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Ancient History and Religion with Peter Eyland


Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Diaspora : The Origin and Importance of the Synagogue

Friday 3rd September 2004

by Peter Eyland

The origins of the Jewish synagogue, both as a building and a gathering of people[1], are obscure and undocumented.  The time of its beginning has been diversely dated in a range from the ninth century BCE to the first century BCE (Levine, 2000:20).  Howard Kee has even argued (albeit unconvincingly) for the late first century CE (Kee, 1990:1-24)[2].  The place where it began has been variously given as Egypt, Palestine and Babylon (Levine, 2000:20).  It is likely that no one place, time or form can be specified for the synagogue’s origin because various architectures and customs have been found in different places and times[3].



The Jewish presence in Egypt dates from the sixth century (Griffiths in Urman and Flesher, 1995:4).  When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Judaean political state and its cultic centre, some Judaeans fled to neighbouring regions like Egypt and remained there. The first physical evidence for any public building for those Judaeans does not appear until the third Century BCE in Egypt. In Schedia near Alexandria, an inscription shows that a προσευχή (prayer house) was dedicated “on behalf of King Ptolemy (III Euergetes I) and Queen Berenice” somewhere between 246 and 221 BCE (CIJ II 1440).  The preposition in the opening phrase “on behalf of” is ὑπέρ (Griffiths in Urman and Flesher 1995:5 and Barclay, 1996:31) which must have been acceptable to the Ptolemies, even though it avoids a dedication “to them” (dative) as deities.  This is in contrast to the Greek example e.g. “Spoils from the Thurians the Tarantines dedicated to Zeus Olympios” (Fornara, 2003:112, p.127).

There was a similar inscription from the Egyptian Fayûm (which is a long way from Alexandria).  It was also from the third century BCE (Horsley, 1983:121) and reveals the existence of a Jewish community at Arsinoë-Crocodilopolis.  About twelve other Egyptian second and first century BCE dedicatory inscriptions have been found in various places (e.g. CIJ II 1441, 1443, 1449 and Horbury and Noy 126) which demonstrates that the προσευχαί were widespread.  The inscriptions have no description of the activities that occurred in the buildings.  

It should be noted that two Jewish temples were built for sacrifice in Egypt.  At Elephantine an אגורא  (temple) was built to “Yah” or “Yaho” (Griffiths in Urman and Flesher 1995:4).  Bright (1964:327) noted that these military colonists were there “when the Persians conquered Egypt in 525” BCE.  Also, Josephus (Antiquities, 13.3.1) recorded that about 160 BCE, Onias IV built a temple for sacrifices at Leontopolis (Heliopolis).  Clearly some Judaeans were not restricted by the Deuteronomist.

Now a prayer house seems quite a different concept to a temple, but it not necessarily in conflict with it.  This is because the expression οἶκος προσευχῆς (house of prayer) was used of the Jerusalem Temple in Isaiah 56:7.  Also, one inscription (CIJ II 1449 = Horbury and Noy 125) has a προσευχή proclaimed as a place of refuge (ἄσυλον), i.e. given the right of asylum as were many other Egyptian temples[4].  In 3 Maccabees 2:28 Ptolemy Philopater reputedly had an edict refusing Jews entry to their ἱερά (temples) which may refer to προσευχή and show confusion in terminology.

Griffiths (in Urman and Flesher 1995:13) wrote that in Alexandria and the χώρα (countryside), Egyptians (unlike Hellenists) expressly associated temples with education.  Philo of Alexandria (mid first Century CE) affirmed this tradition when he wrote effusively of Jewish προσευκτήρια namely:

“as for their houses of prayer in the different cities, what are they, but schools of wisdom, and courage, and temperance, and justice, and piety, and holiness, and every virtue, by which human and divine things are appreciated, and placed upon a proper footing?” (Philo, De Vita Mosis, 2,39,216).

Griffiths (in Urman and Flesher 1995:4) thus argued that Jewish public buildings for prayer and education only appeared in other countries after the concept was first established in Egypt.  For example, the nearest in time outside Egypt was a late second century or mid first century Jewish building on the Aegean island of Delos (Levine, 2000:19). 



Griffiths and Grabbe have argued that in Palestine the first synagogue buildings appeared in the first century CE (Griffiths in Urman and Flesher 1995:6, Grabbe in Urman and Flesher 1995:23).  The sparse archaeological evidence shows that the remains at Masada and Herodium in Judaea were not clearly synagogues from construction, location or date (Flesher in Urman and Flesher 1995:35-37).  The vestiges of a building found in Galilean Gamala shows that it probably was a synagogue, and probably built between 20 BCE and 40 CE (Flesher in Urman and Flesher 1995:38).  Sanders (1990:341, n.29)[5] has argued that the undated inscription of Theodotus (CIJ II 1404) relates to a period when wealthy priestly families with dynastic archisynagogoi (patrons[6]), existed within Jerusalem.  This is a reasonable argument for the Theodotian synagogue in Jerusalem to be dated before 70 CE.

As regards literature, Grabbe commented that if the synagogue existed as an institution through Hasmonean times in Judaea, then it would have been mentioned in writings from that time.  However the synagogue as a social institution does not rate a mention in 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Ben-Sira, the letter of (pseudo)-Aristeas, Daniel or Jubilees.  This omission points to its absence in Hasmonean times (Grabbe in Urman and Flesher, 1995:20).

Flesher (in Urman and Flesher, 1995:30) notes that only three sets of texts ever mention synagogues in Palestine before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE – the New Testament, Josephus and Philo.  Dismissing Luke (Acts 6:9, 24:12, 26:11)[7] and the Theodotian synagogue, Flesher argued that before 70 CE, the synagogue tradition could only be established outside Judaea, i.e. in Galilee and Samaria (Flesher in Urman and Flesher, 1995:31).

As regards Jerusalem, Acts 6:9 mentioned “the synagogue which is called ‘of the Freedmen, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia’ ”[8].  This designated Jews from the Mediterranean coast near Egypt and the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor.  As such, it could have been a religious boarding house cum meeting place primarily for the use of these diaspora Jews (Flesher in Urman and Flesher, 1995:31).  It may be hypothesised that those Jews designated Ἥλληνισται (Hellenists) in Acts formed diaspora type synagogues, whereas the Έβραίοι(Hebrews) did not.  As Luke has indicated some form of discrimination, the synagogues that Paul persecuted in Jerusalem (Acts 26:11) may have been those of theἭλληνισται.  The Theodotus inscription, while pointing out Theodotus’ relationship with the temple priesthood, seems to emphasise that the synagogue was primarily “to provide for the needs of strangers”, i.e. visiting diaspora Jews.

Thus it seems there were synagogues in Galilee and Samaria by the early first century CE, but in Judaea only synagogues for diaspora “resident aliens” and visitors in Jerusalem itself.



The best known synagogue in Babylonia was at Nehardea (Oppenheimer in Urman and Flesher, 1995:40) and this dates from the early first century CE.

Sigonio, (1583:86)[9] was the first “modern” proponent of the theory that the synagogue as a social institution originated in the sixth century BCE in Babylon.  When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Judean political state the best of the leadership were transported into Babylon (Bright, 1964:323).  This should probably have signalled the end of Judaean identity.  However, being confined to one area of Babylon and the non-introduction of other ethnic groups into Judah, seems to have helped Judaeans maintain their links and contacts and facilitated cohesiveness (Jagersma 1994:Part 1, p.182).

There would have been an immediate religious problem, as reflected in the question “How could we sing Yahveh’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).  This was written before 621 BCE according to Driver, 1960:86 and emphasised that worship with sacrifice could only happen in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:11; 14:23; 16:2, 6,11; 26:2).  Some form of prophetic re-interpretation of the Judaean religion would have been needed to enable the Babylonian exiles to accept multiple religious gathering places outside Judaea.  Bright (1964:423) has argued that it was “inevitable” that the synagogue emerge at this time[10].  The inevitability is not clear, but there must have been some means of maintaining cultural identity.  It may have been that just observing Sabbath (McKay, 1992:281-3)[11], food laws and circumcision were sufficient, without any form of weekly communal worship.

Much later the Talmud (Meg. 29a) justified the origin of synagogues in Babylon by applying Ezekiel 11:16[12] to the synagogue.  However this argument fails to convince because Ezekiel does not refer to any social institution, but to God himself as a refuge (Griffiths in Urman and Flesher, 1995:xxiii).

The Book of Tobit, which may be a second century BCE product of the Babylonian diaspora, has its central character portrayed as a deeply religious man.  Yet he was never said to go to the synagogue, and the Sabbath was not mentioned (Griffiths in Urman and Flesher, 1995:3).  Grabbe (in Urman and Flesher, 1995:20) commented on the times: “if the synagogue was a regular part of Jewish life, it seems unlikely that it would have been ignored in such a writing”.  This seems to count against an early Babylonian origin for the synagogue and leaves open the question of what the Jews were doing to maintain their cultural identity.


Dura Europos

A little North and East of Babylon, Dura Europos was a military and commercial city in Mesopotamia.  It was successively occupied by the Seleucids, Parthians and Romans until finally destroyed by the Sassanians in 256 CE (Jensen in Fine 1999:174).  There are remains of pagan temples, a Christian house church and a Jewish synagogue.  The synagogue was converted from a private house in the second century CE.  It was situated near the main gate in a middle-class neighbourhood (Jensen in Fine 1999:180), i.e. not segregated in any way.  The frescos on the synagogue walls were from renovations in the 240s CE (Elsner 2001:281).  It may be that the Jews, Christians and pagans shared the same artists for their frescos (Jensen in Fine 1999:184).  This would point to a good measure of tolerance between the religions.  The synagogue frescos promoted Judaism by denigrating local religions, e.g. Baal and Dagon (Elsner 2001:299). They may have been acceptable to local Jews because of an interpretation that distinguished between allowable two dimensional iconic art and banned three dimensional images[13]. It shows that, at this time, the "normative" Judaism of the Mishnah did not exist.



Bonz (1990:356) has argued that there was an economic crisis in the period from 260 – 290 CE and this was when the large and richly decorated building was acquired and transformed into a synagogue.  The synagogue at Sardis was built within a bath-gymnasium complex in a prominent position.  The fountain in the synagogue’s forecourt was for public use.  The combination of prominence and openness indicates that there was little hostility against Jews in Sardis (Crawford in Fine, 1999:192).  The synagogue remained in Jewish hands until the destruction of Sardis by an earthquake in the early seventh century (Crawford in Fine, 1999:197).



Synagogues, that is places for prayer and education, were established in Egypt by the third century BCE.  The idea of a social institution probably then diffused to other countries.  It seems there were synagogues in Galilee and Samaria by the early first century CE, but in Judaea only synagogues for diaspora “resident aliens” and visitors in Jerusalem itself.  It was only in the first century CE that the synagogue emerged clearly as “the central communal institution” for Palestinian and Diaspora Jews (Levine, 2000:20).  However, despite being a “central” institution in terms of social importance, there was at that time no “normative” synagogue tradition, because building construction, decoration and functioning were widely disparate, both within Palestine and throughout the Diaspora (Barclay, 1996:82-86). 


Primary sources

Feldman, L.H. and Reinhold, M, (1996), Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans, Edinburgh

Horsley, G.H.R., (1983), New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 3, Macquarie University

Josephus, The Complete Works, trans., Whiston, W., (1998), Nashville

Lieu, J., (1997), “Primary Sources”, ECJS845 Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Diaspora, Macquarie University

Philo, trans. Colson, F.H., (1960), Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge


Secondary sources

Barclay, J.M.G., (1996), Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE – 117 CE), Edinburgh

Bonz, M.P., (1990), “The Jewish Community of Ancient Sardis: A Reassessment of Its Rise to Prominence”, Classical Philology, 93, 343-359

Bright, J. (1964), A History of Israel, London

Driver, S.R., (1960), An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, New York

Jagersma, H. (1994), A History of Israel to Bar Kochba, London

Elsner, J. (2001), “Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image: The Case of Dura Europas”, Classical Philology, 96, 269-304

Feldman, L.H. (1993), Jew and Gentile in the Ancient world, Princeton

Fine, S., ed, (1999), Jews, Christians and Polytheists in the Ancient Synagogue, London

Fornara, C.W., (2003 reprint from 1983), Archaic Times to the end of the Peloponnesian War, Cambridge

Levine, L.I. (2000), The Ancient Synagogue The First Thousand Years, Yale

Lieu, J., North, J., and Rajak, T., eds., (1994), The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, London

Urman, D. and Flesher, P.V.M. (eds), (1995), Ancient Synagogues Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery, Leiden


Appendix:  Other views on the origin of the Synagogue

Direct institution by Moses

One claim about the origin of the Synagogue was that it was the direct institution by Moses for weekly hearing and learning the Torah (Josephus, Against Apion 2.175; Luke, Acts 15:21).  The Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan on Exodus 18:20 also has Moses mentioning the prayers that should be prayed in the synagogue.  This tradition about Moses is probably more a posteriori theological dogma than historical evidence.


Ezra-Nehemiah Torah reading ceremony

S. Safrai[14] argued that Nehemiah 8 was the fore-runner of the synagogue because the Torah was read publicly to the people.  The gatherings to hear the Torah were at first special but later became fixed gatherings on the Sabbath.  As admitted, the context was about a singular occurrence and there is no evidence of any weekly meetings (Grabbe in Urman and Flesher, 1995:20). 


City gatherings

Hengel argued that the synagogue emerged from Hellenistic town meetings (Hengel, 1975:161-180[15]).  Levine (2000:40) has argued that Herod’s temple design included a Hellenistic temenos for the purpose of re-locating and centralising “city gate” synagogue activities to the Temple.  From this Levine concluded that “it is totally unwarranted to view the synagogue as a rival of the Temple”.  This conclusion ignores the variety that Levine previously argued for, and simply dismisses the existence of any groups inimical to the Temple authority.


The Pharisees emphasis on Torah education

Grabbe (in Urman and Flesher 1995:23) argued that there was no evidence that the synagogue was founded by the Pharisees as Josephus (War 2.8.14 §§162 and 166, Antiquities 18.1.3 §§12-15) makes no connection between the Pharisees and the synagogue.


[1] See for example, Tcherikover, V.A., Fuks, A. and Stern M., eds, (1957-64), Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, Cambridge,3.473 (dated 291 CE), where the community is referred to as a synagogue.  Cited in Feldman, (1993:63).

[2] Kee, H.C., (1990), “The Transformation of the Synagogue after 70 CE”, New Testament Studies, 36:1-24, cited by van der Horst, P.W., in Fine, (1999:18)

[3 Feldman (1993:65) noted that every diaspora synagogue excavated was so different that generalisations are hazardous. Barclay (1996:414) also affirmed this and added that the social organisation was also diverse

[4] This suggests that the Jews supported the legal and political authority of the Ptolemies (Barclay, 1996:32)

[5] Sanders, E.P., (1990) Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, London, cited by van der Horst, P.W., in Fine, (1999:19)

[6] The term archisynagogos was applied to both women and children (Rajak in Lieu, North and Rajak, 1994:22-23) and appears to be an honourary title.  It is probably derived from Hebrew, which explains why it was not written as ἀρχισυναγωγεύς

[7] Acts 22:18 - 19 does not specify where the synagogues were.

[8] Pre-70 CE, the Palestinian Talmud Megillah 3:1, 73d has 480 synagogues in Jerusalem.  The Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 105a has 394.  This does not appear to have any historical basis.  Cited by Grabbe in Urman and Flesher, (1995:22)

[9] Sigonio, C., (1583), De republica Hebraeorum, Libri VII, Francofurti, and Rabbinic texts e.g. B. Meg. 29a, cited in Urman and Flesher, (1995:xxi)

[10] Morgenstern, J. (1956), “The Origin of the Synagogue”, Studi Orientalistici in onore Giorgio Levi Della Vida, vol 2, argued that Josiah’s reforms of 621 BCE initiated synagogue style activities and that these were exported to Babylon in the exile.  Cited in Urman and Flesher, (1995:xxii)

[11] McKay, H., (1992), “From Evidence to Edifice: Four Fallacies about the Sabbath”, in Carroll, R. (ed), Text as Pretext, Sheffield, cited by van der Horst, P.W., in Fine, (1999:23)

[12] Ezekiel 11:16 "Therefore say: 'This is what Lord Yahveh says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a while I have been a little sanctuary (miqdash me’at) for them in the countries where they have gone.' “

[13] To paraphrase George Orwell in Animal Farm – “two dimensions good, three dimensions bad”.

[14] Safrai, S., (1976), “The Synagogue”, The Jewish People in the First Century, II, ed Safrai, S. and Stern, M., Philadelphia, pp.46-47, cited by Kasher in Urman and Flesher, (1995:205)

[15] Hengel, M., (1975), “Proseuche und Synagogue”, The Synagogue: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, 2 vols, New York, cited in Levine, (2000:24)


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