Difficulty in Identifying Synagogues

To give an overview of all coin deposits found in ancient synagogues, we must first be able to identify a synagogue building. The term “synagogue” has a broad definition.[171] The English term is derived from the Greek word συναγωγή, which indicates a place of assembly, as well as the assembly itself.[172] Likewise, the Greek word προσευχή (proseuche), found in inscriptions, Josephus, and rabbinic texts refers to an act of worship or prayer, and a place where this worship took place.[173] The Hebrew equivalent, בית כנסת (bet knesset), literally “House of Assembly,” appears in rabbinic literature as well, and refers both to the Jewish congregation that assembled for religious, communal, and other functions, and the building in which they gathered.[174] Despite occasional references to synagogues as buildings, the texts are never explicit as to how such a building was defined, or what its specific architectural features were. It is only because of the archaeological discoveries of Jewish communal buildings in Israel/Palestine excavated over the course of the last century that we have gained a clearer image of what a typical synagogue in ancient Palestine looked like.[175] To summarize, a “typical” ancient synagogue in (post-70 CE) Palestine was a large hall constructed of stone blocks containing rows of internal columnar supports, at least one platform, and rows of benches along of the walls (See “The ancient synagogue and its components”). Nonetheless, no two synagogue buildings are alike, and there is great variation between geographical regions.[176] This often makes identifying a building as a synagogue difficult, especially if the remains are poorly preserved. Because synagogues suffer from a lack of standardization, archaeologists sometimes rely on other considerations to identify the building.[177] For example, the context and the size are frequently used to label a structure as a synagogue: a communal building in a Jewish village, even without any other markers, is designated as a synagogue.[178] However, this interpretation can be misguided. In the early 1970s, a small columnar building was discovered during the excavation of the Roman settlement at Magdala, a site situated beneath the remains of the Arab village of el-Mejdel on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.[179] The excavators labelled the building a synagogue because it was located in a Jewish village, is a rectangular hall constructed of large, basalt ashlars, and has columns and several layers of steps along the sides, interpreted as benches. However, in 2012, Rick Bonnie and Julian Richard proved that the building is a nymphaeum or fountain-house, and the “benches” were steps to go down into the pool.[180] Based on comparanda from the ancient city of Sagalassos in Turkey, they demonstrated that not every large, open building in the center of a Jewish town should be identified as a synagogue. Examining our case-studies specifically, the identification of the synagogue at Caesarea has been disputed. In 2009, Marylinda Govaars, Marie Spiro, and L. Michael White published a final report on excavations at Caesarea conducted in the 1970s and 1980s.[181] During these excavations, a building was uncovered with at least 4 Phases: first the structure of Stratum I-III, second, Stratum IV, third, Stratum V, and fourth, a new Stratum VI or a later Phase of Stratum V. In the first three strata the structure was a square building with a cistern. In Stratum IV, which is dated to the late 4th century, the structure was a large hall measuring 18 by 9 meters, oriented east-west, with the entrance on the short eastern side that faced the town, and a mosaic floor. Inside the building there was evidence of a platform, as well as a chancel screen and posts. Close by, a plaque inscribed in Hebrew listing the priestly courses and oil lamps decorated with menorahs were discovered. There was also evidence of an entry hall and an adjoining triclinium. Avi-Yonah identified this final stage of the building as an ancient synagogue, as did Govaars et al.[182] Magness, however, doubts this identification.[183] She points out that none of the inscriptions found in the mosaic floor (all of which are in Greek) are unambiguously Jewish.[184] Furthermore, because Govaars et al. do not present (un)published material from Avi-Yonah’s excavations (no pottery, glass, coins, or small finds), it is impossible to date the various strata of this building. The elevations of the various floors uncovered (including the mosaics) are mostly unknown, meaning it is impossible to determine their relationship to one another and the surrounding buildings. Last, the fragments of the chancel screen and the plaque listing the priestly courses were discovered not in Avi-Yonah’s area A, where the building is located, but in other areas more than 70 meters away. Therefore, Magness is skeptical that stratum IV indeed was a synagogue building. If this interpretation by Avi-Yonah and Govaars et al. is indeed wrong, then the deposit of 3700 bronze coins found next to its apse cannot be categorized as a synagogue deposit. Nevertheless, the twenty-four buildings included in this survey traditionally have been interpreted as synagogues and their coin deposits as synagogue deposits. When compiling the catalogue, certain decisions had to be made and Caesarea has been included based on its importance in the synagogue deposit debate. Readers should thus note that the Caesarea material has been included in the graphs and tables.


[171] For an overview of the different Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words used to denote ancient synagogues, see for example McKay 1998, pp. 110–12; Levine 2000, pp. 21–44, 2004, pp. 91–92; Spigel 2012a, pp. 28–30; Werlin 2012, pp. 12–14; Hachlili 2013, pp. 6–13.

[172] McKay 1998, pp. 105, 110–12; Levine 2000, p. 1; Hachlili 2013, pp. 7–13. The Septuagint uses the word συναγωγή as the Greek translation of עדה (edah), meaning ‘community’. Josephus in Ant. 19. 300, 305 refers to a synagogue building in Dor which was used by Jews for cultic purposes; in War 2. 285–289, he describes access to the Caesarea synagogue as being restricted, indicating that he is referring to a building, not to a congregation or assembly. This word is also used in the Theodotos inscription (Kloppenborg 2006, pp. 242–244).

[173] Rajak and Noy 1993, p. 76. See Hachlili 2013, pp. 8–10 for an overview of scholarly discussions on the interpretation of this word.

[174] Schürer et al. 1979, pp. 429–430; Hachlili 2013, p. 7.

[175] A further complication is that while we do have inscriptions from Egypt dating to the 3rd c. BCE, there is no single excavated synagogue from this area; and while we do have a lot of pre–70 buildings from Palestine, none came with inscriptions. The only inscription mentioning a synagogue from pre-70 Palestine is the Theodotus inscription.

[176] See Levine 2000, pp. 214–224.

[177] Werlin 2015, pp. 24–26.

[178] Here as well, there has been debate on how one can assess the “Jewishness” of a village: does one, for example, have to find typical Jewish iconography lying around, like menorahs and depictions of Temple vessels, or does the discovery of stone vessels or miqvehs at the site indicate Jewish purity observations? See for example Meyers 2001; Zangenberg 2013b.

[179] Corbo 1974, 1976. To be clear, I am here not referring to the 1st century synagogue with the famous stone table discovered at the site in 2009, but to another building that was excavated earlier by the Franciscans.

[180] Bonnie and Richard 2012.

[181] Govaars, Spiro, and White, 2009.

[182] In 1956 and 1962, Michael Avi-Yonah of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem conducted large-scale excavations at Caesarea, but no final report of this research has been published. He identified the building as a synagogue, describing five strata, with a possible Early Roman house-synagogue in stratum II and synagogue buildings in strata IV and V (Avi-Yonah 1960, 1963, and 1993, and Avi-Yonah and Negev 1975).

[183] See her review: Magness 2010, in which she notes that Govaars concludes that the last phase might be a synagogue, but she is tentative about this.

[184] During Late Antiquity, it was not uncommon for public buildings or ornate houses to have decorated mosaic floors. Mosaic art constructed cultural, religious, and ethnic identities, and they were created by Jews, Christians, and pagans alike. Thus, a large building with mosaic inscriptions does not need to be a synagogue (Hachlili 2009; Talgam 2014).