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Worship is a critical way for God’s people to maintain their identity in an often hostile world. For the Jews during the latter part of the second temple period (516 BC–AD 70), the temple and its worship played a primary role, as they had for ancient Israel. Especially for the Jews living in the Diaspora (lands outside of Israel), the local synagogue with its emphasis on the study of Scripture became increasingly important. It is not hard to see numerous parallels with the early Christian church.
Readers of the New Testament are familiar with the temple and synagogues, especially from the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Other ancient authors such as Philo and Josephus and archaeology are also helpful in studying these institutions. More questionable are the numerous descriptions of the temple and synagogue found in post–AD 200 rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah, which some scholars argue was written to promote rabbinic practices.
Beginning in 19 BC, Herod the Great extensively rebuilt and beautified the temple and greatly expanded the Temple Mount into the largest platform in the ancient world. Gentiles were allowed into its outer court, which housed shops and money-changers. Jews could enter the court next to the temple and even the outer edge of the temple court itself. Only priests could approach the altar and the temple proper.
The temple service consisted of a number of set offerings for each day, Sabbath, new moon, and festival, and of occasional offerings brought by individuals. For example, every morning and evening the priests burned incense inside the temple on the incense altar and offered a lamb as a burnt offering on the altar outside the temple. This ritual probably also included psalms sung by the Levitical choir, trumpets, and a priestly benediction on the people gathered for worship and prayer. According to later rabbinic literature, the priests also met in a room before the offering to recite a blessing, portions of the Torah (the Old Testament law), and three benedictions.
Jews would journey to the temple for the three pilgrimage festivals and for required occasional offerings, such as for purification after childbirth. To approach the temple, they needed to be ceremonially pure, perhaps washing in one of the ritual baths (Hebrew mikvaot) located near the temple. If bringing an offering, they would present it to the priests, laying their hand on it, and then the priests would slaughter it and splash its blood against the altar or pour it out at its base, depending on the offering. After preparing the animal, the priests would burn the appropriate portions on the altar.
The temple was controlled by the priests who were dominated by the Sadducees, although various groups including the Pharisees and Essenes also sought to influence temple practices. The priests and Levites were divided into twenty-four courses (groups), and each course would come to Jerusalem about twice a year to perform their duties in the temple for a week. According to later rabbinic literature, the lay Jews were likewise divided into courses, and some of the lay Jews would come to Jerusalem along with the priests and Levites to witness the temple offerings for the week. Those remaining at home would gather during the week to read the creation account and to fast.
The word synagogue comes from the Greek term for a “gathering,” and it is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the congregation of Israel. In the New Testament and other ancient literature, buildings are also referred to as synagogues, although the congregational notion could still be present. These gathering places for Jews, especially in the Diaspora, are also referred to as prayer houses and schools. The synagogues found in Israel from the second temple period have a main rectangular meeting hall, usually with stone benches around the edges and an open area in the middle where, most likely, there was additional seating on benches or chairs.
During New Testament times, Jews regularly gathered on the Sabbath in the synagogues. It is unclear what percentage of the population gathered and whether the services always included women and children. The main activity was reading from the Pentateuch (or Torah, the first five books of the OT), probably in Hebrew followed by an Aramaic translation. In Greek-speaking areas, the reading may have been done in Greek. There was usually a second reading from the Prophets. The reading was often followed by teaching, as recorded in the New Testament (Luke 4:16–30; Acts 13:15–52). The reading and teaching were done by someone with standing in the community, including priests. Later rabbinic literature describes an established pattern for which portions of the Pentateuch were to be read and a number of prayers and benedictions to precede and follow the reading and teaching, but it is unlikely that they were set at this time.
The authority structure of the synagogue probably varied regionally. One office mentioned often is the ruler of the synagogue, who would have been a man of standing in the community. In a number of inscriptions, the synagogue ruler was the person who built the synagogue. One inscription records that the title was handed down from father to son in a priestly family.
In broad terms, scholars argue for two possible origins of the synagogue. Some think it was a new institution formed during some crisis—for example, as a response to the destruction of the first temple during the Babylonian exile. Others see continuity with earlier community institutions, such as gatherings in the city gate in ancient Israel (Ruth 4). Of course, there are ways to combine these two possibilities.
In many ways, this debate is driven by differing views of the synagogue in the second temple period. Was it primarily a worship center or a community center? Certainly, there were religious elements, and those elements became more dominant in later periods, especially after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. However, the synagogue was also a place for judging and flogging, town meetings, lodgings for travelers, communal meals, schools, and money collection. This mixed character of the synagogue in the second temple period needs to be kept in view.