The Ancient Synagogue

The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 768
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  • Book Info
    The Ancient Synagogue
    Book Description:

    The synagogue was one of the most central and revolutionary institutions of ancient Judaism, leaving an indelible mark on Christianity and Islam as well. This commanding book provides an in-depth and comprehensive history of the synagogue from the Hellenistic period to the end of late antiquity.Drawing exhaustively on archeological evidence and on such literary sources as rabbinic material, the New Testament, Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, and Christian and pagan works, Lee Levine traces the development of the synagogue from what was essentially a communal institution to one which came to embody a distinctively religious profile. Exploring its history in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods in both Palestine and the Diaspora, he describes the synagogue's basic features: its physical remains; its role in the community; its leadership; the roles of rabbis, Patriarchs, women, and priests in its operation; its liturgy; and its art. What emerges is a fascinating mosaic of a dynamic institution that succeeded in integrating patterns of social and religious behavior from the contemporary non-Jewish society while maintaining a distinctively Jewish character.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12900-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    The synagogue, one of the unique and innovative institutions of antiquity, was central to Judaism and left indelible marks on Christianity and Islamas well.¹ As the Jewish public space par excellence, the synagogue building was always the largest and most monumental in any given Jewish community and was often located in the center of the town or village.

    In the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, the term “synagogue” (συναγωγή) was used to refer to the community, its central building, or both. Luke uses the termto denote both meanings in the same chapter (Acts 13:14, 43), as do the Jews of...

      • two ORIGINS
        (pp. 21-44)

        Determining the origin and early development of the synagogue has presented modern scholarship with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. As often happens with institutions, movements, and ideas of revolutionary proportions, the forces that shape new initiatives, especially in their embryonic stages, remain shrouded in mystery. For a period of time these initiatives crystallize outside the limelight of history, only to appear later in our sources in a relatively developed form. Such, indeed, was the case with the ancient synagogue. Despite our understandable interest in knowing when such an institution first appeared, what factors were decisive in its development, who was responsible...

      • three PRE-70 JUDAEA
        (pp. 45-80)

        No pre-70 source addresses the nature or functions of the Judaean synagogue systematically.¹ In contrast to the Temple, the synagogue merited relatively little attention; we have few sources on how synagogues functioned, where they were located, or how they looked—aspects about which Josephus and the Mishnah supply a plethora of information with regard to the Temple.² As noted, the synagogue at this time had no halakhic or religious standing; it was a communal institution and, as such, merited no special status and consequently little attention.³ Nevertheless, the picture is not entirely negative. Almost a score of synagogues in first-century...

      • four THE PRE-70 DIASPORA
        (pp. 81-134)

        Diaspora communities, particularly those of Alexandria and Egypt, have provided us with a significant amount of material regarding the Hellenistic and early Roman synagogue, orproseuche. Epigraphical evidence hails from as early as the third century B.C.E., papyrological and archaeological data from the second century B.C.E., and literary sources from the first century C.E. Together these sources afford an intriguing, if only partial, picture of this institution throughout the Hellenistic-Roman Diaspora. Regarding external appearance and internal organization, there were significant differences between the synagogues in Alexandria, Cyrene, Ostia, Delos, and Asia Minor. Even the various names by which communities referred...

        (pp. 135-173)

        By the first century C.E., the synagogue was playing a pivotal institutional role within the Jewish communities of Judaea and the Diaspora.¹ This centrality is reflected in thewide range of activities that took place there. Though many firstcentury sources focus on particular events relating to a specific synagogue, several—e.g., the Theodotos inscription, the New Testament, and a number of documents cited by Josephus—list a number of functions that transpired there. Rabbinic traditions speak of the synagogue as the venue for various educational and other activities, and while this material primarily reflects the circumstances of Late Antiquity, some information...

        (pp. 174-209)

        The impact of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. on the Jews of Roman Palestine, and the concomitant elimination of the leadership and institutions associated with the city, were traumatic indeed.¹ Suddenly, the major national and religious focus of Jewish life—the Jerusalem Temple—had been eliminated, along with the rituals and ceremonies that had constituted the warp and woof of divine worship in Israel. True enough, there was already a historical precedent for coping with such a loss. The destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. did not spell the demise of Judaism or the disappearance of...

        (pp. 210-249)

        Byzantine Palestine (fourth to seventh centuries) not only witnessed the continued evolution and development of the synagogue, but also provided a rich context in which to understand additional dimensions of this institution. Synagogue remains from this period exist in far greater numbers and in more geographical areas than do those from earlier periods. Indeed, this period constitutes a peak in synagogue development, which is reflected in its architectural, artistic, and epigraphic remains. The synagogue building acquired an ever more distinctive religious character, and synagogue liturgy continued to expand, becoming more elaborate and varied.

        These changes were not merely a continuation...

        (pp. 250-310)

        The evidence for the Diaspora synagogue in Late Antiquity invites comparison with the proverbial cup of water only partly full. On the one hand, we have material remains of thirteen buildings (excluding Delos—see Chap. 4) as well as hundreds of inscriptions relating to the synagogue or its officials.¹ In addition, literary sources note scores of synagogues throughout the Persian and Roman-Byzantine worlds, although in most cases nothing substantive is conveyed about the institution.² On the other hand, given the existence of an extensive and far-flung Diaspora, this evidence appears woefully fragmentary. There can be little doubt that what we...

    • nine THE BUILDING
      (pp. 313-380)

      Archaeological data constitute our main source of information regarding the physical features of the synagogue, although literary material has much to contribute as well.¹ The many scores of synagogue buildings throughout the Roman-Byzantine world known to date present a wide variety of examples attesting to the location of the building as well as its external and internal appearance.

      The synagogue building from Late Antiquity, like many public buildings of the time, might include a courtyard, entrances, a main hall with benches, columns, varied decorations, and often a series of ancillary rooms. The unique components that distinguished it as a synagogue...

      (pp. 381-411)

      The synagogue was created by the local Jewish community in response to its need for a central institution that would provide a range of services. As a result, the synagogue became firmly rooted in Jewish communities of Late Antiquity as their communal institution par excellence. The practice among some (many?) Jews of referring to the synagogue as abet ‘am(“house of people”)¹ —to the chagrin of some rabbis—clearly indicates the nature of the institution, which was to serve the community in a wide spectrum of activities. The Mishnah views this communal dimension in the following fashion: “And what...

    • eleven LEADERSHIP
      (pp. 412-453)

      The cadre of synagogue leadership that determined the policy of the institution and directed its affairs is a pivotal aspect of how the ancient synagogue functioned. Although the titles of officials and their roles have been only sporadically investigated over the past century, the dramatic increase in the publication of epigraphical material in recent decades has revitalized interest in this area.¹

      The study of leadership in the ancient synagogue is fraught with difficulties. Although the epigraphical and literary sources are far from negligible (the latter including both Jewish and non-Jewish material), the historical reality behind these sources is relatively unknown,...

      (pp. 454-465)

      The status and authority of the Patriarch in Late Antiquity is a subject that has merited a great deal of scholarly attention over the past generation.¹ Assessments have ranged from those regarding the office as pivotal, affecting Jewish communities throughout the entire Roman Empire, to those assuming that the Patriarchate declined precipitously in the course of the third and fourth centuries, with a minimal and often deleterious influence on Jewish society.² Such dramatically varied assessments stem directly from the fact that the sources at our disposal are limited yet varied.³ From rabbinic literature to the writings of the church fathers,...

      (pp. 466-498)

      The nature and extent of rabbinic involvement in, and influence on, the synagogue in Late Antiquity are of cardinal importance not only for understanding how the synagogue functioned, but also for gaining a perspective on the status of the sages in Jewish society of this period.¹

      In earlier studies of Jewish history in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine eras, it had often been assumed that the sages were the dominant religious and social force within Jewish society. This has been asserted with regard to the Pharisees in the pre-70 era and the talmudic sages in the post-destruction period of Roman Palestine.²...

      (pp. 499-518)

      Much has been written of late about the role of women in ancient Jewish society. While the picture in this regard is not entirely negative, it is nevertheless clear that the woman’s place was conceived to be primarily domestic, and she was often depicted in rather disparaging and uncomplimentary terms. Josephus, for one, has remarked: ‘‘The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man.’’¹ A woman was to appear in...

    • fifteen PRIESTS
      (pp. 519-529)

      The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 brought an end to a millennium of priestly political and religious hegemony. For an elite that had been accorded the highest status in Jewish society and that had shouldered the bulk of the ritual, cultural, judicial, and political responsibilities for many centuries, the sudden absence of its base of power was undoubtedly traumatic.¹

      It has generally been assumed that in the post-70 era, the priesthood became a mere vestige of its former self, a kind of honorary caste among the Jews, enjoying no real standing or authority, and opposed by the sages...

    • sixteen LITURGY
      (pp. 530-592)

      There is no dimension more reflective of the growth and evolution of the synagogue in antiquity than its liturgy.¹ Constituting one of many activities in the institution’s early stages, the ritual component of the synagogue eventually became a dominant and definitive element. At first it included the reading of Scriptures, a translation of the reading, and some sort of homily or instruction;² by Late Antiquity, the liturgy had evolved into a rich and varied worship setting that included not only these three components, but also regular communal prayers and poetic recitations (piyyutim), especially on Sabbaths and holidays.

      The development of...

      (pp. 593-612)

      Jewish art is a relatively new field in Jewish studies. It was only in the first half of the twentieth century that scholars began addressing this subject in one form or another. Pioneers in this field include, among others, Kohl and Watzinger, Schwarz, Cohn-Wiener, Sukenik, Wischnitzer, Landsberger, and M. Narkiss.¹ However, it was the discovery of a series of sensational archaeological remains (the Na‘aran and Bet Alpha mosaics in 1919–21 and 1928–29, respectively, the wall frescoes of Dura Europos in 1932, and the remains of the Bet She‘arim necropolis in 1936–40) that catapulted this field into the...

      (pp. 613-636)

      On numerous occasions throughout this volume, we have commented on the extent to which the synagogue was shaped by the social, material, cultural, and religious contexts of the ancient world. The present chapter will both focus on this dimension, bringing together many of the themes that have already been discussed, and, at the same time, address the issues of the uniquely Jewish aspects and continuity of the institution. Treating these complementary components together will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the growth and development of the synagogue during the first seven centuries of our era.

      There is no doubt...

    • nineteen EPILOGUE
      (pp. 637-640)

      In the millennium leading up to the end of Late Antiquity, Jewish society and its institutions underwent a total transformation. What had crystallized by the seventh century C.E. was a far cry from what had been normative in the Hellenistic period. Earlier religious frameworks were radically altered or abandoned: holidays, such as those listed in Megillat Ta‘anit, were dropped; others, such as Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, were almost totally revamped; still others, such as Hanukkah, Purim, and Simhat Torah, were added to the Jewish calendar. New political and religious frameworks (such as the synagogue) now replaced older ones...

    (pp. 641-644)
  10. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 645-648)
    (pp. 649-730)
    (pp. 731-734)
    (pp. 735-762)
    (pp. 763-796)