The Great Synagogue

SYNAGOGUE, THE GREAT. According to Jewish tradition the Great Synagogue was the council first appointed by Ezra after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity to reorganize the religious life, institutions, and literature of the people. It consisted originally of 120 men, and lasted until the beginning of the Gr. period.

The expression “Great Synagogue” as relating to Nehemiah 8-10 is found only in Talmudic writing (e.g. Pirke Aboth 1:1, 2) c. a.d. 200. The expression in 1 Maccabees 14:28 (μεγάλη συναγωγή) is to be taken simply as a great gathering, and not in the technical sense involved here.

Quite interestingly, the Great Synagogue is not noted in the Apoc., or in Josephus, or in Philo; neither does the OT make mention of it.

In the judgment of many, scholars have shown that the tradition of the Great Synagogue is unhistorical, and is a distortion of the general assembly of Nehemiah 8-10. There seems to be evidence that there was such an institution, a council of scribes, organized by Ezra, which perhaps for one and one-half centuries or more handled theological and allied matters, and, according to uncertain traditions, even wrote some books (Ezek; Dan; Esth; the Minor Prophets), and fixed others in the canon (Prov; S of Sol; Eccl).

Bibliography

C. Taylor, Sayings of the Jewish Fathers (1877), 124, 125; H. E. Ryle, Canon of the OT (1892), 250ff.; C. A. Briggs, Study of Holy Scripture (1899), 120-122, 252ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A college or assembly of learned men, originating with Ezra, to whom Jewish tradition assigns an important share in the formation of the Old Testament Canon, and many legal enactments (see Canon of the Old Testament). One of its latest members is said to have been Simon the Just (circa 200 BC). The oldest notice of the nodetitle is in the tract of the Mishna, Pirqe ’Abhoth (circa 200 AD); this is supplemented by an often-quoted, passage in another tract of the Mishna, Babha’ Bathra’ (14b), on the Canon, and by later traditions. It tells against the reliabe of these traditions that they are late, and are mixed up with much that is self-evidently unhistorical, while no corroboration is found in Ezra or Nehemiah, in the Apocrypha, or in Josephus. On this account, since the exhaustive discussion by Kuenen on the subject (Over de Mannen der Groote Synagoge), most scholars have been disposed to throw over the tradition altogether, regarding it as a distorted remembrance of the great convocation described in Ne 8-10 (so W. R. Smith, Driver, etc.; compare article by Selbie in HDB in support of total rejection). This probably is an excess of skepticism. The convocation in Nehemiah has no points of resemblance to the kind of assembly recalled in this tradition; and while fantastic details may be unreal, it is difficult to believe that declarations so circumstantial and definite have no foundation at all in actual history. The direct connection with Ezra may be discounted, though possibly--indeed it is likely--somebody associated with Ezra in his undeniable labors on the Canon may have furnished the germ from which the institution in question was developed (see the careful discussion in C. H. H. Wright, Ec 1-10, and Excursus III, "The Men of the Great Synagogue").

For the rabbinical quotations and further important details, see C. Taylor’s Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, 11 f and 110 f.