When Paul, Luke, and Silas arrived at Philippi in the initial stages of their second church planting journey (Acts 16:13,16), they associated with Jewish people and proselytes at a proseuchē, located outside the city gate and near a river. What does this term mean in this context? In both contexts NIV 2011 translates it with the phrase “place of prayer.” In every other context in the New Testament it is rendered as “prayer/prayers.” The context of 16:16 makes clear that it is a place and not an activity. What is the history of this term that results in its use to describe a type of “prayer” but also a place? And what kind of “place” might this be?
The cognate verb proseuchomai “to pray” has extensive usage in classical Greek writers, but not the noun proseuchē. However, the noun does occur in a 4th century BC inscription from Epidaurus (IG IV2 1, 106), located in the temple of Aesculapius and describing a sacred place and an altar. This means the term was used in non-biblical Greek to describe a structure associated with religious activity. It becomes more frequent in papyri and inscriptions related to Jewish communities in the Diaspora in 3rd-1st centuries BC (nine examples have been found). The earliest usage occurs in a inscription associated with a Jewish proseuchē built c. 241-221 BC in Arsinoe-Crocodilopolis, Egypt, dedicating the building to Ptolemy III Euergetes and Berenice, his wife.
The noun proseuchē emerges as a significant term in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Primarily it refers to “prayer.” Only in connection with another noun, does it reference a place. For example, people can refer to the temple in Jerusalem as a “house of prayer” (e.g., Isa.56:7; 1 Macc. 7:37). We do not seem to find inscriptions in Palestine that use this term to describe a synagogue, nor does this happen in Second Temple Jewish writings. Only Jews in the Diaspora use proseuchē to describe a synagogue. Some scholars interpret an inscription on the island of Delos, dated to c. 100 BC (see specifically ID 2329) as referring to a Jewish proseuchē. Other scholars reject this and read the inscription as identifying a votive offering “for prayer. Other inscriptions indicate that some Jewish/Samaritan individuals lived at Delos in the second century BC. We know from inscriptional evidence that in the time of Paul Jews lived in Corinth, Berea, Thessalonica and many cities in Asia Minor, plus key islands in the Aegean. So it should not surprise us to learn that Jews also lived in Philippi, a major city in the Roman province of Macedonia (Acts 16:12). Josephus inserts a quote from Apion (Against Apion 2.10) in which Apion states that Moses “erected prayer-houses (proseuxas), open to the air in the various precincts” of Heliopolis. He uses the term at Antiquities 14.258, quoting a decree made by the people of Halicarnassus that gives Jewish people the right to “perform their sacred rites in accordance with the Jewish laws, and may build places of prayer near the sea….” This last clause has also been translated as “may make prayers near the sea,” so there is dispute whether this is a reference to a prayer-house or not.
Gerald Hawthorne (Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 43, Philippians (Waco, TX.: Word Books, 1983), xxxiv) notes that some scholars regard proseuchē in Acts 16:13, 16 as referring to a place by the Gangites River where Jews in Philippi would “hold services in the open air.” Other scholars understand this term in Acts 16:13, 16 to refer to a Jewish synagogue, a formal building. The location of other synagogues often is near water in order to provide resources for purification (see Josephus, Antiquities XIV.258 “we have also decreed that those Jewish men and women, who so wish may observe their Sabbaths and perform their sacred rites in places of prayer near the sea, in accordance with their native custom.”). We know that men and women would use the synagogue for religious and other purposes and so the fact that Paul “spoke to women who had gathered there” does not negate its identification as a synagogue. That the text is silent about other Jews or non-Jewish male adherents that Paul may have met, does not mean that Jewish males were absent. Presumably Jewish women normally would be married to Jewish men living in Philippi.
Emil Schürer (The History of the Jewish people in the age of Jesus Christ, Vol. III.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1986), 65) states that “in the time of the apostle Paul, there were Jewish synagoges in Philippi,…” He cites Acts 16:12-13 as the evidence (cf. p. 141). Philo, a contemporary of Paul and living in Alexandria, Egypt, uses primarily the plural form of proseuchē nineteen times in two treatises (In Flaccum and De Legatione ad Gaius). He composed these documents c. 38-40 AD, about fifteen years before Paul visits Philippi with Luke, the presumed author of Acts. Philo only uses this noun to refer to “meeting houses of Jews” in Alexandria that were attacked and vandalized by the anti-Semitic action of local mobs.
Given the predominate evidence that proseuchē, when used in Jewish sources in the Diaspora of Paul’s day to refer to a structure, referring to a “synagogue,” it would seem that Luke in Acts 16:13, 16 uses this term to refer to a Jewish synagogue located outside the walls of Philippi, on the banks of the Gangites River. There is no evidence that this word refers to “open air spaces” in which Jews would gather for religious purposes. It always seems to refer to a specific structure. Of course Luke’s usage begs the question why he only uses this term in relationship to Jewish religious buildings at Philippi, but sunagōgē when speaking about Jewish religious buildings in other Diaspora communities located in Greece, Macedonia and Asia Minor.