Redating the Sardis Synagogue?: Jodi Magness argues for the 6th century

As Jim Davila points out, there is an article in the new issue of the American Journal of Archaeology which argues on numismatic (coin) evidence that the Sardis synagogue dates to the sixth century, about two centuries later than commonly suggested (Jodi Magness, “The Date of the Sardis Synagogue in Light of the Numismatic Evidence,” AJA 109 [2005] 443-47). The mosaic floors in the Sardis synagogue, which is located within the larger Greco-Roman bath-gymnasium complex, had previously been dated to the mid-fourth century based on coins found beneath the intact mosaics of the synagogue floor (primarily during the excavations of the 1960s).

(The main hall of the Sardis synagogue, showing the mosaic floors [ by Phil]).

However, Magness carefully re-evaluates all published reports and descriptions and throws into doubt this evaluation of the numismatic (coin) evidence. She points out how there are indeed coins found under the mosaic floors that date considerably later, including coins from the fifth and sixth centuries under both the forecourt and main hall floors (some of which were perhaps too easily dismissed as “contamination” or explained away in other ways once the fourth century dating was the working hypothesis). If this is indeed a correct revision, then many books and articles on the Sardis synagogue will become obsolete, so to speak. Certainly my discussion of the synagogue on my website (here) will need to be substantially revised if this newer view is true. I am somewhat convinced by Magness’ argument, but will need time to digest this further before deciding whether the suggested sixth century date for the mosaic floors is more likely.
(Right: Photo of the synagogue forecourt at Sardis).

At this point it is worth saying that even if the mosaic floors are sixth century, this does not rule out the possibility that the Jews were making use of the structure before that final, major overhaul. In fact, this is precisely what has been argued by the excavators, including Andrew R. Seager, who suggested that the Jews acquired and used this section of the bath-gymnasium (in so called stage 3) before making the final renovation with the mosaic floors (in stage 4). It is the mid-fourth century date for stage 4 that Magness is challenging.

It is worth briefly placing this discussion within other recent re-evaluations of the dates of other diaspora synagogue buildings and Jewish monuments. On pushing dates back, I have previously discussed Monika Trümper’s recent article which suggests an even earlier date for the synagogue on Delos. On pushing dates forward, Angelos Chaniotis convincingly argues that the donation inscription from Aphrodisias, which includes references to god-fearers, should now be dated to the fourth or fifth centuries, not the second or third (see Angelos Chaniotis, “The Jews of Aphrodisias: New Evidence and Old Problems.” Scripta Classica Israelica 21 [2002] 209-42). It will be intriguing to watch the reaction to Magness’ article and its impact on the study of diaspora Judaism, since the Sardis synagogue is often cited in broader discussions of the relations of diaspora Jews to Greco-Roman culture in the imperial (not later Byzantine) period.

One thought on “Redating the Sardis Synagogue?: Jodi Magness argues for the 6th century

  1. ancient-coins Greg

    It is really fascinating how ancient coins can be used for dating structures found on archaelogical sites. For instance, hoards of coins can be of great value in that regard.

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