Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, The
Schnabel, Eckhard J
Lee I. Levine. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. xvi + 748 pp. $75.00.
This handsome volume will be the standard work on the ancient synagogue for a long time to come. Lee Levine, professor of Jewish history and archaeology at the Hebrew University, who has written on the history of the synagogue since 1975, has provided us with the single best survey of all relevant historical, archaeological, architectural, and institutional issues related to one of the oldest surviving institutions of the world. His declared aim of integrating the data of all relevant fields-literary and epigraphical sources, archaeological discoveries, historical and architectural matters, methodological advances, study of Jewish liturgy, new finds, history of research-“into a comprehensive account of this pivotal Jewish institution as a whole over a thousand-year period” (p. 16) has been achieved. The result is an easily readable volume that will be used both by specialists in the field and more generally by people interested in Jewish or Christian history.
Part One (pp. 19-287) presents the historical development of the synagogue for the Second Temple period (pp. 19-159) and for the time after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (pp. 160-287). As regards the origins of the synagogue, Levine abandons the older theories that presupposed the religious function of the synagogue as primary, assuming that new religious circumstances gave rise to this new institution beside the Jerusalem Temple. Since the synagogues of the first century A.D. were foremost communal institutions, Levine suggests that their origins should be seen in the city-gate as the focal point of communal activity in the First Temple period. The impetus for the construction of synagogue buildings is connected with shifts in urban planning in the Hellenistic period when city-gates were nothing more than a passageway between towers that served as fortifications of the city, leading to a relocation of the functions previously associated with the city-gate and the adjacent square to a building in the city. This view, which contradicts the communis opinio, thus understands the development of the synagogue not as the result of some specific event or crisis, such as the exile, but as “a gradual development during the Persian and Hellenistic periods … sometime between the fifth and the first centuries B.C.E.” (pp. 33-34).
Chapter 3 (pp. 42-73) presents the evidence for synagogues in pre-70 Judaea (and Galilee), particularly the synagogues in Nazareth, Capernaum, Tiberias, Gamla, Jerusalem, Masada, Herodium, Qumran, Dor, Caesarea, and Qiryat Sefer. Levine accepts the NT evidence for the existence of synagogues in Galilee on the same level as information provided, e.g., by Josephus. The presentation of literary, inscriptional, archaeological, and architectural information (measurements are given in meters) is full, with concise and very helpful and up-to-date bibliographical documentation in footnotes. Photographs and drawings of the plans of the synagogues are provided. Chapter 4 (pp. 74-123) surveys the synagogues of the pre-70 Diaspora in Egypt, Northern Africa (Cyrene), Italy (Ostia, Rome), Delos, Asia Minor, Greece, Bosphorus, and Syria. Whereas the remains of only three synagogue buildings are attested in pre-70 Judea (recent discoveries may add one or two sites), over one hundred synagogues have been identified for Roman-Byzantine Palestine, with nearly two hundred inscriptions found so far. Levine highlights for both periods, and for both Judea and the Diaspora, the rich diversity not only in terms of architecture but also in terms of role and function that were both shaped by local needs and customs. In the context of his emphasis on the communal functions of the synagogue, Levine writes: “The gospels’ accounts of the healing and miracles that purportedly occurred in first-century Galilean synagogues are invaluable pieces of information. Other sources ignore this aspect of synagogue life, possibly because it was too common a phenomenon to require comment, or too embarrassing, or was simply one of the many items not addressed in these sources. Whatever the case, and despite its unusualness, there is no reason to question the reports’ validity” (p. 72). Seen in the context of generally skeptical views concerning the authenticity of the miracle stories in the NT in historical-critical scholarship, Levine’s position is refreshing.
Chapters 6-8 present the evidence for the synagogues of later antiquity in Roman Palestine, Byzantine Palestine, and in the Diaspora (e.g., in Dura Europos, Gerasa, Apamea, Sardis, Priene, Stobi). As regards Byzantine Palestine, Levine traces the impact of Christianity on physical and liturgical aspects of the synagogues. Christian imperial legislation introduced restrictions regarding the building and the repair of synagogues, but “it was only the Arab conquest, with its far-reaching political, social, and economic consequences, which effectively began to constrict local Jewish life” (p. 231).
Part Two (pp. 291-602) discusses in ten chapters the synagogue as an institution, in particular the building (location, orientation, atriums, water installations, entrances, benches, columns, partitions, platforms, cathedra of Moses, Torah chest and Torah shrine, eternal light and menorah, art, etc.), the communal dimension (meeting place, court, charity, place of study, library, place of residence, place of individual recourse), the leadership (archisynagogue, archon, presbyter, grammateus, hzzan, teacher, etc.), the patriarch (nasi), the sages, women (attendance, seating, liturgical roles, benefactors, officials), priests (benefactors, officials, ritual), liturgy (Torah reading, ‘Amidah, Shema,’ etc.), iconography, and diachronic and synchronic dimensions. Relevant matters for the synagogues, e.g., in pre-70 Judea and Galilee are treated here. The subject index that includes (geographical) place names allows the reader to retrieve comprehensive information on the synagogues, e.g., in Jerusalem, Nazareth, or Capernaum.
Christian readers of Levine’s book are reminded that they owe the (at least professed) centrality of Scripture as text to the liturgical agenda of the synagogue which, compared with the Temple service, was indeed revolutionary. At the same time, the communal reading and study of sacred texts that was, and still is, practiced in the synagogue highlights the difference from the hierarchal government and liturgy of the Byzantine and later Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches: in the synagogues, “no hierarchy governed its proceedings and no set of divinely inspired individuals officiated. Whether during the Torah- and haftarah-readings, the targum, sermons, prayers, or piyyutim (with the sole exception of the priestly blessings), every Jew had the opportunity to actively participate in any aspect of the synagogue ritual. From its usually modest size to its multifocal liturgy, the Byzantine synagogue, in contradistinction to its Christian counterpart, expressed a message of inclusion and involvement, where the congregation per se was of primary importance” (p. 606). This integrative dimension of religious and communal life became a significant topic of discussion in Christian strategizing only in the second half of the twentieth century.
The book closes with a glossary, a list of abbreviations, seventy-page bibliography, source index (omits the cited inscriptions), and a full subject index. For full perfection, I would have liked to see a geographical map or maps of the sites of the synagogues discussed and a CD-ROM containing the drawings and images printed in the book which would make the presentation of the material in the classroom easier. There are only a few misprints (e.g., p. 9 in the German title of Kohl and Watzinger, cited correctly in the bibliography). We owe the author a debt of gratitude for the wealth of detailed information and for the masterful integration of diverse details and developments.
Eckhard J. Schnabel
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Copyright Trinity International University Spring 2002
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