The emergence of the synagogue constituted a revolutionary development in the history of Judaism. The synagogue represented not only a wholly new concept of religious observance but also a new form of communal institution. With the synagogue the nature of official worship shifted dramatically, with prayer, study, and exhortation replacing sacrifice as the way to serve God. Officiating on behalf of the community was no longer confined to a small coterie of priests but was open to all. Ceremonies were conducted in full view of the participants, with the masses of people no longer being relegated to outer courtyards, as was the case in the Jerusalem Temple. Moreover, the synagogue was a universal institution and not confined to any one specific locale.
Despite its importance in Jewish history, the origins of the synagogue and its early development are shrouded in mystery. Only during and after the first century CE does literary and archaeological evidence appear for Palestine. As for the Roman Diaspora, references before then are practically nonexistent (and what does exist refers to the Diaspora). Synagogue inscriptions from third‐ and second‐century BCE Egypt have been preserved, as have remains of a Delos synagogue building dating from the first century BCE.
Owing to the paucity of sources, opinions have varied widely as to when, where, and why the synagogue developed. Theories have ranged from the late First Temple period (eighth‐seventh century BCE), through the exilic (sixth century) and postexilic (fifth century) eras, and down to the late Persian (fourth century) and Hellenistic times (third or second century). Most scholars have assumed a midway position, one that posits the emergence of the synagogue closely following the destruction of the First Temple in 587/586 BCE, either during the Babylonian exile or soon after, when the Jews returned to Judea during the era of restoration.
Over the centuries the synagogue became a fully developed communal institution and apparently the central one in most communities. It served as a place for study, sacred meals, court proceedings, depositing communal funds, and political and social meetings, as a hostel, and as a residence for certain synagogue officials. Of central importance, of course, were the religious services. At first these consisted primarily of the Torah‐reading ceremony and its accompanying activities: translation of the Torah into the vernacular, be it Aramaic (Targums) or Greek (see Translations, articles on Ancient Languages and Targums), the haftarah or a selected reading from the prophets, and a sermon. The sources from the Second Temple period—Josephus, Philo, rabbinic writings, and the Theodotus inscription—point to this centrality. The existence of regular communal prayers at this time is unclear. While prayer appears to have been an integral part of the religious service in the Diaspora, its presence in Palestinian synagogue settings before 70 CE is unattested. Only after this date are we on firm ground in assuming the importance and centrality of public prayer in all synagogue settings.
These two components of the religious service—Torah reading and prayer—were characterized in antiquity by their fluidity no less than their uniformity. While Torah reading was accepted as normative on Sabbath and holidays and later on Mondays and Thursdays as well, the division into weekly portions varied considerably. In Palestine the Torah was read over a three‐ or three‐and‐a‐half‐year period with a plethora of local traditions on the precise divisions of the weekly portions (141, 154, 161, 167, and 175). Moreover, the practice in Babylonian communities living in late Roman and Byzantine Palestine only added to this diversity: They concluded the Torah reading in one year. How widespread the custom was of translating the Torah portion into the vernacular is unknown, but the use of Greek in addition to Aramaic cannot be denied. The place of the sermon in the synagogue service was likewise diverse. The content, of course, might have varied considerably from one of an expository nature to one of ethical, political, halakhic, or even eschatological dimensions. When sermons were delivered on the Sabbath (Friday evening, Saturday morning, or Saturday afternoon), or when during the service (before or after the Torah reading), might differ widely from one congregation to another.
The diversity is found also with regard to prayer. Undoubtedly by the post‐70 era the two main foci of the prayer service had crystallized. The Shema prayer (Deut. 6.4–9) with its accompanying paragraphs (Deut. 11.13–21; Num. 15.37–41) had been adopted from Temple practice and was now supplemented by three blessings, each focusing on a central theme, respectively—creation, revelation, and *redemption. Together this unit provided the central ideational portion of the prayer experience and was recited in the synagogue twice daily, during the morning and evening services. The second focus of the prayer service was the Shemoneh Esreh (literally, “eighteen” blessings, although a nineteenth was added some time in late antiquity) or the Amidah (standing prayer). When precisely this prayer came into usage is unknown, but by the second century CE it held a central position. Recited three times daily, no special prayer service, be it on the Sabbath, Holiday, or High Holiday, was complete without it. The Amidah consisted of three parts: the first three benedictions were in praise of God, the last three were expressions of thanks, while the middle section changed each day. On a weekday, twelve (later thirteen) petionary blessings were recited; on Sabbaths and holidays this section expressed the unique message of that particular day. During the early centuries CE prayers were added to the morning service, such as prayers of supplication, morning blessings, psalms of praise, and others.
During the Byzantine period, the recitation of liturgical poems—pîyyûṭîm—was added to the service, particularly those for the Sabbath and holidays. When and from where the pîyyûṭ developed has been a subject of scholarly debate. Some claim it evolved from earlier midrashim, prayers, or songs recited in the Temple and synagogue, others see it as the adoption and adaptation of liturgical poems recited in Byzantine churches, and still others as a protest against organized, fixed prayers. Whatever the explanation, the pîyyûṭ made its appearance in fourth‐ and fifth‐century Palestine, and today we know of at least twenty poets who functioned in the pre‐Muslim era. These pîyyûṭîm were recited during the morning service, either in addition to or in place of the fixed liturgy.
Archaeological remains of the ancient synagogue abound. In Palestine alone traces of over a hundred structures have been identified, and in the Diaspora some fifteen. The latter stretch from Dura Europos on the Euphrates River in the east, to Tunisia on the North African coast in the west. The overwhelming majority of synagogue remains in Palestine are located in the Galilee and Golan regions; others are to be found in Beth–shean, coastal areas, and Judea. Architecturally, these synagogues can be divided into three types. The Galilean type, characterized by a monumental and richly decorated facade, was oriented towards Jerusalem, often with three entrances. Fine ashlar masonry of either limestone or basalt was characteristic of these buildings, and their rectangular interiors were simple, with two or three colonnades dividing the hall into a central nave with two or three aisles. Entablatures, pilasters, and friezes typical of Roman art of late antiquity decorated the buildings, along with molded stucco and painted plaster. With but few exceptions, no permanent shrines for the Torah scrolls have been found.
The second type of synagogue modelled itself after the basilical plan used extensively in Byzantine churches, and was modest on the exterior, reserving its splendor for the interior. In contrast to the Galilean type with its splendid entrance on the facade facing Jerusalem, the entrance in the basilica type shifted to the wall opposite the direction of prayer. A round or square apse was set in the wall facing Jerusalem in which the Torah ark rested on a raised platform (bîmâ). Only two rows of columns lined the elongated character of the prayer hall. Most notable in the basilica type of synagogue was its richly decorated mosaic floor, often in clear imitation of regnant Byzantine patterns and not infrequently with unique Jewish symbols, such as a menorah, Torah ark, lulav, ethrog, and shofar. Such symbols were practically nonexistent in buildings of the Galilean type. Finally, a third type of building which appears in but a few locales of Palestine and the Diaspora is the broadhouse synagogue. The uniqueness of these buildings is that their focus of worship, either an apse, bîmâ, or shrine—which is located along the long wall of the synagogue. These buildings share features common to the other types in most other respects.
Aside from the Jewish symbols mentioned above, Jewish figural art is represented in only a few synagogues: the Aqedah (Genesis 22) at Beth Alpha, Noah at Gerasa, David at Gaza, and Daniel at Naʿaran and Susiya. Of an entirely different order is the third‐century CE synagogue of Dura Europos, whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling with decorated panels. These panels depict scenes from the Bible, using Greek and Persian artistic motifs and incorporating a significant amount of midrash (rabbinic or otherwise) in their interpretations and representations. One of the most striking examples of synagogue art, at Hammath Tiberias and elsewhere, represents Helios, the zodiac signs, and the four seasons. Interpretations of these motifs vary considerably. The first reaction was to interpret them as the gift of the emperor or as an expression of some fringe group in Judaism. With the discovery, however, of such pavements all over Israel, it became clear that this was a popular and accepted form of artistic expression. Among the interpretations proposed of the zodiac motif are: it was simply a decorative motif; it reflects the importance of the Jewish calendar; it represents the power of God in creating the world each day; it stands for the Divine himself; it reflects belief in angels, especially Helios, who was well known within certain Jewish circles of the period. Of these several explanations, none has won general acceptance. (See also Art and the Bible.)
Owing to the centrality of the synagogue as the primary Jewish communal institution and to the extensive remains that have survived, the study of this institution is of paramount importance for those wishing to gain as complete a picture of ancient Judaism as possible. Patterns of Jewish settlements, the diversity of religious practices, the influence of surrounding cultures, Jewish artistic expression, Jewish prosography, titles and professions among synagogue donors are areas well attested in synagogue remains.