Question: "What is a synagogue?"
Answer: A synagogue is a Jewish building designed for worship (similar to a modern church building). Though some Jewish traditions claim synagogues existed “from the time of Moses,” history notes that the practice of meeting in synagogues emerged during the period of Israel’s Babylonian captivity. During this time, the Jewish temple was unavailable for worship, requiring an alternative gathering place for dispersed Jews who desired to gather for prayer and communal worship.
By the time of Jesus and the New Testament period, synagogues had become a common local fixture. The New Testament mentions synagogues over 60 times, largely in connection with the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. On the Sabbath, local Jews would meet for prayer and Scripture reading. On one occasion, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah during a synagogue gathering. Luke 4:16-21 records
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Many synagogue customs can be observed in these verses. First, the meeting took place on the Sabbath (Saturday). Second, Jesus stood to read. Third, He read from a scroll. Even today, scrolls are found in synagogues and are used for weekly readings (see also Acts 15:21). When finished with His reading, Jesus sat down to teach, another synagogue tradition.
Paul and the other apostles would use the synagogue as a launching point for missionary activities. Upon arriving in a new community, Paul would show up at the synagogue and request to speak. He definitely had the credentials to open many doors (Acts 22:3). He would then present Jesus as the Messiah and begin his local outreach. This sometimes resulted in many people believing in Jesus. Acts 14:1 records, “Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.” In one case, a synagogue ruler was baptized (Acts 18:8). At other times, Paul’s practice of teaching in the synagogue led to much persecution.
Historically, the synagogue has continued to play an essential role in the practice of Judaism. After the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70, worship could no longer take place in the temple, making the synagogue the central place of worship.
The synagogue has served as an important fixture in Judaism and early Christianity. Its importance during the time of Jesus and the apostles provided one of the key ways the gospel spread in the earliest years of the church.