Synagogue functions, Leadership, and Organization

Although scholars may never know exactly when synagogues first appeared in Palestine and the broader Mediterranean world, archaeological[116] and literary[117] evidence suggests that by the first century CE synagogues were common throughout the region.[118] Not only does this evidence indicate they were prevalent in the Jewish landscape, but they appear to have been important public institutions in most communities.[119] By Late Antiquity, worship was only one of the many activities that took place within these buildings.[120] In addition to being the location for regular Sabbath meetings where scripture was read, homilies were given, and prayers may have been recited,[121] synagogues were also used for study[122] and communal meals,[123] as hostels,[124] as a place for legal proceedings and the carrying out of punishments,[125] for political gatherings,[126] and possibly as a place to collect and distribute charity,[127] to perform magical rituals,[128] or even as private property for “own purposes.”[129]

To better understand who had access to the ancient synagogue building and who could have been involved in the deposition of coins within it, it is important to provide an overview of the associated religious, administrative, and political figures.

With the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and cessation of the sacrificial cult in 70 CE, Jewish religious practices underwent significant changes.[130] The synagogue took over some of the significance of the Temple as the new “meeting place with God,” and worship and prayer became some of the primary functions of this building.[131] However, although synagogues were clearly places of religious practice, there was no central authority in control of them during the first centuries CE. Whereas it was once though that synagogue procedures would have been under rabbinic authority, scholarship from the second half of the 20th century has shown that rabbinic influence and control over synagogues in Late Antiquity was limited. Instead, most scholars now agree that synagogue practices were under local leadership.[132] Thus, to understand why and by whom coin deposits were placed inside these buildings, we need to expand our search beyond the rabbinic realm and explore who else was involved in synagogue practices.

The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 brought a sharp decline to the priestly political and religious hegemony. It has generally been assumed that in the post-70 era, the priesthood became a vestige of its former self, a kind of honorary caste among the Jews, enjoying no real standing or authority.[133] Lately, however, this picture of an eclipsed priestly class has undergone serious reevaluation.[134] Some scholars argue that literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence indicates that priests continued to be influential after the First Jewish Revolt, retaining much of their status and contributing to Jewish social, religious, and political dynamics in Palestine for centuries after the year 70.[135] Priestly involvement in synagogues could have been expressed in several ways, including priests who might have served as benefactors or synagogue officials, or had a role in synagogue liturgy. The first two categories have little to do with priestly lineage per se, and the role of a priest as benefactor or synagogue leader was probably acquired for other reasons (social standing in the community, personality, family ties, wealth, or wisdom).[136] One of the strongest pieces of evidence in favor of post-70 priestly involvement in synagogue liturgy, however, is the recognition in rabbinic literature that such was the case.[137] Consistent references to priests in synagogue readings, prayers, blessings, and other ritual activities seem to reflect a tacit (and likely reluctant) acknowledgement that priests retained a high profile in public worship in the second century and beyond.[138] Mishnah Megillah may allude to a central role played by priests in the synagogue liturgy: “Whoever reads the prophetic passages also leads in the recitation of the Shema‘, leads in the ‘Amidah, and raises his hand [as part of the priestly blessing].”[139] To give the priestly blessing, the priest may have ascended the bemahinside the synagogue building, facing the congregation and with his back towards Jerusalem. Nevertheless, besides the involvement of priests during liturgy there is very little evidence connecting priests to other activities that took place in the synagogue. We do, however, possess attestations for other officials alongside rabbis and priests.

The archisynagogue or archisynagogos (ἀρχισυναγώγος) is the most commonly mentioned figure associated with the synagogue and its daily operations, both in Palestine and the Diaspora.[140] Scholarly opinion regarding this office has fluctuated over the past century. The dominant view maintains that this office was primarily, if not exclusively, spiritual and religious.[141] However, some scholars have pointed out that the epigraphic evidence focuses on the archisynagogue as a benefactor, one who contributed to the construction of the facility or its repair and restoration.[142] Only recently has the pendulum swung back, with epigraphic evidence contributing decisively to an understanding of this office.[143] According to Rajak and Noy, the archisynagogue was primarily a patron and benefactor whose title was honorary in nature.[144] It was bestowed by Jewish communities only on those individuals who helped maintain and enhance the physical and material aspects of the synagogue. There is, however, a fourth alternative, whereby the archisynagogue often assumed not only religious and financial roles but also communal, political, and administrative ones.[145] This more inclusive idea of the office recognizes the need to consider all the primary sources, even those that appear to be polemical and historically problematic. According to this view, the archisynagogue, or its later Hebrew (Palestinian?) equivalent Rosh HaKnesset, was closely connected to the daily operations of the synagogue as an institution, including the financial aspects, as well as involved with the spiritual activities.

A different powerful office was that of the patriarch or nasi (נָשִׂיא‎).The status and authority of the patriarch in Late Antiquity is a subject that has attracted much scholarly attention over the last couple of decades.[146] Opinions have ranged from those seeing the office as something crucial to the Roman Empire, affecting Jewish communities everywhere, to those who have minimized its importance, seeing it as a marginal institution. What we can say is that the rabbis applied the title to both the president of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish tribunal in antiquity) and the appointed political head of the people by the Roman government.[147] The texts relating specifically to the relationship between the Patriarchate and the synagogue are intriguing. Although few in number, they point to the seemingly significant role of this office in synagogues, at least in certain times and places.[148] The clearest attestations of a major role played by the patriarch are the decrees from the Theodosian Code, dated to the late 4th-5th centuries.[149] These decrees place the patriarch in Jewish communities at the same level as bishops in Christian centers. Moreover, a decree from 415 CE states that “henceforth he shall cause no synagogues to be founded, and if there are any in deserted places, he shall see to it that they are destroyed, if it can be done without sedition,” giving the patriarch a pivotal role in the construction of synagogue buildings.[150] The “right” to build synagogues may be interpreted as some sort of formal grant issued by the nasi to local communities, but perhaps without any real fiscal or administrative responsibilities or authority. Thus, the nasi held a public office above the individual community level and was probably not involved in the daily operations of the synagogue.

Other officials involved with synagogue practices include the archon (ἄρχων), a person who might have functioned as a community leader or as head of a synagogue board.[151] At times, the archon is mentioned in inscriptions as an official functioning alongside the archisynagogue, other times, one and the same person held both titles. [152] Several passages in the New Testament appear to use the terms synonymously as well: Mark and Luke-Acts use the title “archisynagogue” (e.g. Mark 5:35-38; Luke 8:49), but Luke uses the term “archon of the synagogue’’ (Luke 8:41). Matthew refers to Jairus simply as “archon’’ (Matthew 9:18), while Mark calls him an “archisynagogue” (Mark 5:22). One explanation may be that in smaller communities these various positions were combined, whereas in the cities they designated distinct positions,[153] another may be that New Testament writers often did not use “official” titles, but rather described certain functions (to make things clearer to their non-Jewish followers?). In any case, the archon probably dealt with the secular businesses of the synagogue, such as financial agreements, but we do not possess a description of his duties.[154]

Other inscriptions, mostly from Rome, mention a pater synagogues or pater synagogos, anhonorific title denoting a major patron and benefactor of the community, which was also used in pagan contexts.[155] Yet despite the consensus that this was a position of honor, a number of sources suggest this may not always have been the case. The Stobi inscription, which mentions the pater synagogues Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos, conveys the impression that this individual played a crucial and pivotal role in synagogue affairs. Although the inscription never states this explicitly, both its gist and tone seem to point to Claudius’ deep involvement in local synagogue life.[156] The most important source attesting to the role of the pater in synagogue affairs, however, is the Theodosian Code, found in Jerusalem. This decree from 330 CE includes the following rule: “We order that the priests, archisynagogues, fathers of synagogues, and the others who serve in synagogues shall be free from all corporal liturgy.’’[157] The mention of “fathers of synagogues’’ alongside other functionaries such as priests and archisynagogues seems to indicate a position of responsibility.

Elders or presbyters (πρεσβύτεροι) also played an important role in some synagogues. However, the use of the term in inscriptions seems to be concentrated mainly in Asia Minor and southern Italy.[158] It is all but absent from Rome and Egypt, and appears only infrequently in North Africa, Syria, and Palestine.[159] The function of this office is unknown: Was it administrative, financial, religious-liturgical, or all three? The definition of this title may have differed from place to place. It has often been assumed that the council of presbyters was the chief governing board of a community or congregation, from which archons were then selected to run daily affairs.[160] In any case, the term “πρεσβύτεροι, presbyteroi” means “old men”, i.e. a congregational or family related collective governing group in addition to the single leading figure.

Another title – grammateus – has generally been understood in a secretarial vein, as were similar titles in a Greco-Roman context.[161] Possible tasks might have included responsibility for keeping records of official meetings and decisions, handling correspondence, managing the archives, compiling synagogue membership lists, and serving as a notary.[162] In Egyptian papyri, a grammateus is a person who is versed in writing and reading, is able to set up documents, and administers archives. In synagogues, these people were important as they were able to read Scripture, knew how to interpret laws and regulations, and could draft documents like divorce letters.

The office of phrontistes appears to have been administrative in nature, referring to one who manages or oversees some sort of facility.[163] Perhaps the best indication of the possible roles of this official is found in two inscriptions from Aegina, in Greece.[164] Although the noun phrontistes is not used there, its verbal form is invoked twice. The first reference is to the archisynagogue Theodoros, who served (phrontisas) the synagogue for four years and built the structure from its foundations. In the second inscription, Theodoros the Younger oversaw (phrontizon) the laying of a mosaic floor in the synagogue. Both men thus seemed to have been responsible for (part of) the construction of the synagogue building.[165] In how far this profession, however, also existed in Palestine is unknown.

The most prominent functionary in the Palestinian synagogue was the hazzan.[166] This seems to have been a multifaceted position, ranked below the sage and schoolteacher (see below).[167] As for his function, by the early third century CE, we can read about the active role of the hazzan in public prayer (t. Megillah 3:21; y. Berakhot 9, 1, 12d; y. Berakhot 5, 3, 9c) as well as in morning rituals (Tractate Soferim 19:9). Besides his specific liturgical functions, he was also charged with making the public announcements in the synagogue.[168] Last, he was responsible for blowing the trumpet from a high roof of the town to usher in Sabbath and festivals (m. Sukkah 5:5; y. Shabbat 14, 1, 16a), sometimes he was a schoolteacher (m. Shabbat 1:3), and he might have been responsible for collecting outstanding pledges (Leviticus Rabbah 16:5). The hazzan seems to have been closely connected to the daily operations of the synagogue and his office grew in importance throughout the centuries.

The last administrative title linked to synagogues is the schoolteacheror melamed tinokot (​“the teacher of the young”). Schoolteachers are mentioned in rabbinic literature as an essential component of the communal network (e.g., b. Sanhedrin 17b; b. Taanit 24a).[169] Generally speaking, they conducted their lessons in the synagogue. In places where the teacher was a communal employee, as in Palestine, an attempt was made to enhance their status: hiring and retaining good teachers was high on the agendas of many communities.[170] The obligation to pay taxes to cover the teacher’s tuition is repeatedly mentioned in Palestinian rabbinic sources. According to one tradition, the payment of taxes for such purposes is even more important than giving to charity. Thus, money needed to be collected from the community to support these officials. This task could have been performed by a tax collector, who may or may not have been the same person as the local charity supervisor. In this regard, tax collectors or charity supervisors can also be linked to synagogue leadership.

As we previously stated, to better understand who had access to the ancient synagogue building and who could have been responsible for, or involved in the placement of coins within these buildings, it was important to take a look at the different synagogue functionaries. However, as the reader might have realized, trying to tease out who might have been responsible for what specific functions related to the synagogue is difficult. One complication is that our primary sources come from all over the Roman empire and deal with a time period of over 700 years: clearly, different officials will have existed in different parts of the world and in different time periods. If, for example, the function of the phrontistesdid not exist in Palestine, then this person could not have been responsible for placing coin deposits in the Palestinian synagogues. It also does not help that secondary authors often use different English words to translate the same Greek, Latin, or Hebrew title. For example, one scholar might translate סופר as schoolteacher, but another scholar as scribe, copyist, secretary, or treasurer. It is clear that each of these different translations comes with its own semantic connotations in English: taking translations at face value would thus be flawed. However, if the goal is to better understand the function(s) of the coin deposits, it is important to get to the motives behind their placement. Knowing what specific roles priests, archisynagogoi, hazzans, grammatei, and schoolteachers fulfilled within the realm of the synagogue can give us indications of the possible purpose(s) of the different deposits. These roles, and their connection to the synagogue deposits, will be further explored in chapters “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: FUNCTIONS AND INTERPRETATION” and “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITS”.


[116] The archaeological evidence consists of a handful of synagogue buildings dated to the first century CE, including Gamla (which might even have been erected already in late 1st half of the 1st century BCE (Levine 2000, p. 54)), Herodium, Masada, and Magdala. Other buildings that may have been synagogues in the first century CE include Capernaum, Qiryat Sefer, Horvat ‘Ethri, and Jericho. Although there is no building associated with it, the Theodotus inscription provides evidence for a first-century synagogue complex in Jerusalem (see footnote 145). See, for example, Grabbe 1995; Kee and Cohick 1999; Levine 2004; Runesson, Binder and Olsson 2007, pp. 20–78; pp. 7–26; Hachlili 2013, pp. 23–54.

[117] Literary evidence is found in Philo (Good Person, 80-83), Josephus (Life 277-295, J.W. 2.128-132, 2.285-305, 4.406-409, Ant. 19:300-305, Ag. Ap. 1.209-211, 2.10-11), and the New Testament. See Runesson, Binder and Olsson 2007, pp. 79-117; Rocca 2011.

[118] For a variety of theories about the origin of the synagogue institute, see Flesher 1995; Binder 1999; Levine 2000, pp. 19–41; Runesson 2001; Olsson and Zetterholm 2003; Catto 2007; Hachlili 2013, pp. 6–21. It is important for our historical overview to understand that synagogues have been around since before 70 CE, as we will see that their relationship to the Temple is important for our understanding of some of the coin deposit categories. However, since no coin deposits have been found in the pre-70 synagogues known to us, we will not be discussing them here in detail.

[119] Levine 1987, p. 7: “By the middle of the first century of this era, the synagogue represented the central Jewish institution in any given community.”

[120] This overview is partly based on Safrai 1995; Binder 1999, pp. 389–450; Spigel 2008, pp. 1–6.

[121] New Testament (Mark 1:21-29, 3:1-5; Acts 15:21), Josephus (J.W. 2.285-305, Ag. Ap. 1.209-211, 2.175), and Philo (Prob. 80-83; Leg. 156).

[122] Josephus (Ant. 16.43), New Testament (Mark 1:21, 6:2).

[123] Josephus (Ant. 14.214-216, 16.164). See for many more references, Ottenheijm and Pater 2021.

[124] Roth-Gerson 1987, p. 76. Reading and instruction in the Torah, communal meals, and using the synagogue space as a hostel is also known from the Theodotus inscription (see footnote 145).

[125] New Testament (Mark 13:11, Matthew 23:34, Acts 22:19). See also Ryan 2021.

[126] New Testament (John 15:20), Josephus (Life 2.276-289).

[127] New Testament (Matthew 6:2), see “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITS”.

[128] Mock 2003. According to some, this could have included the Sotah-ritual: a trial by ordeal administered to the wife whose husband suspected her of adultery but who had no witnesses to make a formal case (however, see Rosen-Zvi 2012, who believes the practice was never actually performed and was pure textual). Other healings rituals performed in the synagogue, however, are described in the New Testament and Rabbinic literature (see “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITS”).

[129] Miller 1999, p. 56; See y. Megillah 3:73d, which contains the story of the sale of the synagogue of the Alexandrians in Jerusalem to a rabbi who intended to use it “for his own purposes.”

[130] In contrast to earlier synagogue scholarship (Clark 1994; Flesher 1995; Kee 1990; White 1990b), in which the year 70 was seen as a turning point for synagogue life, more recent scholarship has shown that the reality was far more nuanced than that (Schwartz and Weiss 2012; Runesson and Cirafesi 2021). However, although the fall of Jerusalem might not have had an immediate impact on the synagogue as an institution, it is clear that certain kinds of development indeed took place from the pre-70 period to Late Antiquity, partially because of the loss of the Temple, but also because of other socio-historical factors, such as the rise of Christianity, and the emerging rabbinic movement.

[131] Steven Fine calls this the “ever-increasing sanctification” of the synagogue (Fine 1996a).

[132] E.R. Goodenough was the first to suggest that rabbinic sources do not reflect the Jewish religion as found in the excavated synagogues. His solution was a theory that suggested a dichotomy between a rabbinic Judaism and a more common Hellenistic-mystical Judaism, as expressed in the archaeological evidence (Goodenough 1953-1968). Goodenough’s dichotomy, however, was too simplistic and therefore largely has been rejected by scholars (Smith 1975; Fine 2005, pp. 36–43). However, what remains from Goodenough’s theory is the idea that rabbis were not a monolithic group whose writings reflect an accurate image of ancient Judaism in Palestine. Recently, scholars have been looking into the possible power the rabbis had on what went on inside the synagogue, as well as the influences of priests, the Patriarchate, the archisynagogos, donors, and other important figures in ancient society (for example, Levine 1989, pp. 99–195, 1992, 2000, pp. 35–58 and 412–500, 2012, pp. 428–434; Zavahy 1990; Binder 1999, pp. 343–388; Cohen S.J.D. 1999a and 1999b; Miller 1999; Swartz 1999; Irshai 2003; Grey 2011; Leibner 2016; Ryan 2021, pp. 144–148).

[133] Levine 2000, p. 519–529; Grey 2021, no. 11.

[134] For considerations of this issue, see Goodman 1983, p. 99; Fine 1999; Swartz 1999; Irshai 2003; but especially Grey 2011; 2021.

[135] Cohen S.A. 1990, pp. 158-163; Levine 1993, pp. 670–673; Grey 2011.

[136] Levine 2000, pp. 520–521.

[137] Grey 2011, pp. 203–206.

[138] Thus, this adds to the idea of the increasing “sanctification” of the synagogue, taking over roles that the Temple used to have (Fine 1996).

[139] m. Megillah 4, 5 as translated by Levine 2000, p. 526.

[140] Brooten 1982, pp. 15-18; Binder 1999, pp. 348–352; Levine 2000, p. 415. For an overview of title bearer inscriptions found in synagogues, see Duncan 2012, pp. 15–17. The word “ἀρχισυνάγω, archisynagogos” is Greek and appears mostly in early (0-300 CE) and Christian written sources. It was probably synonym for the Hebrew “רֹאשׁ הַכְּנֶסֶת, Rosh haKnesset,” which mostly appears in later Rabbinic texts (e.g. m. Yoma 7:1). In the Babylonian Talmud, however, the word is translated as “פּרנס, parnas” (b. Ketubot 8b).

[141] Juster 1914, pp. 450–453; La Piana 1927, pp. 359-360; Krauss 1966, pp. 114-121. This was mainly based on information from the New Testament (Mark 5:22, 35, 36, 38; Luke 8:49, 13:14; Acts 13:15, 18:8, 18:17), which highlights the religious role of the archisynagogue, and this is also the thrust of the relevant rabbinic (m. Yoma 7:1; m. Sotah 7: 7-8) and patristic (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 137,2; Epiphanus Panarion 30, 11, 1; Palladius, Dialogue on the Life of John Chrysostom 15) sources.

[142] Leon 1960, pp. 171–172; Linder 1987, pp. 137. For women as possible archisynagogoi, see Brooten 1982; 2000 and Duncan 2012.

[143] Levine 2000, pp. 415-427.

[144] Rajak and Noy 1993, pp. 75–93. This interpretation is based exclusively on epigraphic data, dismissing the literary material as tendentious and historically unreliable.

[145] Levine 2000, p. 416; Ryan 2021, pp. 144–145. The title is probably most famously known from the Theodotos inscription, an inscription in Greek, found in Jerusalem in 1913 and dated to the first century CE. It commemorates the dedication of a synagogue building which presumably stood somewhere nearby. Although no remains survive of the building, the inscription provides valuable information about early synagogues. It reads as follows: “Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and an archisynagogos, grandson of an archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of Torah and for teaching the commandments; furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water installation for lodging needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid by his ancestors, the elders, and Simonides.” (CIJ II 1404; see also Runesson, Binder, and Olsson, 2008, pp. 52–54). In how far these characteristics can still be applied to Late Antiquity, however, is hard to say.

[146] Mantel 1961, pp. 1–53, 175–253; Levine, 1966, pp. 1–32; 1979, pp. 649– 88; Cohen J. 1976, pp. 1–29 Goodman, 1983, pp. 111–118; 1992, pp. 127–139; Rosenfeld, 1988, pp. 239–257; Levine 1999, pp. 77–88; Schwartz 1999, pp. 208–222.

[147] On the Sanhedrin and its connection to the rabbis and patriarchs, see Flatto 2020.

[148] Levine 1999, pp. 77–88 and 2000, p. 455.

[149] Linder 1987, pp. 54–90; Levine 2000, pp. 461–463.

[150] Levine 2000, p. 81.

[151] Schürer 1879, pp. 18–20; Juster 1914, pp. 444–446; Frey 1930–1931; Binder 1999, pp. 344–348; Ryan 2021, pp. 144–145.

[152] Lifschitz 1967, p. 33.

[153] Levine 2000, p. 428.

[154] The written evidence on the office is spotty and uncertain. Besides the New Testament references, we have mentioning of the position in 47 catacomb inscriptions from Rome, a possible text from John Chrysostom (De Solstitia et De aequinoctia), and a handful of dedicatory inscriptions from around Greece and Asia Minor (Leon 1960, p. 176; Levine 2000, pp. 427–428).

[155] Juster 1914, pp. 448–449; Leon 1960, pp. 186–188; Linder 1987, p. 137; Burtchaell 1992, pp. 249–250; Levine 2000, pp. 429–431. There was also a Mater Synagoges, but the primary sources for this title are even more rare, mentioned only in three Greek and three Latin inscriptions from Italy (Levine 2000, pp. 431–432).

[156] White, 1990a, p. 71.

[157] Linder 1987, p. 135.

[158] See for a reference to the thirty inscriptions, found from Spain to Syria, Levine 2000, pp, 432–434.

[159] Here it appears more prominently in biblical and post-biblical literature as the Hebrew “זָקֵן, zaqen” (Levine 2000, p. 432).

[160] Baron 1942, vol 1, p. 99.

[161] Juster 1914, pp. 447–448; Baron 1942, pp. 102–103; Leon 1960, pp. 183–186; Burtchaell 1992, pp. 251–253; Binder 1999, pp. 363–368.

[162] Levine 2000, p. 434: practically all our evidence comes from Roman catacomb inscriptions.

[163] Lifschitz 1967, Nos. 36, 37, 66; Levine 2000, p. 434.

[164] Lifschitz, 1967, Nos. 1-2.

[165] Which could be important to understand who was responsible for some of our coin deposits, see “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITS”.

[166] At least as reflected by the rabbinic literature. See Levine 2000, pp. 435-42; Runesson et al. 2008, nos. 23-25, 86). The position might have been equivalent to the νεωκόρος of Hellenistic temples or the Greek designation ὑπηρέτης, which is mentioned in relation to the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4:20 (Runesson and Cirafesi 2021, p. 51).

[167] M. Sotah 9:15; b. Sotah 49a-b.

[168] See Levine 2000, p. 441. The stories about the hazzan include announcing charity donations and announcing a stolen object, which might give a clue to our understanding on who was responsible for the money collecting in synagogues (see “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: FUNCTIONS AND INTERPRETATION”).

[169] Aberbach 1982, pp. 33–92.

[170] Y. Sanhedrin 19, 9, 23d; b. Shabbat 56a; b. Sanhedrin 17b. See Levine 2000, pp. 442–443; Heszer 2001.