Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 3 (2000-2001) - Review

Kee, Howard Clark, and Lynn H. Cohick, eds., Evolution of the Synagogue: Problems and Progress (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1999).

1. This volume brings together nine essays about ancient synagogues prior to the seventh century c.e. The first section addresses questions concerning synagogues in the Land of Israel in the first century, while the second section focuses on later synagogues in the diaspora.

2. The first section, on Palestinian synagogues, contains three articles. In his essay, Howard C. Kee re-presents his case against the existence of synagogue buildings in pre-70 Jerusalem. He addresses three main arguments supporting the scholarly claim for early synagogues, namely, the pre-70 dating of the Theodotus inscription, the archaeological development of Palestinian synagogues, and the meaning of the Greek word for synagogue. He concludes that the Theodotus inscription is part of the second or third century influx of Jews into Jerusalem.

3. James F. Strange’s essay begins by formulating the hypothesis that prayer constituted the primary function of the early synagogues. He then asks whether the spatial organization created by the architecture of the supposed synagogues at Gamla, Masada, Magdala and Heriodium provides an appropriate arrangement for public prayer. He concludes with a tentative yes.

4. Richard A. Horsley examines pre-70 Galilean synagogues. He argues that the synagogue, according to the gospels and early rabbinic literature, denoted a village or town assembly. This assembly met regularly and served primarily as the local governing body. Thus worship was secondary, and the notion of a building to house this assembly was decidedly tertiary. Since the Pharisees did not belong to these assemblies, Jesus’ anti-Pharisaic rhetoric shows him siding with local villages against outside, Pharisaic influence.

5. The essays in book’s second section address synagogues located in the diaspora. Joseph Gutmann revisits the synagogue at Dura Europos, reviewing the progress made in understanding it by addressing ten selected questions. These include questions of dating, artistic influence, the paintings’ meaning, the second commandment, and the nature of the Judaism practiced at Dura.

6. Shaye J.D. Cohen asks whether there is any certain evidence indicating that the Pharisees or the early Rabbis led communal prayer or Torah study. Having analyzed the Jewish evidence in a previous essay, Cohen’s contribution to this volume analyzes the evidence from the New Testament and other early Christian writings. He finds that none of these texts contain any unambiguous evidence indicating that the Pharisees or the Rabbis were considered the leaders of synagogue worship.

7. Marianne Bonz contributes an article reinterpreting the inscriptions of the Sardis synagogue identifying certain Jews as members of the city council. Bonz critiques the interpretations of G.M.A. Hanfmann and A.T. Kraabel as overly positive. As Bonz reads the evidence, Jews entered the Sardis government only because many of those above them—in terms of both status and wealth—were opting out of local participation and entering the imperial system. This provided those Jews who had become moderately wealthy with the opportunity to enter local government, now no longer the pinnacle of status it once had been.

8. Lynn H. Cohick’s essay focuses primarily on Melito’s Peri Pascha text, but to understand it, she brings forward a stricter interpretation of the archaeological dating of the Sardis synagogue and its stages. Her key point is that Melito’s essay and the hey-day ofthe Sardis synagogue did not coincide, and thus the supposed importance of the local Jewish community does not provide the target of Melito’s remarks.

9.  J. Andrew Overman’s contribution shifts the focus to the Black Sea and analyzes the Jewish inscriptions manumitting slaves found in there. Overman provides a thorough philological discussion and attempts to reconstruct the social circumstances that supported the legal statements and process of the manumission. One important observation is that the texts clearly distinguish between the proseuche, which constitutes a building, and the sunagoge, which comprises the assembly or community of people who use the building.

10. Remaining in the Black Sea, Douglas R. Edwards examines the evidence concerning the Jewish community at Chesonesus. He argues that the manumission inscriptions suggest a recognized Jewish community as early as the first century c.e., which apparently continued for several centuries. There is solid evidence of a synagogue from the fifth century, but it was abandoned or destroyed by the sixth century, for some of its decorated stones were included in the Christian basilica built then.

11. The volume’s title, Evolution of the Synagogue, and the titles of its two sections, "The Origins of the Synagogue in the Land of Israel" and "The Development of the Synagogue in the Diaspora," conform to the current mythic narrative of synagogue studies. That myth views the the synagogue as originating in the Land of Israel and then developing outside the land. This uninterrogated story has become standard, even though the earliest diaspora evidence predates the earliest evidence from the Land of Israel by two centuries. Although this volume’s title suggests a connection—even a development—between the synagogues of the two locations, none of the essays argues for or supports such a link.

12. Despite its 1999 imprint, references to synagogue studies published after 1994 varies from essay to essay, and, with one exception, are completely missing from the Selected Bibliography. Readers interested in the current scholarship on ancient synagogues should also consult books by S. Fine, E. Meyers, R.M. Nagy, E. Netzer, D.R. Edwards and E.T. McCollough, and D. Urman and P.V.M. Flesher, as well as the important 2000 publication by L.I. Levine.

13. These minor problems aside, this volume provides both new evidence about ancient synagogues and new contributions to ongoing scholarly debates. It should be in the library of every institution where Judaism in Late Antiquity or early Christianity is studied.

Paul V.M. Flesher, Religious Studies Program, University of Wyoming