Religious Institutions
During the "Intertestamental" Period

by Al Maxey

(Temple) (Synagogue) (Tradition) (Sanhedrin)


The people of Israel had a total of three temples during their long and eventful history. The First Temple was conceived by King David, but God would not allow him to build it. David was informed by God that it would be built by his descendant (II Samuel 7). This was to be the son of David -- King Solomon. The work on this first temple began 480 years after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt (I Kings 6:1), and it took seven years to complete (I Kings 6:38). Several hundred years later, in 586 BC, it was destroyed when the city of Jerusalem was sacked and burned by the troops of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

The Second Temple was built by the Jews who had been released from Babylonian captivity by Cyrus in 536 BC. After much delay, struggle, and intrigue, it was completed in the year 516 BC amid tremendous rejoicing and celebration before God. Not a great deal is known about this temple from a biblical/historical point of view, although a few significant incidents have been preserved for posterity.

On December 25, 168 BC Antiochus Epiphanes plundered and desecrated this temple by introducing pagan worship within it, and also by sacrificing a pig upon the altar of God. He then poured the hot fat of this burned pig all over the inside of the temple. Three years later, on December 25, 165 BC, Judas Maccabeus completed the repairs on this temple and rededicated it to the Lord. This marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.

In 63 BC Pompey conquered the city of Jerusalem and entered the sanctuary of the temple. Thus, again it was defiled by pagans in the eyes of the pious Jews. Pompey, however, did not plunder or destroy the temple as previous conquerors had done. In 37 BC, when Herod the Great, with the help of Antony, retook the city of Jerusalem from Antigonus, some of the temple structures were burned and destroyed, but the main building itself did not sustain a great deal of damage.

About the year 19 BC, Herod undertook the task of repairing, beautifying, and building back up this second temple. The sanctuary was completed in a year and a half, but the entire restoration project was not finished until 64 AD. This completed site became known as the Third Temple, or "Herod's Temple," although it was really only a renovation of the second temple. Six years later, in 70 AD, the city of Jerusalem fell, and the temple was completely destroyed. To this day it has never been rebuilt.

The temple was regarded by the Jews as the center of all their worship of God. Many felt that He could only be worshipped here. Such an attitude was reflected in the questioning statement of the Samaritan woman to Jesus at Jacob's well in Sychar --- "Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem" (John 4:20). On special feast days the Jews would travel for hundreds and even thousands of miles just to worship at the temple.

The temple was also closely connected with the early church, especially the Jewish church prior to the evangelization of the Gentiles. Jesus, and later His apostles, taught and proclaimed the Good News within the courts of the temple. The early disciples, for many years, continued to meet, study, and worship in the temple area (Acts 2:46). In fact, as late as 56 AD the spiritual leaders of the Lord's church in Jerusalem were still making vows in the temple, and closely adhering to many of its strict legal observances (Acts 21:23f). It was only with the development of the Gentile church, and the spread of the church outward from Jerusalem, that the connection of the early church to the temple began to diminish.


After the temple was destroyed in 586 BC and the Jews led away into captivity, it became apparent to many of the more pious people of Israel that something was needed in order to provide a focus for the people's expressions of devotion; some site which could serve as a substitute, even if only temporarily, to the temple. Therefore, in order to help hold the people together religiously, synagogues were established in locations where ten or more faithful men could be found. Where fewer than ten men could be found, a Proseuche ("place of prayer") was set up, usually by a river and outside the walls of the city (see -- Acts 16:13, 16).

Although there is some debate among scholars as to exactly when the synagogue system was actually established (some scholars even associating its beginnings with Moses or Ezra), most biblical scholars support the contention that the synagogue originated during the exile of the Jews in Babylonia, and that it grew even stronger, and became more and more accepted, during the centuries just prior to the coming of Christ. Some even regard it as a "Pharisaic parallel" to temple worship, which many of the Pharisees believed to have been in a state of spiritual decline.

The word "synagogue" is a transliteration of the Greek word sunagoge which means "a gathering together; an assembling together; to congregate." This word appears 57 times in the pages of the NT writings, 52 of which are in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. It is never used by either Paul or Peter in their writings, nor is it found in the book of Hebrews. The word came to have a dual meaning:

  1. The assembled people themselves, who had come together for the purpose of worship, study, and edification (Acts 13:43 is an example).

  2. The building where the coming together of the people took place (as in Luke 7:5).

The synagogue quickly came to be regarded as the center of Jewish life for those who were unable, for whatever reason, to go to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. It was here in these buildings, assembled among their brethren, that the people worshipped their God, prayed, sang, and studied the Scriptures. The synagogue also became the educational center for the Jewish children. It was here that they were taught to read and write, as well as being instructed in the Law of God. The synagogue was also a type of community center for the Jews; a place where they could come together for meals, to fellowship with one another, and even as a lodging place for those traveling who needed a place to stay. It was also a place where items were collected and stored to be used later for charity. There constantly was some kind of activity going on at the synagogue; it never sat empty and unused throughout the week (unlike many church buildings today!!).

Each synagogue was presided over by a respected spiritual leader, sometimes known as the President. His responsibilities were to supervise the services, maintain order and serve as an arbitrator in the event of disputes or disturbances (Luke 13:14), introduce visitors to the congregation and invite them to speak (Acts 13:15), and hand the Scripture scroll from the Hazzan to the one who was to read the lesson. The Hazzan (Minister) was a paid officer of the synagogue who had charge of the facility and its contents. He often lived in the synagogue and performed minor roles like calling the people to the assemblies with blasts on a trumpet, leading prayers, or reading Scripture (or handing the scrolls to another to read --- see: Luke 4:17, 20). His office was considered the lowest of the scribal offices. There were also Elders of the synagogue (from among them the President was selected), Interpreters (who were responsible not only for translating the Scriptures into the common language, but also expounding or explaining them to the assembled people), and various other functionaries.

The synagogue service had a two-fold purpose --- to praise the Lord and to educate the people. The two central elements of the service were prayer and study. An assembly was generally opened with the reciting of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This was followed by reciting, chanting, or singing a series of passages of praise unto God, usually taken from the Psalms --- this was known as the Berakot. The leader of the synagogue would then offer a prayer, followed by a period of silence during which the members could engage in private prayer and meditation. Next came a reading of a portion of Scripture, followed by a sermon on and discussion of the passage read (Luke 4:16f). The service ended with a blessing and a prayer.

It is not too difficult to see somewhat of a similarity between these ancient synagogue services and many present day assemblies of Christians. In fact, there is some evidence that the early Christian worship services may have been very closely associated with the synagogue, and perhaps even conducted within it. James 2:2 may well be an allusion to this: "For if a man comes into your assembly (literally: "synagogue") with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes...."


Tradition encompasses all that has been "handed down" to a group of people by those who lived before them. This may refer not only to various teachings and beliefs, but also specific practices and rituals. At times, one's zeal for one's traditions can even overshadow the Truths upon which those traditions were originally based. Paul spoke of being "more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions" than his Jewish contemporaries (Galatians 1:14), and Jesus condemned the Pharisees for transgressing and invalidating the Word of God for the sake of their traditions (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13).

"In order to understand the early Jewish traditionalism, one must begin with the concept of the covenant: the belief that a covenant existed between Yahweh and His chosen people Israel. Both the blessings and obligations of the covenant were thought to be inherited, and to hand them down to subsequent generations was a solemn duty. The leaders would teach the people, the older would instruct the younger, and the fathers would instruct their sons concerning all that God had done for His people and said to them --- Deuteronomy 4:9-10; 6:6-7; Psalm 78:1-7." During the "intertestamental period" the people of Israel, "more strongly than ever before, felt a loyalty to the covenant and to their cultural heritage that their fathers handed down in its entirety. Institutions, behavior patterns, and holy words had to be maintained as a consciously enforced, living program for life. Behind the authority of the fathers was seen the authority of God. The religious heritage was God's Torah, which in essence was given at Sinai" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 883-884).

The more the pagan nations about them sought to oppress their nation and suppress their religion, the more zealous the Jews became for their Law and Tradition. The books of the Maccabees repeatedly speak of this "zeal for the Torah" which led countless Jews to sacrifice everything, even their lives, to preserve that which had been handed down to them. By the time of Christ they had become so entrenched in their zeal for the "ancient paths of their fathers" that they had difficulty distinguishing these handed down perspectives, preferences and practices from God's revealed Truth.

"The role of tradition explains why Jesus had a relatively negative attitude toward the practical and institutional traditions of the Jews. The crucial issue was Jewish loyalty. On the one hand, Jesus stood for central matters that established institutions and persisting customs impeded. On the other hand, His opponents were committed to those institutions and customs even at the expense of central matters" (ISBE, Vol. 4, p. 884). The battle between Truth and Tradition is a battle almost as old as mankind, and it continues to be fought even to this day in the Lord's church!


The word Sanhedrin literally means "place of those who sit together." The Mishnic tradition connects the Sanhedrin with the 70 elders of Moses' time (Numbers 11:16-17). However, it wasn't until after the Babylonian Captivity, and the alleged Great Synagogue of Ezra's time, that this group really came into any significant power. It was essentially a judicial body, the Supreme Court or Council of the Jewish people, which sat in Jerusalem from the Persian through the Roman periods. It had both religious and political powers, and rendered final decisions in virtually all religious and civil matters.

Although the Jewish tradition is that it existed continuously from the time of Moses, nevertheless the earliest historical reference to this group is during the time of Antiochus the Great. "What evolved into the Sanhedrin of the NT period probably began in the Persian period when (as in the subsequent Greco-Roman period) the Jews enjoyed a measure of self-governance under the domination of the foreign power controlling the region" (ISBE, Vol. 4, p. 332).

The Sanhedrin consisted of 70 members plus the High Priest, who served as the president of the council. They met daily from the time of the morning sacrifice until the time of the evening sacrifice, except on the Sabbath and on feast/festival days. During the "intertestamental" period, the Sanhedrin was made up primarily of Sadducees, but by the time of Christ it was mostly composed of Pharisees. This group of men had tremendous power over the lives of the people of Israel. Their decisions were regarded as Law, with the authority of God seen as being behind all their pronouncements. In the NT writings we see Christ and the apostles often coming into direct conflict with this high council --- Matthew 26:59; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66; Acts 4:15; 5:21, 27, 34, 41; 6:15; 22:30; 23:1f; 24:20.

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