“Their Synagogues was Built After the Manner of the Jews”

Brant Gardner

Culture/Translation: Mormon mentions three types of public gathering points: temples, sanctuaries, and synagogues, immediately explaining that they “were built after the manner of the Jews.” The synagogue has a long history among the Jews, but the meaning varies from referring to the community to the building or sometimes both. Lee I. Levine, a professor of Jewish history and archaeology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discusses the controversy over the origins of the synagogue:

Despite its importance in Jewish history, the origins of the synagogue and its early development are shrouded in mystery. Only during and after the first century C.E. does literary and archaeological evidence appear for Palestine. As for the Roman Diaspora, references before then are practically nonexistent (and what does exist refers to the Diaspora). Synagogue inscriptions from third- and second-century B.C.E. Egypt have been preserved, as have remains of a Delos synagogue building dating from the first century B.C.E.
Owing to the paucity of sources, opinions have varied widely as to when, where, and why the synagogue developed. Theories have ranged from the late First Temple period (eighth-seventh century B.C.E.), through the exilic (sixth century) and postexilic (fifth century) eras, and down to the late Persian (fourth century) and Hellenistic times (third or second century). Most scholars have assumed a midway position, one that posits the emergence of the synagogue closely following the destruction of the First Temple in 587/586 B.C.E., either during the Babylonian exile or soon after, when the Jews returned to Judea during the era of restoration.

Levine emphasizes that the wide diversity of opinion on the synagogue’s origin results from a lack of information:

The reasons for this variety of opinions abound. First and foremost is the sheer absence of data. With no clear-cut references at hand, the only recourse has been to speculate on the time, place, and circumstances surrounding the synagogue’s emergence.…
Secondly, there is a lack of clarity as to the meaning of the term “synagogue” and, consequently, what characteristics and developments should determine its time and place of origin.… To look for a specific type of building might not be a fruitful exercise, for many different settings could have been used by a synagogue-community: a public building constructed expressly for religious purposes, a multipurpose communal building, a private residence or part of a home converted for public use.

When scholars are unclear on the origins of the synagogue in the Old World or even what the early synagogues might have been, we despair of finding an obvious model in the New World. Significant for the Book of Mormon, however, is the possibility that it was Josiah’s reforms and prohibition of sacrifices outside Jerusalem that led to the formation of the synagogue. That environment shaped much of the Israelite religion that we see in the Book of Mormon.

We do not know what kind of building a “sanctuary” was; indeed, it may not have been a type of building at all, but rather a location. We do know, however, that the first temple erected in the New World by Nephi was built on a Jewish model (2 Ne. 5:16).

In all of these cases, however, it is difficult to understand how a Jewish model could have survived for more than five hundred years in the New World without significant modification. The natural process of assimilating new ideas must have continued in the New World since, even in the Old, Levine tells us, “many Jewish communities integrated non-Jewish models into their synagogue framework without feeling threatened or compromised in any way.”

Temples certainly followed Mesoamerican models, according to our understanding of the archaeological sites where Book of Mormon events might possibly have taken place. We are left, then, with a problem of terminology. As far as “after the manner of the Jews” is concerned, we really have no idea what such a phrase might have meant to Mormon, writing a thousand years after any contact with “the manner of the Jews.” If we suppose that his original source contained this language, then it is still nearly five hundred years from a direct influence. The simplest answer to this particular phrase is to see it as indicative of a style rather than a blueprint. Some modern buildings are clearly “modern” in style (boxy shapes, heavy reliance on concrete, glass, and steel, etc.) but have decorations that evoke a more ancient style. Perhaps such decorative elements capture this meaning of “after the manner of the Jews.”

Whatever the phrase may have meant, we know that the Nephites had three types of sacred places. We understand temples—or at least, we have access to much information on the ancient temple, which differs in many functions from our modern temples. In the Book of Mormon, they frequently are gathering places where public speeches are delivered, a function not possible with modern temples but well suited to the ancient Mesoamerican temple with its courtyard and elevated platforms from which a speaker could be easily seen.

A synagogue might refer to a building for meetings; the Greek word actually means a place of assembly. In this case, while we do not know of a particular counterpart, it would not be surprising that the Nephites have such buildings since they have churches where they gather for worship. These assemblies are separate from the larger culture and society, making buildings designed especially for that purpose necessary. Levine suggests that synagogues functioned because the Jews lacked a temple, either in Jerusalem or in the specific city where they lived. As a result, “over the centuries the synagogue became a fully developed communal institution and apparently the central one in most communities. It served as a place for study, sacred meals, court proceedings, depositing communal funds, and political and social meetings, as a hostel, and as a residence of certain synagogue officials. Of central importance, of course, were the religious services.” The New World was not separated from temples, but it was separated from the temple in Jerusalem and also separated from the Levitical priesthood. As a result, a building with a communal function developed rapidly and logically in the New World. (See also commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 26:25–26 and Alma 21:5.)

In contrast, we have no information on how sanctuaries were used. Israel had sacred locations, usually groves, in the hills. Mesoamerican religion attached similar sanctity to natural spaces; possibly the concept of “sanctuary” includes a sacred space in nature, perhaps marked with an altar, but perhaps lacking any permanent structure at all. At least one sanctuary does have an altar (Alma 15:17). Alma 21:6 and 22:7 mention building sanctuaries, though without details about what, exactly, was built. Sanctuaries are always places of gathering, however, so even if they are natural sites, they would have required clearing enough land to permit gather, a process that may be construed as “building.”

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4