In Search of the Synagogue Part III

In Search of the SynagogueA continuing conversation with Lee I. Levine, professor of Jewish History and Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem about the synagogue boom of surprising diversity in ancient Israel during the 4th century C.E. - 7th century C.E.

In Part II of this series we learned of the scant archaeological evidence for synagogue construction in Palestine in the approximately 200 years following the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. Did this pattern continue?

No. From the late third century and continuing until the seventh (Late Roman to Byzantine periods), we find ample material attesting to synagogue construction in Palestine. In fact, most of the ancient synagogues excavated in Israel to date were constructed in this time frame; all but six ancient synagogues from among the remains of the estimated 120 such buildings in Palestine date to this era. In the Golan alone, twenty-five synagogues were constructed in this period, with only one (Gamla) surviving the earlier, Second Temple, era.

What does this boom in synagogue construction reveal about Jewish life in Byzantine Palestine?

Until these discoveries scholars had believed that Jewish life was in steady decline after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the first century. Many referred to the period as the “dawn of the Dark Ages” for the Jews of Palestine. However, we now recognize that this picture of a social, cultural, and demographic wasteland in Jewish Palestine ravaged by political decline and economic decay is far from accurate. The rich, diverse architectural and artistic synagogue remains—including a variety of figural depictions—attest to a robust Judaism and flourishing Jewish communities in the late third to seventh centuries.

Doesn’t the Bible prohibit the depiction of figural art?

The Bible’s alleged prohibition of figural art in the Second Commandment is far from clear. One could interpret these verses either as an outright proscription (as is often done) or as an almost blanket permission (for instance, figural images are banned only in cases of idolatry). It is also debatable how normative this injunction was, whether it was obeyed or ignored by most people.

The archaeological evidence indicates that this prohibition was heeded in some periods and not in others. For example, Jews in the biblical and early Second Temple periods made use of a variety of figural representations, and the Bible itself attests to this. Solomon’s Temple was decorated with cherubs and animal figures, and images of golden calves were created for the northern Israelite sanctuaries of Dan and Beth-el. Moreover, archaeological excavations have uncovered innumerable figurines and seal engravings (e.g., of lions, horses, gazelles, cocks, snakes, and monkeys) at a number of Israelite sites, all pointing to a generally permissive attitude toward figural art throughout most of the first millennium B.C.E.

However, later on, beginning in the Hellenistic period (ca. 150 B.C.E.) and continuing for about 300 years, the pendulum swung sharply in the opposite direction. Commencing with the rise of the Hasmoneans and lasting until the aftermath of the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132–135 C.E.), Jewish society studiously avoided any sort of representation.

What accounts for this about-face?

Since none of our sources comment on this transition, the reasons are not entirely clear. Was it perhaps a reaction to Antiochus IV’s desecration of the Second Temple in 167 B.C.E., when he introduced idolatrous images into this holy building? Might it have been the result of his coercive decrees forcing Jews to bow down to pagan idols? Could it have been in response to Hellenization’s inroads into Jewish culture and the threat of foreign influences? Or, perhaps, it was the result of Hasmonean policy that aimed to cultivate unique Jewish modes of expression, and might have prohibited figural images that were so widespread in the surrounding Hellenistic culture.

Then, in the course of the second and third centuries C.E., the pendulum shifted once again. Figural representation appeared on the coins of Jewish cities in the Galilee (Tiberias and Sepphoris) as well as on the walls and sarcophagi in the necropolis of Bet She’arim that was used by a wide spectrum of people: the Patriarchal family and rabbis to community leaders from both Palestine and the Diaspora.

Was there diversity among the synagogues of Byzantine Palestine?

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the outstanding characteristics of ancient synagogues. No two buildings looked alike. Building materials and architectural styles varied greatly, as did the artistic expression and the languages used in local inscriptions. In Hellenized urban settings such as the Lower Galilee, figural representations of biblical scenes and the zodiac as well as Greek inscriptions were quite ubiquitous. In contrast, in more remote rural areas, such as the Upper Galilee and southern Judaea, Greek was almost unknown, as was figural art.

A wonderful example of this diversity can be seen in the Bet Shean area, where five synagogues dating from the sixth century were remarkably different from one another in architectural plan, art, and inscriptions. Several synagogues (Bet Shean A and Ma’oz Hayyim) contained geometric decorations. Another synagogue, or prayer room (Bet Shean B), had a more elaborate floral design and depictions of animals; it was part of a complex in which an adjacent room featured one panel with scenes from Homer’s Odyssey, and another depicted the god of the Nile and Nilotic motifs (i.e., animals and fish), as well as a symbolic representation of Alexandria with its customary Nilometer (a device for measuring the water levels of the Nile River). In the nearby Bet Alpha synagogue, the mosaic floor displayed both Jewish content (such as the binding of Isaac) and pagan motifs (such as Helios and the zodiac signs). The fifth synagogue, just south of Bet Shean, was the most conservative. There were no figural representations, practically no inscriptions other than in Aramaic and Hebrew, and the only halachic inscription ever to be found in a synagogue. This long text (containing 29 lines and 365 words), placed at the entrance to the sanctuary, enumerated agricultural laws regarding the sabbatical year and described the boundaries of Jewish Palestine in which these laws were to take effect. In short, we see that in sixth-century Bet Shean and its immediate environs there were five strikingly different synagogues.

How can one explain this diversity?

The diversity is probably rooted in the fact that each and every community was responsible for building, decorating, and maintaining its own synagogue building. No centralized institution, leadership, or political-religious office in Palestine determined how a community should build its religious buildings or function on a local level. Decentralization and local autonomy were the order of the day. As a result, a wide spectrum of architectural and artistic forms developed, not unlike what we find in North America today.

Which Jewish symbols were most commonly used in these synagogues?

The menorah was far and away the most common one, often appearing with a shofar, lulav, and etrog. Many synagogue mosaics featured a Torah shrine or Temple façade flanked by pairs of menorot, shofarot, lulavim, etrogim, and incense shovels (the last representing an important item used in Temple sacrifices/ritual). We have no idea why the menorah was selected so frequently to represent Jewishness and Judaism. Perhaps it was due to its unusual attractive shape, or because it was open to broad interpretation, given its earlier symbolic functions (memory of the Tabernacle and Temple, messianic hopes for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, a source of light and hope, and more).

Notably, the widespread use of symbols was an entirely new phenomenon in Jewish art of this Late Antiquity period. Never before in the 1,500 years of Israelite-Jewish art had such symbols been employed.

Then why now?

The religious ambience of Late Antiquity, with the revitalization of pagan cults and the emergence of Christianity, coupled with the failed revolts of 70 and 135 C.E., may have encouraged the production and use of such symbols in an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and establish boundary markers vis-à-vis the surrounding world.

Have any of the synagogue decorations proven surprising?

One very surprising fact is the degree to which Jews borrowed from contemporary Christian artistic models, which we see in simple geometric and floral decorations, symbols, and depictions of biblical scenes. The illustrations of the binding of Isaac, Daniel in the lions’ den, Noah’s ark, and David playing the lyre for the animals around him in certain synagogues and churches are at times strikingly similar. In fact, both communities may have used the same artisans or pattern books. We also know of two synagogues (Gaza and Ma’on) where the Jews “Judaized” a well-known Byzantine mosaic pattern used in a nearby church by substituting the menorah for the cross.

However, the most surprising motif to appear in an ancient synagogue is the zodiac accompanied by depictions of the four seasons and months of the year with a representation of the sun god Helios in the center. In no fewer than six synagogues all over the country, spanning the fourth to sixth centuries, the zodiac was always placed in the very center of the mosaic floor. Scholars have argued for decades about the meaning of this depiction in a Jewish context (e.g., it represents the power of God over nature or history, it signifies the Jewish calendar, merely a decorative element, etc.), but no consensus has been reached.

From the archaeological evidence, what can we surmise about Byzantine synagogue life?

Synagogue buildings in this period appear for the first time as distinctively religious institutions. One indication of this is the placing of a platform, niche, or apse for the Torah shrine against the wall facing Jerusalem. This was not simply an architectural feature, but also signified the central and permanent status of the Torah shrine within the hall. Whereas previously, in Second Temple times, all worshipers faced the center of the synagogue’s main hall or the elders faced the congregation, now all those present faced the Torah ark and, in almost all cases, the Jerusalem-oriented wall.

Moreover, both Jews and non-Jews increasingly came to view the synagogue as a “holy place” and the community as a “holy congregation” or a holy havurah (association). References to a “holy place” or to “the most holy place” appear in synagogue inscriptions throughout the country, such as the following example from Hammat Tiberias: “May peace be with all those who have contributed to this holy place, and who will continue to give charity in the future. May that person be blessed. Amen, Amen, Selah. And to me, Amen.”

Acknowledging this holy status, the emperor Valentinian I (ca. 370 C.E.) referred to the synagogue as a religionum loca (a religious place) in an imperial edict justifying the prohibition against soldiers seizing quarters there.

What did the Jews mean when they used the terms “sacred” and “holy” to describe their synagogues?

We don’t know for sure. There are several possibilities. Were synagogue buildings holy because of God’s reputed presence there? Did holiness derive from the “holy congregation,” sacred objects (e.g., the Torah scrolls), or religious functions (e.g., the prayer service) conducted therein? Moreover, terms such as “holy” and “sacred” may have had markedly different meanings to different communities or from one period to the next. It is quite possible that the members of one community did not even understand these terms in the same way. Also they might have been competing with Christian churches for the mantle of “sacred” or “holy” at a time when some churches were claiming to be replicas of or substitutes for the Jerusalem Temple and thereby the legitimate heirs of Temple practice. Spurred by Christian practice and polemics, the association of the synagogue with the Temple, Jeru­salem, and holiness may have gained impetus in the Byzantine era.

What happened after the Byzantine period ended?

With but few exceptions, synagogues disappeared soon after the Arab conquest in 640 C.E. Jewish life in Palestine declined precipitously as the focus of Arab rule shifted away from the Mediterranean Sea and the coastal areas and to the desert and caravan cities.

Still, these same forces that had encouraged a surge of creativity in the ancient synagogues of Byzantine-era Palestine were at work in the Diaspora as well. It is that story we will tell in our next installment.

Union for Reform Judaism.