By J. Parnell McCarter



It is a regrettable development that most modern Biblical scholars- both conservative and liberal – attribute the institution of the local synagogue to the exilic or post-exilic period of the Jews, rather than the traditional view of the Jews that Moses instituted it.  The Jewish Encyclopedia is representative of this modern consensus, in which it states:


The origin of the synagogue, in which the congregation gathered to worship and to receive the religious instruction connected therewith, is wrapped in obscurity. By the time it had become the central institution of Judaism (no period of the history of Israel is conceivable without it), it was already regarded as of ancient origin, dating back to the time of Moses (see Yer. Targ., Ex. xviii. 20 and I Chron. xvi. 39; Pesi. 129b; Philo, "De Vita Mosis," iii. 27; Josephus, "Contra Ap." ii., § 17; Acts xv. 21). The "house of the people" (Jer. xxxix. 8 [Hebr.]) is interpreted, in a midrash cited by Rashi and imi (ad loc.), as referring to the synagogue, and "bet 'amma," the Aramaic form of this phrase, was the popular designation in the second century for the synagogue (Simeon b. Eleazar, in Shab. 32a). The synagogue as a permanent institution originated probably in the period of the Babylonian captivity, when a place for common worship and instruction had become necessary.”  (see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1212&letter=S )


Even modern scholars, such as indicated in the quote above, acknowledge that the consensus view among the Jews in the Christian Apostolic era was that Moses instituted the synagogue system of worship, but most modern scholars have rejected this traditional view.  Let me explain some of the reasons that I believe the traditional view is correct, after defining what I mean by ‘synagogue’ for purposes of this article.



The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines synagogue this way:

  1. A building or place of meeting for worship and religious instruction in the Jewish faith.
  2. A congregation of Jews for the purpose of worship or religious study.
  3. The Jewish religion as organized or typified in local congregations.

For purposes of this article, by ‘synagogue’ I am referring especially to the second definition.  It is very doubtful that the Jews had buildings to meet for worship until long after the Israelites entered Canaan, similar to the way it was a long time before the Israelite tabernacle was replaced by a Temple building.  One can imagine that during the early years of settlement of Canaan, the Sabbath congregational worship of the Jews matched the simplicity which we encounter in Acts regarding certain Jews and God fearers at “Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia” : “And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted [thither].” (Acts 16:13)  Over time they would have likely been able to meet in tents, and yet later in actual building structures.  Thus, it is likely the synagogue (in the sense of ‘congregation’) existed long before any synagogue building structure. 


A number of reasons compel me to believe that Moses instituted the synagogue, both in its local manifestation, as well as in its national manifestation.  First, there is evidence in the Pentateuch that Moses instituted it, under the inspiration of God.  Passages such as Leviticus 23:1-3 imply it:


Leviticus 23:1-3 “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, [Concerning] the feasts of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim [to be] holy convocations, [even] these [are] my feasts. Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day [is] the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work [therein]: it [is] the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.”


In this passage the Israelites are enjoined to observe a weekly Sabbath convocation.  The term translated ‘convocation’ in our English is the Hebrew word miqra'.  It means an assembly called together.  This word is translated ‘assemblies’ in Isaiah 1:13: “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; [it is] iniquity, even the solemn meeting.”


Given the distances involved and the frequency of meeting enjoined, the command of Leviticus 23:1-3 could not possibly have called for a grand assembly of all the Israelites in one location each sabbath.  Rather, the convocation enjoined must consist of local assemblies of God’s people, even if done in the simplicity which Lydia and God’s people in Philippi met outdoors (Acts 16:13).  All of these local assemblies meeting on the Sabbath together constitute an assembly of God’s people worshipping Him on His appointed day, even as the local churches today constitute a church worshipping the Lord on His appointed Lord’s Day.


The basic manner of synagogue worship would have been set by Moses, consisting of these elements:


  • Preaching/teaching
  • Reading of scripture (such as were available)
  • Prayer
  • Singing of inspired hymns


Moses preached to the people, teaching them what God meant by His word:


“And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die…And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.” (Exodus 20:19, 24:3)


Moses showed them how the scripture is to be read in the congregational meeting:


“And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.” (Exodus 24:7)


He also set a pattern for prayer on behalf of the people (Numbers 21:7) and congregational singing of inspired hymns (Exodus 15:1). And the sacraments of circumcision and Passover were also ratified by Moses for the people. 


As the great legislator for the people, Moses would also have framed the organizational structure of the synagogue.  For instance, consider this text and its implications:


“And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.  And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.”  (Exodus 18:25-26)


Given that Israel was a theocracy, where the state was co-extensive with the established church of that state, even as today that would be ideal for each nation, the smallest political subdivision for the state was the smallest subdivision for the church.  Hence, Moses ratified the concept of a “minyan” for the Jewish synagogue.  The Jewish Encyclopedia (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=646&letter=M ) explains the concept thus:


The smallest congregation which is permitted to hold public worship is one made up of ten men, boys over thirteen years being for this, as for other religious purposes, counted as men.  The minimum of ten is evidently a survival in the Synagogue from the much older institution in which ten heads of families made up the smallest political subdivision. In Ex. xviii. Moses, on the advice of Jethro, appoints chiefs of tens, as well as chiefs of fifties, of hundreds, and of thousands.”


The only error in the above quote is not to see that Exodus 18:25-26 has implications for the church (i.e., synagogue) as well as the state, with an organization such as Israel had.  Ruling elders were appointed for the local synagogue, to rule on cases and enforce discipline.  In addition, there were apparently courts of appeal, with ever broadening jurisdictions.  All of these formed one great synagogue in and of the nation.  So the Pentateuch itself suggests that Moses was the great legislator, inspired by God, of the synagogue.


The prophets of the Old Testament, as well as the law of Moses, suggest that the synagogue was instituted by Moses, and not during a later period like the exile or post-exile.  Consider, for instance,  Psalm 74:8: “They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.”  Matthew Henry, commenting on Psalm 74, writes: “This psalm does so particularly describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, by Nebuchadnezzar and the army of the Chaldeans, and can so ill be applied to any other event we meet with in the Jewish history, that interpreters incline to think that either it was penned by David, or Asaph in David’s time, with a prophetical reference to that sad event (which yet is not so probable), or that it was penned by another Asaph, who lived at the time of the captivity, or by Jeremiah (for it is of a piece with his Lamentations,) or some other prophet, and, after the return out of captivity, was delivered to the sons of Asaph, who were called by his name, for the public service of the church.”  So this passage would suggest that before the time of the Babylonian captivity, there were already a significant number of synagogue buildings in the land.  But that would suggest a long period of development of the synagogue preceding such a developed state.  Before there could have been numerous synagogue buildings, which were evidently present before Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion, there must have been more rudimentary meeting circumstances of the synagogue.  This is incompatible with a late date theory.


The New Testament further evidences our thesis.  Consider, for instance, Acts 15:21 : “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.”  Acts 15:21 was not written in a vacuum, nor should it be read as if it were in a vacuum.  Rather, it should be read in the context of passages like Leviticus 23:1-3 and Acts 16:13.  These verses are clearly connected, with Leviticus 23:1-3 explaining the historical rationale for what we read in passages like Acts 15:21 and Acts 16:13.  Congregations (or synagogues) of Jews would convoke each Sabbath precisely because Moses, the God-inspired legislator, commanded such.  To deny such is analogous to denying the relation of the Fourth Commandment and the weekly Lord’s Day of the Christian era.  There is an evident cause-and-effect relation between Moses’ command of weekly Sabbath convocations and the synagogues of believers which would worship and hear Moses’ law preached each Sabbath, even as there is a relation between the command of a weekly Sabbath (in Exodus 20:8-11) and the weekly Lord’s Day for Christians.


Nor can we ignore the historical context in which Acts 15:21 was written.  It was written in a context where the prevalent view of Bible-believing Jews was that Moses had instituted the synagogue.  Josephus’ words in his Against Apion are representative of the time:


18. But for our legislator [Moses], he very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together; for he neither left these practical exercises to go on without verbal instruction, nor did he permit the hearing of the law to proceed without the exercises for practice; but beginning immediately from the earliest infancy, and the appointment of every one's diet, he left nothing of the very smallest consequence to be done at the pleasure and disposal of the person himself. Accordingly, he made a fixed rule of law what sorts of food they should abstain from, and what sorts they should make use of; as also, what communion they should have with others what great diligence they should use in their occupations, and what times of rest should be interposed, that, by living under that law as under a father and a master, we might be guilty of no sin, neither voluntary nor out of ignorance; 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.”


The weekly synagogue assemblies of the Jews were thus commonly held to have been legislated by Moses, and Acts 15:21 gives every indication it is corroborating, and not contradicting, that consensus view of the time.


For those of us who are Christians today, this is all very relevant, because we see in the book of Acts how the Christian church developed from the synagogue, under divine guidance.   The basic elements of synagogue worship became the basic elements of our church worship:


  • Preaching/teaching
  • Reading of scripture (such as were available)
  • Prayer
  • Singing of inspired hymns


There were no animal sacrifices, musical instruments, choirs, etc. part of this worship.  And with respect to organization, the same basic presbyterian model of rule by elders carried over from synagogue to church.  Yes, there were modifications, such as the replacement of the sacraments of circumcision and Passover with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the change of the weekly Sabbath from the seventh to the first day.  But in the main, the Christian church today owes a great debt to the Jewish synagogue which preceded it.