Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art

New Discoveries and Current Research


Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research

By Rachel Hachlili
(Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), xxxiv + 738 pp., $282.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Benjamin D. Gordon

The centuries after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. have been referred to as the “Talmudic Age” of Jewish history. This was an era of thriving scholastic discourse and literary production by the rabbinic sages. However, as Rachel Hachlili demonstrates in her recent book, alongside the rabbinic culture of Roman Palestine in this period was a vibrant Jewish visual culture, consisting of mosaic artists, sculptors, architects, painters and art patrons. They illustrated scenes from the Hebrew Bible in original ways, drew inspiration from one another’s work and circulated architectural plans, model books, pattern books and sketch books. Their craft was largely devoted to the construction and ornamentation of the sacred Jewish space—the synagogue.

Even while the Temple stood, a local tradition of synagogue architecture and art was developing in ancient Palestine.* Until the recent discovery of the synagogue at Migdal (Magdala) on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, synagogues of the Second Temple period were seen as so generic in design as to suggest use primarily as communal assembly halls rather than as patently religious structures. Yet the Migdal synagogue’s geometric mosaic floor is unique among its contemporaries, as is the puzzling limestone block discovered on its premises and bearing the earliest menorah ever found in a synagogue. The block may have been used as a reading table for the Torah. It is marked not only by the Temple imagery appearing on it in relief, but also by the remains of horn-like protrusions in its top four corners, which recall the horns of sacrificial altars. This is precisely the kind of game-changing discovery that Hachlili’s book includes, and just in time.

The connection between the Temple cult and the synagogue is underscored by Hachlili in her lengthy discussion of Qazion in the Upper Galilee, which she surveyed and excavated together with Ann Killebrew. A Greek inscription on a lintel records a dedication for the well-being of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus and his sons around the year 200 C.E., “in accord with the vow of the Jews.” The lintel is among the remains of a large colonnaded complex, which Hachlili views as a place of ritual activity by Jewish priests and an architectural precursor to later Galilean synagogues. In fact it may simply reflect Jewish patronage of the imperial cult, as Killebrew has suggested. 1 Yet it still offers an intriguing glimpse into a period in which religious structures built by Jews or for Jews are quite rare on the archaeological record.

In the May/June 2015 issue of BAR, Rachel Hachlili examines ancient synagogues in Israel and throughout the ancient Near East. Read more >>

During the relative boom in synagogue construction in the Galilee and Golan in the fourth–sixth centuries C.E., the creative imaginations of synagogue architects, artists, and patrons never drifted too far from the Jerusalem Temple, even if it had been in ruins for centuries. Hachlili gives due focus to the Torah ark, the central design element and focal point of synagogues of this later era. The ark was usually placed on the Jerusalem-oriented wall, connecting it physically to the holy city, and constructed in the form of the aedicula, or small Roman shrine. Yet it housed the scrolls of the Torah instead of a divine statue.

The monumental façades of the most elaborate of the Galilean synagogues, with their triple portals and Syrian gables, also drew inspiration from sacred architecture. For parallels Hachlili regularly points to pagan sanctuaries in Syria of the second and third centuries C.E. Some will view these as too early to be of significance for the later synagogues.

Hachlili nevertheless keeps the reader fairly informed on the history of the debate. Even the Zodiac wheels on the mosaic floors of several of these synagogues are connected by Hachlili to the ritual calendars that once guided ancient Temple rites but later related to new synagogue liturgies and customs.

Hachlili’s organizational approach in the book may come across as too indebted to the typical art catalog, disassociating individual artistic elements from their larger visual and spatial contexts. She also seems wedded to older assumptions of a Jewish discomfort with figural art. She is of the opinion, for example, that figural imagery appears on synagogue floors precisely because it would have been trodden upon, an act meant to neutralize the image’s connection to idolatry. This is hardly a convincing assertion given the growing number of Biblical scenes on these mosaic floors, as at the newly excavated sites of Hamam and Huqoq (see Hammath Tiberias mosaic on p. 63).**

Yet one cannot deny the volume’s usefulness to those interested in the design elements and iconography of ancient synagogues. The book has a staggering number of 420 black-and-white illustrations and 64 color plates. It has intriguing chapters on the role of women in synagogues and the ubiquity of coins under synagogue floors. It also includes a lengthy preliminary report on an excavation codirected by Hachlili (with Killebrew and Zvi U. Maoz) at the Qasrin synagogue in the Golan. The book will prove an essential volume for years to come.



* Rachel Hachlili, “Synagogues—Before and After the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” BAR, May/June 2015.

** Joey Corbett, “New Synagogue Excavations in Israel and Beyond,” BAR, July/August 2011; Jodi Magness, “Samson in the Synagogue,” BAR, January/February 2013; Jodi Magness, Scholars Update: “New Mosaics from the Huqoq Synagogue,” BAR, September/October 2013.

1 Ann E. Killebrew, “Qazion: A Late Second–Early Third-Century CE Rural Cultic Complex in the Upper Galilee Dedicated to Septimius Severus and His Family,” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 1/2 (2013), pp. 113–160.

Benjamin D. Gordon is a postdoctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at Duke University.

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