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Nephite Synagogues: Where Did They Originate?

By Edward Mellott

It is not unusual to encounter, in literary works, details that are out of place as to their time. Those are called ‘anachronisms’ which are placed by the writer in a time before the objects existed. An example of this is the mention of a clock in the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. (Chiming clocks did not exist in ancient Rome.) Some ‘anachronisms’ are more serious, though.

Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, had been translated from golden plates that contained the accounts of the ancient inhabitants of the American continent. This claim has been challenged frequently since then for a variety of reasons, one of them being the use of anachronisms.

Among many such anachronisms that occur in the Book of Mormon, the reference to synagogues is one to which we give attention. The word ‘synagogue’ or some derivative of it occurs at least 25 times in the Book of Mormon, providing a fairly good picture of the role that it served in pre-Columbian civilizations. Of particular interest is the text of Alma 16:13, “And Alma and Amulek went forth preaching repentance to the people in their temples, and in their sanctuaries, and also in their synagogues, which were built after the manner of the Jews.” (emphasis mine). This statement assumes that these inhabitants of ancient America were aware of how the Jews built their synagogues. We will discover in the following examination that this could not have been the case.

Synagogues were an integral part of Jewish society in the times of Jesus as we see in the New Testament. Though the exact time of the origin of the synagogue is uncertain, evidence points to the latter part of the interim between the Testaments. Some have supposed that it was during the Babylonian Captivity that the use of synagogues began, but that is made uncertain by the absence of their mention in the writings of the Post-Exilic prophets and histories. The practice of meeting together to study the law appears to be the sense of Ezekiel 16:1 & 20:1, but that at best provided the basis for the synagogue.

The later origin of the synagogue therefore raises problems with Alma 16:13. How could Alma and Amulek know how the Jews built synagogues when the Jews weren’t building them before Lehi left for the new world in 600 BC? It would be impossible for the alleged writer of this account to know how the Jews built synagogues, but very possible for one writing many centuries later.

Attempts have been made to vindicate this slip, but they have been feeble at best. One author lumped together four words used anachronistically, ‘synagogue’ being one of them. He then proceeded to dismiss the charge against the use of all four by stating that they were actually translations. The sense of the phrase in Alma 16:13 cannot be dismissed, however, with this kind of argument.

Another attempt to vindicate the use of ‘synagogue’ in the Book of Mormon was made by an author who maintains that synagogues were part of Jewish worship from the times of Moses. Though this notion has been held by some, it fails to have a firm foundation for a very primary reason.

Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “He [Moses] appointed the Law to be the most excellent and necessary form of instruction, ordaining, not that it should be heard once for all or twice or on several occasions, but that every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Law and obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it” (Cap ii.7 [175]).

Writing for The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Drs. William LaSor and Tamara Eskenazi explain that “the word ‘synagogue,’ however, is not used, and assembling to listen to the Law does not specifically imply the existence of a synagogue.” “Most scholars,” they note, “support the contention that the synagogue originated in exile and in Babylonia. They surmise that it began as spontaneous gatherings of Jews for sabbaths and festivals, for communal worship and for mutual support. The synagogue owes its formation to these gatherings of exiles” (ISBE, 4:677).

The synagogue as an institution was considerably different from the pattern of worship used by the Jews in pre-Exilic Israel. Prior to the Babylonian conquest, gathering for worship was centered on the Tabernacle and, after Solomon, the Temple. The Jews gathered at special times and brought the appropriate offerings as set forth in the Law. The synagogue, on the other hand, was established for the study of the Law itself. Meeting at the synagogue was a bloodless gathering and was the basis for the later formation of rabbinic Judaism.

Jewish worship before the Captivity was based on sacrifices. When the Jews were in Babylon, they were deprived of the Temple. As soon as they were restored to the Land, they set about building another Temple. Why? It was because those who read the Law faithfully realized that sacrifice had to be made. Not all were restored to the Land, though, so they began to gather for worship without a Temple. By the time of Jesus’ Advent, the Jews of the Dispersion, as well as the Jews of Palestine, had synagogues and they met as well at the Temple during the high feasts.

For these reasons, therefore, the mention of synagogues ‘built after the manner of the Jews’ in the Book of Mormon suggests a serious flaw. A writer, living in Book of Mormon times, could not have known how the Jews built synagogues, or even that they built synagogues at all. A writer in the early 19th century who was able to read all of the Bible would indeed know.

What can we do in light of all this? We could ignore the evidence and try to pretend that all is well, and that the Book of Mormon is still somehow God’s Word. Or we could deny that the historicity of the book is important at all, insisting that the message is the important thing to grasp. Or we could just give up on the idea that God reveals Himself at all.

We do not need to give up on the prospect that God reveals himself. He has done so, and in a mighty way. Don’t be discouraged by a counterfeit. Jesus said that false teachers would come, but that does not mean that we give up on the truth. The word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword. (Heb 4:12) It was given to us by inspiration, and is profitable to us (1 Tim 3:16). It was given to us by God through the Holy Spirit who moved holy men of old to write it (1 Pet 1:21). Instead of believing in a fraud, or giving up altogether, put your trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and embrace the Word he has given to us in the Bible.

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