As you make your way through the Nazareth suk, from Mary’s Well toward the Basilica of the Annunciation, you could easily miss seeing the entrance to a site marking an event in the life of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. This is known as the synagogue church, the traditional site of the synagogue in which Jesus read from the scriptures. In Jesus’ time, Nazareth was a small Jewish town of not more than 300 people, and there would have been just one synagogue that served their needs.
In the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, and was the focus of Jewish worship, as it had been for many hundreds of years. However, over the previous 200 years, synagogues had begun to appear in different parts of the holy land as well as in Jerusalem itself. The synagogue was complementary to Temple worship; it had developed first as a local meeting place, a place where people could gather and read the scriptures and discuss them together. Later on, by Jesus’ time, the regular reading of scriptures had become formalised, and had become the central part of the synagogue service. The synagogue was also a natural focus for the lessons of bible teachers and rabbis. The main difference between synagogue service then – when the Temple still stood – and now, was the lack of the formal prayers which now form a central element.
As attendance at the synagogue had became a regular routine of Jewish life, Jesus as a practicing Jew would visit regularly. As Luke tells us, Jesus – on a visit back to his home town of Nazareth – was in the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom, and read out loud from the book of Isaiah. This scene, of a distinguished visitor being asked to read from one of the books of the prophets, could be repeated on a Sabbath in any synagogue today. Just as Jesus subsequently addressed the congregation, so too today it is normal for a visiting scholar or teacher to be asked to do the same.
The synagogue church has not been used for church services for over 100 years – since a new church was built next to it in 1887. It is now a place of mediation and private prayer for pilgrims who wish to remember Jesus, the Jewish teacher who grew up in Nazareth and returned there to give his message.