Review: Ancient Synagogues Revealed 1981–2022

Ancient Synagogues Revealed 1981–2022

Edited by Lee I. Levine, Zeev Weiss, and Uzi Leibner
(Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, The Institute of Archaeology – The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jeselsohn Epigraphic Center of Jewish History, 2023), xx + 300 pp.
Reviewed by James Riley Strange

Click here to purchase Ancient Synagogues Revealed 1981–2022.

Archaeological exploration of synagogues in the land of Israel has been going on since at least the late 19th century, and debates about synagogues have always been energetic. The chief disputed issues are chronology (When were the first synagogues built? In what periods did different styles emerge?) and activity (What practices happened in synagogues? Were these primarily religious or non-religious practices?).

Why do people care about these questions? One reason is that, if we can answer them, we will know more about the earliest centuries of two great world religions in the land where they began: Judaism and Christianity. Not only so, but we will also gain insights into Judaism’s response to Christianity’s control of the region under the Byzantine Empire and the arrival of Islam in the seventh century.

It turns out that more than archaeologists and scholars of early Judaism and Christianity care about these things. For this reason, in 1981 the Israel Exploration Society published Ancient Synagogues Revealed, edited by Lee I. Levine, a luminary in the field of synagogue origins. It has taken 42 years for the companion volume to arrive: Ancient Synagogues Revealed 1981–2022, edited by Levine and two other noted archaeologists, Zeev Weiss and Uzi Leibner.

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The second volume repeats many strengths of the first: It is of a similar quality with glossy pages and a stitched, hard-backed binding. Like the first volume, the second presents non-technical summaries of synagogue buildings excavated both inside and outside of Israel. Even though most chapters are authored by the archaeologists who excavated the buildings, the books are aimed at anyone who does not read or have access to technical archaeological publications. Chapters contain photographs and drawings, and in some cases (e.g., Magdala), because there is not yet a final publication, the chapter provides important information in the interim.

A significant aspect of the book is the editors’ willingness to preserve disagreements among archaeologists. In the editors’ essays and in various chapters, readers will see elements of debated issues, and what is at stake in the debates is clear as well.

Whereas the first volume presented excavated buildings in half of its 36 chapters (the remaining 18 chapters contained discussions of such things as typology, architectural prototypes, and art and architecture), the new volume surveys 35 buildings in 36 chapters! That lets us know how much work has happened in the intervening years. In the first volume, for example, we learned about two Second Temple-period synagogues at the sites of Masada and Gamla, whereas in the second volume we have chapters on six synagogues from this period. The first volume had a single chapter on the art and architecture of synagogues of the Golan but no chapter on an excavated building, but now we can read about six buildings in that region.

Turning to the book’s contents, opposite the title page (p. ii) readers will find a helpful color map of synagogue sites in Israel and the West Bank. The text begins with three introductory essays by the editors: the first on how archaeology has made an impact on the study of Judaism in Late Antiquity, the second on synagogue art, and the third on the dating of synagogues. Chapters on synagogue buildings are presented in five sections: Galilee (15 chapters), Golan Heights (six chapters), Samaria (only one synagogue has a chapter; the other chapter is a brief discussion of Samaritan synagogues as a distinctive category), Judea and southern Israel (eight chapters), and synagogues outside of Israel (five chapters). A list of abbreviations and a brief yet helpful glossary end the book.

Chapters contain many quality images, often including aerial photos of the site (a regular feature made possible by the use of drones) and images of objects and inscriptions associated with the buildings. Readers will no doubt also appreciate the many three-dimensional artistic renderings of what the buildings might have looked like when they stood, for it can be difficult to make sense of an architectural floor plan or stone-by-stone drawing.

It’s worth noting, however, that some chapters have a limited bibliography or none (e.g., Qaṣrin). In some cases, this lacuna is due to the lack of final publications. Still, one goal of such a volume is to point readers to additional important resources. BAR readers may fill in some gaps at the Bornblum Eretz Israel Synagogues website.

Ancient Synagogues Revealed 1981–2022 is not available through most popular booksellers (including Amazon) and, if purchased from the United States, costs around $120, including shipping from the Israel Exploration Society. Owning a copy, however, is not an insurmountable challenge, as the IES’s website allows credit card purchases. And, despite the cost, this is a book that people interested in the topic, both specialists and non-specialists, will want on their shelves.

James Riley Strange is the Charles Jackson Granade and Elizabeth Donald Granade Professor in New Testament at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and Director of the Shikhin Excavation Project.

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