would literary sources and inscriptions, wherever such additional information is at hand.

If we return to the debate on this web site about the identification of the Jericho edifice, for example, this problem cannot be solved until it has been stated what type of synagogue—if any—we are talking about. Stacy's argument against identifying the Jericho building as a synagogue, namely, that the synagogue would only have served a small part of the community, is only valid if "synagogue" is defined as a public village assembly. It is indeed possible, and even likely, that the Jericho building was used by a voluntary association, a particular group of people, and as such, according to ancient standards, it qualifies for the designation synagogue. The identification of a building as a synagogue is not only a matter of archaeological analysis but also a matter of definition.

From Temple to Synagogue: The Rise of the Synagogue in the Diaspora

If the above summary of my theory explains the rise of the synagogue in the land of Israel, what about the origins of the Diaspora synagogue?

The first thing to emphasize is that, for the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the situation was politically and socially different compared to Palestine. Returning to the first century, synagogues outside Palestine were regarded by non-Jews, and also by some Jews, as associations and were subject to roughly the same laws, with some notable exceptions, as other (non-Jewish) associations. Were these association synagogues "exported" from the land of Israel, or was the stream of influence going in the opposite direction?

The solution, I believe, rests in analyzing the socio-political situation of the Jewish Diaspora communities over time. If we do so, we soon find that, in our search for the origins of the synagogue, we cannot ignore the existence of multiple Jewish temples outside the land of Israel.

We know from several sources that the cult centralization, which was a political move, was not immediately successful in Palestine (cf. Ackerman, 1992), and was even more disregarded in the Diaspora. In earlier periods, then, Jews in many places in the Diaspora gathered around Jewish sacrificial cult in temples, not around torah-reading rituals in synagogues (e.g., Elephantine and Leontopolis in Egypt,[4] Casiphia in Babylonia,[5] Lachish and Beersheva in Idumea[6]). Further, it is very likely that the institutions referred to as proseuchai in inscriptions dating from 3rd and 2nd century bce Egypt were, in fact, Jewish temples, and not synagogues as is commonly assumed.[7]

Jewish communities outside Palestine thus most likely gathered around sacrificial cult much like the associations of other religious and ethnic groups included sacrificial worship among their activities. Eventually, in the case of Egypt and probably elsewhere too, with the arrival of immigrants from Palestine, cult centralization ideology made its way into the Diaspora and torah-reading rituals were incorporated into the liturgy. Thus, in the Diaspora, there would have been a gradual development away from temple rituals to synagogue liturgy, thus giving birth to the institution of the synagogue in these countries. Socially, or non-liturgically, and institutionally there was, then, continuity between temples and synagogues, the liturgical aspect alone representing the shift from temple to synagogue.

Spatially, the Jewish temple buildings would still have been used, although in some cases architecturally modified to fit new liturgical practices.[8] This explains the use in the first century of the term proseuche to refer to synagogue institutions. The earliest archaeological remains of synagogue buildings unearthed so far are found in Delos, Greece (Binder, 1999), and Ostia, Italy (Runesson, 1999, 2001a, 2002) and date to the first century bce and first century ce respectively.


The above reconstruction of the rise of the synagogue in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora challenges many old assumptions and will, hopefully, stimulate further discussion on our way towards a new consensus. Regardless of which way the majority will eventually choose to go, it seems to me that future scholarly exchange on the subject cannot avoid dealing with issues coming to the fore as a result of a focus on all four research areas outlined here. Likewise, it is difficult to see how any investigation into the ancient synagogue could neglect addressing questions relating to the basic distinction between village assemblies and voluntary associations, institutions that were both designated by synagogue terms.

Works Cited

Ackerman, S. 1992. "Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah." Harvard Semitic Monographs, 46. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Binder, D. D. 1999. "Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period." Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, 169. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Blenkinsopp, J. 1992. "The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of Moses." The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday

Browne, L. E. 1916. "A Jewish Sanctuary in Babylonia." The Journal of Theological Studies 17: 400-401.

Claußen, C. 2002. Versammlung, Gemeinde, Synagoge: Das hellenistisch-jüdische Umfeld der frühchristlichen Gemeinden. StUNT 27. Güttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Elbogen, I. 1993. [1913]. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Philadelphia Jerusalem.

Hachlili, R. 1988. Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of IsraelHandbuch der Orientalistik, Abt. 7. Bd 1. Abschnitt 2. B. Lief. 4. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Krauss, S. 1922. Synagogale Altertümer. Berlin-Wien: Verlag Benjamin Harz.

Levine, L.I. 2000. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven London: Yale University Press.

Netzer, E. 2004. "A Synagogue from the Hasmonean Period Exposed at Jericho."

Olsson, B, and Zetterholm M (eds.). 2003. The Ancient Synagogue: From its Origins Until 200 c.e., Papers Presented at an International Conference at Lund University, October 14-17, 2001. ConBNT 39. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Runesson, A. 1999. "The Oldest Original Synagogue Building in the Diaspora: A Response to L. Michael White." HTR 92:4:409-433.

Runesson, A. 2001a. "The Synagogue at Ancient Ostia: The Building and its History from the First to the Fifth Century." Pages 29-99 in Birger Olsson, Dieter Mitternacht and Olof Brandt, (eds.), The Synagogue of Ancient Ostia and the Jews of Rome: Interdisciplinary Studies, (Stockholm: ActaRom-4o, 57).

Runesson, A. 2001b. The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study. ConBNT 37. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Runesson, A. 2002. "A Monumental Synagogue from the First Century: The Case of Ostia." JSJ 33: 171-220.

Sigonius, C. 1583. De republica Hebraeorum libri VII. Coloniae.

Stacey, D. 2004. "Was there a synagogue in Hasmonean Jericho?"

Urman, D., and P. V. M. Flesher (eds.). 1995. Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery. 2 Vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Vitringa, C. 1696. De synagoga vetere libri tres. Franequeræ: Typis & impensis Johannis Gyzelaar.

Harland, Ph.A. 2003. Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


[1] For a list of synagogue terms with references to sources where they are found, see Runesson, 2001b: 171-173.

[2] For a full discussion, see Runesson, 2001b: 29-37.

[3] The Greek here is not clear. Either we are dealing with a synagogue of the Freedmen, which included members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, or the text refers to multiple synagogues: apart from the synagogue of the Freedmen, we would then find in Jerusalem four more synagogues, serving the needs of Jews coming from the places mentioned.

[4] We have evidence of such temples from Papyri (Cowley, nos. 30, 32, 33 = Porten, nos. B19, B21, B22) and Josephus: AJ 13.62-73; BJ 7.426-436. Cf. Isa 19:19.

[5] Ezra 8:17. For a discussion of this interpretation of Ezra 8:17, see Browne, 1916; Blenkinsopp, 1992, 238.

[6] The archaeological remains date to the Hellenistic period before Idumea was incorporated into the Hasmonean state (i.e., before the area was under the political control of Judea), at which time these temples were destroyed.

[7] For proseuche as originally having been a temple term, see Runesson, 2001b, 429-436.

[8] An interesting inscription in this regard, mentioning the addition of a new hall to the proseuche, is JIGRE no. 28.

Primary Sources/Abbreviations

CIJFrey, J.-P. (ed.). Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum(CIJ): Recueil des inscriptions Juives qui vont du IIIe siècle avant Jésus-Christ au VIIe siècle de notre ère. Vol. 2: Asie - Afrique. Città del Vaticano: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana. 1952.

CIRBCorpus Inscriptionum Regni Bosporani (CIRB). Moscow: Hayka. 1965.

CHICLüderitz, G. Corpus jüdischer Zeugnisse aus der Cyrenaika (CJZC). Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des vorderen Orients, B, 53. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag. 1983.

CowleyCowley, A., (ed.). Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1923.

CPJTcherikover, V.A., and A. Fuks, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (CPJ), 3 vols. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1957-1964.

JIGREHorbury, W., and D. Noy. Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt. With an Index of the Jewish Inscriptions of Egypt and Cyrenaica (JIGRE). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992.

PortenPorten, B. The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change. Studies in Near Eastern Archaeology and Civilisation, 22. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1996.

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