I was recently on holiday in Israel and Jordan on a tour that focussed on biblical and archaeological sites. As part of the tour, we visited Tel Arad which was probably built around 1100 BCE and destroyed around 600 BCE.

Initially, I was surprised that the remains of a temple can be found on the Tel because up to then I had assumed the first and only Israelite centre of worship to be the temple in Jerusalem. Retrospectively, I realise that that was a silly assumption to make.

However, after the heyday of Tel Arad, when returning from the Babylonian exile, rebuilding the Jerusalem temple was one of the prime objectives of the Israelites and after the Romans destroyed the second Temple diaspora started, suggesting that the Jerusalem temple was somehow very important in the perception of the Israelites/Jews. Thus my questions:

  • Can we assume that the temple of Jerusalem has typically been the most important for Israelites, both pre-exile and post-exile?

  • Does evidence exist that smaller temples were closed down in favour of the Jerusalem one even pre-exile?

  • When returning from the Babylonian exile, is there again evidence for multiple temples built and used other than the ‘central’ one in Jerusalem?

  • If the answer to the previous question is ‘yes’, have these minor temple sites been closed down prior to the Roman destuction of the second temple?

  • Is synagogue merely a new name for temple or did synagogues and temples co-exist during the period of the second temple (and potentially pre-exile)?

I realise that especially in the pre-exile period, temples such as the one in Tel Arad were often not exclusively used to worship the Jewish God but also to worship Baal, Asherah and potentially others. It only takes a skim of the relevant books of prophets to realise that. However, I would like this question to ignore other gods and concentrate solely on the worship of the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

When using exile in this post, I am consistently only referring to the Babylonian exile, not to one in Egypt whether it can be proven or not.

  • 2
    The temple was where they offered sacrifices (and a few other things), and Jews were expected to go there multiple times during their life (potentially multiple times a year). Synagogues were closer to debate clubs or society offices, and I'm reasonably certain sacrifices didn't happen there. They're mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, so they definitely existed during the Second Temple period. I think I read something about them starting during the exile, but can't recall where now. May 29, 2016 at 12:17
  • Demonstrates minimal preliminary research.
    – MCW
    May 29, 2016 at 19:18

1 Answer 1


The location and time period of Tel Arad seems most similar to the "high places" that the book of II Kings credits King Josiah of Judah with eliminating in favor of a single temple under royal supervision in Jerusalem. It is not clear whether these places were used for the worship of Y-H-V-H, for idolatry, or for a syncretic mixed practice.

Reportedly, there were also temples to Y-H-V-H established at Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam ben Nabat. Archeologists have found evidence for a cultic site at Dan, although the location of the one at Bethel remains elusive. The book of Kings claims that these were set up with a political motivation, to offer an alternative to people wanting to cross the border from the Northern Kingdom of Israel into the the Southern Kingdom of Judah to sacrifice at a temple. As Israel became a prosperous country under the House of Omri, these temples flourished. The writers of Kings and Chronicles emphasize how idolatry took over those temples, but various prophets make the same statement about both the high places and even the temple in Jerusalem.

After the Babylonian Exile, temples for the worship of Y-H-V-H sprung up in a few places. In Leontopolis and Elephantine in Egypt, temples were established that offered sacrifices. The Samaritans offered sacrifices on Mount Gerizim, as they continue to do to this day. These were declared illegitimate by the rabbis as Rabbinic Judaism replaced sacrifice-oriented Biblical Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It became an accepted principle that sacrifices could now only legitimately take place on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was now impossible, although lawful sacrifices had taken place previously at other sites like in the desert and at Shiloh.

Synagogues grew up parallel to, and in some ways independent of, the sacrificial system. "Synagogue" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew "Beit Midrash", meaning house of study. They have no exact equivalent in other cultures of antiquity, although they could be seen as similar to the academies of Greek philosophic societies. They were places where Jews could gather and study the Torah and the Prophets. After the fall of the Second Temple, they gained greater importance in the continued survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Prayer and study were conceived as a replacement for the now-impossible sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem. The synagogue thus became the focus of Jewish life to this day.

To answer your specific question, the synagogue was not originally intended as an equivalent to the Temple, but it became its replacement through force of events and an evolution in Jewish theology.

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