The question of when and where the synagogue originated has been much debated recently (Binder 1999; Fine 1997, 1999; the essays collected in Urman and Flesher 1995). It used to be taken for granted that the institution of the synagogue arose during the Babylonian exile—or possibly even earlier—and had a central role in worship and instruction throughout Jewish communities from then on. Much recent study finds this picture problematic and ultimately unconvincing. There are several reasons for this. First, no source refers to the synagogue or anything like it until the third century BCE. Secondly, for many centuries the temple seems to have been the centre of public worship, and substitution of some other form of public worship is not likely to have come about very suddenly. Thirdly, when worship outside the temple is mentioned in the sources, the references are to prayer and the like in the context of the home.
No one questions the importance that the synagogue took on for Jewish communities in the early centuries of the Common Era. The synagogue is attested both literarily and archaeologically from the second or third centuries CE as playing a central role in most Jewish communities, functioning as a centre not only of worship but also of community life, whether in Palestine, Egypt, the Graeco-Roman world, or Babylonia. The question is: when during the half a millennium or so after the Babylonian exile did the synagogue develop into this important Jewish institution?
The move to a community place of public worship seems to have taken time. The early written sources that mention Jews worshipping outside Jerusalem always picture them doing so in the privacy of their homes. In Tobit, prayer is conducted and the festivals celebrated in the home (2: 1–3); there is no hint of a community institution. Both Daniel (6:11) and Judith (8:36–10: 2) picture their protagonists as praying in their homes (cf. also Acts 1:13–14). Ben Sira, 1–3 Macc., and the Letter of Aristeas are silent on the question of the synagogue.
The earliest material evidence for the synagogue is in the mid-third century BCE in Egypt, i.e. the Diaspora (Griffiths 1987; Hachlili 1997). At that time we start to find buildings with inscriptions that speak of a ‘prayer house’ (proseuchē) of the Jews. This is hardly surprising, because Jewish communities in the areas far away from Palestine had no easy access to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrims came each year in great numbers to worship at Jerusalem during the annual festivals, yet this was still only a small minority of Jews the world over. A wealthy Jew such as Philo of Alexandria mentions travelling to Jerusalem only once (De Providentia 2. 64). Perhaps he went more than once in his lifetime, but the impression one has is that he did not go very frequently. Thus, the Diaspora communities would have felt a need for some means of expressing their religion in a community fashion.
Nothing is found in Palestine, however, until the first century CE Theodotus inscription (Binder 1999: 104). Most accept that it is pre-70 (though H. Kee (e.g. 1990) has consistently argued that it is post-70; but see the criticisms of van der Horst 1999: 18–23; Binder 1999: 104–9). The author of the inscription states that the synagogue of the inscription goes back to the time of his grandfather and served as a place for reading the law and giving hospitality to travellers. Otherwise, it has been difficult to find pre-70 remains of synagogue buildings. Ruins of a synagogue are thought to have been found in Gamla to the north-east of the Sea of Galilee, in Herodium, and at Masada. Although not everyone is willing to concede that the archaeology is certain (Chiat 1982: 116–18, 204–7, 248–51, 282–4; there are no inscriptions identifying them, for example), most scholars are willing to accept that the synagogue is attested as an institution in Palestine by the first century CE. This is consistent with the literary sources which suggest that the synagogue was imported into Palestine after the Maccabean Revolt.
The earliest references to anything like synagogues in extant literature are found no earlier than the first century CE. The first of these is Philo of Alexandria (proseuchē: In Flacc. 47–9, 53; Leg. 132–4, etc.). Both Josephus and the NT make reference to synagogues in various parts of the Roman Empire. Josephus mentions synagogues in Caesarea (sunagogē: BJ 2. 14. 4, §285), Dora (sunagogē: AJ 19. 6. 3, §§300–5), as well as in Tiberias (proseuchē: Vit. 54, §277), though not elsewhere in Palestine. The NT is the earliest set of writings that specifically locates synagogues in the centre of Palestine, including Jerusalem. Many passages in the gospels and Acts describe Jesus or the early Christians attending and even speaking in the synagogues. Perhaps one of the most detailed descriptions is found in Luke 4: 16–29.
What exactly did the synagogue do? What sorts of activities went on in it? Some attempt at describing the activities can be made (cf. Binder 1999: 389–450), but the data are insufficient to give a full picture. The sources vary from primary inscriptions, to alleged official decrees and letters in literary sources, to statements in literary sources. These are not all on the same level of credibility, and Josephus's apologetic concerns make some of his data suspect. But the same broad picture tends to emerge from the various sources. Reading scripture, prayer, and teaching and homiletic activity seem to have been the main sort of activities in synagogues, but it is difficult to go beyond that with any certainty.
It has recently been argued that the synagogue had nothing originally to do with prayer or worship (McKay 1994). This position seems misplaced for two reasons (cf. van der Horst 1999: 23–37; Binder 1999: 404–15): (1) the earliest name in inscriptions is proseuchē ‘(place of) prayer, prayer (house)’, which seems an odd name to give a building which had nothing to do with prayer; (2) Agatharchides of Cnidus states that the Jews ‘pray with outstretched hands in the temples (hiera) until the evening’ (quoted in Josephus, Ap. 1. 22, §209). Although speaking of Jerusalem, he is likely drawing on his experience of synagogues in Alexandria and elsewhere in the Diaspora.
The Theodotus inscription speaks only of the reading and study of scriptures (as well as hospitality). The reading of the Torah seems to have been carried out in many synagogues, if not in all. We have no information that would allow us to go beyond this statement. Despite the occasional argument that a biblical reading was done according to a fixed lectionary cycle, this seems unlikely; even rabbinic literature does not attest a fixed cycle until quite late (Grabbe 1988: 408–9). The same applies to the translation of the biblical readings into Aramaic. Although this translation apparently had a place in synagogue services during the rabbinic period, no evidence has so far been produced that targums or targumizing had a place in the pre-70 synagogues.
Finally, there is the question of whether there is a relationship between scribes and the synagogue. It must first be noted that the concept of scribes and synagogues being ‘lay’ institutions is not borne out by the facts. A number of sources suggest that priests and Levites were often involved in major roles in the synagogue (Binder 1999: 355–60). There also seems to have been a conscious imitation of the Jerusalem Temple in many of the Diaspora synagogues (see the survey in Binder 1999: 227–341). In any case, the term ‘lay institution’ seems inappropriate. Of the different officials attested in the various sources (Binder 1999: 343–71), ‘scribes’ are occasionally associated with synagogues. A rather tattered papyrus of the first century BCE, which seems to describe a meeting of a Jewish burial society in the synagogue, mentions a scribe in a broken context (Binder 1999: 447). It probably means that one or more scribes were present to assist the meeting in its business. Two passages in the gospels criticize scribes because they seek the best seats in the synagogue (Mark 12: 29//Matt. 23: 6//Luke 20: 46; cf. Luke 11: 43) and do not teach the way Jesus does (Mark 1: 21–2). This is not a very large haul of data on the subject.
What we can say is that scribes were needed for certain of the activities carried out in the synagogue. They would have kept records and done the other tasks relating to writing and drawing up documents. They would probably also have served as notaries or witnesses to the signing of documents. Thus, one can reasonably presume that each synagogue would have had one or more scribes employed full- or part-time. Mark 1: 21–2 also suggests that scribes had a teaching function. This would have made even more sense if the scribes were often priests or Levites. But this does not lead us necessarily to associate scribes with synagogues or to see synagogues as particularly staffed or run by scribes.
It has sometimes been suggested that the synagogue was particularly associated with the Pharisees—that the synagogue was even a Pharisaic institution. All we can say is that this is simply speculation: there is no evidence to support such a supposition. None of the inscriptions or literary sources makes such an association: the passages on the Pharisees in Josephus, the gospels, and Acts do not mention the Pharisees as in any special way connected with synagogues.
In conclusion, it seems likely that the synagogue first arose in the Diaspora to meet the needs of communities without easy access to the temple. This was probably about the third century BCE. Synagogues served as places of prayer and/or study, but would easily develop into some sort of central community institution. Only gradually did they filter into Palestine itself, where the temple was reasonably accessible. This is likely to have happened in the post-Maccabean period, perhaps in the first century BCE or even CE.