THE word “synagogue” comes from a Greek word meaning “assembly” or “gathering together.” The name is fitting because synagogues have been places of assembly for instruction and worship in Jewish communities since ancient times. The Hebrew Scriptures make no clear reference to synagogues, but it is clear from the Christian Greek Scriptures that such gathering places were already well-established by the first century C.E.
Most scholars believe that synagogues originated during the Jewish captivity in Babylon. The Encyclopaedia Judaica reasons: “The Exiles, deprived of the Temple, in a strange land, feeling the need for consolation in their distress, would meet from time to time, probably on Sabbaths, and read the Scriptures.” On being released from their exile, the Jews evidently continued to meet for prayer and reading of the Scriptures, and they established synagogues wherever they settled.
By the first century C.E., synagogues had thus become the focus of Jewish religious and social life for communities scattered around the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East, and in Israel itself. “[The synagogue] served as a place for study, sacred meals, court proceedings, depositing communal funds, and political and social meetings,” says Professor Lee Levine of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He adds: “Of central importance, of course, were the religious services.” It is not surprising, then, that Jesus frequently attended gatherings at synagogues. (Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 4:16) There he taught, exhorted, and encouraged those present. Following the establishment of the Christian congregation, the apostle Paul likewise did much preaching in synagogues. Those interested in spiritual things were naturally drawn to the synagogue, so when entering a city, Paul usually went first to the synagogue and preached there.—Acts 17:1, 2; 18:4.