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Why does the word "synagogue" appear early in the Book of Mormon? They came long after the time of Nephi.
by Jeff Lindsay
The word synagogue literally means "place of assembly," based on its Greek roots. The origins of the modern Jewish synagogue aren't clear, but the earliest archaeological evidence for their existence is a 3rd century B.C. inscription in Egypt, according to Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. According to e-mail I recently received, the Oxford Companion to the Bible offers the following in an article on synagogues:
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 (eight-seventh century BCE), through the exilic (sixth century) and postexilic (fifth century) eras, and down to the late Persian (fourty 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 BCE, either during the Babylonian exile or soon after, when the Jews returned to Judea during the era of restoration.
(Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1993): 722. Article is by Lee Levine, Prof. of Jewish History and Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
It is commonly assumed that synagogues came into being after the Exile of the Jews, which occurred after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. Even if that is so, meetings and assemblies of believers were going on long before the Exile. The Old Testament makes many references to congregations and assemblies, and the places where they met could be called "synagogues" (see the discussion to the question above about the word "church"). In fact, Psalms 74:8 (King James Version) speaks of "the synagogues of God in the land." If we understand "synagogues" to simply refer to places of assembly for religious purposes, the use of that word in the Book of Mormon poses no problems.
Some have argued that synagogues were developed to fill the void left by the absence of the Temple, and that there would be no need or desire for synagogues if a Temple was present (the Nephites had a temple). However, synagogues were clearly in existence before and after the time of Christ when the Jews had a temple in Jerusalem. They played a different purpose, probably in the same way the modern LDS church buildings (houses of assembly) play a different role than the LDS Temple.
(See The Book of Mormon home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)
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