Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Synagogue at Nazareth

SynagogueComing to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.
- Matthew 13:54-58 (NIV)

Three of the Gospels mentions Jesus preaching in the Synagogue in Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:16-30). Though Nazareth was a small town, it is not surprising that it would have a Synagogue, as it only took 10 Jewish men to start one, and the population of Nazareth was most likely primarily (if not completely) Jewish. This, however, did not necessarily mean that Nazareth had a synagogue ‘building.” According to Biblical scholar Jonathan L. Reed, the term synagogue “refers primarily to a gathering and only secondarily to a structure in the earlier periods of Palestine.” (Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: A Re-Examination of the Evidence” By Jonathan L. Reed, Pg 154-155) But if there was a synagogue building in Nazareth at the time of Jesus, what would it have been like?

Inside a First Century Synagogue
Most synagogues of the first century shared the following common features:

  • Benches lining the walls.

  • An open central space.

  • Rows of columns on each side of the central space.

The walls in many synagogues were decorated with carvings or frescoes. Most synagogues contained a chest to hold scrolls of God’s word, and in the center or at one end of the communal meeting room there was something like a podium, where the scriptures would be read.

A Sabbath Service
A Sabbath service could start once there were ten people present. The service may have opened with a communal prayer, then the people gathered would stand as the scriptures were read. Passages from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms would be read in Hebrew first, often followed by a translation into Aramaic (the language most people spoke then). Following this the reader or another Jewish male would offer a commentary on what was read. Others were then free to offer their opinions. A communal prayer may have closed the meeting.

Women attended synagogue, and unlike in the temple, they were not always segregated from the men (though sometimes men and women did sit separately). Pious Gentile “God-fearers” who had not fully converted to Judaism could also attend the Synagogue.

Synagogue School
Synagogues also served as schools. As early as 75 BC education for boys in Israel began to be considered compulsary. Children were taught reading and basic arithmetic, and once a child could read they were given parchment rolls with passages of the Scriptures to memorize. The primary passages they learned were:

  • The Shema (Deut 6:4-6)

  • The Hallel (Ps 113-118)

  • The Story of Creation (Gen 1-5)

  • The Essence of Levitical Law (Lev 1-8)

Students were also asked to seek out and memorize a personal text…one that began with the first letter of his name and ended with the last letter of his name.

To teach was a high honor, and the moral character of a teacher was considered more important than his academic qualifications. A teacher had to be an even-tempered married male who had another way to support himself, since he must teach for free.

A Community Meeting Place
Synagogues also served as a court of law and community center where festivals and political assemblies would be held.

Donald D. Binder, “Second Temple Synagogue FAQs”
The Synagogue
Education in Ancient Isreal
Nazareth Village Synagogue
Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: A Re-Examination of the Evidence” By Jonathan L. Reed, Pg 154-155
Jesus Went to Synagogue
Jerusalem Synagogue

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