Biblical Studies Synagogue
by
Anders Runesson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0119

Introduction

The earliest evidence of synagogue institutions consists of two inscriptions and one papyrus text from mid- to late 3rd-century BCE Egypt mentioning the term proseuchē, one of seventeen Greek, Latin, and Hebrew terms used in antiquity that are translated into English as “synagogue.” (It should be noted, however, that some scholars would argue that the term proseuchē—at this time—referred to Jewish temple institutions rather than synagogues.) In the 2nd and 1st century BCE, we find an increase in the number of inscriptions and papyri referring to synagogues as well as a greater geographic spread of the remains of synagogues. During this time we also find the first mention of these institutions in literary texts. The earliest architectural remains identified by a majority of scholars as synagogue buildings date from the 2nd or 1st century BCE. By the 1st century CE, in addition to the continued and increasing presence of architectural and inscriptional evidence, we find frequent mention of synagogues in literary texts, both Jewish and non-Jewish: Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, and Greco-Roman texts. Geographically, evidence from this time period come from most parts of the Mediterranean world, making a circle with Italy in the west, Hungary and the northern shores of the Black Sea in the north, Syria in the east, and Egypt and Libya in the south. Intriguingly, there are few archaeological remains dating from the 2nd century in the land of Israel (only one edifice, if we follow the dating proposed by the excavators). From the 3rd century onward, and particularly in the 4th and 5th centuries, there is a dramatic increase in synagogue construction. In addition, most of these late antique buildings are, in contrast to earlier synagogues, richly decorated.

Traditionally of interest to both Jewish and Christian scholars as the socio-institutional matrix of the early forms of their religious traditions, ancient synagogues have been studied from multiple perspectives since the beginnings of modern scholarship in the 16th century (such as Carolus Sigonius’s work from 1583 and the first major contribution by Campegius Vitringa, published in 1696). While special focus has often been put on questions concerning the origins, development, and nature of these institutions, other topics, such as liturgy and other activities performed in synagogues, as well as the officials in charge of them, have generated equally substantial scholarship. From the time when archaeological remains were first unearthed and systematically excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the interest in synagogue architecture has grown to become the focus of major debates; synagogue archaeology is now an integral part of most scholarly theories about these institutions. More recently, group dynamics and interaction between Jews and non-Jews within synagogues in Greco-Roman society has also attracted focused interest. While seminal studies on the ancient synagogue were published in the early 20th century, there has been an unparalleled surge in scholarship since the 1980s, with the production of twenty critical collections of essays, ten major monographs, several final reports from excavations of important synagogues, three essential sourcebooks, and numerous specialized articles. Nearly all of the traditional consensuses in all subfields of synagogue studies have been challenged, resulting in their disintegration over the last thirty years. Although the historical reconstruction of many aspects of ancient synagogue institutions continues to be hotly debated, today new majority views are emerging in some areas. Such areas include, archaeologically, the rejection of the correlation between typology and chronology of Galilean synagogues and, institutionally, the rejection of the idea put forward in the early 1990s that the term “synagogue” always referred in the 1st century to informal gatherings in domestic space. The time span primarily covered in this bibliography stretches from the origins of the synagogue to late antiquity, up to the 7th century.

Resources

The last twenty to thirty years have witnessed the loss of most traditional consensuses related to synagogue studies. As such, it is of key importance that students and scholars alike take note of resources that are facilitating evaluation of recent theories and stimulating renewed investigations based on primary sources.

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