Evidence #413 | July 18, 2023


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The Book of Mormon’s discussion of synagogues is consistent with some scholarly perspectives concerning their origin and development in the ancient Near East.

Synagogues in the Book of Mormon

Along with temples and sanctuaries, the Book of Mormon mentions “synagogues” as being a part of the religious architecture of Nephite culture, mainly during the era of the reign of judges. When Alma and Amulek returned from Ammonihah to the land of Zarahemla, they “went forth preaching repentance to the people in their temples, and in their sanctuaries, and also in their synagogues, which were built after the manner of the Jews” (Alma 16:13).

In the lands to the south, synagogues were built especially by the Amlicites “after the order of the Nehors” (Alma 21:4, 16).1 To the north, the apostate Zoramites built their infamous Rameumpton “in the center of their synagogue,” from which they offered heretical prayers in the land of Antionum (Alma 31:1332:1–3, 12). As Nephites moved farther north after the wars of the mid-first century BC, they continued to build synagogues, along with temples and sanctuaries (Helaman 3:9, 14).2 Collectively, the textual evidence establishes synagogues as places for congregations to learn, pray, and worship together.

Ancient Terms

The word synagogue is Greek in origin, and basically means “assembly” or “gathering.” The word appears over two hundred times in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), often translated into English as “congregation.” While this word usually refers to the assembly itself, and not a building, it can on occasion have spatial connotations, as when it is used synonymously with “camp.” Its biblical Hebrew equivalents include “congregation” (edah), and “assembly” (qahal).3

Origin of the Synagogue in the Ancient Near East

As a physical structure where religious adherents congregated to worship, the precise origin and development of the synagogue is difficult to trace. “Owing to the paucity of sources,” writes Lee Levine, “opinions have varied widely as to when, where, and why the synagogue developed.”4 As described by Rachel Hachlili, “The origin of the synagogue is today one of the crucial and most disputed issues in the study of Jewish history.”5

Ancient gate structure (to the left) in the land of Israel exposed at Tel Lachish. Image by Guy Fitoussi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Despite the particulars being “shrouded in mystery,” Levine has argued that the synagogue has its roots in the period of the Old Testament.6 Some scholars see a precedent for the basic idea (the synagogue as a place of assembly) ranging as far back as the time before the Babylonian captivity (before 586 BC).7 Drawing on secular academic research on this topic, one Latter-day Saint scholar, William J. Adams Jr., observed how “later synagogues closely mirror the architecture of the gate chambers” during this earlier time in Israelite history. “These chambers may well have been the original synagogues.” Indeed, some “biblical passages … indicate that the city gate and its vicinity were the hub of a community’s life,” functioning as a venue for the marketplace, the general court, the royal court, and places of worship.8

As such, it is possible that “before the [Babylonian] captivity, a town’s or city’s social activities centered around the city gate, and it seems reasonable that these social activities included Sabbath worship in a chamber of the gate that resembled later synagogues and functioned similarly.”9 As Keith Thompson has more recently explained, “Synagogues were public buildings that developed when city-gate architecture changed and as the cities and villages of Israel became affluent enough to afford the construction of monumental buildings.”10

The earliest direct evidence for synagogues as physical places of worship comes from Jewish communities living in Ptolemaic Egypt in the mid-third century BC (about 350 years after Lehi left Jerusalem).11 Yet there are ancient sources which trace the edifice back to earlier times. “Jews in the first [century] CE believed the synagogue to be a very ancient institution dating back to the time of Moses,” and “Talmudic tradition mentions the fact that there were synagogues during the Babylonian exile.”12

Thus, the Book of Mormon isn’t the only ancient text which traces the origins of the Jewish synagogue to times which predate the earliest archaeological evidence for its existence. There are also reasons to believe, based on the Pentateuch, that ancient Israelites from a very early time in their history were regularly congregating at local sites for religious purposes.13


A first-century synagogue at Ein Keshatot in the Golan Heights. Image via The Jerusalem Post.


As shown from the evidence above, the precise origin of the synagogue is not a settled matter. Nor has it yet been proven that “the earliest dated evidence indicates the time of origin.”14 Among the range of academic opinions, some non-Latter-day Saint scholars have posited developmental pathways that can accommodate the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of these structures.

Like Nephi’s temple built “after the manner of Solomon,” the synagogues in the Book of Mormon were built “after the manner of the Jews.”15 However, this could simply mean that Nephite synagogues functioned as general places of worship and assembly, and not necessarily that they were structurally or functionally synonymous with Old World synagogues.16

Even in the Near East and Mediterranean, the development of the synagogue and the terms used to describe it didn’t conform to a single “monolithic model.” As concluded by Hachlili, “The synagogue did not develop from one origin; rather, it evolved and progressed in time and place according to the needs of particular congregations.”17 Similar developments may have transpired among Book of Mormon peoples.18

A. Keith Thompson, “Nephite Insights into Israelite Worship Practices Before the Babylonian Captivity,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 3 (2013): 155–195.

William J. Adams Jr., “Synagogues in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 4–13, 76.

2 Nephi 26:26Alma 16:13Alma 21:4–5Alma 21:11Alma 21:16Alma 21:20Alma 23:2Alma 26:29Alma 31:12–13Alma 32:1–5Alma 32:9–10Alma 33:2Helaman 3:9Helaman 3:143 Nephi 13:23 Nephi 13:53 Nephi 18:32Moroni 7:1

2 Nephi 26:26

Alma 16:13

Alma 21:4–5

Alma 21:11

Alma 21:16

Alma 21:20

Alma 23:2

Alma 26:29

Alma 31:12–13

Alma 32:1–5

Alma 32:9–10

Alma 33:2

Helaman 3:9

Helaman 3:14

3 Nephi 13:2

3 Nephi 13:5

3 Nephi 18:32

Moroni 7:1

  • 1 For more on the mysterious Amlekites, see Book of Mormon Central, “How were the Amlicites and Amalekites Related? (Alma 2:11),” KnoWhy 109 (May 27, 2016).
  • 2 Readers must be cautious to carefully define and understand how the Book of Mormon uses these words and phrases, and must be cautious not to impose modern culturally inherited definitions back onto Book of Mormon peoples. For example on the ancient definition of the word temple and on the typical functions of ancient temples, see generally Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Temple,” in Temple and Cosmos, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 12 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 1–41; John M. Lundquist, “What is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 83–117.
  • 3 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 7:802–805.
  • 4 Lee Levine, “Synagogue,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 722.
  • 5 See Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research, Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 6. The scholarly literature on the origins of the ancient synagogue is extensive. See generally “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 1 (1928–1930): 49–59; J. Weingreen, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” Hermathena 98 (1964): 68–84; Lee I. Levine, “The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered,” Journal of Biblical Literature 115, no. 3 (1996): 425–448; Steven Fine, Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996); Anders Runesson, The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study, Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series 37 (Carolinasalen, Kungshuset, Lundagård: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001); Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005); Anders Runneson, Donald D. Binder, and Birger Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E. (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
  • 6 Levine, “Synagogue,” 721–724, quote at 722.
  • 7 See the overview provided by A. Keith Thompson, “Nephite Insights into Israelite Worship Practices Before the Babylonian Captivity,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 3 (2013): 155–195.
  • 8 William J. Adams Jr., “Synagogues in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 7.
  • 9 Adams, “Synagogues in the Book of Mormon,” 7.
  • 10 Thompson, “Nephite Insights into Israelite Worship Practices Before the Babylonian Captivity,” 159.
  • 11 See Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art, 6; Gary A. Rendsburg, “Septuagint, Synagogue and Symbiosis: The Jews of Hellenistic Egypt,” Seminar presented at the Lanier Theological Library, January 16, 2016.
  • 12 Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art, 6. See also, Thompson, “Nephite Insights into Israelite Worship Practices Before the Babylonian Captivity,” 162–156
  • 13 Thompson, “Nephite Insights into Israelite Worship Practices Before the Babylonian Captivity,” 169–175.
  • 14 Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art, 7.
  • 15 See Book of Mormon Central, “Did Ancient Israelites Build Temples Outside of Jerusalem? (2 Nephi 5:16),” KnoWhy 31 (February 11, 2016).
  • 16 It may be possible that synagogues, at some points in Nephite history, were open-space areas of congregation (similar to the function of city gates in Old Testament times), rather than enclosed edifices. In that case, many ancient Mesoamerican cities had multi-purpose plazas, often adjacent to city gates or entrance points, that could possibly have functioned as synagogues. See Alanna Ossa, Michael E. Smith, and José Lobo, “The Size of Plazas in Mesoamerican Cities and Towns: A Quantitative Analysis,” Latin American Antiquity 28, no. 4 (2017): 457–475.
  • 17 Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art, 20–21.
  • 18 See the commentary by Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:253–256. Gardner notes that it’s very unlikely that Nephite synagogues remained static. As the Nephites integrated with New World cultures, their architecture, including their sacred architecture, would have undoubtedly evolved over time, although the core function would have remained essentially the same.

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