Mark's Gospel

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The Synagogue

Judaism only had one Temple which was located in Jerusalem. However, every Jewish community would have had its own synagogue. The word 'synagogue' is a Greek word meaning 'assembly'. Strictly speaking it is a congregation of worshippers rather than a building. When the Jews were carried off into captivity in Babylon in 586 BC they found themselves cut off from their only place of worship, the Temple, so they evolved a form of worship which required neither priest, nor altar, nor temple. They gathered together to read the Scriptures and to pray. They found that synagogue worship fulfilled a long-felt need, and on their return from exile in 520 BC synagogue worship continued and became a major influence in religious life.

Worship in the synagogue

The synagogue was administered by a council of 'elders' who appointed the 'ruler' of the synagogue whose duty it was to order the services and provide general supervision. There was also an 'attendant', who took care of the rolls of Scripture and presented the one required to the person appointed to read the lesson. He also signified the beginning and the end of the Sabbath by blowing the Shofar, a wind instrument made from a ram's horn, a reminder of the ram which Abraham sacrificed in the place of his son, Isaac. The reader could be anyone present. The last lesson was always taken from the Prophets and the reader chose beforehand up to three verses on which he meditated and then interpreted. He stood to read and sat down to speak. The prayers could be said by any member of the congregation.

The most important piece of furniture was the 'ark', a chest in which the rolls of Scripture were kept. The officiating minister and the reader stood on a raised platform. Seats were provided and. the 'chief seats' (Mark 12:39) were those nearest the ark and facing the congregation.

There were three daily services, 9.00 a.m., 12 noon and 3.00 p.m. Worship was based on three main elements, the reading and expounding of the Scriptures, prayer and praise.

The synagogue was the centre of Jewish community life: it governed the daily life of its members, appointed its local magistrates and attended to the education of its children, but it was primarily a house of prayer where men met to hear God speak in the words of His Law.

The synagogue was important for keeping the Jewish faith alive both in Palestine and among the Jews of the Diaspora. Throughout the Diaspora the synagogue that kept the Jewish faith alive and prevented believers from being swallowed up by paganism. The destruction of the Temple did not prevent Jewish communities throughout the empire from meeting on the sabbath day to pray to God and read His Law.


The children of rich and poor were taken to the synagogue school at the age of five. The teacher was the hazzan, the guardian of the sacred rolls, and the only text-book was the Scripture. The children sat on the ground around the teacher and repeated by rote the sentences he said aloud. Nothing was taught except religion. Local schooling finished at the age of thirteen but able boys who wished to specialize in religious studies could attend school in Jerusalem where they would be taught by the most famous doctors of the Law like Rabbi Gamaliel. The object of such education was to produce future doctors of the Law.

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