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The Transformation of the Synagogue After 70 C.E.: Its Import for Early Christianity

  • Howard Clark Kee

It is instructive to see the similarities and the differences between the account of the origins of the synagogue in the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1907 and the more extended discussion of the subject in the Encyclopedia Judaica of 1971. In the earlier work, Wilhelm Bacher observes that by the time the synagogue had become the central institution in Judaism, it was already regarded as of ancient origin, dating back to Moses.1 He was of the opinion that the synagogue as a permanent institution originated during the Babylonian captivity,2 and conjectured that the reference in Isa 56. 7 to the temple as a ‘house of prayer’ was to be understood as connected with the term for place of prayer, proseuche, which was used during the exile and among Jews in the diaspora in later centuries. Balcher's theory continues that it was Ezra and his successors who reorganized the religious life of Israel into congregational worship, with special place for prayers and the reading of the scriptures. This development, he proposed, took place in parallel with the revival of the temple cult and led to the building of synagogues. He finds evidence for synagogues in Palestine in the pre-exilic period in Ps 74. 8, although in fact this psalm comes from the Maccabean period or even later.3 Then, astonishingly and without any attempt to explain, he asserts that the complete absence of allusions to synagogue in 1 or 2 Maccabees is the result of the author's primary concern for the purity of the temple ritual.

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1 Among the texts cited are Yer. Targ. on Ex 18. 20 and 1 Chron 16. 39; Pesik 129b; Philo, Life of Moses 3. 27; Josephus, Contra Apionem 2.17; Acts 15. 21. The author notes in passing that from this perspective, no period of the history of Israel was conceivable without the synagogue.

2 In the Prolegomenon to his excellent collection of essays, The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture (New York: KTAV, 1975), Joseph Gutmann notes that ‘the most widely held theory’ [that the synagogue originated in Babylonia during the captivity] was first advocated by the Italian humanist, Carlo Sigonio in the sixteenth century.

3 Bacher also understood the reference to ‘the house appointed for all living’ to be the synagogue, but it obviously is an allusion to the grave, to which all finally go!

4 One inscription is from the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes (246–221); and there is a reference in 3 Maccabees 7. 20 to a synagogue in the reign of his successor, Ptolemy IV (221–204).

5 The Origin of the Synagogue’, Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 2 (1930/1931) 6981.

6 New English Version, revised and edited by Vermes, Geza, Millar, Fergus, and Black, Matthew. Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979).

7 Published originally in the Festschrift for Kuhn, K. G. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971. Ed. Jeremias, Gerd, Kuhn, H. W., and Stegemann, H.), it is now available in The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture, ed. Gutmann, J., (New York: KTAV, 1975) 157–84.

8 Summary and bibliography on these Egyptian Jewish temples in Griffiths, J. Gwyn, ‘Egypt and the Rise of the Synagogue’, JTS n.s., vol. 38.1 (04 1987) 12.

9 Op. cit., 1112.

10 The basic meaning of the word, synagoge, from classical times is ‘assembly’, whether for military, social or instructional purposes. In the revised edition of E. Schürer's History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, ed. Vermes, G., Millar, F. and Black, M., II, 429–30, there is a discussion of the use of synagoge for Greek cultic societies.

11 Op. cit., 910.

12 ‘The Suppositions Temple Synagogue’, in Gutmann, J., The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture (New York: KTAV, 1975) 5571.

13 New York: Harper, n.d., Appendix V, 431441.

14 Safrai, S., in Compendia Rerum Judaicarum, Vol. 1, The Jewish People in the First Century (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974) ‘Jewish Self-Government’, 406–9.

15 Yadin, Yigael, Masada (New York: Random House, 1966). See the review by G. Foerster, ‘The Synagogues at Masada and Herodium’, in Eretz Israel II (1973) 224–8.

16 Gutmann, Joseph, ‘The Origins of the Synagogue’, 76.

17 Meyers, Eric M. and Strange, James F., Archaeology, the Rabbis and Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981) 141.

18 Gutmann, Joseph, ‘The Origins of the Synagogue: The Current state of Research’, 72–6, in The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Structure. Ed. Gutmann, J. (New York: KTAV, 1975).Levine, Lee I., ed., The Synagogue in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1987). See also the Meyers and Strange volume in note 17 above.

19 ‘The Diaspora Synagogue: Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence since Sukenik’ in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 11.19.1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979) 477510.

20 Gutmann, Joseph, ed., The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology, and Architecture (New York: KTAV, 1975) introductory essay, 9–29. The quotation is from p. xi.

21 ‘Building God's House: Social Aspects of Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews and Christians’, SBL Paper 1985. Also, ‘The Delos Synagogue Revisited: Recent Fieldwork in the Graeco-Roman Diaspora’, unpublished paper, 1985.

22 White, , ‘Building God's House’, 1114.

23 White, , ‘The Delos Synagogue Revisited’, 1516.

24 Neusner, Jacob, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 (Leiden: Brill, 1971) 3 vols.From Politics to Piety: the Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973).Formative Judaism: Religious, Historical and Literary Studies (Brown Judaic Studies 37; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), esp.‘The Pharisees in the Light of the Historical Issues of Judaism’, The Pharisees: Rabbinic Perspectives (Hoboken: KTAV, 1985) (condensation of Rabbinic Traditions).

25 Neusner, , Formative Judaism, 7583.

26 Rabbinic traditions, 301.

27 Neusner, J., From Politics to Piety, 87.

28 Neusner, J., Formative Judaism (Brown Judaic Studies 37; Chico, CA: Scholars Press) 7980.

29 The discovery of an inscription referring to ‘the Synagogue of the Hebrews’ on the market street that leads down to the Lechaeum might point to that location for both the Jewish and the early Christian congregations, but the tablet is not from an archaeologically fixed location, and is probably from the second century C.E. Even so, its recovery in a commercial district fits well the evidence that these meetings, Jewish and Christian, were taking place over the first and second century largely in the informal gathering places of homes and shops.

30 In the Jerome Bible Commentary, on Matthew, vol. 2, 64.

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New Testament Studies
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