Though first-century Palestine was mostly illiterate, theological education remained a high priority for Jews. So the illiterate gathered with the literate and learned the Scriptures together in a place named for the Greek word for assembly—the synagogue. They heard the Scriptures read and sermons preached, and they discussed the meanings of the passages.

Synagogues provided a spectrum of services from hotel to courtroom, but these activities were secondary to the synagogue's main function as a place of Scripture reading and worship. In fact, outside Judea, the word synagogue was often replaced by the phrase place of prayer. So what was a synagogue service like?

Down by the riverside


Synagogue services in the New Testament era would have been similar regardless of geographical location—similar but not uniform. Architecture and interior design differed from synagogue to synagogue. In fact, among the more than 50 or so synagogue ruins found in Israel this century, no two are alike. Services could be conducted in a variety of buildings, in homes, or even in the open air.

Whenever possible, urban synagogues were built near rivers or springs so members could purify themselves in running water. This location also helped visitors find the local synagogue, as Paul and his companions did in Philippi: "On the Sabbath, we went outside the city gate to the river," Luke writes, "where we expected to find a place of prayer" (Acts 16:13).

The interior typically consisted of a room lined with benches and chairs on three sides, with the seats of greater honor progressively elevated. Chairs and benches were also placed in the open space for large crowds.

Special chairs associated with later synagogues have been thought to be the "Moses Seat" referred ...

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