The New International Encyclopædia/Synagogue, The Great

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SYNAGOGUE, The Great (Heb. hakkeneseth haggēdōlāh). An alleged assembly or synod, said to have been founded and presided over by Ezra and to have controlled the national and religious fortunes of the Jews after the return from Babylon, c.450-200 B.C. Its membership is generally given as 120, but sometimes as 80. The palpable chronological discrepancies that occur in the early accounts about this synod, together with other doubtful points, have led modern scholars to deny its existence. It is not mentioned by Josephus or the Apocrypha and is only twice referred to in the Mishna (Pirke Aboth I., 1 and 2). Even according to the Talmudical notices the ‘great synagogue’ continued only for a single generation. According to these notices the men of the great synagogue secured the acceptance of certain books of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Canticles, Ecclesiastes); they promoted the work of copying the Torah, devoted themselves to the perfection of a daily ritual, and introduced certain changes into the Old Testament text in order to avoid misunderstandings. The notion that they collected the books of the Old Testament and fixed the canon had no authority in the Talmud, and indeed does not arise till the sixteenth century. Kuenen has traced the origin of the name to the ‘great assembly’ which is described in Nehemiah viii.-x. This assembly was of a popular character, and no doubt marked an epoch in the history of post-exilic Judaism. An uncritical age made of this ‘assembly’ a permanent institution and attributed to it the various steps taken in the natural unfolding of that phase of Rabbinical Judaism which came to a temporary close when the canon of the Old Testament was definitely established. While some scholars (notably D. Hoffmann of Berlin) still cling to the traditional view, Kuenen's results have been accepted by the great majority. Consult his essay in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, pp. 125-160 (Freiburg, 1894); Hoffmann's reply will be found in the Magazin für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums, vol. x. (1883), pp. 45-63. See also L. Krauss, “The Great Synod,” in the Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. x. (1898), pp. 347-377.