New Light from Inscriptions and Papyri
Louis H. FELDMAN Yeshiva University
If an account of the religious life of Diaspora Jews of approximately two thousand years ago had been written two centuries or even one century ago, it would have been extremely brief, since so little was known. We would have had many questions: When and where did synagogues first arise? Were there synagogues even at the time when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing? What names were given to synagogues? What did synagogues look like? How big were they? Were synagogues primarily for prayer or for other purposes? How were synagogues organized? Where did ancient Jews get their funds for building and maintenance? Did synagogues have rabbis? Did they have officers and boards of directors? What role, if any, did women play in these synagogues?
Even that which was known through, notably, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, would really tell us very little about the religious life of ordinary Jews. Philo was an extremely wealthy aristocrat, and inasmuch as much of his work is apologetic in nature, its objectivity may consequently be challenged. What has changed the picture dramatically is the discovery, most of it within the past century, of many hundreds of inscriptions and documents written on papyrus, often, to be sure, in tantalizingly fragmentary form. In this chapter I shall present some of the more important discoveries, as well as current debates on the nature of the early Diaspora synagogues.
The great scholar of Jewish history Salo Baron was of the opinion that there were between four and eight million Jews outside the Land of Israel in the first century. 1 Were this the case, we should expect evidence of many hundreds and even thousands of synagogues. This is especially so since there is every reason to believe that the great majority of Jews were observant of Judaism and since the average synagogue was very small. An indica-