Skip to main content

Synagogues, Ancient

SYNAGOGUES, ANCIENT

After the Roman destruction of the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem (a.d. 70), the synagogue became the central religious building of ancient Judaism, both in the Holy Land and the Diaspora. Systematic archeological investigation of synagogues is a fairly recent development; previously, literary evidence (chiefly rabbinic, summarized by Krauss and Sonne) was considered normative, despite the fact that it said almost nothing about the Diaspora. Excavations have now proved that these earlier views were often parochial, incomplete, and on some matters (e.g., art in the synagogue) incorrect. In summarizing the more recent evidence, this article will be restricted to major and/or well-published buildings; for exhaustive lists of sites, see Saller and Goodenough.

Origins and Uses. The synagogue was two things at the same time: first, it was adjunct, alternative, and finally successor to the Jerusalem Temple; second, the common building of a specific community.

The earliest synagogues excavated thus far are at Masada and Herodium, palace-retreat-fortress complexes built by Herod the Great (ruled 374 b.c.); these finds and abundant literary evidence (e.g., the Gospels, Acts) indicate that there was a time when Judaism utilized Temple and synagogue side by side. Indeed, the synagogue built by Theodotus (Corpus inscriptionum Judaicarum, ed. J.B. Frey [Rome 1936] 1404) was surely contemporary with Herod's Temple, and was also located in Jerusalem; later rabbinic tradition states that there were 480 synagogues

in the city at that time. Nevertheless, there were great contrasts between the two institutions: the Temple with its sacrificial cult, ritual, and trained staff drawn from elite priestly families marked Jerusalem as the very heart of Judaism, a theological idea as much as a geographical location. Synagogues were democratic, devoted to laymen's prayer and study, the institution of a less centralized, worldwide religion. The literary evidence suggested that the synagogue originated during the Exile, after the destruction (587 b.c.) of the Temple of Solomon, when many Jews had been removed from the Holy Land; from that time on, most Jews would live in the Diaspora. After the Temple was rebuilt, it and the synagogue together were the architectural crystallization of the religion; in postbiblical Judaism, they and the home were the three focuses of worship, the emphasis of each supplementing that of the other two. With the destruction of Herod's Temple (a.d. 70), that side of the religious expression of Judaism represented by the Temple disappears; some of the most dramatic changes after the traumatic events of the First (a.d. 6670) and Second (a.d. 132135) Revolts issue from the fact that priest and clergy no longer balance rabbi and laity. The Judaism of the ancient synagogue is the result. (Discussion of the synagogue as a replacement for the Temple occurs in a later section of this article, "Torah Shrine.")

In a slightly later period, the relatively elaborate Christian forms of worship would lead to increasingly specialized religious buildings, e.g., the Byzantine churches of Constantinople; the simpler Jewish corporate worship (prayers, scripture reading, psalms) made no such demands. Something might be called a "synagogue," literally "place of assembly," because it was used for services; it may well have been built for and used for other worthy purposes. Structures built specifically as synagogues were also the locus for a number of community activities and events: the education of children and adults, civic meetings, and occasionally judicial proceedings. Community hospitality caused the synagogue or its side rooms to be used for common meals or as a shelter for travelers, e.g., the Theodotus synagogue (Corpus inscriptionum Judaicarum 1404) in Jerusalem; Er-Ramah (ibid. 979) and probably Khirbet Shema' in Galilee; and Dura, Stobi (ibid. 694), and Ostia in the Diaspora.

Diaspora Synagogues. Archeological and historical investigation indicate that the old distinction between "Diaspora" Judaism and Judaism in the Holy Land had been overdrawn; nevertheless, the following should be kept in mind when considering Diaspora synagogues: (1) they are the buildings of a minority faced with the problem of preserving its identity in a Gentile culture, thus they were often the only center of the Jewish community in a Diaspora town; this increased their importance, but also altered or expanded their functions. (2) The Jerusalem Temple was a great distance away; thus the tendency of the synagogue to take on "Temple" characteristics probably began earlier here than in the Holy Land. (3) These buildings in overall shape and specific feature borrow heavily from local architecture, e.g., Dura, Sardis, Ostia. (4) Local conditions sometimes made it advisable to screen the building and conceal its purpose, e.g., Dura, Priene, Ostia. (5) Rabbinic statements about synagogue architecture and usage are not concerned with, and thus are all but irrelevant to, the Diaspora west of the Holy Land, i.e., the bulk of the Roman Empire.

Dating and Architectural Styles. Sukenik, Goodenough, and Avi-Yonah all attempt to classify the excavated buildings architecturally, and in the Holy Land at least there are two clear types: (1) Examples of Sukenik's "earlier" type, Goodenough's "Galilean" type, and Avi-Yonah's "early" type all are simple basilicas with interior columnation (at the least, two rows of columns parallel to the long axis), the entrances (usually three doors) are in the wall closest to Jerusalem, and the building is without a fixed Torah shrine; examples are Capernaum, Beth Shearim, Baram, Chorazin. (2) Sukenik's "new" type, Goodenough's "synagogues with mosaics," and Avi-Yonah's "fifth-century synagogues" have mosaic floors where the first type had flagstones; on the wall closest to Jerusalem is a permanent Torah shrine, often in a niche or apse, and usually opposite the main entrance; examples are Beth Alpha and Hammath Gadera. In the first type, the emphasis is on the exterior, particularly on the wall facing Jerusalem; customarily, this façade with its three entrance doors displayed the building's most elaborate and embellished architecture. In the second type, the emphasis is on the interior, with mosaic floor (often in complicated and colorful designs, e.g., the Beth Alpha zodiac) and decorated Torah shrine. Theologically, the most important difference is the presence in the second type of a permanent Torah shrine on the wall of orientation, the wall closest to Jerusalem, opposite the entrance. There are firm indications that the second type, with the fixed shrine, is generally later than the first; at Beth Shearim and Ein Gedi, and in the Diaspora at Sardis and Ostia, such shrines were added to buildings that originally lacked them, even though this was architecturally awkward.

Another architectural type is usually inserted between Sukenik's two: Goodenough's "broadhouse type" and Avi-Yonah's "transitional type." In these, one of the long walls is the wall of orientation (hence broadhouse), closest to Jerusalem; the Torah shrine is on that wall, the entrances are often in one of the short walls; examples are Khirbet Shema', Susiya, and Eshtemoa. This type may represent attempts to deal with the change of building style and orientation caused by the introduction of the fixed Torah shrine.

Classification by architectural style was part of an attempt to date buildings, the excavations of which had produced minimal dating evidence; more recent finds suggest that dating on the basis of style be done only as a last resort, in the absence of stratigraphic evidence. In the Diaspora, building style may be determined more by local custom than by what Jews in the Holy Land were doing: the Dura synagogue was a broadhouse from its beginning in the late 2d century, before most if not all known examples of Sukenik's "earlier type" were built.

Certain interior furnishings were common to all types: permanent benches on two or more walls, portable lecterns, the seven-branched candlestick (menorah, both functional and symbolic), the bemah or speaking-platform (e.g., Khirbet Shema', Susiya, Beth Alpha), and on occasion special seating for the community's leaders, e.g., the "seat of Moses" (Mt 23.2) at Hammath Tiberias, Chorazin, Ein Gedi, and perhaps Capernaum, and the 70-place synthronon in the apse at Sardis.

Some buildings are designed in ways that would permit the separation of sexes during services: larger basilica-synagogues could have had a balcony or "women's gallery" (e.g., Chorazin, Capernaum). Of the broad-houses, Khirbet Shema' apparently had a balcony on its west wall, but none is possible at Eshtemoa since it lacks interior columns. In some buildings women could have been relegated to adjacent rooms, e.g., the forecourt at Ostia or Dura; at other sites, however, there is no obvious place where women could observe the services but be separate from the men.

Torah Shrine. Two important themes of postbiblical Judaism combined to produce the Torah shrine of the later synagogue: (1) the increasing importance of Scripture, and particularly the Torah (the Law, the Pentateuch); this begins while the Temple still stands and the sacrificial cult continues in Jerusalem, and reaches its climax in the Torah-centered rabbinic Judaism contemporary with the pre-Constantine Church; and (2) the tendency to replicate the Temple, by representing it in art and by suggesting it in synagogue architecture. One motivation may have been to display the Temple as a rival to pagan temples; another surely was to recall the glory of a splendid structure, central to earlier theology. In Jewish symbolism there occurs a shift in focus from the architecture of the temple to the architecture of the Torah shrine, or perhaps a merging of the two images, e.g., the Dura niche and frescoes, the Beth Alpha mosaic, the "gold glasses" ("Goodenough, index;" see bibliography).

The Torah shrine thus indicates the increased importance of the Torah in the community; at the same time it heightens the impressiveness of the synagogue as successor to the Temple, in that it contributes to the general embellishment of the building and provides a permanent place for what is now the religion's most sacred ritual object, the Scroll of the Law. The increasing importance of the shrine is indicated by the fact that certain Jewish communities (Beth Shearim, Sardis, Ostia) felt compelled to add permanent shrines to synagogues that lacked them, even though it constituted a complete reversal of the direction of the building.

The shrine may take the form of a niche (e.g., Eshtemoa) or apse (e.g., Beth Alpha) or aediculum with rounded or gabled roof supported by columns (many representations, see "Goodenough, index;"); the scrolls within are screened from sight by curtains or double doors.

Major Sites and Sources of Information. This discussion includes names of the major synagogues, their location, their description, and bibliographical material.

Beth Alpha. Beth Alpha is a 5th-century synagogue, just south of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. The building complex is 14 by 28 meters and consists of courtyard, forecourt, and main room (with apse in the south wall and mosaic floor). The north wall has the customary three entrance doors; the other three walls are provided with low benches. A bemah was a later addition, just northeast of the apse. The most important element of the building is the spectacular, three-panel main mosaic, dated by inscription to the 6th century: the first panel from the entrance depicts the biblical sacrifice of Isaac; the center section includes a zodiac; and the panel nearest the apse (i.e., the Torah shrine) displays a closed Torah shrine, two menoroth and other Jewish symbols. (See E. L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha [Jerusalem, London 1932]; "Goodenough, index;" [see bibliography] and Israel: Ancient Mosaics [Paris 1960] pl. vixiv.)

Capernaum. Capernaum, from the 3d (or 4th?) century, is located in Galilee, northern Israel. The building complex is 28 by 32 meters with a synagogue, eastern enclosed court, and entrance platform common to both. The synagogue-basilica is 28 by 19 meters, with columns (to support a balcony?) on all but the south side, which has the usual three entrance doors. There are two-level benches on the east and west walls, and perhaps a "seat of Moses" (now in the southwest corner). A kind of cart, carved on one frieze-fragment, may represent the early, movable Torah shrine; it resembles a four-wheeled, columned building with rounded roof and one double door. Opposite the front of the synagogue is an octagon-shaped structure that tradition associates with the home of St. Peter (cf. Mt 8.14 and parallels); its use as a church is, in part, contemporary with the synagogue. (See B. Spair and D. Neeman, Capernaum [Tel Aviv 1967]; V. Corbo, S. Loffreda, and A. Spijkerman, La Sinagoga di Cafarnao [Jerusalem 1970].)

Dura-Europos. Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates River, Syria, is from the late 2d century a.d., renovated c. 244, and destroyed with the town c. 256. It is a broad-house, and measures 14 by 7 meters (interior, last phase) with a 13 by 10 meter forecourt; these could be reached only by passing through a nine-room dwelling complex controlled by the Jewish community. There are two-level benches on all four walls of the synagogue; and two entrances in the east wall, one in the center, a smaller one at the south end. There is a Torah niche in the center of the west wall. Spectacular tempera paintings decorate the niche and all four walls of the synagogue; they depict Old Testament stories chiefly, but in Greco-Roman-Parthian style and idiosyncratic theological interpretation. (See C. H. Kraeling, The Synagogue, Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII, 1 [New Haven 1956]; Goodenough, v. 911; J. Gutmann, ed., The Dura-Europos Synagogue: A Re-Evaluation [19321972] [Missoula, Mont. 1973].)

Kirbet Shema'. This synagogue, from the 3d century, rebuilt in the 4th, is in Galilee, northern Israel (see illustration in gallery). It is a broadhouse, 18 by 9 meters (interior, including west stairway, frescoed room, and gallery). There is a detached "house of study" (7 by 7 meters) north of the northwest corner of the synagogue. There is one entrance in the north wall and one at the south end of the west wall. The west wall area is cut back into bedrock, which supports the west entrance's massive stairway and the gallery running the remaining length of the west wall; under the gallery is a small frescoed room, probably a study or scriptorium, and off this to the south (under the stairway) is a manmade storage cave or genizah. There is a mosaic floor and benches on some part of all walls. The focus of worship in the first phase was the aediculum or Torah shrine on the south wall (only fragments have been recovered); in the second phase it was a massive platform or bema. In second phase, the frescoed room may have functioned as the Torah shrine. The synagogue is the center of this small town (ancient Tekoa of Galilee?), and small buildings (chiefly private) are built against it.

Masada. Masada, on the Dead Sea in Israel, was built under Herod the Great (reigned 374 b.c.) and rebuilt between a.d. 6673. The main room is 15 by 12 meters; its last phase is the product of Jewish guerillas who captured the entire Herodian palace-retreat-fortress complex from Roman troops and held it during the First Revolt. They removed the cross wall that had divided the Herodian building (which has not been proved to be a synagogue) and added a rough storage room in the north corner and four-level benches on the remainder of all walls. The storage room was used as a genizah; framents of Ezekiel and Deuteronomy were found buried beneath its floor. (See Y. Yadin, Masada [London 1966].)

Ostia. Ostia was in the port city of ancient Rome, Italy. It dates from the 4th century, but with an earlier synagogue beneath. The building complex is 37 by 23 meters: a synagogue plus kitchen and community (dining?) room. The synagogue is 25 by 13 meters and includes the forecourt with entrance off the street and three doors leading into the main room, an "inner gateway" or entrance portico with four marble columns (two inner, two outer) flanking the central door, and the main room. The west wall of the main room, opposite the triple entrance, was the original focus of worship; the wall is curved and has a bema six meters wide against it. Later a massive, freestanding Torah shrine was erected on the east wall (closest to Jerusalem), next to the "inner gateway," blocking the southern entrance into the main hall. There is no evidence of benches or balcony. (See M. Floriani Squarciapino, "The Synagogue at Ostia," Archaeology 16 [1963] 194203.)

Sardis. Sardis, western Turkey, was from the 3d century, renovated in the 4th. The synagogue complex is 20 meters wide and includes a narrow, basilica-like main hall 60 meters long (with apse) and forecourt 22 meters long. The apse was a synthronon, with three levels of benches capable of seating more than 70 people; there is no evidence of other benches or of a balcony. A massive stone table (lectern?) stood before this apse. Opposite, on the east wall with its three entrances are two aedicula, one on each side of the center door; one was probably the Torah shrine, both are later than the apse. The floor is elaborate mosaic, the walls bore architectonic designs in cut marble, and the ceilings had painted decoration. The building is part of a large gymnasium-and-baths complex, a center of public life for all Sardis; rooms just west of the apse and shops just south of the synagogue (between it and a major thoroughfare) were at times owned by Jews. (See final publication by A. R. Seager, L. J. Majewski, D. G. Mitten, J. H. Kroll, and A. T. Kraabel in the series, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis [Cambridge, Mass. c. 1976].)

See Also: diaspora, jewish; jews, post-biblical history of the.

Bibliography: m. avi-yonah, "Ancient Synagogues" Ariel (Spring 1973) 2943; "Synagogues: Architecture," Encyclopedia Judaica. g. foerster, "Les synagogues de Galilée," Bible et Terre Sainte (April 1971) 815. e. r. goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 v. (Princeton 195368), "Goodenough, index" refers to the indispensable indexes in v. 13. h. kohl and c. watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galiläa (Leipzig 1916). s. krauss, Synagogale Altertümer (Berlin, Vienna 1922), condensed as "Synagoge," in Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893). b. lifshitz, Donateurs et Fondateurs dans les Synagogues Juives (Paris 1967), evidence from inscriptions. Qadmoniot 5.2 (18) 1972, preliminary articles on Susiya and Ein Gedi. s. j. saller, Second Revised Catalogue of the Ancient Synagogues of the Holy Land (Jerusalem 1972). i. sonne, "Synagogue," The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, ed. g. a. buttrick, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 4.476491. e. l. sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (London 1934).

[a. t. kraabel]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Synagogues, Ancient." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Synagogues, Ancient." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/synagogues-ancient

"Synagogues, Ancient." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/synagogues-ancient

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.