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 to in the New Testament (Matt. 23:2)—a seat of special honor. However, there was more than one such seat in a synagogue, and the Moses Seat was more likely a literary allusion than a real chair. Instead, this chair was used as a kind of throne for the Torah scroll while the other (the Haftorah, or "Prophets Scroll") was being read to the congregation. After the readings, both were returned to a scroll cabinet (the ark).

Although the synagogue was open three times a day for those who wanted to pray, special services were held on market days, Mondays and Thursdays. The Sabbath was the regular day for services, and most people attended on that morning.

The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic laws) preserves a tradition that on the Sabbath, a minion (group of 10 men over the age of 13) was required to begin the services. Unlike temple services, these assemblies were characterized by simplicity. There was no official participation by priests or Levites, and no sacrifices were offered. Instead, services were conducted by ordinary members of the community.

The Sabbath service likely began with the congregation standing, facing toward Jerusalem, and reciting prayers beginning with the Shema (Deut. 6:4). These verses taken from the Torah were actually more a confession of faith than prayers; the Shema was recited twice daily by adult males.

Alternatively, one individual called "the ruler" (head of the synagogue chosen by the synagogue elders) would stand before the ark and recite the Shema aloud while the congregation prayed silently. Then all responded with a loud "Amen."

Other prayers were then said, which became known as the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions). During Sabbath services only the first three (praises) and the last three (thanksgivings) were used. The full series of benedictions was said only during morning daily prayer. (Eventually a nineteenth benediction was added—a prayer against heretics, including Christians: "For apostates may there be no hope and may the Nazarenes and the heretics suddenly perish.")

The heart of the service

After the prayers came the essence of the synagogue service, the reading of the Torah. The hazzan (attendant) of the synagogue took the scroll from the ark and offered it to the first of seven selected readers. The selection was read carefully, not more than one verse recited from memory.

The reading, like the prayers, was done while standing. Priests and Levites, if present, were given the honor of reading the Torah and pronouncing the priestly benediction, which had to be spoken in Hebrew. The Torah was read first, then the Haftorah, accompanied by a continuous translation into Aramaic (the language commonly spoken in Palestine). Only one verse at a time could be read from the Law before translation, and three verses for the Prophets.

Following the reading of the Law and Prophets, a sermon was given by someone invited by the hazzan. Preaching was not the prerogative of any one group or class of people. Jesus, for example, preached in the Nazareth synagogue. Paul often "proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews" (Acts 13:5). Of course, then as now, those best qualified were preferred, especially those who were educated and well-traveled.

Whether the custom of seven readers was adhered to in Nazareth in Jesus' day is not known. If so, he must have been in the last group to read because he read from the Prophets rather than the Law, and then he immediately gave the sermon (Luke 4:16ff). It does seem, however, that he selected his own passage to read (4:17).

The preacher closed the sermon with a brief prayer. On leaving the synagogue service, it was customary for each person to give alms for the poor. Since presents as well as money were acceptable, the porch of the synagogue might be littered with various gifts.

In spite of much archaeological work, we still have no description of a full service from the first century. We can assume that Jews worshiped in a flexible manner and with considerable diversity. After the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, of course, synagogue life changed radically. There was a strong impetus to transfer some of the temple ritual to the synagogues. By the second and third centuries, the synagogue services had crystallized into a form unknown in Jesus' day.

John McRay is professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheaton College, Illinois, and author of Archaeology and the New Testament (Baker, 1991).