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Defining The First-Century CE Synagogue: Problems And Progress

  • Howard Clark Kee (a1)


The basic assumptions of many New Testament scholars about the nature of the synagoge in the first century prior to the First Jewish Revolt continue to match those enunciated by Lee Levine in his introduction to Ancient Synagogues Revealed. The features which he includes in his description are (1) regular prayers; (2) study; (3) sacred meals; (4) repository for communal funds; (5) law courts; (6) general assembly hall; (7) hostel; (8) residence for synagogue officials. Although he refers to Josephus, Acts and Ezra as sources for this historical reconstruction, the primary basis for his assumptions is the familiar Theodotus inscription, found by the French archaeologist Raimond Weill in the course of excavations in the socalled City of David section of the southeastern hill of Jerusalem from November 1913 to March 1914



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1 Levine, Lee J., Ancient Synagogues Revealed (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981). His analysis of the synagogue was developed and expanded in his introduction, especially in relation to diaspora synagogues, in a series of essays by various scholars in The Synagogue in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1987). Recently Levine's understanding of the synagogue in the early Roman period has been significantly altered, and now more nearly resembles the historical view set forth in this essay.

2 Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (tr. Strachan, Lionel R.M.. New York: G. H. Doran, 1927), Appendix V, 439–41.

3 Vol. 1,649, 703.

4 (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) Vol. 2, 541.

5 Emil, Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135) 2 (new English version rev. and ed. Vermes, Geza, Millar, Fergus, and Black, Matthew; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979) 425.

6 Deissmann, , Light, 439, n. 2.

7 Neusner's thesis about the transformation of Judaism in this period is effectively summarized in the Preface and Introduction to the second printing of his Judaism in the Matrix of Christianity (South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 8; Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1991).

8 7.799814.

9 Zeph 3.8; Gen 28.3; 35.11; 48.4; Jer 50.9.

10 In Ps 85.14 a lawless, powerful band (συναγωγή) attacks God's people.

11 Exod 16.1,4,6; Num 14.17,27, 35.

12 Exod 12.6; Lev 9.5; Num 8.9; Ps 111.1.

13 Although Schrage tries to make the point that Susanna 28 is the one passage in the LXX which refers to the building where the people gather as συναγωγή, it is clear that the gathering takes place in the private home of her husband, Joakim.

14 T. Levi 11.5, the congregation of Israel; T. Benj 11.2–3, the gathering of the Gentiles through the testimony of the messiahs of Levi and Judah.

15 Detailed and fully documented analysis of προσευνχή in relation to synagogue has been done by Martin Hengel in an essay originally published in the Festschrift for K. G. Kuhn, ‘Proseuche und Synagoge: Jüdische Gemeinde, Gotteshaus und Gottesdienst in der Diaspora und in Palästina’(ed. Jeremias., J.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1971) 157–83. Reprinted in The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture (ed. J. Gutmann; New York: KTAV, 1975) 27–54.

16 ‘∑υναγωγή’, in TDNT 7.830.

17 Examples of these meanings are found: ‘dwelling’, Plato Phaedrus 116a; Herodotus 1.17; ‘storehouse’, Demosthenes 42.6,19; ‘animal cage’, Herodotus 7.119; ‘brothel’, Herodotus 2.121; Plato Charmides 163b.

18 Text and translation of Philo's Legatio ad Gaium edited and annotated by Smallwood, E. Mary, Philonis Alexandrini: Legatio ad Gaium (Leiden: Brill, 1970).

19 The thesis that there was a later modest revision and expansion of the Wars was offered by Robert Eisler and adopted by Thackeray, H. St.J., in the Loeb edition of Josephus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1957) viixii.

20 Cf. Luke 4.31–7.

21 Cf. Matt 4.23–5; Luke 4.44.

22 Cf. Matt 13.53–8. Greatly expanded and altered in Luke 4.16–30; see below.

23 Cf. Matt 23.6; Luke 11.20.

24 In Every Good Man Is Free, 81 (tr. Colson, F. H.. LCL 9; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1941).

25 Discussion and bibiliography on Moses' seat in Schürer (rev. ed.), 2.442, n. 66.

26 The assumption by Schrage and others that the fragmented inscription from Corinth which presumably reads [∑υνα]γωγή Εβρ[αίων] dates from the first century (art. ‘∑υναγωγή’, TDNT 8.812) is now widely discredited, since the find has no datable archaeological links.

27 Suggested by Lake, K., and Cadbury, H.J., in The Beginnings of Christianity, Part One (Reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1965) 4.239.

28 White, L. Michael, Building God's House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews and Christians (Baltimore and London; Johns Hopkins University, 1990) 102–39.

29 (Ed. Freedman, David Noel; New York: Doubleday, 1992) 6.251–60.

30 Josephus War, 4.1ff.

31 So Gutmann, S., the excavator, in ‘The Synagogue at Gamla’ and Z. Ma'oz in ‘The Synagogue at Gamla and the Typology of Second Century Synagogues’. Both essays are in Ancient Synagogues Revealed (ed. Levine, Lee I.; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981) 30–4, 35–41. Ma'oz acknowledges that the only other pre-70 ‘synagogues’ on which he bases his typology are those at Herodium and Masada. None of them in fact has any of the distinctive features of the later synagogues.

32 The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture (ed. Gutmann, Joseph; New York: KTAV, 1975) xi. Although the revised edition of Schürer's History of the Jewish People, 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979) 463, assumes that there were special synagogue buildings in the post-70 period, there is acknowledgement that the so-called synagogue at Herodium was simply converted from a dining room by the nationalists during the first Jewish revolt.

33 An obvious example of the absence of such a distinction is to be found in the article in NTS 39.2 by Richard E. Oster in which he challenges my interpretation of the evidence about the synagogue in Luke-Acts.

34 Meyers, Eric M., and Strange, James F., Archaeology, the Rabbis, and Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981) 141.

35 Chiat, Marilyn J. S., in Handbook of Synagogue Architecture (Brown Judaic Studies, ed. Neusner, J.; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982), includes the Theodotus inscription even though there is no certain link between it and the architectural fragments that were also found in the cistern, and there was no datable archaeological material found with it. She also includes the details of the synagogue reported in the inscription in her statistical analysis of synagogue facilities.

36 In his essay in Ancient Synagogues Revealed, (Jerusalem, 1981) 52, S. Loffreda suggests a date for this synagogue in the last decade of the fourth to the mid-fifth century CE.

37 This phenomenon of the replacement of private houses used as gathering places for study of Torah and worship has been demonstrated in several synagogue sites in the Diaspora: L. Michael White, Building God's House in the Roman World (see note 28 above).

38 White, Building God's House, 78, 64–71.

39 Dothan, M., ‘The Synagogue at Hammath Tiberias’, in Ancient Synagogues Revealed (ed. Levine, L.) 52.

40 Zwi Uri Ma'oz, ‘Ancient Synagogues of the Golan’, in Biblical Archaeologist 51/2 (1988) 116–28.

41 In Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 1.447–54.

42 King, Philip J., in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3.761–2.

43 Jerusalem, , 1983.

44 Translated from the Hebrew original. English edition New York: Schocken, 1976.

45 Sub-title, From Pompey to Diocletian (Studies in Judaism and Late Antiquity, ed. Neusner, Jacob; Leiden: Brill, 1976, 1981).

46 Bahat, Atlas, 45.

47 Avi-Yonah, , Jews of Palestine, 7780.

48 Smallwood, , Jews under Roman Rule, 469–78.


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