Jewish synagogues are not mentioned in the OT but were well established by the NT era. They were possibly founded in Babylon during the Exile in default of the Temple, though many scholars believe they originated in the Greek-speaking Diaspora. They may have been at first community centres for Jews, to which regular worship was later added, and they were therefore a revolutionary concept. Sacrificial worship gave way to prayer, homilies, and education—worship in which priests were less essential than the readings from the Torah. Synagogues were increasingly important during the Maccabean revolt (1 Macc. 3: 48), but it is probable that meetings took place in private houses rather than in designated buildings. Even in and around Jerusalem synagogues existed, but they probably had fewer functions than those in more remote places. In the capital, religious needs were still mainly catered for by the Temple.
After the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) rabbinic Judaism required buildings for teaching and worship, sacred meals and legal proceedings, and by the 3rd cent. CE these were plentiful. They were often decorated with mosaics and reliefs. Many remains have been discovered by archaeologists, especially in Galilee. A few may be of the 1st cent. Worship included scripture-reading, especially from the Pentateuch, though the prophets were not omitted (Luke 4: 17); interpretation might be given; psalms were recited. Some scholars have held that the regular synagogue lectionary was already in existence in NT times, and may have influenced the structure of the gospels. Synagogues had a presiding minister and sometimes priests held office, though laymen were permitted to speak if qualified, by being able, for example, to translate from Hebrew into the vernacular.
The congregation sat on benches round the walls, a position which facilitated dialogue.
The word ‘synagogue’ is used once in the NT (Jas. 2: 2; NJB) for a Christian assembly or meeting (REB).