The Ancient Synagogue and its Components

Over the past century or so, synagogue archaeology has become an increasingly important source for the study of ancient Judaism(s).[51] To understand the synagogue coin deposits in their specific cultural and architectural contexts, it is first important to understand the design and function of these buildings.[52]

For a long time, reconstructions of ancient Jewish life were predominantly based on written sources like Josephus, the New Testament, and Rabbinic works from Late Antiquity. The discovery of dozens of ancient synagogues by archaeologists over the last century, however, drastically changed previous assumptions.[53] Scholarship had to adapt its methodologies by taking into account the discoveries from the field as well as the written sources. As a result, we now know considerably more about ancient Judaism in Palestine than a century ago, and the study of ancient synagogues has become a distinct subfield of research.

The first ancient synagogue systematically excavated in Israel/Palestine was discovered by accident during irrigation works in 1928 by members of Kibbutz Beth Alpha, on the northern slopes of the Gilboa mountains in Lower Galilee.[54] Excavations began in 1929 under the direction of Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, who uncovered the remains of a two-story basilical complex with colorful mosaic floor panels and an apse on its south-western side.[55] Impressed by his findings, Sukenik went on to write his Master’s thesis on the topic of ancient synagogues and published the first book on this subject. The field of ancient synagogues studies was born.[56] Among the first generation of Israeli archaeologists, Eleazar Sukenik and his student Michael Avi-Yonah structured the field of synagogue studies by advancing a typology for the chronological development of the ancient synagogue.[57] According to their typology, the earliest synagogues built after 70 CE were of the “Galilean type,” characterized by a basilical layout (that is, a rectangular structure with a hall extending from end to end, usually flanked by side aisles set off by colonnades), an orientation of the building towards Jerusalem (that is, they have their most important area within the building placed against the wall that is closest to Jerusalem), triportal facades (three door openings in the Jerusalem oriented wall), and flagstone pavements. These “Galilean-type” synagogues (or what Avi-Yonah called “early synagogues”) were thought to have been constructed in the late 2nd and 3rd century CE, dated largely on the basis of Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger’s surveys in 1905 and 1906.[58] Succeeding these buildings were the so-called “broadhouse synagogues” (or what Avi-Yonah called “transitional-type”): buildings that were wider than long, with their door opening on the short side. These buildings had the first examples of mosaic floors. They were dated to between the 4th and early 5th centuries CE and exhibit features of both early and late types. The latest synagogues were the “Byzantine-type” (or what Avi-Yonah called the “late synagogues”), dating to the 5th to 6th centuries CE. These synagogues have basilical layouts like the Galilean type, but often possess a forecourt or atrium, a narthex (a porch at the front of the building), an apse in the Jerusalem-oriented wall, and frequently a chancel screen in front of the apse, setting this area apart from the rest of the hall, similar to churches of that same period.[59] The mosaic pavements of the Byzantine-type synagogues tend to be more lavishly decorated than their predecessors, with depictions of biblical scenes, the zodiac cycle, or Torah shrines and Temple utensils.[60]

However, as more and more synagogues were uncovered, this synagogue typology proved to be questionable. More advanced excavation techniques and refined dating methods allowed archaeologists to avoid using architectural features or historical events to date synagogue buildings and instead utilize stratigraphic considerations and associated finds to determine when a building was constructed.[61] Nowadays it is no longer the standard practice in synagogue studies to date structures on the basis of building type alone: different layouts seem to have been used throughout the first to seventh centuries, without a linear evolution.[62] The building’s architectural layout and features were influenced not only by the date of its construction but by other factors such as the local topography, how much space was available within the city or village, the building materials available, the skills of the local craftsman, the esthetic taste of the people ordering the construction, and the amount of money that could be spent on the building. Today we know that no two synagogue buildings are identical in shape, size, or design, despite the fact that they could have been built close to one another chronologically and geographically.[63] It is evident that each community adopted and adapted elements according to its own needs and preferences, giving considerable freedom for local communities.[64]

Nonetheless, despite their variety, certain common traits are typical of the Late Antique synagogues. These features are important for understanding the contexts of the coin deposits found within these buildings and will be explored here.[65]

The first common element is location. Jewish communities had certain preferences for the positioning of their synagogue buildings vis-à-vis the rest of the village. The preferred locations were the center of the village,[66] the highest point of the village,[67] or close to other communal buildings.[68] The building needed to be seen and easily accessible: a desire for a prominent, locally determined spot within the settlement can be observed in almost all cases.

A second element is the monumentality of the building. The synagogue was often the largest building in the village, dominating the dwellings around it. While the houses of the village were mostly built of uncut fieldstones, the synagogue was usually constructed of massive, carefully hewn rectangular stones or ashlars.[69] Often a different building material than the houses around it was used, like the basalt synagogue between limestone houses at Horvat Kur, or the white limestone synagogue in the middle of grey basalt houses at Capernaum. Some synagogues had two stories with a roof supported by piers or columns. Frequently, the synagogue was the only building in the village which had a pitched roof covered by rooftiles.[70] In many instances, the synagogue complex contained multiple spaces, with side halls and courtyards around the main hall.[71] All these elements made the synagogue a distinctive building within the village landscape, taking up considerable space in the most coveted spot in town. People would have been able to detect and recognize the building from afar as it towered above the private dwellings.

A third element is orientation. As previously mentioned, synagogues in antiquity were almost universally “directed” towards Jerusalem. The specific part of the building that was oriented, however, could vary. In some synagogues, it was the external direction of the building that was oriented, be it the façade, the main entrance to the building, or the courtyard. In other synagogues, it was the internal direction, as indicated by the placement of the columns, the benches, the bemah, or the Torah shrine that was constructed against the wall closest to Jerusalem. The emphasis on a Jerusalem orientation was even greater in synagogues with a basilical plan that incorporated a niche or apse along the wall facing Jerusalem, and an entrance, atrium, and narthex on the opposite side (see below).[72] Architecturally, these plans guided synagogue attendees to face a specific direction: the direction in which the Temple once stood.

An atrium or courtyard was often an integral part of the synagogue complex. The courtyard could be in front of the building,[73] or on the side,[74] probably depending on how much space was available in the settlement. The courtyard was used for gatherings, but could also have been used for other purposes such as a class room or market place.[75] Sometimes a fountain or water basin was constructed in the middle, which allowed visitors to the synagogue to wash their hands and feet.[76] The courtyard could have a beaten earth floor but was often paved with stone blocks or mosaics and thus formed an integral part of the synagogue. In some cases, the courtyard was enclosed by walls, separating it from the rest of the settlement. [77]

Most synagogues had impressive façades with multiple entrances (often three: a large middle entrance and two smaller entrances to the sides that opened to the side aisles) and decorative elements.[78] The door openings generally consisted of a stone lintel resting on two doorposts. The lintels show great variation in decoration, with carved geometric, floral, and animal designs, or inscriptions.[79] Entrances normally had impressive thresholds cut from a single block of stone. Grooves in the thresholds indicate the direction in which the wooden doors opened. A gable, often a Syrian gable (a pediment with its base carved into an arch), surmounted the entire façade or part of it.[80] The synagogue façade not only served as an entrance but also demarcated the boundary between the settlement and synagogue spaces. It was the barrier between the holy and the profane.[81]

An important feature of the ancient synagogue was the floor. As far as we know, no post-70 CE synagogue had a beaten earth floor. Instead, the floors were paved with flagstones (flat, rectangular cut stone slabs), layers of plaster, or mosaics (made of small, cut stone cubes called tesserae).[82] Most famous are the colorful, richly decorated mosaic floors, which in recent decades have been the subject of many studies.[83] The mosaics usually depict geometric motives, floral designs, and animals, and a significant group of synagogues have mosaic floors divided into several panels with zodiac cycles,[84] biblical scenes,[85] and Jewish symbols like the Torah shrine (Aron Kodesh, or Holy ark), menorah, lulav, ethrog, shofar and incense shovels.[86] Often, inscriptions in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic accompany the images,[87] or they mention donors,[88] biblical instructions,[89] or the names of the artists who laid the mosaic.[90] Synagogue floors usually show signs of repairs, with patches of mosaics filled up with new mosaics or mortar, or several layers of plaster poured on top of each other over time, indicating that the buildings were used for extended periods.[91] These repairs can make it difficult to date a synagogue (see subchapter “Difficulties in Dating Synagogues”).

Most synagogue halls had benches lining one, two, three, or all four of their inner walls. Sometimes these benches had multiple tiers, providing more space to sit.[92] The benches were constructed out of stone and the lowest tier was often plastered onto the floor (that is, the benches were constructed before the final floor layer was put in place). In many cases, the benches were plastered too. It is assumed that people sat on pillows on top of the benches as the benches are mostly built very low to the ground. Sometimes, additional galleries (a “second floor”) provided additional seating. Preserved stone staircases[93] or concentrations of large nails (for the wooden support)[94] indicate the locations of these galleries.

A special sort of seating place was the Seat of Moses, or Cathedra d’ Moshe. This seat has been found in several synagogues (Horvat Kur, Korazin,[95] Hammath Tiberias A, ‘En Gedi, and Delos[96]), and it was a detached stone chair, often carved from a single block of stone.[97] The seat could be decorated with geometrical elements and inscriptions (Korazin), or left undecorated (Horvat Kur, Hammath Tiberias). The purpose of the seat is unclear but presumably an important official sat on it during services. Opinions differ however as to who that official was: a judge, a synagogue leader, an important donor, or an invited guest.[98] The couple of instances where the seat was found in situ indicate that it was placed in a prominent spot in the building, such as next to the bemah or Torah shrine or by the entrance.[99]

Columns to support the roof are an essential element in most public buildings and are found in almost all excavated synagogues. The typical synagogue had two rows of four to six columns, dividing the space into a nave and two side aisles. Sometimes additional columns connected the two rows on one side, forming a Π-shape. The columns often had stone-carved capitals with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian inspired decorations, sometimes placed on stone bases.[100] Occasionally the corner columns were heart-shaped.[101] The columns stood on a stylobate or a continuous row of stone blocks that supported the weight of the roofing system.

One of the most important components of the ancient synagogue was the Torah shrine: the ark resembling a chest, or the cupboard containing the Torah scrolls, placed on a stone or wooden platform.[102] The ark is listed in the Mishnah’s enumeration of the degrees of sanctity as holier than the synagogue building, but not as holy as the cloth covering the Torah scrolls themselves.[103] In Jewish art, the shrine (‘aron qodesh) is often depicted as a chest with legs and two open doors, presumably all of wood. Separate shelves inside the cupboard held the Torah scrolls.[104] The platform on which the ark stood could be reached by wooden or stone steps, many of which have been found in situ.[105] Often on top of the platform were two to four smaller columns or pilasters bearing a decorated lintel, arch, or (Syrian) gable, forming an aedicula. Pieces of all these elements have been discovered and indicate that the aedicula was decorated with carved geometric patterns,[106] lions,[107] rosettes,[108] or a conch.[109] Hanging from the arch or gable may have been a parokhet or curtain and an Eternal Light or ner tamid.[110] The Torah shrine was almost always built against the wall closest to Jerusalem (that is, against the south wall in synagogues in the Galilee and the Golan but against the north wall in synagogues in Judea).[111] The emphasis on the Torah shrine and the Jerusalem orientation symbolized the sanctity of the place and acted as a reminder of the Temple.[112]

After the late 3rd-early 4th century, the Torah shrine was often located in an apse – a semicircular or rectangular niche in the wall. Scholars believe that synagogues started to incorporate apses imitating Christian church architecture.[113] While in churches the apse was built in the east wall, in synagogues the apse was always placed in the wall closest to Jerusalem, with the forecourt and entrance to the building on its other side. Remains of iron nails found in apses indicate that wooden furniture must have stood here during the building’s use: most likely these are the remains of wooden Torah shrines, dividing screens, or cupboards.

The last important element of the ancient synagogue was the bemah (or bima). This was an elevated wooden or stone platform from which the Torah was read. The bemah and the Torah aedicula could have been placed on the same platform, but in most instances, they were separate architectural features.[114] In some synagogues, the bemah was built in front of the apse or niche that contained the Torah shrine, in other cases, the bemah and Torah shrine stood on both sides of the central entrance of the building. Besides functioning as a podium for the orator, the bemah could have had other functions, such as supporting a menorah or serving as a podium for the priestly benedictions.[115]


[51] Recently, some scholars have been stepping away from talking about one unified, monolithic Judaism during its formative centuries, instead referring to many kinds of Judaisms. This term then includes the “Judaism” of Palestine, Babylonia, Alexandria, the Samaritan regions, and many other Diaspora communities, but also the “Judaism” of orthodox Jews, Rabbis, and liberal Jews.

[52] Werlin 2015, p. 3. Some of the most general, in-depth works on the study of ancient synagogues are: Gutmann 1975, Urman and Flesher 1995, Fine 1996b, Olsson and Zetterholm 2003, Levine 2000, Hachlili 2013.

[53] See Ben David 2021 for list of all excavated and unexcavated synagogues from Israel/Palestine as are known to us in 2021.

[54] Avigad 197, p. 710. Before this excavation, early explorations of synagogues in Israel were more “architectural explorations,” since the main focus was on collecting and drawing architectural elements rather than excavating the building using stratigraphic techniques (Aviam 2019, pp. 292–293).

[55] Sukenik 1975. The two-stories reconstruction is based on the discovery of an extra layer of plaster found only in a U-shaped pattern above the aisles and the portico, but not in other areas. It seems like this extra layer of plaster was from a second story floor in these parts of the building (Sukenik 1932, pp. 17–18).

[56] Sukenik 1934. Aviam pushes the beginning date of Synagogue Studies to a bit later, with the first comprehensive study on synagogues written by Avigad in the late 1960s.

[57] Sukenik 1934; Avigad 1967; Avi-Yonah 1973; 1978; Meyers 1980a; Groh 1998; Levine 2000, pp. 319–324; Magness 2001a, 2001b; Aviam 2019 pp. 294–295; Leibner 2020.

[58] This German team surveyed Galilee at the beginning of the 20th century and discovered the remains of the synagogues at Capernaum, Arbel, Horvat ‘Ammudim, Bar’am, Meiron, Nabratein, Gush Ḥalav, Korazin, ed-Dikkeh, Umm el-Qanatir, and Horvat Sumaqa (Kohl and Watzinger 1916). They suggested a late 2nd or 3rd century date for the buildings based mainly on certain architectural features and their similarities to Roman temples in Syria. More specifically, the “Syrian gable,” a pediment with its base curved into an arch, which is found among certain Galilean synagogues also appears on Antonine and Severan period temples in Syria.

[59] Avi-Yonah 1978, p. 1132. For an in-depth analysis of the function of chancel screens in ancient synagogues, see Branham 1992; Habas 2000.

[60] For numerous examples, see Hachlili 2013, pp. 285–434 and bibliography mentioned. This characteristic, however, is no longer considered typical of the late synagogues, as synagogues with lavish mosaic floors, like the one at Hammath Tiberias, have now been dated much earlier (see catalogue).

[61] Some of the scholars that brought up the problem of dating buildings on their artistic elements are Gal 1995; Schwartz 2001; Milson 2001; and most importantly Magness 2001a; 2007.

[62] Aviam 2019, pp. 295–297. Although Avi-Yonah at first was skeptical about the revised dating of the Capernaum synagogue based on the pottery and coins found below the building instead of its architectural features, he eventually admitted this to be a better approach to dating the building (Avi-Yonah 1973, pp. 40–42; 1981).

[63] Probably because Judaism never recognized a single authority or unified legislative body to govern them, in contrast to Christianity (which would explain the more uniform church building).

[64] Despite the uniqueness of each synagogue building, some scholars still divide them into regional or typological groups. Recently, Aviam has divided the Galilean synagogues up into two groups: The Mountainous Galilee Group and the Northern Valleys Group, each with its specific characteristics (Aviam 2019). Magness divides them into four groups: Galilean-Type Synagogues, Transitional Synagogues, Byzantine Synagogues, and Late Ancient Synagogues (Magness 2021).

[65] Levine 2000, p. 314. In the following fifty pages of his book, Levine goes into great detail describing the separate parts of the ancient synagogue. My summary here is based predominantly on his research. See also Milson 2001, 2007. I need to point out here that I am not including the Samaritan synagogues in this overview, which sometimes looked very different from the “Jewish synagogues” (for example, their orientation was directed towards mount Gerizim). Since no examples of coin deposits have been found in the circa 10 Samaritan examples found in Israel/Palestine, they have not been included in this study. See Pummer 1999, 2018.

[66] For example, at Capernaum, Eshtemoa, Korazin, Susiya, and Merot.

[67] For example, at Horvat Kur, Meiron, and Khirbet Kanaf. When no natural hill was available, the synagogue could have been placed on top of an artificial platform like at Capernaum, Susiya, and Korazin.

[68] For example, at Sardis, Korazin, and H. Shema’.

[69] With some exceptions, like the Horvat Shema’ synagogue, which is built of roughly hewn fieldstones, or when an existing housing or community complex was transformed into a synagogue, like at Dura-Europos, Sardis, and every other Diaspora synagogue found until now.

[70] Thousands of roof tile fragments have been discovered in association with some synagogues, as for example, at Horvat Kur, Wadi Hamam, and Qasrin.

[71] The function of the different side rooms is still debated. Some of the rooms could have been used as classrooms or a beth midrash, or as storage rooms for the synagogue utensils (Levine 2000, pp. 316–319; Urman 1995a). We will see that side rooms are often the location of coin deposits.

[72] Levine 2000, pp. 197–199; 237; 326–330. The inclusion of a niche or apse to the main hall to host the Torah shrine in later synagogue buildings can be seen as an imitation of Christian churches and their location of the altar (Habas 2000; Milson 2007, pp. 84-105; Meyers 2010; Rutgers 2010; Tervahauta 2021).

[73] For example, at Beth Alpha, Beth Sheʾan, Maʿoz Hayim, Rehob, Naʿaran, Gerasa, Hammath Gader, Maʿon-Nirim, Sardis, and Dura-Europos.

[74] For example, at Capernaum and Susiya.

[75] Levine 2000, pp. 330–334. Y. Megillah 3 talks about the “town square” being used for public prayer.

[76] This washing could have been part of the purifying ritual before entering the synagogue building. See Levine 2000, pp. 333–334. Sometimes, as in Ostia, coins have also been found in these drains: were they deliberately thrown into the fountain, ending up in the drainage system?

[77] For example, at Capernaum and Eshtemoa.

[78] Although synagogues in the Golan resemble the Galilean ones in layout, they usually only have one doorway in the main façade instead of three.

[79] For example, the lintel at Qiryat Sefer was decorated with a rosette in a triangle, the lintel at Gush Halav had an eagle carved on its underside, a lintel at Meroth had a Hebrew inscription, and the Bar’am small synagogue lintel had an Aramaic inscription.

[80] See Hachlili 2013, pp. 126–127 for examples. Many synagogues had entrances from different directions but not all door openings were always surrounded by decorated lintels and façades; it is unknown if this indicates that these entrances were not seen as equally important, or if different entrances were used for different reasons (At Horvat Kur and Wadi Hammam, for example, water basins were found close to only one of the entrances: does this indicate the need for some form of ritual handwashing before using this particular entrance?).

[81] Thresholds are important liminal spaces. See also Fine 1996, pp. 21–47; 1997.

[82] As we will see, this is important for our coin deposits: coins found under the floor of the synagogue were not retrievable without breaking up the floor.

[83] For example Kitzinger 1965; Naveh 1978; Ovadiah 1987; Hachlili 2009; Talgam 2014 and dozens of articles on the floors of individual synagogue buildings.

[84] For example at Huqoq, Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias, Na’aran, Susiya, and Sepphoris.

[85] For example, the Binding of Isaac at Beth Alpha and Sepphoris, Daniel in the Lion’s Den at Susiya and Na’aran, and the Ark of Noah and building of the tower of Babel at Huqoq.

[86] For example at Sepphoris, Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias, Na’aran, Beth She’an A, Susiya, and others.

[87] Two separate books have been published dealing with the Greek inscriptions (Roth-Gerson 1987) and the Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions (Naveh 1987) in synagogues.

[88] For example at Hammath Gader, Na’aran, Horvat Kur, Beth Alpha, ‘En Gedi, Susiya, Sepphoris, and others.

[89] For example at ‘En Gedi, Tiberias North, Rehob, and others.

[90] For example at Beth Alpha, and Beth She’an A and B.

[91] At Horvat Kur, evidence of at least four different plaster floors on top of each other was found.

[92] Hachlili 2013, pp. 149-151. For an in-depth analysis of seating capacities in ancient synagogues, see Spigel 2012a. For a discussion of seating areas or seating galleries for women, see Duncan 2012; Spigel 2012b; Zangenberg 2019a.

[93] For example at Khirbet Shema’ and perhaps Capernaum and Horvat Kur.

[94] For example at Horvat Kur.

[95] This seat was found 200m away from the synagogue but is now reconstructed inside the hall.

[96] However, there is no definite evidence that building GD 80 at Delos actually was a synagogue. If this interpretation is indeed incorrect, then we do not have an example of an (immovable) Seat of Moses here. See Schindler 2012, Trümper 2020.

[97] Rahmani 1990; Hachlili 2013, pp. 217–220; Levine 2000, pp. 347–351.

[98] An inscription from Phocaea in western Asia Minor, dated to the third century CE, mentions a woman, Tation, who is credited with constructing both the synagogue building and the enclosure of the courtyard in front of it with her own money. In gratitude for her benefaction, the synagogue honored her with a golden crown and the “προεδρία,” or the privilege of sitting at the front of the synagogue in a seat of honor (Brooten 1982, pp. 143–144).

[99] It is interesting that the only Seat of Moses found in situ in Israel/Palestine was discovered in the synagogue at Horvat Kur, which contained multiple coin deposits, but no coins under the seat.

[100] For an overview of different capitals and column bases found in synagogues, see Hachlili 2013, pp. 102–105 and pp. 142–149.

[101] For example, at Arbel, Barʿam, H. ʿAmmudim, Capernaum, Gush Halav, Meiron, and Wadi Hamam.

[102] For a most recent summary of Torah shrines found in ancient synagogues, see Tervahauta 2021.

[103] Levine 2000, p. 351. See m. Megillah 3:1; b. Megiilah 26b.

[104] Meyers 1997: Meyers believes that some Torah shrines were too small and shallow to hold all Torah scrolls needed for year-round worship (for example, at Dura-Europos). In that case, another room would have been used as a repository for the scrolls not in use. The scrolls could be switched out every week when needed for the service.

[105] For example, at Um el-Qanatir, Sardis, Dura-Europos, ‘En Gedi, and others. It should be noted that some authors refer to this platform as a bemah. However, the Torah shrine and the bemah are two separate elements of the synagogue (see below) and should be studied separately.

[106] For example, at Um el-Qanatir, Korazin.

[107] For example, at Horvat Kur, Nabratein, Korazin, ‘En Nashut.

[108] For example, at Horvat Kur, Um el-Qanatir, Korazin.

[109] For example, at Um el-Qanatir, Korazin.

[110] Safrai 1989; Levine 2000, pp. 356–360.

[111] This enabled prayer towards Jerusalem, a custom that is also mentioned in Biblical literature, see for example 2 Chron 6:20-21; Dan 6:10-11.

[112] Hachlili 2000, p. 2. For an overview of how the synagogue slowly became a sacred space and symbolic replacement for the Jerusalem temple, see Fine 1997.

[113] See for example Milson 2007; Tervahauta 2021.

[114] For example, at Korazin, Meroth, and Capernaum.

[115] One of the expressions used for this ritual was aliya la-dukhan or “ascending the podium”, implying there was a platform on which the priest stood to give the blessings. On the use of the bemah for priestly benedictions, see Safrai 1989.