Review of Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder, and Birger Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E. A Source Book

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder, and Birger Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E. A Source Book (Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, 72; Leiden: Brill, 2008). Pp. xii + 332. Hardback. €139.00 US$206.00. ISBN 978 90 04 16116 0.

At a time when research on the ancient synagogue is as prolific as ever, Runesson, Binder, and Olsson provide us with a most useful source book on the earliest evidence of the ancient synagogue. The survey ends at 200 CE., and thus does not cover many of the most famous synagogues from late antiquity. As a consequence e.g., Dura Europos is treated only briefly with regard to the first phase of its building. For Sardis, readers will find only two relevant passages from Josephus' Jewish Antiquities; no information on its grand synagogue dating from a later period. But there is, of course, enough important material to be discussed from the period under investigation. The book is the latest product of a large research project on ancient synagogues conducted between 1997 and 2001 at Lund University and serves as an ideal companion to the collection of articles edited by B. Olsson and M. Zetterholm covering the very same period (The Ancient Synagogue From its Origins Until 200 C.E.: Papers Presented at an International Conference at Lund University, October 14-17, 2001, Stockholm 2003).

200 C.E. is a well chosen “terminus ante quem” because it allows the authors to include the Mishnah as an important source for the early synagogue (even if, as the authors rightly stress [p. 3 n.5], rabbinic influence on the synagogue became truly important only later). By not choosing the year 70 as a cut-off date, the editors wisely avoid “taking a stance” (p. 15) with respect to the importance of the fall of the temple in Jerusalem for the development of the ancient synagogue. What makes the book unusual and incredibly helpful is that it brings together literary and archaeological sources. Ancient texts, including those only hinting at a synagogue, are provided in the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) and in translation. Brill is to be congratulated for the handsome printing of both Greek and Hebrew texts. Rarely do misspellings in Hebrew (e.g. p. 110: read ובשׁבת [m. Meg. 4:1] and ומתרגם [m. Meg. 4:6]) and misplaced Greek accents (e.g. p. 76: twice read ἤδη[Jos. Vit. 280. 295]) spoil the picture. Juvenal's third satire (sat. 3.278-300) is here rather unconventionally presented as a prose text (p. 231).

The book opens up with a very brief introduction (pp. 1-19), which is unfortunately too short to adequately summarize current research trends. The strength of the book lies first of all in the presentation of “all available evidence pertaining to the earliest synagogues in the land of Israel and the Diaspora” (p. 15). First synagogues from the land of Israel are presented and discussed (alphabetically from Caesarea to Tiberias), then those from the Diaspora (according to geographic regions (from Achaia to Syria). Each source is presented with a bibliography followed by a brief commentary.

As is well known, scholars disagree in numerous cases about whether a text in fact deals with an ancient synagogue. Now, it can be taken as a sign of modesty on the side of the authors that the volume includes even those archaeological sites where the editors themselves strongly doubt that the buildings under discussion should be identified as synagogues: such is the case with the buildings at Magdala, Qatzion, and Shuafat (pp. 55. 64-65.75-76). Nevertheless, those dubitanda should, if not left out, at least be placed together in a separate chapter on incerta.

The comments, both on archaeological sites and on literary sources, are always sound and well argued. The authors leave the question of the “origin” of the synagogue open, but refer with some sympathy to the thesis (powerfully argued by Lee Levine in his Ancient Synagogue, New Haven 2000, 26-31) that the city-gate might have been the matrix in which the early synagogue was born (pp. 115-116). With regard to the place of women in the early synagogue, the authors join more recent scholarship by arguing that there is “not widespread evidence” (is there any?) that men and women were seated separately (pp. 116-117: with regard to m. Neg. 13:12 which deals with a מחיצה built up in a synagogue for lepers).

The many relevant passages from the New Testament are adequately presented and explained - as is to be expected from three New Testament scholars. A. Runesson's important scholarship on the synagogue at Ostia is reflected in this volume in that the treatment of that synagogue is more detailed (pp. 225-230).

The book includes many illustrations and concludes with sources on Jewish temples outside Jerusalem, most famously from Elephantine and Leontopolis, a bibliography, helpful indices and a map of synagogue sites referenced in the book.

I recently used this source book for a seminar on the ancient synagogue and I can only recommend it highly. The $200 price unfortunately puts it out of reach for students. One can only hope that a second volume covering the later synagogue development and hinted at in the introduction (p. 16 n.53) will follow soon and that it will be more moderately priced.

René Bloch, University of Bern