Book of Mormon/Synagogues

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Why does the Book of Mormon mention "synagogues"?

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Question: Why does the Book of Mormon mention "synagogues" when they were not present among the Jews until after the Babylonian captivity?

Assemblies for Jewish worship were known and used prior to the Babylonian captivity

The Book of Mormon mentions "synagogues" twenty five times. It is claimed that "synagogues" were not present among the Jews until after the Babylonian captivity, and thus Lehi and his family cannot have known of them. The critics insist, therefore, that Book of Mormon use of synagogues is anachronistic.

Assemblies for Jewish worship were known and used prior to the Babylonian captivity. The term "synagogue" is a translation, and need not be the actual Nephites word for these structures. However, pre-captivity Jews had such sites for communal worship. In any case, nothing prevents Nephites from independently developing the idea of a building for group worship, and Joseph Smith translating such a concept as "synagogue."

The claim that no synagogues were present before the Babylonian captivity is based on out-of-date information

[Lee] Levine, a leading scholar on the history of the synagogue, has suggested that synagogues did exist before the Babylonian captivity in the form of chambers in the city gates. Such gates have been excavated by archaeologists at such important Old Testament sites as Beersheba, Gezer, Lachish, and Megiddo. Each of these has

  1. at least one chamber (which is nearly square) lined with stone benches around the interior walls (the benched chamber at Lachish has two tiers of benches),
  2. a single doorway, and
  3. where there is enough of the original wall left to determine it, a niche. I suggest that these niches were used for storing special ritual items, perhaps even sacred scrolls.

Levine concludes that since later synagogues closely mirror the architecture of the gate chambers, these chambers may well have been the original synagogues. This conclusion is supported by a number of biblical passages that indicate that the city gate and its vicinity were the hub of a community's life. The gate area served as

  1. the market place (see 2 Kings 7:1),
  2. the general court (see Genesis 23:10,18; Deuteronomy 17:5, Deuteronomy 21:19 and Deuteronomy 22:24; Ruth 4:1–12; Jeremiah 38:7; Daniel 2:48–49; and Esther 5:9,13; Esther 6:10),
  3. the royal court (see 2 Samuel 18:4 and 2 Samuel 19:8; and 1 Kings 22:10, which equals 2 Chronicles 18:9), and
  4. a place of worship (see 2 Kings 23:8 and Nehemiah 8:1).

Support for Levine's conclusion is also found in the Old Testament terminology for worship service. Several Old Testament writers (see Hosea 2:11; Jeremiah in Lamentations 2:6; Ezekiel 44:24) link Sabbath worship with the Hebrew word mo‘ed which means "assembly, meeting."

If Levine is correct, then, before the 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.[1]

Further information on the chambers in city-gates being a proto-synagogue as a result of Josiah's centralization of Temple worship in Jerusalem and the establishment of congregations meeting for non-sacrificial worship in the chambers of city-gates is available in non-LDS works.[2]

William J. Adams Jr., "Synagogues in the Book of Mormon"

William J. Adams Jr.,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (2000)
The Book of Mormon mentions synagogues in twenty-five passages. An important resource that may help us understand what the Book of Mormon means by the word synagogue is the body of research on biblical synagogues. This is especially true of research related to the years prior to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, which began in 586 BC, since this is the time period when Lehi left Jerusalem; we would expect, therefore, that the nature of biblical synagogues before the captivity would have greatly influenced the concept of the synagogue that Lehi and his family took with them to the New World.

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To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. William J. Adams Jr., "Synagogues in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 4–13.. wiki (references silently omitted; see original for much more detail)
  2. See: Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (2d ed.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). ISBN 0300106289.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims