Though the temple was rebuilt during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, most of the Jews remained in Babylon. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD and the destruction of Jerusalem in 135 AD, most Jews were forced out of the land of Israel. Many were taken captive, and many fled the Roman armies. They spread throughout the nations during the time of the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, and into modern times. Everywhere they went they built synagogues for worship. Synagogues were located throughout Europe, as well as in Syria, Iran, Iraq, India, China, Egypt, Africa, and eventually North and South America.
The synagogue was one of the ways that God kept the Jews from being dissolved into the nations. The synagogues preserved the Jewish Scripture and religion and way of life. Jews had contact with fellow Jews, practiced circumcision, held Jewish weddings, kept the passover and other feasts, and taught the law and the traditions. The synagogues help keep the Jews separated from their Gentile neighbors.
Each synagogue has a large cabinet where the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is stored. It is called an ark. This is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant which held the Ten Commandments. The synagogue ark is often hidden behind an ornate curtain.
In front of the ark is a lamp that is continually lit and is called the “Eternal Light.” Today it is usually electric. Many synagogues also have one or more seven-lamp menorahs. These point to Christ as the light of the world, and one day the Jews will receive Jesus as the Christ and will cease to dwell in spiritual darkness.
The platform where the Torah is read is raised up above the congregation. It is called the bimah. This is the Greek word for a raised seat that was used in judgment. Pilate sat on a bimah to judge Jesus (Jn. 19:13). Paul was brought before bimahs (Acts 18:12; 25:6). Christ’s judgment seat is called the bimah (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10).
The synagogue is often built so that the worshipers face toward Jerusalem.
Men and women are seated in separate sections. We can see this custom in the outdoor synagogue at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The women must worship in a separate section that is divided from the men’s section by a fence.
Many synagogues have a chair for the prophet Elijah. It is empty except during the Brit Milah, which is the ceremony of circumcision. At the beginning of the ceremony, the infant is placed on the chair. This is based on a Jewish myth that Elijah watches over every circumcision. During the ritual meal that follows, the Jews pray for God to send the Messiah quickly and to send Elijah to re-establish the throne of David.
Ancient synagogues also had a chair for Moses. One of these was excavated from the synagogue at Chorazin north of the Sea of Galilee. “With their backs toward Jerusalem the elders of the synagogue sat facing the people. The most prominent elder sat in this stone seat upon a raised platform next to the ark containing the OT scrolls. From here, it is supposed, teachers expounded the Mosaic law. This seat symbolized their authority as interpreters of the law in unbroken succession from Moses” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). The synagogue at Sardis had a seat of Elijah and a seat of Moses. It appears that these were symbolic of the Law and the Prophets.
The synagogues were study centers where the rabbis preserved the Scriptures. After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 135, the Masoretic scribes began painstakingly copying the Scriptures in order to preserve them. They counted each letter of the Hebrew Bible, and if a mistake was made they destroyed the manuscript. The most famous Masoretic Hebrew Bible is the Aleppo Codex of AD 900. The Protestant Reformers used the Masoretic Hebrew text as the basis for the Protestant Bibles such as the German Luther and the English King James. At that time it was not possible to know what the Hebrew Bible looked like prior to AD 900, because no manuscripts existed that were older than this. Bible believers trusted God’s promises that He would preserve His Word. But in the 1950s, scrolls of the Hebrew Bible were found in caves near the Dead Sea. They date to 100-200 years BC, a full millennium earlier than the Masoretic Aleppo Codex, yet they were found to be nearly word-for-word the same as the Masoretic Hebrew Bible of the 10th century AD! For example, when Isaiah 53 is compared between the nearly complete Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Caves and the Aleppo Codex, there are only three letters that differ. This means that the Hebrew Bible was successfully preserved until the time of printing, in spite of the fact that the Jews were dispersed among the nations and bitterly persecuted.
The synagogues were where rabbis created the myriad of traditions that were added to Scripture. This collection of writings is called the Talmud. It has two parts: The Mishna, which is composed of debates and Jewish legal opinions, and the Gemara, which is a commentary on the Mishna. The Talmud is not based on the Scripture itself, but it is based on the Midrash, which is a Jewish commentary on the Scripture. Thus the Talmud is a commentary on a commentary on a commentary! Even the Midrash commentary is based on an allegorical interpretation of Scripture rather than a literal one and treats parts of the Old Testament as mythical. The Talmud is not organized by Scripture text but by six major subjects: Seeds, Festival, Women, Damages, Holies, and Purities. The rabbis who wrote the Midrash are called Tannaim, and the ones who wrote the Gemara are called Amoraim. Altogether the Talmud consists of 6,200 pages of printed text and contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis on a vast number of subjects. There are two major editions. The Jerusalem Talmud, also called the Palestinian Talmud or the Talmud de-Eretz Yisrael (Talmud of the Land of Israel), was composed in synagogues in Tiberias and Caesarea between AD 200-400. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in Babylon in about AD 500. The Talmud was exalted to a place of authority equal to Scripture. This process had begun during the days of the Pharisees, as Jesus said: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mat. 15:9). Consider kosher cooking which is cooking according to Talmudic tradition. From the simple law forbidding a kid to be seethed in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21), Jewish tradition adds layers of laws. They prohibit cooking a mixture of milk and meat, prohibit eating a cooked mixture of milk and meat, and prohibit deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of milk and meat. Kosher cooking even requires that separate cooking utensils and dishes and cutlery be used for meat and dairy products so there is no chance of cross contamination. The set of utensils for food containing dairy products is known by the Hebrew word halavi, while the set for meat is basari. Orthodox Jews wait for at least six hours between eating meat and eating dairy products, since food leaves fragments between the teeth and there is therefore the chance of the two being mixed in the mouth!
The synagogues were instrumental in preserving the Hebrew language over the past 2,000 years. After Israel was evicted from her land by the Romans and scattered through the nations, her language was in danger of dying. The preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogues by the rabbis preserved the language, and it is the official language today in modern Israel.
The synagogues were a light to the Gentiles that helped prepare the way for the gospel. There is evidence for this in the book of Acts. Wherever Paul went on his missionaries journeys, he began preaching in the synagogues because this is where he found both Jews and Gentiles who had a worldview prepared for the gospel by the light of the Old Testament (e.g., the knowledge of the true God, man’s fall, redemption through sacrifice, and the coming Messiah). Many Gentiles attended the synagogues seeking spiritual light, and many of them were saved when they heard the gospel and understood that Jesus is the promised Christ. “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few” (Ac. 17:1-4). (See also Acts 13:42-43; 14:1; 17:10-12; 18:4.) The “devout Greeks” were Greeks who had rejected pagan idolatry and joined themselves with the Jews in believing Jewish Scripture and worshipping Jehovah God. The Old Testament was given by God to prepare men for the coming of Christ. It was a schoolmaster (Ga. 3:24). It was intended by God to be a light to all nations (Isa. 45:22; 52:10). The Jews corrupted the message of God’s law by their tradition and created a works religion, and they became self-righteous and racially arrogant, but God still used the Scripture to prepare hearts. We think of the Ethiopian eunuch who traveled to Jerusalem apparently to obtain Jewish Scripture and was trying to understand the prophecy of Isaiah (Ac. 826-28). We think of Cornelius, a “devout” Roman centurion who followed the light of Judaism in Caesarea (Ac. 10:1-2).
Over the past 2,000 years countless synagogues have been destroyed during persecutions against the Jews. For example, during Kristallnacht (crystal night) in 1938, the German Nazis destroyed more than 1,000 synagogues and rounded up 200,000 Jews to send to death camps.
Today the Jews are returning to their land, and many synagogues have closed. A report in the New York Times for Oct. 24, 2013, was entitled “The Last Jews of Calcutta.” It described the closing of the synagogue at Calcutta, India, which was once bustling. Where are the Jews going? They are going home in preparation for the final fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
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