The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years

The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years

by Lee I. Levine, Lee I. Levine

In his comprehensive history of the synagogue from the Hellenistic period through Late Antiquity, Lee Levine traces the origins and development of this dynamic and revolutionary institution. This revised paperback edition reflects the latest information in the field and includes a wealth of recently published material ranging from excavation reports and monographs

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In his comprehensive history of the synagogue from the Hellenistic period through Late Antiquity, Lee Levine traces the origins and development of this dynamic and revolutionary institution. This revised paperback edition reflects the latest information in the field and includes a wealth of recently published material ranging from excavation reports and monographs to articles appearing in edited volumes and scholarly journals.
Reviews of the first edition:
“Will undoubtedly remain for a long time the leading work of reference in the field.”—Stefan C. Reif, Times Literary Supplement
“Monumental.”—Martin S. Jaffee, Religious Studies Review
“A necessary read for any serious student of Judaism or Christianity in Late Antiquity.”—Christopher Beall, Journal of Jewish Studies
“A splendid and imposing achievement that crowns the career of an outstanding scholar.”—Morton I. Techer, Jerusalem Post
“[In] this handsome volume . . . [Levine] has provided us with the single best survey of all relevant historical, archaeological, architectural, and institutional issues related to one of the oldest surviving institutions of the world.”—Eckhard J. Schnabel, Trinity Journal

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Levine (Jewish history and classical archaeology, Hebrew Univ.) has produced a massive and scholarly study of the evolving role of the synagogue, from the Hellenistic period to late antiquity. The information gathered from archaeological digs has been ably incorporated into this study. Levine shows the "exuberant diversity" of synagogues of the Diaspora (the Jewish exile) and points out the common patterns that provided unity to a dispersed community. Black-and-white drawings and renderings along with photographs of individual synagogue architecture and remains complement the insightful text and make this book a true feast of learning. An informed lay reader with interests in archaeology and religion will appreciate this tome and will, at the very least, dip into certain chapters and topics. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with comprehensive Jewish studies collections.--Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., IL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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Yale University Press
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The First Thousand Years


Copyright © 2005 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-07475-8

Chapter One


The synagogue, one of the unique and innovative institutions of antiquity, was central to Judaism and left indelible marks on Christianity and Islam as well. 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" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was used to refer to the community, its central building, or both. Luke uses the term to denote both meanings in the same chapter (Acts 13:14, 43), as do the Jews of Berenice in one of their inscriptions. In Asia Minor, Rome, and Judaea, "synagogue" referred to a building, but in a number of inscriptions from Bosphorus, the community was clearly intended. In Bosphorus, Egypt, and Delos, the word proseuche [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], house of worship] referred to the building.

The term "synagogue" will be used in this volume to refer to the communal framework that evolved sometime in the Second Temple period and constituted the focus of Jewish life in Late Antiquity. It is entirelypossible that some communities initially met on premises other than a "synagogue" building or called their central institution by another name. By the second century C.E., however, "synagogue" had become a universal term for the building in which communal activities were held.

In comparison to the Jerusalem Temple, which it came to replace as the central religious institution in Jewish life, the synagogue was revolutionary in four major areas.

Location. The synagogue was universal in nature. Not confined to any one site, as was the "official" sacrificial ritual of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.

Leadership. The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socioreligious group. In principle, anyone could head the institution. Priests may have played a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their knowledge and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily because of their priestly lineage per se. Synagogue leadership was-in theory, at least-open and democratic (in certain functions and places, regarding women as well-see Chap. 14).

Participation. In addition to the communal dimension, the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, be it scriptural readings or prayer service. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts remained passive and might never have even witnessed the sacrificial proceedings personally unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice. In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the Women's Court without being able to view what was transpiring in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts. Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (warning inscriptions were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.

Worship. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the synagogue was that it provided a context in which a different form of worship other than that of the Jerusalem Temple developed. Over the course of Late Antiquity, the synagogue came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, targum, sermons, and piyyut. Instead of the silence that characterized the Temple's sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation-communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.

The centrality of the text in the synagogue's liturgical agenda was indeed revolutionary; the communal reading and study of the Bible made this institution, from its inception, radically different from other Jewish religious frameworks of antiquity. The Jerusalem Temple, the temples of Elephantine and Leontopolis, and the public liturgy of Qumran all had entirely different foci. In fact, the synagogue was likewise unique vis-à-vis contemporary pagan religious contexts, wherein hymns, prayers, and recitations formed the primary nonsacrificial liturgy.

However, the primary importance of the synagogue, as a whole, throughout antiquity lay in its role as a community center. By the first century C.E., the synagogue had become the dominant institution on the local Jewish scene in both the Diaspora and Judaea, with, of course, the sole exception of pre-70 Jerusalem. No other communal institution that might conceivably have competed with the synagogue for communal prominence is ever mentioned in our sources. Within the confines of the synagogue the Jewish community not only worshipped, but also studied, held court, administered punishment, organized sacred meals, collected charitable donations, housed the communal archives and library, and assembled for political and social purposes.

As a communal institution, the synagogue was fundamentally controlled and operated by the local community. Running such an institution may have been the concern either of the community as a whole, as was most likely the case in villages and towns, or primarily of the local urban aristocracy, which often assumed responsibility for the building and maintenance of such structures.5 In contrast to pagan temples and Christian churches, for which architectural and organizational models used throughout the Roman and Byzantine Empires were often the norm, synagogues were generally locally based and autonomous. As a result, we see a broad range of styles and practices associated with this institution throughout antiquity. This variety-from architectural patterns, artistic expressions, and inscriptions to prayer, Torah reading, sermons, targum, and piyyut-characterized the synagogue of antiquity, constituting what Peter Brown has called in another context an "exuberant diversity."

The extent of this diversity has become abundantly clear over the past generation or two with the dramatic increase in archaeological material and greater sophistication in the analysis and evaluation of our literary sources. As a result, we are aware of striking regional differences even within Roman-Byzantine Palestine, not to speak of the far-flung Diaspora. In several cases we have become aware of very different types of synagogues even within a given city.

Nevertheless, despite this diversity, the institution exhibited a remarkable uniformity. Its basic role as a community center and the range of activities and religious functions conducted therein, as well as its orientation, ornamentation, symbolism, and sanctity, were, in varying degrees, common to synagogues throughout antiquity. These shared characteristics are evident in both archaeological and literary sources.

The synagogue evolved significantly throughout the course of antiquity. Its communal dimension continued to remain central between the first and seventh centuries C.E. yet, as noted, the religious component of the institution changed dramatically in scope and prominence. The synagogue did not emerge at first as a quintessentially religious institution, although some dimension of religious activity was undoubtedly present from the outset. Only in Late Antiquity (from the second-third centuries C.E. onward) did the religious component develop and expand to become the decisive feature of the synagogue. The synagogue was thus transformed from a community center with a religious component into a house of worship that included an array of communal activities. This transformation is most strikingly attested by the synagogues of ancient Palestine, and, despite the relative paucity of evidence, such developments can be detected in the Diaspora as well. The synagogue had become a miqdash me'at ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])), a "lesser" or "diminished" sanctuary. In some respects the synagogue came to replace the Temple. Whereas the latter had served as the main focus of Jewish religious life throughout the Second Temple period, after the destruction in 70 C.E. many of its customs and prerogatives were gradually assumed by the synagogue.

The impetus for these changes came from several quarters. Certainly, internal Jewish developments, first and foremost among which was the destruction of the Temple, played a significant role. No less important, however, were the evolving Empire-wide social and religious contexts in which the synagogue operated. Greco-Roman influences were clearly in evidence in many physical aspects of the synagogue, as were Christian models by Late Antiquity. With regard to the church, an ironic reversal took place between the first and seventh centuries C.E. Whereas nascent Christianity drew heavily on religious and liturgical elements derived from contemporary Second Temple Jewish life, this trend was largely reversed after the ascendancy and dominance of the church in the Byzantine period, as Jewish life generally, and the synagogue in particular, began absorbing elements of contemporary Christian practice.

More than any other Jewish institution of antiquity, the synagogue demonstrates a fascinating synthesis of Jewish and non-Jewish elements within a single framework. While some features of the synagogue reflect earlier Jewish customs and beliefs, others, just noted, derive from the surrounding pagan and later Christian worlds. The integration of these elements in every aspect of the institution-from the physical dimension of art and architecture to the spiritual dimension of liturgy-offers a glimpse into the diverse and dynamic nature of Jewish life at the time, socially, religiously, and culturally. As we shall see, the Jewish response to these stimuli was far from monolithic; while many elements were adopted or adapted, others were ignored. Furthermore, whatever reactions there were might change markedly from one community to the next.

The various ways these external models were combined with practices identified at the time as Jewish are intriguing. Often they coexisted with no apparent tension, and we can only speculate as to how a community might have understood such a synthesis. For example, the zodiac motif, depicting the four seasons and the sun god Helios, riding in his chariot, is invariably found on the mosaic floors of synagogues alongside panels depicting distinctively Jewish symbols, such as the Torah shrine, menorah, lulav, and shofar. In the recently discovered synagogue at Sepphoris, biblical scenes and Tabernacle/Temple-related items are featured together with the zodiac pattern. Clearly, many Jewish communities integrated non-Jewish models into their synagogue framework without feeling threatened or compromised in any way.

Because of its centrality and importance in the community, the synagogue played an integrative role in ancient Jewish society. The inclusiveness of its activities, ranging from social to religious and from political to educational, underscores this fact. An impressive array of religious forms found expression within its walls, some of older Second Temple period vintage (scriptural readings, sermons, and targumim), some of post-70 origin (communal prayer, piyyut, and religious art). Moreover, all segments of the community came within the purview of the synagogue in one way or another-the common folk of both genders and all ages, village and town leaders, the wealthy urban aristocracy, various economic and social associations, the Patriarchate and those associated with that office, the rabbis, and other religious figures within the community.

The study of the synagogue has far-reaching implications in addition to tracing the important role of this institution in Jewish society. Given its centrality, there is much to learn about the communities per se via this institution: How did the communities define themselves? What was the nature of their leadership? What were their religious and cultural agendas? What was their relationship to the pagan and Christian surroundings, as well as to the Roman and Byzantine authorities (both secular and religious)?

In light of the growing wealth of information regarding the ancient synagogue, many conceptions regarding Jewish history of Late Antiquity have undergone serious revision. The location of synagogue remains, for example, has afforded a much fuller picture of Jewish settlement in Byzantine Palestine than was heretofore known. At times, these remains have confirmed much of what we know from other sources, i.e., that the post-70 Jewish settlement was concentrated in the Galilee in particular, as well as in the large coastal cities of the country. In other cases, however, archaeological finds have supplemented extant literary sources by indicating that Jewish settlement also flourished in other areas, e.g., the eastern, southern, and western peripheries of Judaea and in the Golan, areas that have been largely ignored in literary sources.

Moreover, our assessment of the sociological, political, and cultural dimensions of Jewish life in Late Antiquity has been totally transformed by the cumulative finds relating to the ancient synagogue. Until recently it was almost universally assumed, in the historiographical tradition reaching back to the nineteenth century, that the Jewish communities of Late Antiquity suffered ever-increasing persecution and discrimination and that, as a result, these communities, particularly those in Byzantine Palestine, were severely reduced in status and diminished in size. On the basis of the data now available, this picture must be seriously revised. Synagogues, in fact, were to be found the length and breadth of Byzantine Palestine; some were built anew; others underwent periodic renovation. Jewish cultural activity-far from being stifled-continued to flourish throughout these centuries: artistic expression was extensive, synagogue prayer and poetry were refined and expanded, sermonic and targumic materials were compiled and edited, new halakhic and liturgical forms were created, new types of apocalyptic literature were written, and new forms of synagogue poetry, magic, and mystical experiences crystallized.

A similar reevaluation has taken place with regard to the Diaspora. The picture of these far-flung communities as suffering legal discrimination, church hostility, and occasional persecution now has to be balanced by evidence of toleration, stability, prosperity, and even of Judaism's continued appeal to non-Jews. Both literary and archaeological data offer evidence of this more positive dimension. The attraction of Judaism for Antiochan Christians, the participation of non-Jews in the communal activities of the Aphrodisian Jewish community, and the centrality and prominence of many synagogue buildings in their respective urban settings (first and foremost Sardis, but not exclusively) make it crystal clear that Diaspora Jewry, at least in part, continued to flourish throughout Late Antiquity.

Synagogue studies have also opened up new vistas regarding our understanding of the nature of Judaism throughout Late Antiquity. It was once assumed (and, as it turns out, quite gratuitously) that the synagogue and Jewish religious life generally followed rabbinic dictates: what the rabbis legislated, the community then adopted. Reality, however, appears to have been far more complex. Synagogue remains offer a variety of cultural, artistic, and religious expressions, some of which appear far from compatible with rabbinic dicta. It is indisputable that the rabbis were a significant factor in Jewish society by the end of Late Antiquity; whether they wielded definitive authority or a normative influence in communal affairs, even in religious matters, does not appear to have been the case very often. Only now are we beginning to recognize the many different cultural and religious currents at play in Jewish society at the time that helped to create the rich mosaic of beliefs and practices we know today.


Excerpted from THE ANCIENT SYNAGOGUE by LEE I. LEVINE Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lee I. Levine is Professor of Jewish History and Rev. Moses Bernard Lauterman Family Chair in Classical Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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