The exact origins of the synagogue are unknown. It probably developed during the years when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon and after the temple had been destroyed. To keep their heritage alive, the Jewish community met there for Scripture reading, prayer, and religious instruction. When the people returned to the land from Babylon, they continued meeting in the synagogue.
Each synagogue had an "ark," which represented the original ark of the covenant and contained scrolls of the Jewish Scriptures. There was also a platform facing the people from which the Scriptures were read. Between the ark and the people were the "chief seats, " which faced the congregation. Jesus denounced the Pharisees who were always seeking the chief seats in the synagogues in order to be noticed by other men. The congregation was divided into men's and women's sections; following the pattern of the separation of the sexes in the temple courts. The ornamentation of synagogues generally was limited to representations of vines and leaves, the menorah or seven-branched candlestick, the paschal lamb, and manna.
First-century synagogue Sabbath services consisted of the reading of the "shema" or the portion from Deuteronomy that states, "Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one Lord." This was followed by a series of prayers, including eighteen petitions and blessings. The restoration of Israel to the land of their fathers, the reinstatement of the glory of God in the temple, the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, and the reestablishment of a Davidic line of rulers were recurrent themes in these prayers. Then part of the Mosaic Law was read, according to a regular cycle of readings. This was followed by a reading from the Prophets, which was taught to the people with some exhortations and applications. A benediction closed the service.
Part of the synagogue building was a school that provided religious instruction for the children. Jesus probably attended the synagogue school in Nazareth. In Luke 4 he is described as reading the Scriptures and teaching at a Sabbath service there. Jesus regularly taught in synagogues as he traveled throughout Palestine.