Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World

By Steven Fine | Go to book overview

2 From Meeting House to Sacred Realm
Holiness and the Ancient Synagogue

STEVEN FINE Baltimore Hebrew University

The synagogue is among the most influential religious institutions in the history of Western civilization. In this place of "coming together" (Greek synagoge, Hebrew beit haknesset), Judaism created a communal religious experience that previously was almost unknown. 1 Within the ancient synagogue believers assembled to read the Sacred Scripture, to pray, and to form community with their God. This "democratic" notion of religious experience is in stark contrast with the great and small temples of the ancient world, including the Jerusalem Temple, where professional priests performed religious acts on behalf of a community that stood by piously. The synagogue was an important model for the early church. In fact, it was within synagogues that the message of Christianity was first preached. Centuries later the synagogue and the church were the models Mohammed and his followers used for their new "place of prayer" and scriptural reading, the mosque. This chapter traces the ideological development of the synagogue from the earliest evidence of its existence through the rise of Islam. What are the origins of the synagogue, and how did it become a Sacred Realm?


A "PLACE OF MEETING": THE SECOND TEMPLE PERIOD

No one knows when and where the synagogue first developed. Some trace its origins to the Babylonian captivity ( 586-16 B.C.E.), during which time Judeans distant from their homeland are said to have assembled to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land." Others see its beginnings in a series of third-century Greek inscriptions from Egypt that describe Jewish "prayer places." Some first-century Jews traced its origins to Moses himself. Yet the origins

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