The word synagogue, from the Greek sunagoge, a place of “coming together” is equivalent to the Rabbinic Hebrew beit kĕnesset and the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic kĕnishta or beit kĕnishtâ, “house of assembly.” Synagogues are known to have served Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean basin and the Near East during the Greco-Roman period. Much archaeological evidence for this institution has been uncovered, the largest concentration having been discovered in the land of Israel. Read together with extant literary sources, archaeological sources provide important evidence for the development of the synagogue during its formative centuries.
By the first century CE synagogues existed throughout the land of Israel. They are mentioned in the writings of Josephus and of Philo of Alexandria and in New Testament and rabbinic literature. Philo presents the Essene community as having come together on the Sabbath in “sacred spots (Gk., hierous topous) which they call synagogues” (Every Good Man is Free, ll. 81–82). Rabbinic and New Testament sources mention synagogues in various locales. In Jerusalem they are said to have served specific expatriate diaspora communities (Acts 6:9; Tosefta Meg. 2:12). Literary sources are virtually unanimous in presenting first-century synagogues as places where Jews gathered to read and study scripture (for example, Josephus, Against Apion 2.175; Lk. 4:16–22; Acts 13:13–16). Communal prayer is not presented as a function of synagogues before 70 CE. A Greek inscription discovered by Raymond Weill just south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, called the Theodotos Inscription after its donor, confirms this situation. According to this inscription, this synagogue was to be used for “reciting the Torah (nomos) and studying the commandments, and as a hostel with chambers and water installations to provide for the needs of itinerants from abroad” (Lea Roth-Gerson, The Greek Inscriptions from the Synagogues in Eretz-Israel, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 76–86).
Buildings at Masada, Gamla, and Herodium have been identified as synagogues. All are characterized by rows of benches lining their walls. The building at Gamla is a large freestanding structure. A ritual bath, or miqveh, is located adjacent to it. [See Ritual Baths.] The Masada meeting room is located in the casemate wall on the northwest side of the hill; it was completely renovated by the rebels during their occupation of Masada during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–74 CE). [See First Jewish Revolt.] Its entrance on the southeast, opposite a small room in the northwest corner that was apparently used to store biblical scrolls. Fragments of biblical texts were discovered buried beneath this small room. The location of the small room on the northeast wall suggests an internal alignment within the synagogue and perhaps an alignment toward Jerusalem. A room at Herodium was also fitted with benches during the First Jewish Revolt. On the basis of the similarities between these benches and those at Masada, some scholars identify this room as a synagogue.
Archaeological remains that pertain to synagogues from the late first or second centuries CE are rare. The excavators report the discovery of a second-century synagogue in the first phase of the synagogue at Nabratein in the Upper Galilee (see figure 1). The building has four columns, a possible reader's lectern, suggested by an imprint in the plaster floor, and is aligned toward the south, in the direction of Jerusalem (Meyers et al., 1981).
Tannaitic literature provides ample information about synagogues within communities influenced by the rabbinic sages. Torah reading and study are portrayed in this literature as the primary functions of the synagogue. Tannaitic sources also present new functions that took place within synagogues, the most significant of these being the development of communal liturgy. Some synagogue buildings in late first- and second-century Palestine were apparently private buildings converted into public synagogues (Mishnah Ned. 9:2). Tosefta Megillah 3:21–23 presents instructions for the construction of an ideal synagogue based upon biblical exegesis. Like the Tabernacle/Temple, this text suggests that synagogues were to be built “at the high point of the town,” their doors open to the east. The Tosefta presents a plan for the internal arrangement of the synagogue:
How do the elders sit? Facing the people, their backs to the qōdesh [Jerusalem].
When they set down the [scroll] chest—its front is toward the people, its back to the qōdesh.
The ḥazan ha-kĕnesset (community leader) faces the qōdesh.
All the people face the qōdesh.
Some synagogues seem to have been illuminated with seven-branched lampstands (menorot) during this period.
Amoraic literature dating to the fourth and fifth centuries and postamoraic literature, dating from the fifth century through the close of antiquity, present synagogue buildings as having been a common feature on the Palestinian landscape by the third and fourth centuries. This phenomenon is also noted by Jerome (Commentary to Is. 57:12). Synagogues also served as primary schools (J.T., Meg. 3:3, 74a; Pesiqta' de-Rav Kahana', pp. 255, 381, 422). Synagogue liturgy developed greatly during Late Antiquity, as is reflected in the rich liturgical poetry (piyyut) that has survived. Temple imagery was increasingly transformed by synagogues during this period, the Torah shrine being conceptualized in terms of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This relationship is made clear in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta῾an. 21, 65a), a tradition attributed to Rabbi Huna the Great of Sepphoris. This sage is said to have lamented on the occasion of a public fast that “Our fathers covered it [the Ark of the Covenant] with gold, and we cover it [the Torah ark] with ashes.” The Torah shrine was the focal point of the synagogue (see figure 2), the “sanctity of the ark” being greater than the “sanctity of the synagogue” building as a whole (J.T., Meg. 3:1, 73d).
Remains of more than one hundred synagogues dating from the late third through the eighth centuries have been identified in Palestine. This large corpus provides a well-developed image of the synagogue during the period, reflecting a rich religious culture through a limited repertoire of architectural, artistic, and epigraphic forms.
Synagogues conforming to three main architectural types were constructed by Jews in Late Antiquity in Palestine: the broadhouse, the “Galilean-type,” and the longhouse basilica. [See Basilicas.] From the fifth century onward, longhouse basilicas were often apsidal. While a regional and chronological distribution of synagogue types is apparent, these “types” in no way reflect a strict geographic or chronologic typology. Often, synagogues of different types existed in close proximity to one another, as is the case of the broad-house synagogue at Khirbet Shema῾ and the nearby Galilean-type basilica at Meiron. The basilica form was adapted by both Jews and Christians during the fourth century, although Tosefta Sukkah 4:6 and the third-century synagogue at Gush Ḥalav suggest that Jews had built basilica-type synagogues earlier (see figure 3). Variety in architectural patterning and ornamentation is accompanied by the rather common placement of the Torah shrine on the wall facing Jerusalem.
The principle of sacred orientation can be seen in each of the architectural types. In the Galilean basilica (Capernaum, Chorazin, Meiron, Nabratein and Bar῾am, Umm el-Qanaṭir and Arbel), the side aisles on the western, northern, and eastern sides, though not on the southern wall within the synagogue stresses the importance of this Jerusalem-aligned wall. Typical of this group is the structure uncovered at Meiron, where the triple facade faces south toward Jerusalem. It is likely that the Torah shrine was placed between the portals of this structure, as at Merot in Upper Galilee and as has been conjectured at Capernaum and Chorazin. Some scholars have posited the existence of portable Torah chests that were brought into the synagogue for communal Scripture reading, arguing that the image of a wheeled carriage at Capernaum represents one. There is no corroborating literary evidence for this suggestion. Both the orientation of the basilica and the suggested location of the ark necessitated that the worshiper enter the synagogue through one of its three main portals and turn to face the Torah shrine and Jerusalem to the south.
In the broadhouse synagogue, the wall of orientation is one of the longer, or broader, walls. The Torah shrine is located in the long wall aligned with Jerusalem. Broadhouses have been discovered at Nabratein, phase 1, and at Shema῾ in Upper Galilee, and at Susiya and Eshtemoa in the Mt. Hebron region of Judea (Judah).
In longhouse and apsidal basilica synagogues the visitor generally crossed the expanse of an atrium, sometimes a narthex, and the nave to reach the Jerusalem-aligned wall. At the center of this wall, the building's focal point, the Torah shrine, often stood on a raised platform and seems to have been flanked by seven-branched menorahs. This imagery is reflected, for example, in the synagogue mosaic at Hammath Tiberias B, level 2a. Synagogues of the sixth century and later, including those at Na῾aran and Beth Alpha, often included an apse in the Jerusalem wall that housed the Torah shrine, a feature borrowed from contemporary churches. [See Churches.] The apse and bema were sometimes separated from the nave by a chancel screen. Also borrowed from Christian architecture, the screen served to emphasize and distance the area of the Torah shrine from the assembled community. An ornate chancel screen also appears in a broadhouse synagogue at Susiya. The chancel screen is in Hebrew called a geder la-bāmâ, “partition for the podium,” in a recently identified source from the Cairo Genizah.
The naves of longhouse and apsidal basilicas were often paved with highly intricate mosaics that, in a number of cases, included images of the zodiac wheel, the Torah shrine area, and numerous dedicatory inscriptions in Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew (see figure 4). The zodiac wheel clearly represents the course of the Jewish calendar, which is principally lunar, as is made clear by a newly discovered fifth–sixth-century mosaic from Sepphoris. Biblical scenes also appear, including the Binding of Isaac at Beth Alpha, Noah's Ark at Jerash, Daniel in the Lion's Den at Na῾aran, and David playing his Harp in Gaza. Each of these biblical images parallels common themes in Jewish liturgical poetry from Late Antiquity. Particularly significant is a mosaic pavement from the narthex of the sixth-century synagogue at Reḥov. This twenty-nine-line inscription directly parallels texts that appear in rabbinic literature. [See Mosaics.]
Objects of ceremonial use within the synagogue discovered at a number of sites have shed important light on the religious lives of synagogue communities. These include elements of seven-branched menorahs from Ma῾on (Judea) and Hammath Tiberias A; an incense burner from Beth-Shean A; a chalice from ῾Ein-Gedi; a polycandelon from Kefar Ḥananyah; and perhaps plates from Na῾anah and Beth-She῾arim. Also of interest are amulets discovered at Merot, Ḥorvat Kanaf, and Ma῾on (Nirim). All of these objects parallel discussions of synagogue appurtenances that appear in rabbinic and Karaite sources.
Most scholars posit that synagogues first appeared in the diaspora. The existence of Jewish “prayer places” (Gk., sg., proseuchē) is recorded as early as the third century BCE in Egypt. Little is known about these places of meeting, except that Jews came together in them to “pray.” In function as well as form, the proseuchē had much in common with contemporaneous Egyptian temples. During the first century, Philo emphasizes the importance of scriptural study within the proseuchē (Embassy to Gaius 156; On Dreams 2.156; The Life of Moses 2.216). Synagogues (both sunagōgē and proseuchē) are recorded as having existed throughout the Near East during the Late Second Temple period. A synagogue in the Seleucid capitol of Antioch on Orontes is of particular note because bronze treasures taken from the Jerusalem Temple by Antiochus IV were deposited there by his successors (Josephus, War 7.44–45).
Sources for the history of the Greco-Roman diaspora synagogue after 70 CE are limited to the writings of pagan and Christian authors and archaeological remains. By contrast, synagogues in the Sasanian Empire are known almost exclusively from traditions preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. As in Palestine, the Torah shrine became the focal point of diaspora synagogues that were generally aligned toward Jerusalem. The liturgical reading and exposition of Scripture and communal prayer seem to have been the main religious functions of these synagogues. Temple imagery was particularly important within Greco-Roman diaspora synagogues. Seven-branched menorahs were used both as symbols of Jewish identity and to illuminate some synagogue interiors. The Torah shrine was often called an ark (Heb. ῾ărôn, or Gk., kiebōtos), reminiscent of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. Two synagogues in Babylonia, Shaf ve-Yateb in Nehardea and the synagogue of Hutsal, were invested with additional significance and served as national religious centers for Babylonian Jewry (Meg. 29a).
Archaeological evidence for synagogues in the Near East includes five extant buildings: Dura-Europos and Apamea in Syria; Priene and Sardis in Asia Minor; and perhaps Delos in the Aegean. In addition, numerous inscriptions have survived that shed light on synagogue life during Late Antiquity.
The Jewish community of Dura-Europos (a caravan city on the Euphrates River) procured a private dwelling and transformed it into a synagogue some time before 244–245 CE, when the building was enlarged and renovated. It was destroyed in 256, during the Sasanian invasion. The earlier synagogue was made up of a series of rooms grouped around a central courtyard. Its assembly hall, which is generally rectangular in shape, in the range of 10.65–10.85 by 4.60–5.30 m. Benches were constructed on all four walls, and an aedicule was placed in the western (Jerusalem-aligned) wall. Seating capacity was for approximately forty people. During the second phase, the forecourt was enlarged and covered with a peristyle leading to the main assembly room (14 × 8.7 m.). This room was surrounded by benches, with a seating capacity of 120. All four walls were decorated with biblical scenes portraying elements of Jewish sacred history. The paintings reflect a high degree of familiarity with stories that also appear in rabbinic literature and a clear stylistic continuity with the pagan and Christian wall paintings at Dura (Kraeling, 1956). [See Wall Paintings.] Beneath extensions of the hinge sockets of each of the two doors leading to the synagogue remains of human finger bones were discovered. Similar foundation deposits have been found in Pagan temples at Dura.
The remains of a synagogue were discovered beneath those of a church at Apamea on the Orontes River in Syria. The plan of the building has never been published, but its mosaic pavement and numerous dedicatory inscriptions have been discussed. The synagogue is dated to the late fourth century on the basis of dedicatory inscriptions. A building from Misis (ancient Mopsuestia) in Cilicia in Asia Minor has been identified as a synagogue on the basis of numerous illustrations from the Hebrew Scriptures that appear in its mosaics. The evidence is, however, inconclusive, and this fourth–fifth-century basilical building may well have been a church.
The synagogue at Priene was constructed within a transformed private dwelling. It has been dated by its excavators to the fourth or fifth century. Benches were constructed along the walls of the assembly room (19 × 14 m.) On the eastern (Jerusalem) wall of the assembly room was a Torah niche that served as a focal point. To the right of the shrine a laver was discovered for ablutions. Three reliefs bearing seven-branched menorahs decorated the room. On one, the menorah is flanked by two birds; on another it is flanked by a lulav, an etrog, and a shofar, with volutes identified as Torah scrolls to either side of the menorah's stalk. Similar volutes were discovered on a relief from Sardis and on images of menorahs that have recently been identified in Iznik (ancient Nicaea) and in an American private collection. These volutes seem to represent a regional type distinctive to Asia Minor.
The first-century BCE building identified as a synagogue on Delos is situated in the residential area. Its main hall is rectangular (16.9 × 14.4 m.) but was divided at a later stage with an east-west wall. Marble benches along the west wall are interrupted by a white marble throne that some have identified with the “seat of Moses” mentioned in Matthew 23:2. A series of small rooms was discovered south of this room, and a roofed portico runs north-south on the east. Four ex-voto inscriptions containing the term theos hypsistos (“highest god”) were discovered in the hall, which are the basis of the building's identification as a synagogue. Epigraphic remains attesting to the presence of Samaritans have been found elsewhere on Delos.
The largest synagogue to survive from antiquity is located in Sardis in Lydia. The building was constructed as part of a gymnasium-bath complex, and was apparently refurbished by the Jewish community during the fourth century. The synagogue's peristyle forecourt, at whose center was a fountain, was entered from the east. Three entrances lead to the assembly hall (54 × 18 m). A stepped apse was at the western end of the hall, and two aedicules, at least one of which was a Torah shrine, were constructed between the doors on the hall's eastern wall. This parallels the placement of the fourth-century Torah shrine in the Ostia synagogue outside Rome and in some Galilean-type synagogues. A raised bema was apparently constructed in the middle of the hall, and a large table flanked by lions stood close to the apse. The floor was paved with a geometric and floral mosaic, and the lower portions of the walls were inlayed with small pieces of colored marble within an architectural frame. According to a dedicatory inscription, the upper portion of the walls or the ceiling was decorated with paintings. Numerous inscriptions were found, mainly dedicatory, in Greek. Of particular interest is a fragmentary marble seven-branched menorah inscribed with a Greek dedicatory inscription. Further alterations and modifications were made periodically, until the synagogue was destroyed with the rest of the city in 616.
Following the lead of Erwin R. Goodenough (see Goodenough, 1953–1968), scholars during the latter half of the twentieth century frequently interpreted synagogue remains as reflecting a broad chasm separating the rabbinic sages and other Jewish communities in Palestine and the Greco-Roman diaspora. Owing to the large quantity of literary and archaeological sources now available, nuanced differences rather than divisions can be seen to characterize those Late Antique synagogue communities. Theirs was a shared religion expressed in the centrality of scripture in the synagogue, in the alignment of the synagogue or Torah shrine toward Jerusalem, and in the use of Temple forms and motifs (such as the menorah) in synagogues. Within this religious continuum, which stretched from the western Mediterranean to the Tigris River, divergent approaches to Jewish belief and practice coexisted.
[See also Synagogue Inscriptions. In addition, most of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]
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Steven Fine and Eric M. Meyers