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Re: orion synagogues (somewhat long)
Jim West wrote:
> Both suggest that there is certainly a lack of archaeological evidence for
> the existence of first century synagogues in Palestine. ABD identifies
> three sites which may be synagogues- Gamla, Herodium, and Masada.
> Both, on the other hand, suggest that there were multiple synagogues in
> Israel in the first c. CE.
> So, we have in these academic sources contradictory statements. On the one
> hand "there were dozens of synagogues" but "there is little archaeological
> evidence for their existence".
Most likely the references to "dozens of synagogues" are based on
ancient sources. Jack K and others have mentioned some of these
sources, but I would like to go into more detail.
ABD does indeed speak of the shortage of archaeological evidence,
but it also mentions ancient sources (v.6 p. 252):
By the 1st century C.E. the synagogue had become so important and
central an institution to Jewish life in Palestine that the Talmud of
Palestine refers to 480 of them existing in Jerusalem in the time of
Vespasian (Kloner 1981: 12). One scholar has recently proposed that
in Jerusalem alone there were 365 synagogues in the late Second
Temple period (Wilkinson 1976: 76-77). A Greek inscription from
Jerusalem dating to the 1st century C.E., found in the excavations of
1913-14, describes the varied function of the synagogue at that time
(quoted in Levine 1987: 17):
Theodotus, son of Vettenos, the priest and *archisynagogos*, son
of a *archisynagogos* and grandson of a *archisynagogos*, who
built the synagogue for purposes of reciting the Law and
studying the commandments, and as a hotel with chambers and
water installations to provide for the needs of itinerants from
abroad, which his fathers, the elders and Simonides founded.
There is a photo of this inscription in "The Interpreter's
Dictionary of the Bible" vol. 4 p. 480. This inscription would seem
to support the idea that there were some buildings erected
specifically for the purpose of being synagogues. The term used is
OIKODOMHSEN, "built," which seems to preclude simply setting aside
part of an existing structure for this purpose.
> If I may suggest a solution- this confusion arises simply because some
> writers identify the word "synagogue" with a building, when in fact it was
> simply an assembly of pious folk. Later on, of course, synagogues became
> buildings. But in the first century synagogues were assemblies of people.
This is the solution of the author of the ABD article (vol. 6 p.255):
"The dearth of early Second Temple synagogue remains stands in
striking contrast to the large number of synagogues referred to in
ancient literary sources; but such an anomaly derives from our modern
misunderstanding of the synagogue as a social and religious
institution and the synagogue as a distinct and discrete
However, this solution seems a little anachronistic to me, especially
in light of the inscription above and some other material that I will
get to shortly. Among other materials, "Interpreter's Bible" v.8 p.
129 at Luke 7:5 ("He built us a synagogue," referring to the Roman
centurion) says that "An Egyptian inscription from the second century
B.C. tells of a pagan official who had assisted Jews in the erection
of a synagogue at Athribis." They give no bib info about this
inscription, however. Still, assuming the citation is correct, it
would appear that even as early as the second century B.C. in at
least some parts of the known world the synagogue was considered a
"distinct and discrete architectural entity."
Regarding my question about the synagogue at Capernaum, Jim said:
>The present remains at Capernaum are fourth century. Those remains
>sit on something that may be second century- but as to what that
>thing might have been no one can say, for it has not been excavated
>(I just saw the foruth century remains last week, and unless someone
>is digging around under them, they are still there).
Check out ABD v. 1 p. 866 under "Capernaum":
In April of 1968, V. Corbo and S. Loffreda reopened the excavations
of Capernaum and conducted 18 campaigns up to 1985. These
excavations led to the discovery of the house of Simon Peter. They
also led to the discovery of the synagogue of the Roman centurion
beneath the foundations of the synagogue of the 4th-5th century.
Further along on p. 868 there is a description of the "Late
Synagogue", the one Jim observed, as well as "The Synagogue of the
Roman Centurion." Here is the description of it:
In 13 yeaars of patient research (1969-81), the area under the late
synagogue was explored. On the basis of this research, it was
possible to ascertain the chronology of the lage synagogue; the
researchers also discovered the remains of the synagogue constructed
by the Roman centurion (cf. Luke 7:5) atop a very ancient dwelling.
Under the paving of this earlier synagogue and the adjacent houses
were found ceramics of the MB, LB, Persian, Hellenistic and first
The synagogue ofthe centurion has a rectangular plan with a slight
displacement of the axis with respect to the synagogue of the 4th-5th
century. The external perimeter of the first synagogue is the same
as that of the later synagogue. The internal area of the synagogue
of the centurion, however, is a little smaller, because of the
considerable thickness of the wall, which are made of blocks of
basalt (120-130 cm). On the inside, on the E wall, there was a sort
of atrium, while the wall-bench must have occupied the whole length
of the W wall. The paving was of basalt pebblework.
The bib info on Corbo's work is all in Italian, one of the many
languages I don't read. Thus I can't double-check the references.
However, there seems to be enough material to make the ABD info
Hence, it appears that the synagogue originally thought to be that of
the Roman centurion was actually the 4th-5th century one, but the one
the centurion built in the 1st century for the people of Capernaum is
still discernible underneath it.
Why is there so little archaeological evidence of synagogues from the
Roman period? My suggestion is that the Romans destroyed as many as
they could find when suppressing the first Revolt. If that is the
case, then it may be, as Steven Fine said, that "The problem with 1st
century synagogues is that we may not recognize
them when we see them, since they have none of the furnishings we
might expect in later periods. A good example might be the Theodotos
synagogue. Were the place where the inscription was found found
without an inscription, would anyone identify it as a synagogue?"
If the Romans did as good a job of razing synagogues during the
Revolt as they did razing the Temple, it could easily be the case
that we have seen several synagogues, but couldn't recognize them as
such because they are too badly destroyed. But even if that
hypothesis fails, it seems to me that there is sufficient evidence
here to conclude that there were in fact 1st century synagogues that
were "distinct and discrete architectural" entities.
Even more than that, though, I do wonder: suppose it could be shown
that there were no such structures in the times contemporary with
habitation at Qumran. I don't see how that would preclude one of the
rooms, perhaps the (ha ha) "scriptorium" from serving the function of
a synagogue room. It seems to me that a room serving that purpose,
as part of a larger more complex structure, would fit the proposed
picture of first-century synagoguery rather well.
Scholarese, n. A dialect that consists entirely of
multiverbal circumlocutions and polysyllabic verbiages.