Early Jewish synagogue buildings in the diaspora: Not formerly houses

Two recent studies challenge L. Michael White’s suggestion that many synagogue buildings developed from earlier domestic buildings (that is, houses). In the case of the Greek island of Delos, Monika Trümper argues that the building variously identified as either a Samaritan or a Judean synagogue (known as GD80) shows no signs of having been a domestic dwelling. Furthermore, she also challenges those (such as Donald Binder, who also has a very good website) who suggest that the building was previously used by a “pagan” association and only later acquired by the Samaritans. Instead, her interpretation of the remains suggests that the building was used by the Judeans/Jews (or Samaritans) from as early as the second century B.C.E. If this is true, then this would represent the earliest known synagogue building in the dispersion. See the extensive article by Monika Trümper, “The Oldest Original Synagogue Building in the Diaspora: The Delos Synagogue Reconsidered,” Hesperia 73 (2004) 513-598. UPDATE: Article available free online (without original page numbers and without photos and figures) at find articles.

In the case of the port city of Rome, Ostia, Anders Runesson convincingly shows that the archeological evidence previously used to support the notion that the building was originally a house is incorrect. Instead, he argues that “the original edifice was public and monumental, containing a triclinium for common meals, and dated to the late Julio-Claudian period” (first century CE) (p. 171). See Anders Runesson, “A Monumental Synagogue from the First Century: The Case of Ostia,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 33 (2002) 171-220.

The photo to the right shows a menorah (seven-branched candle-holder) on the capital of a column of the Ostia synagogue. For a photographic tour of the various guild-buildings at Ostia, as well as more photos of the synagogue, go to another section of my website here.

It will be interesting to watch the debate develop now as these common notions (at least since the 1990s) concerning the origins of the synagogue are challenged.

Runesson’s excellent survey of research on the The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study (2001) is among the recent works that convincingly argues that, both socially and architecturally, synagogues have much in common with associations or collegia in the Greco-Roman world. There is an interesting online article by Runesson, which summarizes some of his work, here.