‘Synagogues’ in the New Testament Period

It is no accident that in the last ten years a number of new potential synagogue buildings have been proposed, as the wider role of the ‘synagogue’ and the lack of identifying features in this period have been recognised. The problem then becomes, by what criteria do we identify these as synagogue buildings?

See, Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue (T & T Clark International, 2008)

By Stephen Catto
Lecturer in Biblical and Theological Studies,
Morelands College, UK
January 2009

The study of the ancient synagogue has recently been the focus of a great deal of scholarly literature.1 While a previous generation of scholars had a very clear idea of what was meant by a reference to a first-century synagogue–it was an architecturally defined public building which was used for religious purposes, especially on the Sabbath–many of these assumptions have now been questioned. Two periods have especially interested scholars: the origin of the synagogue, and the first-century period, which is of particular interest to those working in New Testament studies. It is into this second category that my work, Reconstructing the First-century Synagogue,2 fits, and it is this period that this essay will address.

One of the major factors leading to this new-found interest is the availability of fresh archaeological data, particularly within Israel, which has also led to a re-examination of sites previously identified as synagogue buildings. This is an ongoing process, as can be seen in the very recent discovery at Migdal (September 2009), which the excavators suggest is a synagogue building dating to between 50 BCE and 100 CE;3 the re-digging of a site at Priene in Turkey;4 and the detailed analysis of the synagogue building in Ostia, which is being carried out by the University of Texas.5 This new archaeological data has also led to a re-examination of any literary sources that relate to ‘synagogues,’6 as well as the practices associated with them.

A major difficulty in this debate has been how you define whether a building should be identified as a synagogue or not, as such a definition can have a major impact on how research is undertaken. To give one example: Marilyn Chiat’s Handbook of Synagogue Architecture, published in 1982, made a very useful contribution to the identification of synagogue buildings. Surveying all the available archaeological material relating to synagogue buildings within Palestine, Chiat first had to have a method of identifying such structures:

To qualify as a synagogue a building or its architectural/decorative fragments must be decorated with common motifs, such as the image of the Torah Shrine, menorah, lulab, ethrog, and shofar, or contain inscriptions that establish its identity as having been constructed and used by a Jewish community for a form of assembly. Neither a building’s plan nor its location within a presumed Jewish village can qualify a ruin as a synagogue. Only rarely is it possible to identify a building as a synagogue solely on the basis of its architectural form or location.7

While this was, in many ways, a good way to proceed, the necessity of certain characteristics being present before identifying a synagogue building gives a particular definition, with other possible buildings excluded. Such identification has ruled out virtually all of the first-century examples suggested, as few of them contain the elements that Chiat sought.8

It is understandable why such definitions and terms are sought: they allow clear theories to be forwarded. But is Chiat’s definition really an accurate representation of what might have been considered a synagogue building by a first-century Jew? Further, the choice of identifying features clearly indicates that she understood a synagogue building to be a place used principally for religious functions. It is no accident that in the last ten years a number of new potential synagogue buildings have been proposed, as the wider role of the ‘synagogue’ and the lack of identifying features in this period have been recognised. The problem then becomes, by what criteria do we identify these as synagogue buildings?

Another major impetus for the re-examination of our understanding of ‘synagogues’ came through the work of Professor Howard Clark Kee.9 In a number of articles, he correctly pointed out that the Greek word synagoge could simply mean ‘gathering’ rather than refer to a building. He argued, this is how we should usually understand a reference to a ‘synagogue’ in a first-century context. In relation to the New Testament, and particularly Luke--Acts, which has the vast majority of references to ‘synagogues,’ Kee argued that Luke was anachronistic; that is, he was reflecting the time and place of his writing rather than that of Jesus or the early church.10 Kee has been influential, as can be seen in the work of Richard Horsley, who has incorporated these ideas into his analysis of the Galilee region: “Once the first-century landscape has been cleared of the synagogue buildings so desperately sought by modern scholars we can more readily catch sight of the community assemblies that had almost certainly been there for centuries.”11

Synagogue: Building or Gathering?

As noted above, any evidence regarding the first-century ‘synagogue’ has been revisited in recent times. This has led to a more nuanced exploration of what a particular term might refer to. So, some references that have been assumed to refer to buildings, it has been argued, should not be understood in this way.12 Nevertheless, against those, like Kee, who argue that there is little evidence for synagogue buildings in the first century CE, other material has been more strongly recognised as providing clear evidence for them. Here we will very briefly note some of the literary and archaeological data that have been revisited.

One important inscription from Berenice in North Africa clearly illustrates the issues over terminology. Dating to 55 CE, it records the names of those who contributed to the renovation of a synagogue building, including the amount they paid. Interestingly, it uses synagoge to refer both to the Jewish congregation and to the building that is being renovated.

In the second year of the emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, on the 6th of Chorach. It was resolved by the congregation (synagoge) of the Jews in Berenice that [the names of] those who donated to the repairs of the synagogue be inscribed on a slate of Parian marble.13

As well as synagoge, a variety of terms descriptive of Jewish meeting places were used around the turn of the era; e.g., in Greek:synagogeproseuchehieronsabbateionproseukteriondidaskaleion ; in Latin: proseuchatemplum. Of these, proseuche (prayer) is the oldest, and is found in Egyptian inscriptions dating back to the third century BCE; for example, “On behalf of king Ptolemy and queen Berenice his sister and wife and their children, the Jews (dedicated) the proseuche.”14 It would appear that these meeting places of the Jews were named to describe the major practice that took place there, i.e., prayer.15 Philo, in describing the pogroms of 38 CE, notes the destruction of these meeting places, pointing out their value to the Jews:

Because they are the only people under the sun who by losing their meeting-houses (proseuche) were losing also what they would have valued as worth dying many thousand deaths, namely, their means of showing reverence to their benefactors, since they no longer had the sacred buildings where they could set forth their thankfulness.16

Another important inscription was discovered in a water cistern in Jerusalem in 1913 by Raymond Weill.17 Measuring 75 cm x 41 cm x 20 cm and inscribed on limestone, it reads:

Theodotos (son) of Vettenus, priest and archisynagogos, son of an archisynagogos, and grandson of an archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and for the teaching of the commandments, and the guest room, the chambers, and the water fittings, as an inn for those in need from foreign parts, which his fathers founded with the elders and Simonides.18

The synagogue building of Theodotos provide an insight into these building complexes; although the meeting hall was the main feature, they were used for a variety of purposes. Additionally, the Theodotos inscription also gives us details of some of the activities that went on in and around such buildings.

Theodotos Inscription, Photo Courtesy Bibleplaces.com

Theodotos Inscription, Photo Courtesy Bibleplaces.com

As well as inscriptions, architectural remains that had previously been identified as synagogue buildings have been re-examined; for example, Capernaum, Delos, Gamla, Herodium, Masada and Ostia. It is not possible to discuss these here; however, it is worth focusing on a relatively recently discovered synagogue building, as it provides us with further insight.

In 1995, during the construction of a new town about 25 km east of Tel Aviv, the ancient settlement of Qiryat Sefer was uncovered. In this village, a building measuring 9.6 m x 9.6 m was discovered, which dates to the middle of the first century CE. Its construction was different to the other buildings in the village: it was more carefully constructed, with dressed stonework used on the front of the building. Within the building, a single row of stone benches ran around three of the walls. In front of the benches, four columns sat directly onto the ground and were surrounded by limestone slabs which made up the floor, and provided support to the columns. Along with pilasters in the walls, these columns would have carried arches which supported a roof structure of wooden beams. A small fragment of red plaster was discovered, and the excavators suggest that the walls and columns would all have been covered in this plasterwork. On the stone lintel above the entrance doorway is a relief of a rosette placed within a triangle.19

This is clearly the prominent public building at the site, and as such is likely to have functioned as the settlement’s synagogue building. The benches and interior columns are comparable to those in other synagogue buildings and the rosette on the door lintel is similar to ones found at Gamla. This building is interesting because it is much smaller than any other synagogue building previously discovered (seating around 35), which indicates that within some small villages a synagogue building could be available.

Synagogue at Gamla, Photo courtesy Bibleplaces.com

Synagogue at Gamla, Photo courtesy Bibleplaces.com

In our discussion above, we have noted some of the material available to inform our understanding of synagogue buildings. Nevertheless, it is likely that within some Jewish communities, Sabbath gatherings would have taken place within domestic architecture. Some communities were too small, did not have sufficient financial capacity, or lacked the political leverage to construct purpose-built places of assembly. In these locations it is likely that domestic space of some description would have been used. In some instances these may have been set aside to be used solely by the community, while in others they would have been used for both domestic purposes and Sabbath gatherings. Clearly, identifying these buildings is virtually impossible; however, one inscription from a later period plainly notes such a change within a building:

...... [Claudius] Tiberius Polycharmus, also (called) Achyrios, the father of the synagogue at Stobi, having lived my whole life according to the (prescriptions of) Judaism, in fulfilment of a vow (have donated) the rooms to the holy place, and the triclinium, with the tetrastoa, out of my personal accounts without touching the sacred (funds) at all. All the right of all the upper (rooms of the building) and the ownership is to be held by me, Claudius Tiberius Polycharmus, and my heirs for all (our?) life. If someone wishes to make changes beyond my decisions, he shall give the Patriarch 250,000 denarii. For thus I have agreed. As for the upkeep of the roof tiles of the upper (rooms of the building), it will be done by me and my heirs.20


Current research has moved us away from seeing the first-century synagogue in monochrome. Rather, we must understand it in a more nuanced and variegated way. Within Palestine, some communities had the resources and will to produce large purpose-built structures capable of seating 3-400 people (Capernaum, Gamla). In smaller communities, such as Qiryat Sefer, considerable effort and expense went into providing the community with a small synagogue building. It is also likely that in some places, gatherings took place in domestic space. Although we have smaller archaeological material to work with in the Diaspora, a similar pattern can be seen. Interestingly, the data we do have for Diaspora buildings suggests similarities to local temples or voluntary organizations.

Finally, it is also worth asking: If variety existed in the synagogue gatherings or synagogue buildings of first-century Judaism, might we also expect to see such diversity in their practices? Overwhelmingly, the major focus of synagogue gatherings was the Torah reading, and it seems likely that within virtually any gathering on a Sabbath, in any geographical location, this would have been a common element. Beyond this, however, the evidence suggests some variety, where different communities would have been influenced by the particular social world in which they found themselves, and would have incorporated some of the practices of their environment. 21


1 E.g., D.D. Binder, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period (SBLDS, 169; Atlanta: SBL, 1999); A. Runesson, The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study (ConNT, 37; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001); C. Claußen, Versammlung, Gemeinde, Synagoge: Das hellenistisch-jüdische Umfeld der frühchristlichen Gemeinde (SUNT, 27; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002); L. I. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2nd ed., 2005); A. Runesson, D.D. Binder and B. Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Sourcebook (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

2 S. K. Catto, Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue: A Critical Analysis of Current Research (LNTS, 363; London: T&T Clark, 2007).

6 I use inverted commas around ‘synagogue’ where it’s not clear whether a building or a gathering is meant.

7 M. J. S. Chiat, Handbook of Synagogue Architecture, (BJS 29, Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), 2-3.

8 Masada, Gamla and Herodium all receive a IIIA rating from Chiat, meaning that they are disputed though some scholars had identified the remains as synagogue buildings.

9 H. C. Kee, ‘The Transformation of the Synagogue after 70 C.E.: its Import for Early Christianity’, NTS 36 (1990), 1-24; idem, ‘The Changing Meaning of Synagogue: A Response to Richard Oster’, NTS 40 (1994), 281-83; idem, ‘Defining the First-Century CE Synagogue: Problems and Progress’, NTS 41 (1995), 481-500, reprinted in H. C. Kee and L. H. Cohick, eds., Evolution of the Synagogue, Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1999, 7-26.

10 A concern over the anachronistic reading of sources has also, rightly, impacted the use of rabbinic material: the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmuds. In the past, these would have been used as primary sources of first-century Jewish practice; however, such use has been criticised in more recent research as we do not know whether these figures actually said what they are supposed to have, or to what extent their ideas had been changed in the process of editing. It is also worth pointing out that two other cautions need to be heeded in the handling of our sources. First is the danger of using architectural styles and structures found in one period and assuming they existed in another. Second, it should not be assumed that architectural features or styles found in one geographical location existed in another. It is certainly important to recognise characteristics that may be common to different geographical areas as these may highlight important functions carried out in both, but these should not be assumed.

11 R.A. Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1996), 145. See also, idem, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1995), 222-37; H. A. McKay, Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism (EPRO 122, Leiden: Brill, 1994); eadem, ‘Ancient Synagogues: The Continuing Dialectic Between Two Major Views’, Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 6 (1998), 103-42.

12 See, for example, my article on a reference to a proseuche in Halicarnassus, ‘Does , in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 14.257-8, Mean “Build Places of Prayer”?’ JSJ 35 (2004), 159-68.

13 SEG 17.823. Translation based on R.E. Oster, ‘Supposed Anachronism in Luke--Acts’ Use of ’,,NTS 39 (1993), 187.

14 W. Horbury and D. Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), No. 22.

15 It is also worth noting that some of the meeting places in Egypt exhibit fairly elaborate architecture with the prosechai buildings having other structures attached.

16 Philo, Flacc., 48.

17 R. Weill, La Cité De David: Compte rendu des fouilles executes, à Jérusalem, sur le site de la ville primitive. Campagne de 1913-1914 (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1920), 186.

18 Text and translation from J. S. Kloppenborg Verbin, ‘Dating Theodotos (CIJ II 1404)’, JJS 51 (2000), 243-80. Much has been written about this inscription, with a variety of views taken on dating. The two most detailed analyses of the Theodotos inscription are Kloppenborg Verbin, ‘Dating Theodotos’, and R. Riesner, ‘Synagogues in Jerusalem’, in R. Bauckham, ed., The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 179-211.

19 Y. Magen, Y. Zionit, and O. Sirkis, ‘Qiryat-Sefer, a Jewish Village and Synagogue dating to the Second Temple Period’, Qadmoniot 33 (1999), pp. 25-32, esp. pp. 27-30 (Hebrew).

20 D. Noy, A. Panayotov and H. Bloedhorn (eds.), Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis:Volume 1, Eastern Europe (TSAJ, 101; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), Mac1. This dates to the second or third century CE.

21 For further discussion see Catto, Reconstructing, chapter 4.

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