In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology: The Rabbinic Period

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Methodology
  • Demography and Settlement History
  • The Jewish Patriarchate

Jewish Studies Archaeology: The Rabbinic Period
Joshua Ezra Burns
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0135


This article comprises a bibliographical guide to the archaeology of Jewish life during the times of the rabbinic sages whose intellectual traditions fill the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and the classical Midrash. When considering the history of what is commonly known as Judaism’s rabbinic period, one must bear in mind several points about their relationship with the aforementioned texts. Firstly, the rabbinic sages did not dictate the prevailing modes of Jewish thought and practice of their days. Originating in Judea following the collapse of the second Jewish commonwealth in 70 CE, the rabbinic movement migrated north into the Galilee region of Palestine following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132–135 CE. There it gradually took root amid the local Jewish population, concurrently expanding east into Babylonia, or central Mesopotamia, over the centuries to follow. In the meantime, the rabbinic sages spoke not for all Jews, but for the relatively few who counted themselves as their disciples. As such, the target audiences of the rabbis were adult Jewish men (as opposed to women) who possessed the time, the financial freedom, and the ideological temperament to commit to the halakhah, the devout “way” of life embodied in their teachings. The sages therefore tended to speak solipsistically, as though to a reality governed by their own ritual and ethical concerns. Conversely, theirs was a reality not entirely representative of the experiences of all the Jews in whose midst they operated. They had even less to say about Jewish life outside of Palestine and Babylonia. The critical reader of the archaeological record of ancient Judaism record must therefore proceed with caution when relating it to a literary record not oblivious to the common Jewish experience but conditioned by the uncommon sensibilities, pedagogical priorities, and rhetorical biases of its authors. In view of these caveats, the entries in this article focus not only on the namesakes of the so-called rabbinic period, but also on topics in archaeological research pertaining to the lives of all Jews of their age. Consequently, this article does not attempt to describe specific sites of Jewish habitation except where said sites furnish evidence that exemplifies aspects of the common Jewish experience. Reference to excavation reports, regional surveys, and other such technical literature will be limited. Readers seeking scholarship of that variety are referred to the volumes cited under Reference Works.

General Overviews

The archaeological record of a given site or area of investigation consists of many and diverse data. Only some of that data will be relevant to a specific population who occupied the site in question at a given point in the past. Archaeologists who study ancient Jews must account for all sorts of data germane to their local and regional environments. They must consider factors such as the social, economic, and administrative infrastructures that supported Jewish life, thereby situating its physical remains within the broader archaeological record of classical Antiquity. The entries in this section offer convenient points of entry into that multilayered discipline. Meyers and Kraabel 1986 surveys key sites of Jewish activity in Judea/Palestine and the Diaspora. Katz 2006 includes several in-depth articles addressing archaeological data in both of those cultural spheres. With respect to the comparatively richer record of Judea/Palestine, the most thoroughgoing study to date is Tsafrir 1988, while more recent treatments appear in Magness 2012 and Meyers and Chancey 2012.

  • Chancey, Mark A., and Adam Porter. “The Archaeology of Roman Palestine.” Near Eastern Archaeology 64 (2001): 164–203.

    DOI: 10.2307/3210829

    A concise overview of the archaeology of Judea/Palestine under Roman rule. Includes occasional discussion of the region’s Jewish population. Recommended for novice readers.

  • Katz, Steven T., ed. The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. 4, The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A compendious reference work featuring in-depth articles on all aspects of the Jewish experience in Late Antiquity. Includes entries on Jewish art, archaeology, and material culture in Judea/Palestine, along with studies on select Diaspora populations, utilizing the pertinent archaeological data. Recommended for intermediate readers.

  • Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139013833

    A wide-ranging illustrated textbook on the archaeology of Judea/Palestine over the long course of the classical age. Chapter 14 deals with synagogue architecture during the Roman and Byzantine periods, along with other topics related to the development of local Jewish culture in those times. Recommended for novice readers.

  • Meyers, Eric M., and Mark A. Chancey. Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. Vol. 3. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    An expansive illustrated survey of the archaeology of Judea/Palestine under Hellenistic and Roman rule. Includes regular discussion of Jews and Judaism, particularly in chapters 8, on the evolution of the synagogue, and 11, which touches on the rise of the rabbinic movement. Recommended for intermediate readers.

  • Meyers, Eric M., and A. Thomas Kraabel. “Archaeology, Iconography, and Nonliterary Written Remains.” In Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters. Edited by Robert A. Kraft and George W. E. Nickelsburg, 175–210. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.

    An annotated survey of major Jewish archaeological sites in Judea/Palestine and the Diaspora during the late Second Temple and rabbinic periods, along with discussion of major Jewish artistic motifs and epigraphic remains. Although dated in view of more recent field research and scholarship, this article remains a useful introduction to the discipline.

  • Tsafrir, Yoram. Eretz Israel from the Destruction of the Second Temple until the Muslim Conquest. Vol. 2, Archaeology and Art. Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 1988.

    A comprehensive and richly illustrated guide to the material remains of Judea/Palestine under Roman and Byzantine rule, encompassing all manner of subjects pertinent to its study. Includes ample discussion of the region’s Jewish population and the assorted impressions they left upon the archaeological record. Book is in Hebrew.

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