By Paul V.M. Flesher
Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming
The New Testament gospels contain stories of Jesus visiting synagogues in Galilee. Sometimes he even he taught in them or read scripture during worship. Unfortunately, the gospels provide few details of what these synagogues looked like. Were they majestic buildings or small structures? How were they furnished? The gospels remain silent.
Indeed, the gospels contain so little description that some scholars have suggested synagogues were simply gatherings that took place outdoors or in people's houses or courtyards. After all the Greek word "sunagogé" means "coming together," and could indicate a meeting rather than a building.
Against this perspective, the first-century historian Flavius Josephus and other early sources indicate that in the first century the term sunagogé referred to a building in the descriptions placed into his stories of his time in Galilee.
To find out what first century synagogues looked like, then, we have to turn to archaeology. Although archaeologists have found no synagogue remains Jesus could have visited, several excavated structures have been proposed as synagogues from Jesus' lifetime.
Some of these synagogues appear in famous places, such as the fortresses of Masada and Herodium, and comprise buildings quickly erected by an army during a time of war. Another structure identified as a synagogue appears at the Maccabean palace outside Jericho and was built a century or more before Jesus' birth.
These buildings do not help us describe synagogues Jesus would have known because they do not appear in a village. They are either in palaces or army camps.
In recent years, four buildings found in villages of Palestine have been preliminarily identified as synagogues and dated to the late first century BC or the early first century AD. These are Gamla in the Golan Heights, Magdala in the Galilee, and Qiryat Sefer and Modiin in western Judea.
Three of these synagogues share common features: Gamla, Qiryat Sefer and Modiin. Each one comprises a large public building made of stone blocks and featuring a large central room whose roof was supported by columns, usually arranged in rows. Other than the columns, the room's interior was open. In two of these buildings, stone benches were built into the walls around the room's outside edge.
These features add up to a rather plain, unadorned public building. There is so little decoration in it that the only thing that indicates its Jewish character is its location in a Jewish village.
Moreover, these structures display no religious markings. They are obviously public buildings, but archaeologists cannot tell if they were built for worship or other religious activities, or whether they basically constitute a town hall or a meeting place for the village governing council.
Literary sources from the time indicate that a variety of activities took place in synagogues, some religious and some secular. Synagogues are described as providing as meeting places for worship services, schools, and councils of elders. They also served as banks, hostels for travelers, and large banqueting halls. So perhaps the image of the synagogue in Jesus' time was as a large, multi-purpose building whose religious function was just one of several roles it played in the community.
Of course, not all decoration is architectural. The plain architecture of these buildings may have been adorned with materials that did not survive the centuries. A hint of this appears in the Gamla and Qiryat Sefer buildings, for the central floors of their main rooms were dirt. This may be because it was covered with soft, decorative carpets and in turn suggests that people where required to remove their shoes and treat the interior with heightened respect, as we would expect for a synagogue.
The fourth public building is situated in Magdala, the town of Mary Magdalene. It is probably a synagogue, for it features a dressed stone with a carving of a menorah, a common Jewish symbol. Built with the same architectural features as the synagogues just mentioned, it also features a white mosaic floor and colored plaster walls.
The main question about this site is its dating. While its excavators claim evidence for the first century, the carving, the colored walls, and the mosaic are not otherwise known in synagogues earlier than the third or fourth century. Full publication of the excavation will certainly address this question in detail.
In the end, the best evidence for what synagogues were like in Jesus' day indicates they were large public buildings that were rather plain, although they could have contained different types of temporary decoration. These buildings probably served many functions other than worship, although it is possible that worship formed their primary purpose. We await full publication on all these sites so they can be properly understood.
 See the stories centering around Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 13:54, as well as Mark 1, 3 and 6, and all the synoptic parallels.
 Howard Clark Kee is a major proponent of this position. See the discussion and bibliography in Stephen Catto's essay here in Bible and Interpretation. http://www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/catto357906
 I dealt with this and other proposed early synagogues in my "Palestinian Synagogue before 70 C.E.: A Review of the Evidence” in D. Urman and Paul V.M. Flesher, eds. Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery (Leiden: Brill, 1995, 2 vols.), vol. 1, pp. 27-39.
 See the essays here in Bible and Interpretation: Ehud Netzer, "A Synagogue from the Hasmonean Period Exposed at Jericho," http://www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/Synagogue and David Stacey, "Was there a synagogue in Hasmonean Jericho?" http://www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/Hasmonean_Jericho
 Bibliography on all but Magdala can be found in Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder and Birger Olsson, eds., The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Source Book (Leiden: Brill, 2008). See also the essay by Anders Runesson, "The Nature and Origins of the 1st-Century Synagogue" here on Bible and Interpretation. http://www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/Runesson-1st-Century_Synagogue_1
 See a study of these functions and primary source citations done by Z. Safrai in his "The Communal Functions of the Synagogue in the Land of Israel in the Rabbinic Period," vol. 1, pp. 181-204 in Urman and Flesher.
 For further information about the Magdala finds, see the news report at: http://www.regnumchristi.org/english/articulos/articulo.phtml?se=364&ca…
As an OT scholar who is also interested in the second temple period, I think it's a shame that the excavators of Madgdala don't allow anyone to visit the site. I've been turned away several times (often by a rude guard). Given the dearth of first century CE synagogues, it's a pity that the public is locked out of Magdala. What are they afraid of? And it's not like they "own" the site anyways.
#1 - Benj - 09/03/2011 - 17:48
On one of my trips to Israel, we visited a synagogue in Capernaum. It was stated the the structure was from a later time than Jesus. I do not recall any "decorations" although there may have been, but I do recall stone benches around at least two, maybe three walls. The stone used for the structure was likely some type of limestone - light in color. What was interesting was a further excavation within that building to a lower level. The guide pointed into the opening in the floor of the main structure at reddish-brown stones that constituted a wall. He explained that the structure below the floor may have indeed been the synagogue from Jesus' time. What's your opinion on that?
#2 - Don Litchfield - 09/19/2011 - 23:00
The village of Capernaum existed in the first century; both textual and archeological evidence indicates that. The wall you were shown probably dates back to that time. However, excavators found no evidence that the wall belonged to a synagogue or even a public building. There is no reason to assume that the use of the building remained the same across several centuries.
#3 - Paul Flesher - 09/20/2011 - 10:34
Dear Benj and everybody:
Hi, I am only a NT student. Obviously you cannot enter to the excavations at Magdala without an appointment, because they are still working in the excavations and in the construction. But if you want to visit the synagogue, the uncovered parts of the village and of the harbor, you can write to Mr. Eduardo Guerra (firstname.lastname@example.org) (See www.magdalacenter.com). I was excavating there as a volonteer last month and it was a great experience.
#4 - Cristóbal - 10/19/2011 - 13:40
How big was a typical synagogue in typical Jewish village in Jesus day? How many people would it hold?
#5 - john - 05/19/2012 - 13:16