Philo and Josephus on Ancient Synagogues, A.D. 1st Century

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Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. – c. A.D. 50), also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt during the Roman Era. Philo wrote in Flacc. 45-47: “For it was perfectly clear that the rumour of the overthrowing of the synagogues beginning at Alexandria would spread at once to the nomes of Egypt and speed from Egypt to the East and the nations of the East and from the Hypotaenia and Marea, which are the outskirts of Libya, to the West and the nations of the West. For so populous are the Jews that no one country can hold them, and therefore they settle in very many of the most prosperous countries in Europe and Asia both in the islands and on the mainland, and while they hold the Holy City where stands the sacred Temple of the most high God to be their mother city, yet those which are their by inheritance from their fathers, grandfathers, and ancestors even farther back, are in each case accounted by them to be their fatherland in which they were born and reared, while to some of them they have come at the time of their foundation as immigrants to the satisfaction of the founders. And it was to be feared that people everywhere might take their cue from Alexandria, and outrage their Jewish fellow-citizens by rioting against their synagogues and ancestral customs.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Dr. Donald D. Binder writes: “This quotation not only exhibits Philo's view that synagogues existed throughout the Greco-Roman world in the first century, but also his belief that Gentiles saw them as the central targets for anti-Jewish attacks. Note also how Philo expresses his conviction that a strong solidarity existed between the Jerusalem Temple and the Jews living in the diaspora. ^^^

Philo wrote in “Legat. 346: “Having conceived a violent enmity to them [Gaius] took possession of the synagogues in the other cities after beginning with those of Alexandria, by filling them with images and statues of himself in bodily form. For by permitting others to install them he virtually did it himself. The temple in the Holy City, which alone was left untouched being judged to have all rights of sanctuary, he proceeded to convert and transmogrify into a temple of his own to bear the name of Gaius, "the new Zeus made manifest".” ^^^ Binder wrote:“Here Philo presents the Roman emperor Caligula as launching a unified assault against the Jews in 40 CE, targeting both the Jerusalem Temple and the synagogues scattered throughout the empire. Notice that the culprits turned the synagogues into imperial shrines, just as Caligula had planned to do with the Temple.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Spec. 2.61–62: “When [Moses] forbids bodily labour on the seventh day, He permits the exercise of the higher activities, namely, those employed in the study of the principles of virtue’s lore. For the law bids us take the time for studying philosophy and thereby improve the soul and the dominant mind. So each seventh day there stand wide open in every city thousands of schools of good sense, temperance, courage, justice and other virtues in which the scholars sit in order quietly with ears alert and with full attention, so much do they thirst for the draught which the teacher’s words supply, while one of special experience rises and sets forth what is best and sure to be profitable and will make the whole of life grow to something better.” ^^^

Binder wrote: “Philo frequently referred to synagogues as "schools" (didaskaleia), perhaps because of his own scholarly leanings. While the mention of "thousands" of synagogues is hyperbole, the passage nevertheless reiterates Philo's view that synagogues existed throughout the empire in the first century CE.” ^^^

A priest named Onias IV wrote in “Many and great are the services which I have rendered you in the course of the war, with the help of God, when I was in Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, and when I came with the Jews to Leontopolis in the nome of Heliopolis and to other places where our nation is settled; and I found that most of them have temples, contrary to what is proper, and that for this reason they are ill-disposed toward one another, as is also the case with the Egyptians because of the multitude of their temples and their varying opinions about the forms of worship; and I have found a most suitable place in the fortress called after Bubastis-of-the-Fields, which abounds in various kinds of trees and is full of sacred animals, wherefore I beg you to permit me to cleanse this temple, which belongs to no one and is in ruins, and to build a shrine to the Most High God in the likeness of that at Jerusalem and with the same dimensions, on behalf of you and your wife and children, in order that the Jewish inhabitants of Egypt may be able to come together there in mutual harmony and serve your interests. For this indeed is what the prophet Isaiah foretold, "There shall be an altar in Egypt to the Lord God," and many other such things did he prophesy concerning this place (Onias IV [?] ap.Josephus, Ant. 13.65–68).” ^^^

Binder wrote: “This letter, purportedly written by Onias IV (son of a deposed high priest), petitions the Ptolemaic rulers to build a rival Jewish temple in Leontopolis. The rulers granted the request, and the Temple — which does not appear to have developed much of a following among Egyptian Jews — was built in the middle of the second century BCE. It existed until 74 CE when it was destroyed by the Romans. Most synagogue scholars understand the mention of Jewish "temples" (hiera) as a reference to Egyptian synagogues, which are attested in Egypt as early as the third century BCE. Incidentally, the famous Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie claimed to have discovered the remains.” ^^^

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; Bible and Biblical History: ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Bible History Online Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Jewish History: Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Christianity: BBC on Christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website

Sacredness of Ancient Synagogues

Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. 100) was a Roman–Jewish historian and military leader. Best known for writing “The Jewish War”, he was born in Jerusalem—then part of the Roman province of Judea. Josephus wrote in Ant. 19.300–301: “A very short time after this, certain young men of Dora, who set a higher value on audacity than on holiness and were by nature recklessly bold, brought an image of Caesar into the synagogue of the Jews and set it up. This provoked Agrippa exceedingly, for it was tantamount to an overthrow of the laws of his fathers. Without delay he went to see Publius Petronius, the governor of Syria, and denounced the people of Dora.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

reconstruction of part of the ancient synagogue in Susya

According to Josephus, Publius Petronius declared: “Publius Petronius, legate of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, to the leading men of Dora speaks: Inasmuch as certain of you have had such mad audacity, notwithstanding the issuance of an edict of Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus pertaining to the permission granted the Jews to observe the customs of their fathers, not to obey this edict, but to do the very reverse, in that you have prevented the Jews from having a synagogue by transferring to it an image of Caesar, you have thereby sinned not only against the law of the Jews, but also against the emperor, whose image was better placed in his own shrine than in that of another, especially in the synagogue; for by natural law each must be lord over his own place, in accordance with Caesar’s decree (Publius Petronius ap. Josephus, Ant. 19.303–305).” ^^^

Binder writes: “In these passages, Josephus records an incident from c. 41 CE when the people of Dora (northern coast of Palestine) desecrated a synagogue by placing an image of Caesar inside. Both Josephus' remark about the Doran's lack of regard for "holiness" and Petronius' comparison of the synagogue to a "shrine" (naos) suggest the sacred nature of the edifice.” ^^^

According to Josephus, Augustus proclaimed: “Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus with tribunician power, decrees as follows. Since the Jewish nation has been found well disposed to the Roman people not only at the present time but also in the time past, and especially in the time of my father the emperor Caesar, as has their high priest Hyrcanus, it has been decided by me and my council under oath, with the consent of the Roman people, that the Jews may follow their own customs in accordance with the law of their fathers, just as they followed them in the time of Hyrcanus, high priest of the Most High God, and that their sacred monies shall be inviolable and may be sent up to Jerusalem and delivered to the treasurers in Jerusalem, and that they need not give bond (to appear in court) on the Sabbath or on the day of preparation for it (Sabbath Eve) after the ninth hour. And if anyone is caught stealing their sacred books or their sacred monies from a synagogue or an ark (of the Law) [or a banquet hall], he shall be regarded as sacrilegious, and his property shall be confiscated to the public treasury of the Romans (Augustus ap. Josephus, Ant. 16.162–165).” ^^^

Binder wrote:“This decree of Augustus was issued around the year 2 CE and applied to Jewish communities within the province of Asia (western Turkey). Under the decree, any thief of sacred monies from the synagogues and their annexes was to be condemned as "sacriligious"--or more literally, as a "temple robber" (hierosylon). The charge and the punishment are equivilent to those issued against robbers of monies from pagan temples during this period.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Flacc. 48: “Now the Jews though naturally well-disposed for peace could not be expected to remain quiet whatever happened, not only because with all men the determination to fight for their institutions outweighs even the danger to life, but also because they are the only people under the sun who by losing their synagogues were losing also what they would have valued as worth dying many thousand deaths, namely, their means of showing reverence to their benefactors, since they no longer had the sacred precincts [hieroi periboloi] where they could set forth their thankfulness.” Binder says, “Here, Philo states that the synagogues form "sacred precincts" for the Jews. Outside of Jewish usage, this designation normally represents the sacred area surrounding a temple shrine.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogue Asylum Rights

ancient synagogue in Arbel

CPJ 1.129 from Alexandrou-Nesos, dated 218 B.C. reads: “To King Ptolemy, greeting from . . . who lives in Alexandrou Nesos. I have been wronged by Dorotheos, (a Jew who lives in the) same village. In the 5th year, according to the financial calendar, on Phamenoth . . . (as I was talking to) my workmate, my cloak (which is worth . . . drachmai) caught Dorotheos’ eye, and he made off with it. When I saw him (he fled) to the Jewish synagogue (holding) the cloak, (while I called for help). Lezelmis, a holder of 100 arourai, came up to help (and gave) the cloak to Nikomachos the (synagogue) verger to keep till the case was tried. Therefore I beg you, my king, to command Diophanes the strategos (to write to the) epistates telling him to order Dorotheos and Nikomachos to hand over the cloak to him, and, if what I write is true (to make him give me the) cloak or its value; as for the injury . . . If this happens, I shall have received justice through you, my king. Farewell.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Binder writes: “In the incident described above, an unnamed woman had her cloak stolen by a certain Dorotheos. When Dorotheos was caught in the act, he made off to the synagogue, with the woman in hot pursuit. Following the intervention of Lezelmis, the cloak was deposited with Nikomachos, the attendant of the synagogue, until the matter could be officially resolved.” In view of an inscription granting asylum rights to an Egyptian synagogue, it would seem that Dorotheos fled to the synagogue in order to seek asylum. As was usual in such cases, an official of the asylum-granting institution received the suppliant until the question of guilt could be fully determined. As a side note, Nikomachos is referred to as a nakoros, Doric for neôkoros or "temple warden." ^^^

3 Macc 3:27–29 reads: "Those who shelter any of the Jews, whether old people or children or even infants, will be tortured to death with the most hateful torments, together with their families. Any who are willing to give information will receive the property of those who incur the punishment, and also two thousand drachmas from the royal treasury, and will be awarded their freedom. Every place detected sheltering a Jew is to be made unapproachable and burned with fire, and shall become useless for all time to any mortal creature". 3 Macc 4:17–18 says: “ But after the previously mentioned interval of time the scribes declared to the king that they were no longer able to take the census of the Jews because of their immense number, though most of them were still in the country, some still residing in their homes, and some at a place; the task was impossible for all the generals in Egypt.” ^^^

Binder writes: “While commentators have had difficulty interpreting these two passages, in view of the other evidence that Egyptian synagogues possessed the right of asylum, it seems likely that both refer to synagogues serving in this capacity. This is seen especially by the above use of the word "place" (topos), which was frequently used as shorthand for "sacred place" or "place of asylum" in Greek writings.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogues as Places of Government

Herodian synagogue

According to Josephus, Lucius Antionius wrote: “Lucius Antionius, son of Marcus, proquaestor and propraetor, to the magistrates, council and people of Sardis, greeting. Jewish citizens of ours have come to me and pointed out that from the earliest times they have had an association of their own in accordance with their native laws and a place of their own, in which they decide their own affairs and controversies with one another; and upon their request that it be permitted them to do these things, I decided that they might be maintained, and permitted them so to do (Lucius Antionius, ap. Josephus, Ant. 14.235).” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Binder writes: “This decree, which dates to 49 BCE, recognizes that the Jews of Sardis (modern Turkey) possessed a "place" (topos) of their own in which they settled legal disputes amongst themselves. Most synagogue scholars agree that the reference is to a synagogue, whose construction was previously authorized by the people of Sardis.” ^^^

Josephus wrote in Vita 279-289: “I decided to visit Tiberias early on the morrow. Arriving there about the first hour next day, I found the people already assembling in the synagogue, although they had no idea why they were being convened. Seriously perturbed by my unexpected appearance, Jonathan and his party conceived the idea of spreading a report that some Roman cavalry had been descried on the frontier, at a place called Homonoia, at a distance of thirty furlongs from the city. A fictitious message arriving to this effect, Jonathan exhorted me not to remain idle while their country was being plundered by the enemy. Their object in this was to get me away on the pretext of an urgent call for my services, and to alienate the city from me in my absence.

“Though well aware of their design, I complied, to avoid giving the Tiberians ground for thinking me careless of their safety. I set out, accordingly, but discovering, on reaching the spot, no trace of an enemy, I returned post haste and found the whole of the council and populace in conclave, and Jonathan and his associates making a violent tirade against me, as one who lived in luxury and neglected to alleviate their share of the burden of the war. In support of these assertions they produced four letters purporting to have been addressed to them by persons on the Galilee frontier, imploring them to come to their aid, as a Roman force of cavalry and infantry was intending in three days' time to ravage their territory, with entreaties to hasten to their relief and not to abandon them to their fate.

“On hearing these statements, which they believed to be authentic, the Tiberians began loudly to denounce me for sitting there when I ought to have gone to the assistance of their countrymen. Fully alive to Jonathan's designs, I replied that I was quite ready to act on their instructions, and promised to start without delay for the scene of action. At the same time I advised them, as the letters indicated an impending Roman attack on four points, to form their troops into five divisions and to put these severally under the command of Jonathan and his companions. It became brave men (I urged) to give not merely advice but practical assistance by assuming the lead in an emergency; and it was impossible for me to take command of more than a single division. My suggestion was warmly endorsed by the people, who now put compulsion on my opponents also to take the field. The failure of their scheme through this counter-manoeuvre on my part caused them no little embarrassment.” ^^^

Binder writes: “Josephus here describes a meeting inside a synagogue in Tiberias (Galilee) during the Jewish War in which his political opponents convened the city council (boulê) and popular assembly (dêmos) in an attempt to convince them to rebel against Josephus' command. The first-hand account reveals how colorful such deliberative proceedings could be. It also underscores the point that the lines between the religious and political functions of the synagogue were quite blurred.” ^^^

Synagogues as Meeting Places

ancient synagogue in Tiberias

According to CPJ 1.138, a document from Egypt from the 1st century B.C.: “ At the session held in the synagogue
To Demetrios of the first friends and the door-keepers (?) and the ushers and the chief officals. . . of Kamax . . . secretary . . .
. . . to the association
. . . with . . . and has been incorporated
. . . on the condition that
. . . association . . . the times
. . . every year
. . . the corporation of . . . taphiastai
. . . future new
. . . the syntaphiastes
. . . whom it concerns . . . to the secretary according
. . . the association” ^^^
[Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Binder writes: “This papyrus, while fragmentary, appears to be the minutes of a Jewish burial society held inside a synagogue in Egypt. The document suggests that various Jewish guilds used synagogues as meeting places for official business.” ^^^

Philo wrote in Mos. 2.214–216: “For it was customary on every day when opportunity offered and pre-eminently on the seventh day, as I have explained above, to pursue the study of wisdom with the ruler expounding and instructing the people what they should say and do, while they received edification and betterment in moral principles and conduct. Even now this practice is retained, and the Jews every seventh day occupy themselves with the philosophy of their fathers, dedicating that time to the acquiring of knowledge and the study of the truths of nature. For what are our synagogues throughout the cities but schools of prudence and courage and temperance and justice and also of piety, holiness and every virtue by which duties to God and men are discerned and rightly performed?”.” ^^^

Binder writes: “Philo here describes the synagogues as "schools" of various virtues that met weekly on the sabbath. He thus underscores the sanctity of the sabbath and the centrality of scripture study within Jewish practices of the Second Temple period.” ^^^

Mark 3:1-5 reads: “Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored”.” Binder writes: “This is just one of many vignettes from the New Testament where Jesus or one of the disciples goes to the synagogue on the sabbath for services.” ^^^

Ancient Synagogue Leadership

Philo wrote in Hypoth. 7.12–13: “[Moses] required [theJews] to assemble in the same place on these seventh days, and sitting together in a respectful and orderly manner hear the laws read so that none should be ignorant of them. And indeed they always assemble and sit together, most of them in silence except when it is the practice to add something to signify approval of what is read. But some priest who is present or one of the elders reads the holy laws to them and expounds them point by point till about the late afternoon, when they depart having gained both expert knowledge of the holy laws and considerable advance in piety.”[Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

“In this passage, Philo presents the priests and elders as commonly serving as teachers within the weekly synagogue services. This passage, coupled with the famous Theodotus inscription — which mentions three generations of priests as the archisynagôgoi of a synagogue in Jerusalem — suggests that priests frequently functioned as synagogue leaders during the Second Temple period.” ^^^

Mark 5:22-23, 35-43 reads: “Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." . . . While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.” ^^^

Acts 13:14b-16 reads: “The underlying Greek word in each of the offset phrases is archisynagôgos (-oi) or "leader of the synagogue," a title also attested in the Theodotus inscription from Jerusalem.” Binder writes: “On the sabbath day [Paul and his entourage] went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it." So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak: "You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen.” Binder writes: “In this passage, several archisynagôgoi are depicted at the head of a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Note that they seem to direct the flow of the synagogue service.” ^^^

Acts 18:4-8 reads: “Every sabbath [Paul] would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.” Acts 18:17 reads: “Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.” ^^^

Binder writes: “In the above two passages, Crispus and Sosthenes are mentioned as archisynagôgoi of a synagogue in Corinth. Both may be the same men mentioned as Christian converts in Paul's correspondence with the Corinthian church (Sosthenes, 1 Cor 1:1; Crispus, 1 Cor 1:14). If so, Paul does not allude to their former titles.” ^^^

God-Fearers in Ancient Synagogues

Gamla ancient synagogue

Josephus wrote in BJ 7.45: “[the Antiochian Jews] were constantly attracting to their religious ceremonies multitudes of Greeks, and these they had in some measure incorporated with themselves.” Binder writes: “This quotation, which follows Josephus' mention of a synagogue in Antioch, relates that Gentiles who were not full converts frequently attended the "religious ceremonies" of the Jews in that city.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Josephus wrote in Ant. 14.110: “But no one need wonder that there was so much wealth in our temple, for all the Jews throughout the habitable world, and fearers of God, even those from Asia and Europe, had been contributing to it for a very long time.” Binder writes: “Josephus here states that God-fearers from around the world contributed to the wealth of the Jerusalem temple. Such contributions were commonly made within the diaspora synagogues.” ^^^

Acts 13:44-48 reads: “The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, 'I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.' " When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” According to Acts 14:1: “ The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers.”

Acts 16:13-14a reads: “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a synagogue; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.”Acts 17:1-4 says: “After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you." Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”

According to Acts 17:10-12: “That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.” Acts 17:16-17 reads: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” Acts 18:4-7 says: “Every sabbath [Paul] would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue.” Binder writes: “In this series of passages, the author of Acts presents Greek God-fearers as being common fixtures within the diaspora synagogues.” ^^^

Essene Synagogues

Dead Sea scroll: Temple Scroll

Philo wrote in Prob. 80–83: “But the ethical part [the Essenes] study very industriously, taking for their trainers the laws of their fathers, which could not possibly have been conceived by the human soul without divine inspiration. In these they are instructed at all other times, but particularly on the seventh day. For that day has been set apart to be kept holy and on it they abstain from all other work and proceed to sacred spots which they call synagogues. There, arranged in rows according to their ages, the younger below the elder, they sit decorously as befits the occasion with attentive ears. Then one takes the books and reads aloud and another of especial proficiency comes forward and expounds what is not understood.” Binder writes: “In this passage, Philo plainly states that the Essenes called their sacred assembly places "synagogues" (synagôgai). They, like non-sectarian Jews, gathered in such buildings on the sabbath for the reading and exposition of scripture and for other religious ritual. What made the Essene synagogues different is that they apparently excluded all but those who were members of the sect.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Josephus wrote in BJ 2.128–132: “Their piety towards the Deity takes a peculiar form. Before the sun is up they utter no word on mundane matters, but offer to him certain prayers, which have been handed down from their forefathers, as though entreating him to rise. They are then dismissed by their superiors to the various crafts in which they are severally proficient and are strenuously employed until the fifth hour, when they again assemble in one place and, after girding their loins with linen cloths, bathe their bodies in cold water. After this purification, they assemble in a private apartment which none of the uninitiated is permitted to enter; pure now themselves, they repair to the refectory as to some sacred shrine. When they have taken their seats in silence, the baker serves out the loaves to them in order, and the cook sets before each one plate with a single course. Before meal the priest says a grace, and none may partake until after the prayer. When breakfast is ended, he pronounces a further grace; thus at the beginning and at the close they do homage to God as the bountiful giver of life. Then laying aside their raiment, as holy vestments, they again betake themselves to their labours until the evening. On their return they sup in like manner, and any guests who may have arrived sit down with them.” Binder writes: “Here, Josephus describes the daily ritual of the Essenes, who are said to have gathered into their dining hall "as to some sacred shrine." This type of assembly hall might be identified with a large room at Khirbet Qumran apparently used for this purpose.” ^^^

1QS 6.8–9 says: “This is the rule for the session of the Many: each (member) in his order. The priest shall sit first, the elders second, and the rest of the people shall sit each (member) in his order.” Binder writes: “This quotation from the Community Rule prescribes the seating arrangement in the synagogue services.” According to 1QM 3.3–4: “On the trumpets of the men of renown, chiefs of the fathers of the congregation when they gather in the house of meeting, they shall write "Fixed times of God for the holy council".” Binder writes: “While this passage from the War Scroll refers to the eschaton, the mention of a "house of meeting" (bêt mô'êd) may reflect one of the Hebrew terms used by the Essenes to denote their existing synagogue buildings.” ^^^

CD 11.22–23 says: “And whoever comes to the house of prostration, let him not come (when he is still) unclean after washing; and when the trumpets of the assembly sound, let him come before or later, but let them not interrupt the entire service.” Binder writes: “The words translated "house of prostration" may be the Hebrew counterpart of the Greek proseuchê, a term frequently used of the synagogues. Unfortunately, the reference could instead be to one of the areas inside the Jerusalem Temple.” ^^^

CD 20.2, 10–13 reads: “All those who entered the congregation of the men of perfect holiness but recoiled from doing the regulations of the upright . . . have no portion in the house of the Torah. With the judgment of their neighbors who turned away with the men of mockery they shall be judged, for they spoke deviantly of the statutes of righteousness and despised the covenant and the oath which they had taken in the land of Damascus; that is, the new covenant. And neither they nor their families will have any portion in the house of the Torah.” Binder writes: “"House of the Torah" (bêt hatôrâh) may be another term the Essenes had for their synagogue buildings, though the expression may also refer metaphorically to the Essene community itself.” ^^^

Therapeutae Synagogues

The Therapeutae were a Jewish sect, including men and women, which existed in Alexandria and other parts of the Diaspora of Hellenistic Judaism in the final years of the Second Temple period. Philo wrote in Contempl. 30–33: “Every seventh day they meet together as for a general assembly and sit in order according to their age in the proper attitude, with their hands inside the robe, the right hand between the breast and the chin and the left withdrawn along the flank. Then the senior among them who also has the fullest knowledge of the doctrines which they profess comes forward and with visage and voice alike quiet and composed gives a well-reasoned and wise discourse. He does not make an exhibition of clever rhetoric like the orators or sophists of to-day but follows careful examination by careful expression of the exact meaning of the thoughts, and this does not lodge just outside the ears of the audience but passes through the hearing into the soul and there stays securely. All the others sit still and listen showing their approval merely by their looks or nods. This common sanctuary in which they meet every seventh day is a double enclosure, one portion set apart for the use of the men, the other for the women. For women too regularly make part of the audience with the same ardour and the same sense of their calling. The wall between the two chambers rises up from the ground to three or four cubits [five to six feet] built in the form of a breast work, while the space above up to the roof is left open. This arrangement serves two purposes; the modesty becoming to the female sex is preserved, while the women sitting within ear-shot can easily follow what is said since there is nothing to obstruct the voice of the speaker.” [Source: Donald D. Binder, Ancient Synagogue Literary Library ^^^]

Binder writes:“Philo is our only source on the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect centered in Egypt that had some affinities with the Essenes. They, like non-sectarian Jews, met in synagogues on the sabbath for the study of scripture and other religious ritual. Note the segregation within the synagogue between the male and the female members of the sect.” ^^^

Moses from the River from a Therapeutae synagogue in Dura Europos

Philo wrote in Contempl. 83–85, 88–89: “They rise up all together and standing in the middle of the refectory form themselves first into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader and precentor chosen for each being the most honoured amongst them and also the most musical. Then they sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes taking up the harmony antiphonally, hands and feet keeping time in accompaniment, and rapt with enthusiasm reproduce sometimes the lyrics of the procession, sometimes of the halt and of the wheeling and counter-wheeling of a choric dance. Then when each choir has separately done its own part in the feast, having drunk as in the Bacchic rites of the strong wine of God’s love they mix and both together become a single choir, a copy of the choir set up of old beside the Red Sea in honour of the wonders there wrought . . . .Thus they continue till dawn, drunk with this drunkenness in which there is no shame, then not with heavy heads or drowsy eyes but more alert and wakeful than when they came to the banquet, they stand with their faces and whole body turned to the east and when they see the sun rising they stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth and the power of keen sighted thinking.” ^^^

Binder writes: “The above are segments from Philo's larger description of the festivals of the Therapeutae, which took place every fifty days in a banquet hall ancillary to the synagogue. Observe the freer commingling of the men and women in this festival, which included lively dancing, antiphonal hymn-singing, and communal prayer.” ^^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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