Synagogue worship appears to be relatively common in the Christian New Testament (although perhaps little is known about what actually went on in the synagogues, I don't know a whole lot of details). But I have heard little to nothing about non-temple worship during the time that the nation of Israel was in the land. Is there anything in the Bible (or perhaps Josephus or other historical sources) to suggest that synagogues existed pre-exile?

I have also heard that scholars tend to think that synagogues did not start until the diaspora; is there any good evidence of this?

  • Incidentally, Stephen Catto has written a lot of material examining the issue of 1st Century synagogues such as this article - until very recently the wider scholarly community largely rejected such ideas. We're now coming to see more potential for synagogues in this era, but you'll struggle to find any such evidence much further back than the first century BCE, and I don't know of any texts which would otherwise help much.
    – Steve Taylor
    May 4, 2016 at 7:33
  • "before the diaspora" so this question is looking for synagogues before 586 BCE? I do not know if you would count the high places destroyed by Josiah. If you mean synagogues before 70 CE, there is evidence of a temple in Alexandria. There were synagogues in Babylon, Rome, and the Hellenistic cities. I can get out my books on archaeology and history, but please clarify when you are talking about.
    – Mike
    May 6, 2016 at 1:01
  • @Mike Yes, before 586BCE. The high places, if I understand what you're talking about correctly, were not considered acceptable places of worship by the Bible, so it would be acceptable non-temple worship. The reason I don't say synagogues specifically is that I don't know if they were always called as such. My interest is in how people organised their worship outside of the temple worship, esp. on the Sabbath.
    – Birdie
    May 6, 2016 at 1:32

1 Answer 1


Jewish sources suggesting that synagogues existed in pre-exilic times include:

ונתן: וְתַזְהַר יַתְהוֹן יַת קְיָימַיָא וְיַת אוֹרַיְיתָא וּתְהוֹדַע לְהוֹן יַת צְלוֹתָא דְיֵיצְלוּן בְּבֵית כְּנִשְׁתְּהוֹן וְיַת אוֹרְחָא דְּיַבְקְרוּן לְמָרִיעִין וּדְיַהֲכוּן לְמִיקְבּוֹר מֵתַיָא וּלְמִגְמוֹל בָּהּ חִיסְדָא וְיַת עוּבְדָא וְשׁוּרַת דִּינָא וּדְיַעַבְדוּן מִלְגַו לְשׁוּרָתָא לְרַשִׁיעַיָין:

ירמיה היה אחד משלשה נביאים שנתנבאו באותו הדור, ירמיהו היה מתנבא בשווקים, צפניה בתוך בתי כנסיות, וחולדה אצל הנשים.

יחזקאל יא, טז - ואהי להם למקדש מעט אמר רבי יצחק אלו בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות שבבבל

ואת בית העם. בתי כנסיות - רש''י

ואת בית העם - זה בית הכנסת. - רד"ק

After the destruction of the first beit hamikdash, the Anshei knesset hagedolah gathered the work of the prophets into the synagogue, which has become central to the life of every iehudi.

אם אין בתי כנסיות ומדרשות אין הקדוש ברוך הוא משרה שכינתו בעולם

אמרו בלבם נינם יחד. נינם מושליהם וכן (לעיל ע''ב) ינון שמו, ואחריתו יהיה מנון (משלי כ''ט) כל מושליהם מחשבה א' להם הראשונים כאחרונים להזדווג לפטרונם של ישראל תחלה ואח''כ יזדווגו להם ותדע שהרי שרפו כל מועדי אל שהיו בארץ כל בתי וועד שלו, פלשתים החריבו שילה נבכדנאצר החריב בית ראשון ואחרים החריבו בית שני - רש''י

כל מועדי אל. כל המקומות המיועדות לה' בהכ"נ ובהמ"ד - מצודות דוד

EDIT 1: Other ancient sources indicating synagogues in pre-exilic times :

  • Josephus states that the origin of the Synagogue origins with the direct institution by Moses (see Contra Apionem 2.175):

for he did not suffer the guilt of ignorance to go on without punishment, but demonstrated the law to be the best and the most necessary instruction of all others, permitting the people to leave off their other employments, and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week; which thing all the other legislators seem to have neglected (translation by William Whiston).

7.12 What then did he (Moses) do? He required them to assemble in the same place on these seventh days, and sitting together in a respectful and orderly manner hear the laws read so that none should be ignorant of them. 7. 13. And indeed they do always assemble and sit together, most of them in silence except when it is the practice to add something to signify approval of what is read. But some priest who is present or one of the elders reads the holy laws to them and expounds them point by point till about the late afternoon, when they depart having gained both expert knowledge of the holy laws and considerable advance in piety.

EDIT 2: Scholarly resources:

  1. D. Binder argues that the mention of the sanctuary of Casiphia in Ezra 8:17 refer to what would be called synagogue (see "Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period". (SBL, 1999, p. 135)
  2. A. Menes argues that Joshua 22 provides early evidence for synagogues (see "Tempel und Synagoge", pp 268–76)
  3. J. Morgenstern uses Psalm 74:8 in support of pre-exilic origin of synagogues (Julian Morgenstern, “The Origin of the Synagogue", Studi Orientalistici II (1956), 192-201)
  4. Von Waldow suggest that the synagogue begin as a response to Josiah’s reforms (see "“The Origin of the Synagogue Reconsidered" in "From Faith to Faith: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Miller", Wipf & Stock Publishing, 1979).
  5. L. Finkelstein (in The Origin of the Synagogue, PAR, vol 1, 192AJ8-30) mentions linguistic evidence for synagogues in early prophetic institutions. He wrote (p. 52):

Seems far more logical to assume that (...) about the end of seventh century, the prophetic gatherings of which we catch so fleeting a glipse in the incident of the Shunamite woman had already developed into well-organized prayer-meetings.

For further reading I would recommend:

  • 1
    "Targum Yonassan" al HaTorah is a Geonic work; it hardly reflects historically significant information about the pre-diaspora period. Pesikta Rabbati is also Geonic. Yalkut Shimoni is Rishonic, as are Rashi and Radak. Even the Talmud is hardly historical evidence. It is also noteworthy that בית הכנסת literally means gathering place. The dating of Ester Rabba is irrelevant as the cite passage says nothing about when synagogues began. Rashi in Tehillim mentions "beit Vaad" do we know that this refers to the synagogue?
    – mevaqesh
    May 8, 2016 at 3:43
  • @mevaqesh: True. That's why I explicitly said "sources suggesting" and not "historical sources" up there. The historical and archaeological evidence are left with the two titles at the end (Runesson's book and L. Finkelstein's article) both of them with arguments too long to be quoted. I'll try summarize and edit later. May 8, 2016 at 5:22

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