Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities

By John R. Bartlett | Go to book overview
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Tessa Rajak

If any single notion about the Jews of the Graeco-Roman Diaspora commands general agreement, it is the idea that their lives centred on their synagogues. 1 Especially in reconstructions of the post-70 era, Jews and their synagogues are virtually inseparable. The ancient synagogue has been studied with remarkable intensity in recent years, 2 absorbing archaeologists and theologians, art historians and philologists, New Testament scholars and students of Judaism alike. There are also distinguished antecedents, among which Samuel Krauss's acute and learned survey (1922) takes pride of place. To add another synthesis to the ever-growing literature would be scarcely useful. Nor do I propose to adjudicate between interpretations of how and why synagogues emerged, in Palestine or in the Diaspora, or how the characteristic architectural forms evolved. However, there remains, to my mind, one large and central historical question which has failed to attract the attention it deserves, and that is about the functioning of the synagogue in Jewish life. To address this, I shall engage with both broader issues and narrower linguistic considerations, in the hope of deepening our understanding of Diaspora Jewish society during the Graeco-Roman period.

The synagogue has been declared central. Known synagogues have been catalogued and various of their functions listed many times. But the implications and meaning of the claim of centrality itself have scarcely been considered. A range of different scenarios might in fact be envisaged, a range broadened by the very nature of the Greek word synagogue with its various

1 For a selection of statements, see Juster 1914: I, 456; Kraabel 1987; Rutgers 1998:126; Levine 2000:124-5, 271-2, 350 ff. The same opinion was once espoused by the present author (Rajak 1992:9-28).

2 See now the massive studies by Hachlili 1998 and Levine 2000, as well as Fine 1996 and 1998; Binder 1999 and the collections of papers edited by Guttman 1975, Kasher et al. 1987, Levine 1987, Urman and Flesher 1995, Fine 1999, Kee and Cohick 1999.


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