"During the Babylonian captivity (586–537 BCE) the Men of the Great Assembly began the process of formalizing and standardizing Jewish services and prayers that did not depend on the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the leaders at the end of the Second Temple era, promulgated the idea of creating individual houses of worship in whatever locale Jews found themselves. This contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and a portable way of worship despite the destruction of the Temple, according to many historians.
"Synagogues in the sense of purpose-built spaces for worship, or rooms originally constructed for some other purpose but reserved for formal, communal prayer, however, existed long before the destruction of the Second Temple. The earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of very early synagogues comes from Egypt, where stone synagogue dedication inscriptions dating from the 3rd century BCE prove that synagogues existed by that date. A synagogue dating from between 75 and 50 BCE has been uncovered at a Hasmonean-era winter palace near Jericho. More than a dozen Second Temple era synagogues have been identified by archaeologists."
"Outside of Solomon’s Temple, there is probably no more important institution in Judaism than the synagogue. The word comes from the Greek synagein, to bring together. A Greek word rather than Hebrew results from the fact that the Hebrew Bible lacks a word for it. The actual origin of the synagogue is lost in history. The consensus of opinion, however, is that the synagogue originated during the Babylonian Exile, beginning in 586 B.C., when deprived of the Temple, Jews would meet from time to time to read the scriptures. Whatever the exact origin, it is during the first century C.E., particularly after the destruction of of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. that the synagogue emerges as a well established institution and the center of the social and religious life of the people."
Synagogues in Scripture
- It was Jesus' custom to visit synagogues (Luke 4:16). He taught there (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 13:54; Mark 1:21, 39; 6:2; Luke 4:15; 6:6; 13:10; John 6:22-59; 18:19-20), healed [including on the Sabbath] (Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17), cast out demons (Mark 1:23-27, 39; Luke 4:33-37), preached (Luke 4:44)
- Corporeal punishment was carried out there (Matt. 10:17; 23:34; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12).
- Jewish leaders loved to show off in the synagogues (Matt. 6:2; 23:6; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 11:43; 20:46).
- The synagogues had rulers (Mark 5:22, 35; Luke 8:41, 49; 13:14; Acts 13:15; 18:8).
- A Roman centurion built the Jews a synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 7:1-5).
- Christians would be brought before synagogues to speak to authorities (Luke 12:11).
- Jews (Pharisees) conspired to put people out of the synagogue for confessing Jesus was the Christ (John 9:22, 34; 12:42-43; 16:2).
- One synagogue is mentioned by name: Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:9).
- Saul of Tarsus (Paul) obtained letters from the high priest to the synagogues of Damascus to capture any Christians and bring them to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2). Paul later said he imprisoned believers of Jesus in every synagogue (Acts 22:19) and punished them, compelling them to blaspheme (Acts 26:11).
- Paul preached Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:19-22), Salamis in Cyprus (Acts 13:4-5), Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14-52), Iconium (Acts 14:1-6), Athens (Acts 17:16-17), Corinth (Acts 18:1-4), Ephesus (Acts 19:8).
- The Law of Moses was read and preached every Sabbath in the synagogues 'throughout many generations' (Acts 15:21).
- Apollos (Alexandrian Jew) spoke boldly in the Ephesus synagogue where, upon hearing him, Aquila and Priscilla heard him and privately taught him the Scriptures more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).
- Sometimes the Greek word for "synagogue" is translated "assembly" and vice versa (Acts 13:43 ESV, NASB; Jam. 2:2 ASB, YLT). However, it is clear that the synagogues discussed in the NT are physical buildings in most instances.
- Jesus referred twice to the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). The major translations use this term unanimously.
One final note I found interesting on the origin of synagogues:
"There is no question but what the synagogue, and the activities associated with it, were an 'innovation' or addition of men. By-the-way, I'm using this term 'innovation' in a neutral sense here—I'm not suggesting it was either good or bad, merely that it was not 'ordained of God' via the Law of Moses or the inspired OT documents. In other words, the Scriptures are completely 'silent' with respect to this 'synagogue system.' Personally, and just for the record, I don't think there is anything at all wrong with the synagogue system, and there is no question but what our Lord approved of it."
—Al Maxey (http://www.zianet.com/maxey/reflx13.htm)