In the Roman world, the synagogue was the religious, cultural, and social center of every Jewish community. So most cities had more than one: one study estimates that during the time of Paul, there were 365 synagogues in Jerusalem alone. Besides Sabbath services, the synagogue performed a number of functions.
- School. Synagogues served as schools for children, for reading and explaining Scriptures at prayer services, and for regular study periods for adults.
- Court. In the synagogue, punishment was administered to offenders of Jewish law. Jesus told his disciples they would be “delivered to councils and flogged in their synagogues.” Paul was beaten “by the Jews”—in the synagogues—five times with thirty-nine lashes.
- Hall. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, describes political gatherings in the synagogue in Tiberias.
- Hotel. A synagogue also served as a hostel, with rooms set aside for Jewish travelers, merchants, and the poor.
- Treasury. Money was collected in the synagogues for charitable purposes and deposited there. In the synagogues outside Palestine, money was collected annually for donation to the Jerusalem Temple.
In other words, nearly every significant activity of Jewish life took place in a synagogue. It is no wonder Paul chose this strategic place to begin his missionary efforts.
John McRay is professor of New Testament and archaeology, Wheaton College (IL).
Copyright © 1995 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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