When the Jews were in exile in Babylonia, cut off from the Temple, they began to gather together in each other's houses, and later in special buildings to worship and study the Torah, the Law, contained in the first five books of our Old Testament, so that their faith would be kept alive. By the time the Jews had returned to Palestine the synagogue had become an integral part of Jewish life. Whenever there were ten families there was a synagogue.
The synagogue had become a place of worship and instruction, a school, occasionally a court of law and sometimes a place where people had a meal together. Worship took place on the Sabbath and often daily in centres of large population. The service consisted of prayer, readings from the psalms and prophets and a sermon explaining the reading and its teaching. Discussion between the Rabbi and the men in the congregation might take place.
The synagogue furnishings were a pulpit from which the scriptures would be read and prayers said, standing; a chair beside it for the preacher who always sat to deliver his sermon; the Ark - a cupboard with a curtain before it at the back of the synagogue to hold the scrolls of the Torah. A lamp was kept burning continually above the Ark and a seven-branched candlestick or menorah stood nearby. The Ruler and leading men sat in seats with their backs to the Ark while the women and children worshipped separately usually in a screened gallery.
The Ruler was responsible for administration and arrangements for the services. There were distributors of alms - a daily collection was taken in cash or kind from those who could afford it and distributed to the poor. The Chazzan looked after the scrolls, cleaned the synagogue, blew the blasts on the silver trumpet which told the people the Sabbath had come and taught the children of the community. The one thing the synagogue did not have was a permanent preacher or teacher for the adults. The Ruler could call on any competent person to give the address and explanation.
Jesus had a message about the coming of God's kingdom for his people. The synagogue was the obvious place in which to tell them about God's love, and that he wanted them to love him and be concerned for the well-being of each other so that they might have eternal life.
The first synagogue episode Mark tells us about takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. The remains of an elegant 4th century synagogue have been found there. The synagogue to which Jesus went on that Sabbath may well have been located on that site. The Ruler would have allowed Jesus to speak on the basis of his known competence in reading and translating the text.
The congregation was "amazed" when Jesus healed a man with an "evil spirit" and "at the way he taught".
On the second occasion he healed a man with a paralysed hand. This time there was a deputation of Pharisees from the Sanhedrin present. Jesus knew what was probably in their minds and so he asked "What does our Law allow us to do on the Sabbath? To help or to harm?" According to the Law, medical attention could only be given on the Sabbath if a life was in danger. Angered that they had been outwitted they began to plot to get rid of him.
Rabbis moved about the country with their disciples and it was as a Rabbi Jesus came to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and might have expected a welcome but to the people of Nazareth he was only the town craftsman, a working man. Moreover, he was Mary's son and they knew his family. They could not accept his teaching and he could heal only a few.
From then on Jesus could no longer teach and heal in the synagogues and continued his work in the countryside and by the Sea of Galilee.
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