A synagogue in the ancient world functioned as a place of study, worship, and community gathering. The Greek word sunagoge means a bringing together or assembly, and in the context of a building in ancient Judea, it was a place of assembly or a meetinghouse (Liddell, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 1692). The origin of the synagogue building is debated among scholars, with differing views as to the time in which the synagogue was first established and used by the exiles who returned to Judah after the Babylonian captivity. Generally, the earliest date that synagogues are believed to have come into use is the 6th century BC during the Babylonian exile, while the majority of scholars prefer a date in the 3rd century BC due to the available evidence. The need for a formal assembly building probably came about as a result of a way for Judaism to survive in the diaspora away from the Temple in Jerusalem and the priestly system. While this appears to have arisen in the 3rd century BC, the rationale for establishing a system or place of gathering would be sensible in the context of the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC, when the Temple was destroyed for 70 years and many of the people were living outside of Judah. However, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century BC, even though public assembly and reading of the Bible took place, there are no indications that a synagogue building or system was in use (Nehemiah 8:1-6). While the practices of communal prayer and study obviously preceded this time, the earliest evidence for an actual synagogue building is found on a dedication inscription from the 3rd century BC in Egypt. The stone inscription from Schedia in northern Egypt mentions Judeans dedicating the synagogue during the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes around 246-221 BC (CIJ 2.1440). Numerous other synagogue dedication inscriptions in Egypt have been found that date to the 2nd century BC and later. What appears to be a Samaritan synagogue from the middle of the 2nd century BC was excavated on the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea, while a possible synagogue from the 3rd century BC in Stobi, Macedonia was also discovered. Although there are a variety of ideas about why the synagogue came into use, because the earliest evidence for synagogues comes from the Diaspora, the institution may have developed out of a need for a place of religious community for practitioners of Judaism since the Temple was far away in Jerusalem and most of the other people in the local societies were pagans. In ancient Judea, a synagogue from the early 1st century BC was discovered at the Hasmonean palace in Jericho, and other synagogues from the late 1st century BC and 1st century AD have now been uncovered in places like Capernaum, Magdala, Gamla, Masada, Herodium, and possibly Caesarea Maritima and Qumran.
By the 1st century AD and the time of Jesus, the synagogue was a major part of Judaism and synagogues were in use in cities and towns of Judaea Province as well as other parts of the Roman Empire. 1st century sources such as the Gospels, Acts, Josephus, and Philo mention synagogues in numerous locations, demonstrating that it was a common practice to establish a building for the worship of God, study of the Bible, and community gatherings not only in Judea, but also throughout many other areas of the Roman Empire (Josephus, Wars, 2.285-291; Josephus, Life, 280; Philo, On Dreams, 2.127; Philo, Flaccus, 45; Matthew 9:35; Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16; John 9:22; Acts 9:2). In Jerusalem, a 1st century AD dedication inscription for the construction of a synagogue was discovered which makes it clear that a new synagogue was being built on the same location as an earlier synagogue ((Theodotos Inscription). The dedication indicates that synagogue buildings at that location went back multiple generations, suggesting that this particular synagogue was in use in Jerusalem from at least the 1st century BC. This particular Jerusalem synagogue was funded and built by Judeans, but that was not always the case in antiquity. The Gospel of Luke relates that a Roman centurion in Capernaum paid for the synagogue to be built there, and this phenomenon of a foreign benefactor is known from ancient synagogue inscriptions (Luke 7:1-5; Filson, “Ancient Greek Synagogue Inscriptions,” 42).
The synagogue building was often designed to face toward Jerusalem, and while most appear to have been constructed in a rectangular fashion, analysis of ancient synagogues reveals that there was no standard architectural plan (Levine, The Ancient Synagogue). Inside the synagogue were benches for seating, a platform or podium from which the scrolls would be read, and decoration such as mosaic floors, vine leaves, the menorah, and a manna jar (Levine, The Ancient Synagogue; Mark 12:39).
During the 1st century, the books of Moses were usually read in the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 15:21). The Pharisees typically had control of the synagogue, and could “cast out” anyone who did not agree with their theology (John 12:42, 16:2). According to ancient inscriptions and texts, the authority structure included officials or leaders and staff, while various qualified individuals were allowed to speak or teach (Filson, “Ancient Greek Synagogue Inscriptions,” 43; Luke 4:20, 13:14; John 18:20; Acts 13:15). Judgements and discipline were also often conducted in the synagogue, since it was the main place of religious authority and assembly besides the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 10:17; Acts 22:19). Evidence from archaeology and ancient texts suggests that men and women worshipped together in the synagogue during antiquity. However, much of what is known about the particular liturgy that took place in the synagogue comes from the Mishnah and is reflective of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD (Megilla 3:4–4:10).